Castlevania: Bloodlines – Sega Genesis

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Two Castlevania reviews in a row? I can’t help it. Like any other medium of storytelling, video games have the capacity to be profound, to speak to human nature, to discuss questions that have plagued us throughout history. But how many games can actually answer the important questions like, “What do we face after death?” As it turns out…it’s usually a vampire that shoots fireballs and turns into a gargoyle. However, it does raise some questions of its own, most notably, “Why are we so concerned with stomping out the evil of someone who comes to life once a century, tries to set the drapes on fire, and then gets killed three minutes later by the bastard progeny of Indiana Jones and Devo? Shouldn’t we focus on something more truly horrifying, like religious extremism, unfettered capitalism, or people who wear leggings that look like a toddler glued shreds of magazines to a pair of magnum condoms?” As it turns out, Castlevania: Bloodlines does manage to connect a vampire with the life expectancy of a hemophiliac sword swallower to a greater social evil, namely, World War I, orchestrated in part to resurrect Dracula with the souls of those who died in battle. Kind of like American Gods, but with disembodied heads dive-bombing you like brain-damaged horseflies.

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Don’t you remember one of the most frightening horror monsters of all time, the pile of gears? Seeing as how this is in Germany, I can only infer that this is the ultimate evolution of the Klink pokemon.

If I might interject my own logic, brain-damaged by one too many snaps of the whip, who the hell wants to resurrect Dracula? Forget that summoning a vampire has the survival rate of crawling into a den of hungry wolves wearing a Lady Gaga meat suit. Dracula’s time on earth is more limited than a man who hands a roll of quarters to a hooker, and is likewise ended by an angry man standing over him with a whip and a stopwatch. Stillborn fetuses have more of an effect on the world than this douchebag, yet for some reason people will orchestrate global warfare just to see this guy’s head knocked off by a lion tamer? And remember, Dracula can transform into a cloud of bats and fly away, yet his first and only reaction upon being granted sentience is to pounce on the legendary vampire slayer like a chemo patient taking on the North Korean army.

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Looks like the dog got into the Buffalo Wild Wings leftovers last night.

The game itself, though, opens with your choice of John Morris, son of Quincy Morris of Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s fame, or his friend Eric Lecard, who previously made a name for himself in…the opening cut scene that loops if you turn the game on and fall asleep before you hit start. Anyway, Morris and Lecard finally nudge their way to the gates of Dracula’s castle, which with forty games in the series probably has a longer line than the teacup ride at Disney World. They battle through fierce monsters and gruesome traps to reach the pinnacle of Dracula’s throne, only to remember that Quincy Morris already killed the vampire lord about twenty years ago. Not to be hampered by such a minor setback as not having a demonic nemesis to slay, the two of them decide they’ve fulfilled the obligatory “vania” and decide to see how much mileage (kilometerage?) they can get out of “castle.” From here, this post-Victorian Harold and Kumar visit all the dank, Black Castles that Europe has to offer, such as the palace at Versailles, Dracula’s summer home at the fictional Proserpina Castle in England, and…a German munitions factory. What, did the hundreds of castles across the continent not develop the right atmosphere of dark, cold, ominous and bloody over the centuries of standing as powerhouses of brutal medieval warfare and disease?

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Why does Morris look like he’s about to be sexually gratified by garroting Lecard?

Intricate design, an atmosphere of horror, and a rich color palette straight out of a box of evil crayons has always made this series stand out, and while Bloodlines continues the tradition admirably, setting stages in Atlantis or the Leaning Tower of Pisa somehow detracts from the doom and gloom vibe that attracts me to the game. It’s like dressing up for a Renaissance Fair and finding out that half the people attending wore greasy wife-beaters with bright orange Crocs.

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Nothing like a serene ocean sunset to make our hearts bubble with fear and terror.

That’s not to say, though, that Bloodlines is a bad game. Like other Castlevania games, it gives you plenty of opportunities to hop from platform to platform whipping monsters like a kangaroo dominatrix. Or if penetration is more your style, Lecarde makes a great addition to the team, a dashing Spaniard who combines the fighting style of Oberyn Martell and Scrooge McDuck. He can’t swing across chasms like Morris can (although admittedly, using a spear instead of a whip puts one at a severe disadvantage when playing Indiana Jones), but he has a longer reach, a pogo-stick vault of invincibility that can thwart death itself, and a special attack that rips through enemies across the entire screen and slows down time itself–yet I suspect the latter effect is less reminiscent of the stopwatch sub-weapon from the NES games and more a limitation of whatever Sega means by “blast processing.”

