Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow – GBA

Aria of Sorrow Box Art
I have a confession to make; I had never played a Castlevania game other than the NES installments until recently, when I picked up Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. But hey, I enjoyed the 8-bit games enough, and this one has a really cool name. Sad to say, Aria of Sorrow involved no singing whatsoever, and I only approached sorrow somewhat at the beginning of this sentence when I said, “Sad to say.” I noticed some angry characters, some scheming characters, and some characters completely devoid of any emotion or motivating force at all, but no one felt even a little down, even at the mortal wounding of one of the NPCs. So the title may have misled a little; the Venture Bros. proved that you can call yourself “The Monarch,” but if you dress yourself and your henchmen in butterfly costumes, your intended intimidation will fall drastically short.

Furry and *Fabulous*!

Furry and *Fabulous*!

But titles mean very little, so why not dig into the game itself? The player takes control of Soma Cruz, a young boy whose fur-trimmed coat suggests his mother would have preferred a girl, and whose name suggests his father hoped for an iced tea or a bowl of instant ramen or something. Soma and his female companion, Mina Hakuba–whose name may or may not irrelevantly suggest “Mina Harker”–intend to watch an eclipse, but end up in Dracula’s castle instead. “How?” you might ask. Well, I might ask it too. They encounter Genya Arikado, a poor transliteration for “Alucard,” proving once again that the Japanese can’t imagine a wittier or more clever thing than spelling Dracula’s name backwards. They never do this with anyone else. Tnomleb Nomis didn’t struggle against Asudem, Nietsneknarf and the Repaer Mirg in the first game. Why, WHY must we always spell Dracula backwards?

Anyway, Arikado tells Soma he possesses a dark power, which apparently inspires him to wander through a castle filled with monsters. In between the action, he runs into a large cast of characters who almost never interact with each other, only appear two or three times, and have virtually no effect on the story at all. First you meet Graham Jones. “Hi, I’m a missionary,” he says. Then Yoko Belnades says, “Don’t trust Graham!” And of course the next time you meet him, Soma cries loudly in lament, “Why! You were so friendly to me!” A member of the Belmont clan–the real Castlevania protagonists–appears to tell you of a mystical whip with the power to defeat Dracula, after which he vanishes from the game and you hear no further word from him until your next playthrough. Finally, Soma also encounters an American who came to the Hakuba shrine to sell weapons without the least awareness of the irony or satire he portrays. Then you fight either Graham or the reincarnation of Dracula–the game leaves that up to the imagination–and Arikado appears once more to tell you to click your heels together three times to warp you and Mina–who by this point has had less effect on the course of events than the font on the title screen–off to safety.

Fin.

General Soma Crosses the Delaware

General Soma Crosses the Delaware

Although I intend to argue that the gameplay makes AoS worth playing, I feel I need to point out how they ruined a potentially good game by trying to introduce a written story. Remember the original game? How Simon began by walking up to the gate with the silhouette of the castle in the distance, and how the iron bars swing open to beckon him inside? That definitely set a strong atmosphere. Remember the detail of the backgrounds? Torn curtains, cracked bricks, crumbling stairs? Remember the bosses? The Giant Bat, Frankenstein, the Mummies, Death, and Dracula himself? These guys worked because the players already knew everything about them. We recognized them and they instantly evoked images of stories and horrors we already knew. And the entire game told this story with no more than the five words that explained the menu.

Old friends. Still a bitch, but I guess that's one of the two things you can always count on.

Old friends. Still a bitch, but I guess that’s one of the two things you can always count on.

Aria of Sorrow doesn’t live up to that level of design. Some enemies and one or two bosses might make cameos, but if anything, they rely on previous knowledge of the series.  Some areas have very intricate backgrounds, but not all of them, and the dull colors of the Game Boy Advance don’t jump out at you like the vibrant NES color scheme, which pits deep-blue backgrounds against the complementary orange of Simon’s sprites. If anything, the script dumbs down the effect, making it into more of an inane, B-Rated, anime-style story, rather than “Castlevania,” a game that stands on its own reputation.

