Earthbound – SNES

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Police block off the roads…but apparently not because of the radioactive space rock. Hey kids, after you touch it, be sure to see what it tastes like!

Strap in tight, RPG fans, and grease up your frying pans to retaliate as I malign yet another classic game even though I honestly didn’t find it all that bad. I simply can’t help myself. Nowadays, as the indie game community struggles to understand that “off the wall,” while it may be profitable, only has a few degrees of superlative. I mean, when it comes to walls, there’s really only “on,” “off,” and maybe “leaning against.” (I guess there’s a few more if you consider “Now my watch has ended,” “Just another brick,” and “Dear God, Donnie, get off this wall idea!”) Yet developers constantly belch out attempt after attempt at one-upping everyone else’s off-the-wall-manship, until every game is so uniquely different that they’re all as homogeneous as every Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Madden title put out there. That makes it kind of difficult to go back and play a quirky game that was, in the 90s, a truly unique gem of quirkiness. And it was also kinda bad.

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The game has a twenty-year-old reputation for charming its players.

Earthbound is an urban RPG that doesn’t so much have a plot as a Rube Goldberg machine of events that leads our suspiciously unquestioning protagonist through a world of oddities that would make any sane person wonder if that mushroom we fought just outside the first town didn’t have its own special brand of magic. The game starts like plenty of other games, with some poor unfortunate protagonist getting roused out of a sound sleep. In this case, Ness is woken up by a knock at the door, only to find it’s his neighbor, Pokey, whose adjectival name describes something painful and penetrative on account of him being both a fucking prick and a pain in the ass. The two take off in the middle of the night to investigate a fallen meteor nearby, which as you can imagine naturally leads to an epic hero’s journey wherein Ness dismantles an organized religion, gets lured into an ambush by a prostitute, bails out the excessive debt mysteriously racked up by the blues brothers, and performs a surprisingly gruesome abortion of an evil alien fetus (possibly), all while rampaging through the local towns smashing everyone and everything with a baseball bat like the delinquent gang members in Stand By Me.

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Halfway through, Ness just starts flipping him off, hoping he’ll get the picture and stop following him.

A lot of people harp on Pokemon for that whole adolescent vagrancy thing. While mom does seem awfully quick to kick Ness out onto the streets to give herself some private time with her soap operas while lying to school officials about his whereabouts, at least Dad routinely deposits money into your bank account so you can afford food and hotel rooms—although by the end of the game, his nonchalance about the fact that his son has half a million dollars on his ATM card makes me suspect some money laundering scheme. No, Earthbound raises bigger concerns. Like the truly old school NES games, characters for the most part have to be resurrected at set locations, specifically hospitals. Personally, if the same kid kept showing up as many times as I needed to revive my characters, someone ought to call Child Protective Services. At the very least, the hospital probably shouldn’t keep releasing their patients to the kid carrying the bloodied baseball bat. Even more concerning, every so often some bearded weirdo flies down from the sky to photograph the party (for the end credits). I might even be willing to overlook the fact that this old guy is following around a thirteen-year-old boy taking pictures if he’d just stop interrupting the game so damn often to do it. Come on, dude! Snap your shots subtly from the bushes like a regular pedophile.

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I lay down a fat wad of bills to bail these guys out of debt, but i still have to pay to see their show?

So I already said that stacking this game up next to modern, quirky RPGs is about as fair as hiring a mechanical engineer based on his skill with an abacus, so let’s put Earthbound into chronological context. Gameplay seems pretty standard, with a top-down world exploration alternating with first-person, turn-based battles. Character customization, for the most part, is stat-based and not within the player’s control, and while fights often do wind up reverting to mashing the A button whilst using your other hand to search for search nudeography.com for the Pink Power Ranger, characters include a small, but nice selection of magic and special attack items to keep things interesting. Furthermore, the main menu still operates about as well as a credit card machine in the self-check-out aisle, but it’s slightly quicker and easier to navigate than in other old school RPGs. All-in-all, this game has streamlined all the features we might expect from the original Dragon Quest, Phantasy Star, or Final Fantasy.

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…seems legit.

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The moment Ness realizes that All Lives Matter won’t come and save him.

Unfortunately, that’s not the proper chronological context. Earthbound was released in 1994, half a year AFTER Final Fantasy VI. Squaresoft had for three years already incorporated elemental attacks and equipment, active time battles, summoning spells and unique, useful character specific skills. Yep. While Square was developing solar-powered, mag-lev bullet trains, Nintendo was unveiling their perfected design for the horse-drawn carriage.