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Remember, game developers, just because you *can* doesn’t mean you *should*

While on the subject of what Sega does that Nintendon’t, let’s add to the list “cutting the classic sub-weapons from the NES games.” Only the holy water and the axe survived the purge, and the cross seems to have been castrated down to a regular boomerang. Each one has a both basic attack pattern as per usual and a special attack that might cost a bit extra, but makes up for it with a super-flashy execution that hits enemies with all the force of a bowl of spaghetti. Minus the bowl itself. And just to clarify, there’s no sauce or meatballs either. Technically, each character has a fourth sub-weapon, a special attack that actually does make a difference, but since it vanishes at the first hint of damage, it’s usually gone faster than my self-respect at an anime convention.

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Lecard tempting Lady Liberty to drop her toga for all the world to see. There’s an angel on the other side acting as her conscience.

Other than the sub-weapons being more limited than a nun’s options for sexual gratification, all the problems with the game relate to the story. And one of the benefits of games from this era was the instruction manual—they wrote the story in the booklet, and if it turned out a disappointment you could keep the book shut, never speak of it in open company, and pray it never embarrassed you when respectable guests came to visit.

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Golden Axe III – Sega Genesis

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Note: The snails are the fastest thing about this game.

Every so often I come across a game that I just can’t wait to write about, something that rubs me in just such a way that my humor genie shoots out of his lamp like Robin Williams, giving me all the comic gold in the universe to use at my disposal. Golden Axe III is not one of those games. It is, however, a rather useful game for its immense blandness, in that tasking myself to write a full review on it has roused my interest in organizing my computer’s desktop, cleaning the house, getting some paperwork notarized, and literally everything else that doesn’t involve mentally replaying a beat-em-up game with controls coded after submerging the programmer in a vat of molasses and corn syrup.

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My cat sleeps like this too.

I came across Golden Axe III during my last MAME Roulette. Frustrated with a long string of ROMs that seemed to object to my intention of reducing them to a single paragraph—or so I assume, since they refused to run at all—I decided to shop around for some other quick game I could play to avoid being a productive member of society. Enter Golden Axe, a series for the Sega Genesis that exists on my Retropie for no reason other than the recommendation of someone who obviously must have meant “Golden Sun” or “Goldeneye 007” or “Golden Delicious” because if he did not mean one of those, he obviously must have meant, “Don’t ever take recommendations from me.”

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…well then. Giddyup.

The story begins with Damud Hellstrike, a villain with a fondness for chopping down trees using inefficient tools made from soft metal that weigh as much as a small car. Hellstrike steals the Golden Axe, then puts a curse over our characters, Proud Cragger, Kain Grinder, Ax Battler, Sahra Burn, and also Gilius Thunderhead, a character I can only imagine got lost looking for the set of Harry Potter and found a bunch of cheap, fantasy-themed porn stars. Anyway, while laying the curse, Hellstrike gets bored and leaves one character, let’s say their cat, Chronos, uncursed, and buggers off to let the heroes come after him at their leisure.

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Chronos, eyeing up the map as a good place to sit.

Ironically, running from a bunch of lousy, non-working arcade games, I came across a game that felt like a lousy, barely-working arcade port. Arcade cabinets all get hardware tailored to the game, and if the game is any good, it’ll look and play amazing. Meanwhile, ports for the Atari 2600 or the NES look like a magic eye picture viewed in close-up while recovering from LASIK, and move at the frightful speed of U.S. social progress. Sixteen-bit systems more or less resolved these issues, which makes it all the more amazing that Golden Axe III uses about four colors per screen and vague, undefined lines that hint at a background much in the way that the burn marks in a grilled cheese sandwich will hint at being the face of the virgin Mary.

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There’s someone just above the screen dangling these things in front of him for their own amusement.