However, I don’t intend to argue that the game fails to entertain. You just may have to focus on the gameplay elements rather than the script that crawled out of the trash of a third-grade English class. Here, the game actual improves on the original.  If we establish the analogy that Simon Belmont handles like a sluggish, poorly maintained Model-T with only a few drops of gas left, then I can describe Soma Cruz as the Delorean from Back to the Future.  Exploration and character advancement incorporates Metroid-style abilities, obtained usually by picking up an item after a boss fight.  By the end of the game, Soma can double jump, high jump, slide, float, backdash, and even turn into a bat, all features that allow him to reach new areas for more exploration.

One of my favorites. Packs a litle more punch than a cross-boomerang.

One of my favorites. Packs a litle more punch than a cross-boomerang.

The game uses an RPG experience system, allowing the character to level up after defeating enough enemies, and equip weapons, armor, and accessories found or bought in the castle. Furthermore, Soma’s dark powers–as the game so poorly explains–allow him to literally beat enemies to death with their own souls. Replacing the secondary weapon mechanic, he can equip absorbed souls to use enemy abilities against them. The player retains souls for the duration of the game, but carry the drawback that since you obtain so many of them, it can take some time to figure out a boss’s weakness, and by then you may have used up your MP. Potions and other items, as fitting for Castlevania, haven’t really decided if they actually want to join the game, and you’ll encounter them sparsely; mostly, you’ll have to buy them.

aria_8_168While I seem to have written a great deal more about the lack of quality in the story than I have about the virtues of the actual gameplay, keep in mind that very little of this game actually requires you to follow along with the characters and their hopes and dreams and wishes on rainbows. In fact, I got through the entire game without really understanding…well, anything.  The game succeeds at providing a fast-paced combat, and while combat and level grinding could theoretically get tedious, Castlevania knows when to quit. I needed less than five hours, even with grinding, to finish the game. Aria of Sorrow knows about its issues, but covers them up by knowing when to quit. Not exactly a stunning endorsement of the game, I know, but for someone interested in either Castlevania or action-horror games, and even to some extend RPG fans, AoS provides a decent enough experience.

Metroid: Zero Mission – Game Boy Advance

Like the 80s never went away.

Like the 80s never went away.

As I’ve written before, I like Samus Aran.  She managed to break through gender assumptions after a programmer casually mentioned, “Hey, what if the person in the suit was a chick?” and everyone at Nintendo just went with it.  Unfortunately, every subsequent game turns her into some sort of space-floozy who rewards you with a striptease based on how fast you finish, and the animation in Metroid: Zero Mission makes her vaguely reminiscent of a Barbie doll, but hey, it takes a real woman of the 1980s to pull off shoulder pads the way she does.

The fact that the original game came out in 1986 does actually reflect on Samus as a character during Zero Mission.  She explains the game’s premise in the opening sequence: “Now I shall finally tell the tale of my first battle [on planet Zebes]…my so-called Zero Mission.”  Great! We’d love a remake of the original! Except that the 2004 “enhanced” remake actually plays like someone’s mom trying to tell a story about what happened nearly 20 years ago, and not getting it quite right.

I once caught a lizard THIIIIIIS big!

I once caught a lizard THIIIIIIS big!

“No mom, you didn’t get the speed booster until Super Metroid…sorry, I don’t remember you being stalked by a giant centipede….I swear Kraid gets bigger every time you tell the story.”  Furthermore, the bonus level tacked on to the end of the game, during which she loses her power suit, sounds like an aging beauty queen trying to remind the young folk how hot she used to be.

This guy would appear occasionally, take a few missiles to the eye, then leave. Never explained. Never beat him. I named him "Wikipede"

This guy would appear occasionally, take a few missiles to the eye, then leave. Never explained. Never beat him. I named him “Wikipede”

See, we played the 1986 game.  We know what happened.  Samus can’t fool us by adding exciting stuff to the story.  Calling Zero Mission a remake of the original is like calling a BLT sandwich a remake of a pig.

That brings up the questions as to how far developers need to go when doing a remake.  Honestly, the 1986 Metroid only really had two flaws with it: lack of an in-game map and the need to camp out in front of pipes for hours until enough monsters popped out to refill your energy tanks.  Except for these things slowing the game considerably, I wouldn’t change a thing about it.  According to Wikipedia, Nintendo “enhanced” the re-make to play more like Super Metroid.  Pardon me, but if we want a game to feel more Metroid-ey, shouldn’t we remake the later games to feel more like the original?