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Here I am fighting something that looks like it was sneezed out of a wildebeest with ebola.

I do appreciate the quirky sense of humor Earthbound displays, and as I do enjoy old games, I didn’t so much care that the interface had been long outdated in 1994. But Nintendo could have taken some care to keep their content fresh, rather than try to sell us a bucket of milk from the “past expiration” shelf (and then boosting the price to $250 on the grounds that it’s “rare”) The game flouted just enough conventions to confuse me; being dead is usual a little more final than your average status ailment, so I didn’t figure out until the final dungeon that the highest level heal spell could also cure the common corpse. Magic spells get no explanation, and while items do provide descriptions that range in clarity from “horoscope” to “girl who really doesn’t want to go out with you but won’t outright say no,” there are so many items in the game for the sake of quirkiness that the player can get a certain type of fatigue for digging through the menu to check each one—AFTER they buy them.

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Nothing suspicious about a bunch of people shoved into test tubes.

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Wait…how much? Is there something you’re not telling me?

Limiting your inventory to the amount of items that can fit into a taxidermy musk rat can be frustrating, but probably the most infuriating thing about playing Earthbound is using the phone. Periodically, Ness gets homesick and will ignore the brutal melee in favor of plopping down and daydreaming about cake or kimchee or mushroom and roadkill sandwiches or whatever you told the game your favorite food was. The only way to get him riled up into a skull-bashing frenzy again is—and this one I can totally sympathize with—calling your mom. Honestly, what is it with video games that way to simulate things that I hate doing in real life? Worse than the constant tether to you mom’s macaroni (no, that’s not a euphemism) is the need to call your dad. The only way to save your game is to call your dad at his mysterious, undisclosed location and tell him everything you’ve done. He’ll then ask if you want him to write it down. Then he’ll rattle off the exp needed for each character to level up, and launch into a schpiel about your family’s work ethic. Every. Single. Goddam. Time.

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Because FUCK KIDS!

Earthbound doesn’t get by entirely without creativity, though. The game has one interesting mechanic in which damage dealt by enemies does not take effect at once. Rather, the character’s HP counter starts rolling down toward zero, giving those with the highest levels ample time to tell their wives goodbye, pass on their watch to their son, choke out the secret location of the hidden treasure, grail, or Skywalker, set their affairs in order and make peace with their god before they ring down the curtain and join the choir invisible. Mostly, though, I used it to wreak furious vengeance upon he who wronged me, and occasionally fumble through Ness’ magic menu with a Scooby-Doo-like grace, hoping I can hit the healing spell with my clumsy fingers, target my dying character instead of a dead one, the enemy, or a nearby rock, and cycle through the text narrating the battle like a combination sports commentator and a court stenographer fast enough to take effect before the victim’s final breath rolls over to zero.

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What can he say except “You’re welcome?”

While I’ve been writing all day and would usually think of some exhausted, half-witted method to draw my entry to a conclusion that I can pretend works, I can’t drop this game into my annals without mentioning Giygas, the boss of the game. I get that Mother, Earthbound’s predecessor released only in Japan, set up Giygas and whatever back story, plot, and motivation he might have. However, if you’re like me—re: only released in the United States—you don’t have that to fall back on, and even so, I expect my games to recap any important points from previous installments (when done correctly, that is the reason I could play through Shadow Hearts 2 like a fully functional human being, rather than navigate the plot like George of the Jungle). Giygas gets none of that. We are told he’s evil and needs to be stopped for reasons I assume are good but not quirky enough to make the cut into the game. But he gets no screen time, no build up, seemingly no effect on the plot, and no interaction whatsoever with the heroes. Even the final battle fizzles out until I feel like I’m just wailing on Helen Keller with a Louisville Slugger. About twenty minutes into an unnecessarily long, yet impotent battle, I felt like I should just stop fighting and start making him feel inadequate by telling him about the bosses I beat from other games. “Did I ever tell you about Lavos? Now there was a boss! Sephiroth and Kefka were both pretty impressive. Oh yeah, and one time, I killed God!”

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Dear God! Pokey’s mom looks like the Joker’s failed first run with Smilex. Was this intentional? Was she their first run at sprite design and they have a strict no-revision policy?

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Oddly enough, I feel like this one actually merits a bat upside the head.