And remember, this isn’t Golden Axe. This is Golden Axe three. Generally, you can accomplish a lot by the third installment. If Golden Axe were a tootsie pop, they’d already be at the center by now. Mega Man 3 won awards. Zelda 3 was considered one of the best in the series. Onimusha 3 started introducing A-list actors from French films (so, like, D-list actors in the U.S…but you’d recognize him if you saw him). Half-Life 3…hasn’t quite gotten to the center of that tootsie pop, but you get the point. Golden Axe III, however, doesn’t really offer much besides the opportunity to spend a half an hour swiping and growling at armored villains with your cat claws, and at that point, a real cat is more exciting.

Shining in the Darkness – Sega Genesis

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Lecherous slugs. Hermaphrodites, if the cursor is any indication.

Sequels are a strange phenomenon, and opinions of them tend to be so emotionally charged that people fire out accidental kamehameha waves if you bring them up. Movies like Batman and Robin, Jaws 4, Cabin Fever 2, and anything from Saw…let’s say 3 onward…are generally experiences slightly less favorable to ringworm, what with characters as interesting as your local H&R Block staff and plots that make C-Span look like a Quentin Tarrantino masterpiece. However, mention video game sequels, such as Mega Man 2, Final Fantasy VI, Resident Evil 4 and Silent Hill 2, and fans will melt down their own gold fillings to make a trophy for the game designers. I’ve played two of the Shining Force games before, and while I haven’t launched into auto-dentistry practices yet, I can get excited enough by them to pry the lid off the series and dig around for game #1. So today I’ll write about Shining in the Darkness, the crawly, grindy RPG for the Sega Genesis that somehow metamorphosed into a brilliant tactical game by the next instalment, like a maggot transforming into a unicorn.

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I’ll tell you what I’m not selling…cocaine. I think you’ve had enough.

Shining tells the story of a young boy chosen by mystical forces to be the hero. When his father accepts a job as the winter caretaker of a secluded hotel, the boy must use his supernatural psychic powers….wait, no, that’s not right. It’s just a collection of cliches. Evil wizard, kidnapped princess, chosen hero, incompetent king who would rather send lone adolescents into a major combat area than his army of seasoned veteran knights. The game doesn’t really tell a story so much as tries to justify dropping you into a pit of monsters and sealing off the exit as quickly as possible. The titular “shining in the darkness” is probably nothing more than the radioactive glow of cramming so many unstable tropes together in one game. Even Wikipedia discusses the story condescendingly: In a 2009 interview, Hiroyuki Takahashi (credited for “writing” and producing the game) recalled… ; The overly-simplistic storyline presents more of an imitation attempt at fantasy narratives, similar to a third-grader trying to write his own novel, or Terry Brooks writing The Sword of Shannara.”

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I prefer to think of this less as an abusive scene where a hero is punished for saving the world, and more in the lines of, “Hey, this is getting good…”

But in a way, the simplistic design makes the game appealing. One town for shopping, one castle for major story events, and one dungeon, where you’ll spend the bulk of the game committing the standard, tireless acts of murder so common to the role-playing genre—you know, like Call of Duty, but with sentient crabs instead of Middle-Easterners. The dungeon takes the form of a labyrinth, and between Phantasy Star, Brandish, and Shining in the Darkness, I’ve spent so much time in labyrinths lately that I’m thinking about putting on a frizzy blond wig, shoving a codpiece down my tights and spouting David Bowie songs. You navigate the maze from a first-person perspective, which in these older games can sometimes feel like trying to follow a set of Google Maps directions with a plastic Viewmaster duct taped to your face, but the layout is actually designed well enough that you don’t usually end up treading a path around the same circular hallway for thirty minutes before you even realize you’re not making any progress. In fact, if you explore with a mindset of consistently following either the left or the right wall, you’ll generally find that maps only slow you down. [Note: Maps will not slow you down…unless, of course, you find the ones on www.gamefaqs.com that only have 70% of the notable locations marked. My recommendation? Play the game the old fashioned way…with a book of graph paper and a pencil.]

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In Soviet Thornwood, egg cooks you.