Still, Zero Mission improved upon the original gameplay in a number of ways.  For starters, they give you a map, and they designed each area to look distinct from the rest.  I always felt like navigating the 1986 planet Zebes had a difficulty curve akin to looking for a bathroom in the metro when all the signs are written in Chinese.  Furthermore, the extra items available do allow for more abilities, giving more control to the player, and video games mean very little without control.

How did this...

How did this…

...turn into this?

 

It would almost help to think of Zero Mission as a reboot rather than a remake.  The game does resemble Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion, and while I did get occasionally get stuck expecting the same sequence of events as the 1986 game, it actually does a pretty good job of forcing and guiding the player in the right direction.  I also enjoyed the addition of the quasi-animated cut scenes.

I didn’t as much care for the bonus level, however.  After defeating Mother Brain, Samus escapes the obligatory time bomb (shout out to Mother Brain, the original number one Load-Bearing Boss) only to be shot down.  She crashes on Zebes, which somehow robs her of the large metal suit strapped to her body, and all the gizmos and gadgets that went with it.  She’s left with her skin-tight blue body suit and a pistol that will stun most enemies if you let it charge up between shots.  She somehow reasons that she should embark upon a forced stealth mission through the space pirates’ mothership to regain her suit and steal an enemy ship.

While forced stealth may have actually worked in Batman: Arkham Asylum, it detracts from the point of Metroid.  Batman lives for stealth.  Arkham Asylum gives the player neat ninja-like options for sneaking around and mixes it with a healthy amount of beating the shit out of bad guys.  Metroid, however, relies on action and tool using.  When you strip that away from Samus, all you have left is a metaphorical form-fitting blue body suit which leaves nothing in the gameplay to the imagination.  Sneak sneak sneak.  Don’t fight the badguys.  Did they see you?  Well, you can run away or die.  I know game makers feel obliged to deliver more hours of gameplay than they used to, but sometimes the padding just reaches the point of absurdity.  The map of the mothership, if you compare it to the map for the rest of the game, has about as much tunneling as half of the entire planet Zebes.  Since you get your suit back halfway through it, that means that you have to crawl, sneak, dodge, and flee your way through an area about one quarter the size of the rest of the game.

Then when you get the suit, it powers up to let you use the space jump, plasma beam, and you get power bombs shortly afterwards, and the rest of the level (again, about 1/4 of the size of the main planet) consists of powering through enemies who crumble like flies under your god-like might.  The game becomes too easy, and it stays too easy for too long.

I’d probably have no doubts about the game, but this final level throws me off.  I could easily suggest Zero Mission.  If you play with the mind frame that the game uses similar areas and items as the 1986 Metroid, but expands greatly on the world, then it becomes like Super Metroid; entirely new, but charmingly familiar.  However, the bonus level introduced boredom and tedium as a prerequisite for actually finishing the game.  While I may not condemn the game merely for that, I would like to end my post today with a letter to the Powers That Be:Dear Game Makers,
Forced stealth sucks.  No one likes it.  Stop using it.
Sincerely, Everyone

Shining Force – Sega Genesis, Game Boy Advance

When you wish upon a copyright infringement lawsuit...

When you wish upon a copyright infringement lawsuit…

Let’s have a quick word about how to increase endgame difficulty.  You want the game to feel more challenging near the end.  That way it works toward a climax, following a natural plot arc.  Some games do this better than others.  For instance, some bosses fight with status attacks.  Others will introduce bosses as random enemy encounters.  Valkyrie Profile II demanded I use the level 64 character they introduce for the final battle when even the easy enemies can vaporize all my level 90 characters like a meteor entering the earth’s atmosphere. Still, most games will bump up the level or stats of endgame enemies to give them a slight edge over the player.

However, raising the enemies’ evade rates doesn’t accomplish this as much as the Shining Force developers seemed to think it did.  Watching characters swipe the air like an epileptic in a dance club feels less exciting than, say, going outside and slashing bushes with foam pool noodles or watering your lawn with a water pistol.  This contributes to slowing the pace of a tactics game in which most battles start with bottlenecking your characters or putting them so far from the enemies that, if they worked together, they could measure the speed of light.

...have we met?

…have we met?