The game carries a certain nostalgic charm, a description which unfortunately carries with it the implication that the player will wave his sword in front of him until so many monsters have died that the decomposing gases trapped at the bottom ignite the large mountain of bodies you’ve accumulated. I know I criticize almost every older RPG for mass murder, monster holocaust, or some other variation on attempts to purge the biodiversity from their game worlds until even the Tea Party would get bored with the racial purity, but it does tend to detract from any enjoyable gameplay in a lot of otherwise great games. In Shining in the Darkness, the enemy encounter rate is so high that it feels more like a Japanese subway car than a gladiatorial dungeon, but the game loses a lot of its sexiness when you start murdering monsters who are just trying to look for a place to sit on their way to work. Unfortunately, you need to kill every living being you stumble across (except for, you know…the princess. But you also don’t have to rescue her, either.) if you want to progress enough to beat the game.

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You’re lost and wounded, deep underground with no civilized life form around for miles? Hmm…that’s awfully nice armor you’re wearing…

While fun for the first half of the game, Shining in the Darkness really starts to lose its appeal once you’ve finished your test of merit to enter the upper floors of the labyrinth. At that point, the game turns into an endurance test, pushing your patience at grinding. With each successive attempt, you make just enough progress to grease the way for the next attempt to thrust deeper. The monsters become just a little more complacent, and you can go faster and faster each time, but you have to spend a good long time working on penetration in order to…I’m sorry. I got distracted. But the game tends to lose scope of why it’s fun to play by that point. It becomes clear that nearly every enemy you face dies at the slightest glare from the hero, or passes out with a double-tap from your two assistants. Meanwhile, the enemies slowly wear you down like a swarm of earthworms wrapped in sandpaper.

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Malligator deals 41 points of damage, then strikes a pose to show off his bitchin’ hair.

At the beginning, Shining in the darkness comes across as a fun, nostalgic dungeon adventure, elegant in its simplicity. By the end, it turns into more of a Netflix marathon as you mindlessly follow walls through what must be Woodstock for monsters, until your hero with the peripheral vision of a rat with its head stuck in a toilet paper tube has enough HP to withstand the magic attack that the boss spams at you. But, of course, once you’ve invested that much time into a game, you keep going with the faith that the game will pay off like the Nigerian Prince you know it to be.

Mickey Mania – SNES, Sega Genesis, Sega CD

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Mickey Mania is described in the DSMV as the compulsive need to encourage Disney to make crap by handing them your money. Or in George Lucas’ case, Star Wars.

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…This is so disturbing, even Mickey’s life meter is trying to hitch a ride out of town.

My job here isn’t an easy one. As I don’t expect you all rush to ebay (as much as one can “rush” to a website) to find copies of these games, and that you’re not seriously mulling over whether or not to play these and need an expert’s opinion to tip you over the edge one way or the other, the only  possible reason you’d read this blog is that I make the posts mildly entertaining. Even considering I’ve dropped the challenge where I don’t use any form of the verb “to be” (go back and check entries from my first two years of posting), I have to find just the right games to make fun of. If a game is too good, it may be hard to find flaws in it, but if it’s too bad, I have to worry about properly expressing the comedic aspects, which aren’t as easy as just showing where a game misses the point worse than Burger King’s attempt at green ketchup (not to mention my concern with too many manatee jokes). But then I find those Goldilocks games, the “just right” combination  of playable and pointless that makes them stringently bland…and I have to find a way to make them at least interesting enough to talk about.  Enter Mickey Mania: The Timeless Adventures of Mickey Mouse, a perfect blend of half-assed and carefully-developed, released to commemorate a birthday that no one cared about by revisiting short films that no one had seen.

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…I don’t think Disney has ever done anything as disturbing as this.

People love celebrating milestones, but when they do, they usually choose nice round numbers: 10 years, 25 years, 50, 75 and 100 all make the cut. But for whatever reason, Disney thought Mickey’s 65th birthday was a big deal. I wonder if most beloved cartoon characters fade into obscurity around their 63rd or 64th year (Poor Jeoffrey, the Peccary). When Disney came up with the idea of commemorating their contribution to the order of rodentia with a video game, they only had six months to hit their deadline. Fortunately, they decided to take a little more time to make the game playable, but not enough to actually give it anything unique or innovative. They thought the game would be carried by having actual Disney animators! work on the design, missing the point of a game in that special way that my mother misses the point when she asks why I still play Super Nintendo games when technology has improved so far over the last twenty years, then goes to the closet to pull out Scrabble and Monopoly.

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Mickey Kong

So Mickey’s 66th birthday present plays as an okay platformer, if not a consistent one. In general, Mickey jumps through levels avoiding enemies, most of which he can defeat by jumping on their heads. He also collects marbles, which he can throw at enemies. Beyond that, each stage seems to have been put together by designers taken from different parts of the Small World, selected in the manner of 18th century slave ships, where they are chained to their work with no common language to talk to the designer next to them. Three of the levels have bosses–although apparently in non-North American releases, more stages have these. Most stages allow use of marbles, but Mickey loses them every so often (much like the designers). Almost all the stages scroll from the side, but one rotates around a tower while another features Mickey charging straight at the player like an angry moose (as he is, in turn, chased by an angry moose). Mickey apparently is looking for various avatars of himself in some weird, meta-identity crisis, but a few of these avatars make no appearance within the stages themselves.

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Why does this look obscene?

Probably the worst oversight of the design, though, is that they based each of the six stages (seven for non-SNES releases) on classic Mickey cartoons except for one on classic Mickey cartoons that pre-date 1950. Only The Prince and the Pauper stage was based off a cartoon in players’ living memories; the rest are even older than my father. This wouldn’t be such an issue today, but they weren’t commonly played cartoons, and Disney had the audacity to release this game almost a decade before the invention of youtube, so none of these levels had any meaning for me.

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Rather than walking on the ground, you can walk on a barrel.

But they were designed beautifully. The game is nice to look at and puts in key details that–unbeknownst to players–come straight out the games. The Steamboat Willie stage even includes a gradual shift from monochrome to color (A curious choice, to say the least, since only the final stage is based off a cartoon animated in color. Perhaps they just wanted to show up The Wizard of Oz. Take that, filmmakers from 60 years ago!). The game is pleasant to look at and not too difficult, so you can get through most of it in a single sitting, even if it has all the replay value of a chicken sandwich. And the inconsistencies actually make it interesting, as you’re not stuck simply jumping on heads for two hours like a cute, child-friendly sadistic serial killer.

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Congratulations on giving us money for this game you finished in an hour! Now give us more money!

Mega Man: The Wily Wars – Sega Genesis

FIsh Mega Man Wily Wars
If we think about video games as a family, Mario acts like your workaholic dad, head of the family, but he does just a little bit more work than anyone really wants him to do. Your sister Metroid went off to college and came back for Thanksgiving after discovering feminism, and while she’s learned some fascinating things about science, she can’t talk about it without bemoaning the fact that she needs to hide her femininity for anyone to take her seriously. She brought home this guy, Resident Evil, who talks about surviving the apocalypse with nothing but a lighter, a broken shotgun, a medallion with a bird on it, and some herbs, but he obsesses over guns a little too much to make you comfortable. Your cousin Link has traveled the world, but half the family won’t talk to him because he gives off a strong gay vibe, and everyone else makes fun of him, calling him by girls’ names. Grandpa Chrono Trigger can’t tell you what day it is, Final Fantasy only wants to pay Magic the Gathering all the time, and even though no one really has much control over the dog, Yoshi, Mario insists he’ll take good care of the children.

"I totally scared you, didn't I?" "Fuck off."

“I totally scared you, didn’t I?”
“Fuck off.”

In all this, Uncle Mega Man sits in a corner with Uncle Madden (who started talking about next year’s football game the minute this year’s game ended). Mega Man has some cool stories about his younger days, but they all sort of sound the same after a while. He enjoys his routine, and reacts violently any time someone suggests he spice up his life a bit. His son, X, wants to think of himself as a rebel, but doesn’t realize his dad acted just as wild in his youth. Neither one of them shows much sign of changing, and after a few years they just stop coming to Thanksgiving altogether.

They did a wonderful job of updating the backgrounds and keeping everything else the same.

They did a wonderful job of updating the backgrounds and keeping everything else the same.

Now that I’ve taken the metaphor just a little too far, I should introduce Mega Man: The Wily Wars, a little-known release for the Sega Genesis. Released in North America only for the Sega Channel, The Wily Wars serves as Capcom’s own version of Mario All Stars for the Mega Man Series, bundling the first three games, updated with minimal (very minimal) 16-bit graphics and some new content.