Not that they would do that, mind you, because like many mill-ground fantasy stories, Shining Force weighs itself down with themes like “Light is good” and “Dark is bad.”  The game opens with the formulaic war-between-two-countries-with-a-supernatural-threat-looming-vaguely-on-the-horizon.  The rival military general shows up looking like he dumped a life-size Wooly Willy set over his head and kills the king.  On his deathbed, the King gives you the order to form the Shining Force and defeat the darkness.  Light good.  Dark bad.  The enemy leader calls himself Darksol and he plans to resurrect the ancient Dark Dragon (who is neither dark, nor a dragon).

Would I be asking too much for a well-written fantasy story that doesn’t draw morally unconflicted characters in a black-and-white scenario?  I thought about rewriting that last sentence to get around using the phrase “black-and-white.”  Why do we have to associate black and white with evil and good?  I don’t know about anyone else, but I find a bit of darkness rather pleasant when I’m trying to sleep, or sneak up on a ninja or get dressed in a room full of people.  A little more subtle conflict might make a more interesting story.  In fact, for most of the game I turned off the music (which didn’t prevent it from echoing in my head like The Master’s drums) and listened to a Jim Butcher audiobook in order to get a good fantasy story. The bulk of the plot just involves moving from one excuse to start a battle to the next.  In fact, at one point, after fighting a hoard of monsters outside of a town, the man at the gate casually remarks, “Sorry about that.  We thought you were someone else,” at which point I just tip my hat, wish him good morning, and waltz on by as though I’m not headed to a priest to resurrect my comrades murdered as a casualty of mistaken identity.

Shining Force-000001While it seems like they wrote the story in as much time as it took to look up a formula and transcribe it into the game, Shining Force does have strong points.  The game centers on battles–and when I say “centers,” it also rights, lefts, ups and downs on it too.  Don’t expect side quests or even random enemy encounters–all battles are programmed and static–but the strategy aspect makes up for the minimalist approach to this RPG.  I enjoyed FF Tactics more than many of Final Fantasy’s main-series installments, and Shining Force feels like a somewhat simplified version of Tactics.  Battles take place on a grid map, characters have different classes that affect their stats and the range of attacks, and while they can’t switch between them like FFT’s job system allowed, they can receive a “promotion” to a slightly better class once they reach level 10.

I can also praise the game for allowing the player to keep any exp they earned in battles they lost.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken an unexpected turn for the worst, then realized “I haven’t saved in an hour!”  Those moments make me acutely aware that time only moves in one direction, and that I’ve wasted hours careening toward death in front of the TV with nothing to show for it.  Shining Force, however, lets you stay at your new level, making the next round a little easier.  Although they probably included this to let players level-up in a game with no random encounters, I’d appreciate seeing this feature more often in RPGs.

New menu box . . . every time. . . can't stand it...but at least inventory management isn't as bad as in Skyrim.

New menu box . . . every time. . . can’t stand it…but at least inventory management isn’t as bad as in Skyrim.

While I appreciate the fast pace after playing some interminably slow Zelda games, I do have a complaint about the menu system, in which the player flips through single options box-by-box, resurrecting characters one at a time, transferring single items from character to character, purchasing and equipping items one-by-one, and needing to open a new menu and flip through all the options each time.  With Final Fantasy V already on the shelves for a full year, you’d think some of the programmers would figure out, “Wow! RPG menus don’t have to be complete shit!”

Like Final Fantasy Tactics, characters level up upon completing actions in battle, which again I mostly support.  However it leads to a common problem of healers never leveling up because they don’t act as much as any of the other characters.  Another option to gain experience might help.  At least in FF Tactics I could bounce rocks off my comrades’ heads until I had enough MP and JP to learn support spells.  Shining Force doesn’t give even that much.  I went into the final battle without effective cure spells because my healer was less than half the level of some of my other characters.

But don’t let the flaws get in the way of enjoying the game.  I made it through in about a week and a half, never feeling like the pacing dropped much, and only encountering minor frustration at whiffle battling enemies with high evade rates.  I finished the game feeling I enjoyed it very much, and look forward to the sequel.  Which I won’t play right away. Maybe some shorter games first.

Until this point in the game, they called him "Kane"

Until this point in the game, they called him “Kane”

A few notes before I leave, Shining Force has also been published for the Game Boy Advance, although it has a new subtitle, “Rise of the Dark Dragon.”  While I didn’t play that version, word on the net says they improved the translation massively and may have resolved some of the plot vacancies I mentioned earlier.