True story, the filename for this picture is Penguin.png

True story, the filename for this picture is Penguin.png

But here the wall I ran into when reviewing Lego Star Wars stands before me with not the slightest dent from the last time my head violently collided with it. What can I say about any Mega Man game that I didn’t cover the first time I reviewed any of them? Aside from a small list of minor alterations, most of them aesthetic, I only need say, “Mega Man still fights robots. Takes their weapons. Manages to let the villain escape for another day.” They updated his sprite, as well as a few of the robot masters’ sprites. Stage backgrounds received a makeover, but as the graphical upgrades peter out as you work upwards through the games, it comes off as a little insincere, as though Mega Man 3 subtly wanted to point out how much prettier she looked from the get-go.

Mega Man taking inspiration fPython and the Holy Grail. Ten to one odds he doesn't make it to that next block.

Mega Man taking inspiration from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Ten to one odds he doesn’t make it to that next block.

But teenage drama aside, some of the changes actually make a difference, especially in Mega Man 2. Capcom eliminated easy mode and it felt like they ramped up the difficult mode in subtle yet obnoxious ways. For instance, the redesigned sprites for the wood shield make it nearly impossible to jump over Wood Man’s attacks without taking damage. Someone on the design team must have really missed the boat with Quick Man, as they toned down his speed to match the other robot masters’, turning him into Boomer Kuwanger with special needs. (He must have seriously let himself go after the series decided not to renew his contract for Mega Man 4. Depression can ruin a robot, let me tell you. No one will take him serious while crusted over in his own rust.) Probably the most obnoxious change involves the Mecha Dragon, which no longer takes damage from the crash bombs…making it the only boss in the game without a weakness. Plus you get to fight it over a giant bottomless pit. Yay. Since Mega Man games fell into the sweet spot (for me) of just the right amount of challenge, the minor increase in difficulty that these tweaks add works for the game play. Too much change, after all, might frighten Capcom.

Yeah...I don't care how much danger threatens the earth. I don't want to set one foot in a part of the jungle made out of snakes.

Yeah…I don’t care how much danger threatens the earth. I don’t want to set one foot in a part of the jungle made out of snakes.

Then I beat all three games and something wondrous happened: original content! A Mega Man mini-game, complete with Dr. Wily’s skull tower and three unique robot master levels (none of which feel the urge to assert their machismo by adding “Man” to their moniker). Plus, this mini game did something I’ve always wanted to do with Mega Man: select from a set of weapons acquired in any of the games. What? You mean he doesn’t have to reformat his hard drive every time he beats up Dr. Wily? I would think after the first few times the old man threatened the world as revenge for not letting him threaten the world, Mega Man would at least keep a few of those outdated peripherals in a box in his closet–you know, just in case.

Realizing the limitations of the original game, Mega Man pioneered the idea of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock

Realizing the limitations of the original game, Mega Man pioneered the idea of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock

This adds an interesting spin to the game. Rather than a rock-paper-scissors relationship (or rather, because no one cares about Paper Man, rock-bomb-scissors), the three bosses have a small set of weaknesses, offset by weapons useful against their attack patterns, and the player has to decide what approach to take against them. Also, their design strongly resembles characters from the Ancient Chinese novel, Journey to the West. Like the characters in Dragonball. Because when Wu Cheng’en penned his satirical allegory of Buddhist enlightenment, he really just wanted to break into the anime and video game markets.

After defeating Son Wukong, Mega Man must take his place protecting Tripitaka so that they may travel to India to receive the eight energy crystals to rescue China from Dr. Wily. I think it goes something like that.

After defeating Son Wukong, Mega Man must take his place protecting Tripitaka so that they may travel to India to receive the eight energy crystals to rescue China from Dr. Wily. I think it goes something like that.

For a unique and fairly original Mega Man game, I’d only complain about the length–seven stages in total falls terribly short of what I’d actually want to play. It’s like ordering the unlimited soup at Olive Garden, enjoying your first bowl, and then for every bowl after that the waiter just rips open a packet of Maruchan Ramen. You had the good stuff! You knew what we wanted! Maybe changing the formula a little would do us all some good. Of course, eventually that waiter stopped delivering even the Ramen, evacuated the building, and left you sitting at your table in the dark, reminiscing about your meals of old.

Baby steps, Capcom. Baby steps.