Now, do you remember how I said the battle was unnecessarily long? The game pulls kind of a dirty trick here. All the damage you deal in phase three? If it’s applied to Giygas at all, it has all the effect of slapping Exxon Mobil with a $100 fine. You can wail on him all day—and he can wail on you—until the power company shuts off your electricity because you never went to work to earn the money to pay your bills. They don’t tell you that, though. Instead, you have to figure out on your own that one character’s “pray” command, a useless little quirk that I ignored all but the first time I tried it out, is the only way to kill the boss. You pray, watch a cut scene wherein all your friends offer you their power (at least Nintendo took something from Squaresoft), and then have to repeat the process eight more times. Then he just dies.

Thanks. Useful. That makes an exciting showdown with the ultimate evil. Let’s just take all the humor and quirkiness right out of the game and make players figure out that the only way to dispel the essence of evil is to kneel down and pray for a giant aborted fetus. Way to make a fun game, Nintendo!

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Illusion of Gaia – SNES

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Much like many in the animal kingdom, the ancient warrior of light, when threatened, will wet himself as a defense mechanism.

And now a game that needs no introduction…but since I have to write one anyway, I had never heard of Illusion of Gaia when I pulled it out of the $10 clearance bin at Walmart. Yes, it could have been a broken, miserable, unplayable experience that left me empty and soulless, my lack of satisfaction made exponentially more crushing with every dollar I spent on it, but I had to face the facts, I would never get back the $2.50 I had spent renting Mario is Missing, nor would I get back the hour and a half of my life I sacrificed for a trivia game designed for people working their way up to the challenge of Dora the Explorer. And hey, it didn’t look half bad. The reason I had never heard of it probably came from the measly 650,000 copies it sold worldwide, less than half of which sold in the U.S.A. While that’s a big number and I wouldn’t mind selling 650,000 of anything (provided it’s not something bad like indentured servants or square cm of advertising space via tattoo), other games such as Link to the Past and Final Fantasy VI sold several million copies worldwide. And since Illusion of Gaia is in the same class of game as those two, get out your dark hoods, sacrificial knives and grab a spare chicken, because we’re going to celebrate Illusion of Gaia as a bona fide cult classic!

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This is the most fun I had since playing the merchant in Dragon Quest IV.

Illusion of Gaia follows young Will, a boy who faces down swarms of demons armed with nothing more than a flute. And while that could set up an interesting Zelda-style mechanic where you use music to lull your opponents to sleep or pacify their hateful heart, Will doesn’t follow the path of the spooney bard so much as the style of Bam-bam Rubble. Gaia, the spirit of the earth, tasks will will traveling through the world’s ancient ruins to collect mystic statues that will enable him to destroy a comet careening toward their certain destruction. And the stingy broad doesn’t even offer so much as a “Heart” power ring. So Will travels the world with his friends, and we get to witness all his adventures, mishaps, the zany relationships between characters, the wonderful oddities along the way, and also the sheer devastation caused by the mystical comet in the past coupled with a dark subplot about a slave trade. You know. Good fun for a 15-year-old boy. The story is actually very good, a downright miracle when you realize it’s so poorly-written. Dialogue, especially near the beginning, reads like expository writing at a tourette’s convention, a collecting of disparate, unsolicited facts prematurely ejaculating themselves into the conversation. In one extended cut scene, Will announced that he’s starting to develop feelings for the princess. And then he drops unconscious with a case of scurvy. So the player has to let a lot of stuff slide, but the story moves along in a sensible manner like it should.

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Will defaces a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Chinese Terra Cotta Soldiers.

The game technically plays out in our world, presumably in the far future after the comet has pulled its Chernoble impression six or seven times, halting world progress and handing evolution over to the whims of Salvador Dali. Will visits several real-world locations, such as the Nazca lines, the Incan ruins, Ankor Wat, the Great Wall of China. Still, the game plays fast and loose with geography, as though the developers failed their world map quiz in high school and decided to re-write the map so their answers would be correct. The Nazca lines are no longer on the same continent as the Incan ruins, Europe is now a single city somehow located west of China, but east of Cambodia, and Egypt is way off in the Northwest.

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…good luck with that.

The combat system, aside from exhibiting a brutal violence toward band instruments, steals from action RPGs like Secret of Mana, while employing a unique system of leveling up. Rather than earning experience or equipping items, Will gets a stat bonus by clearing all the monsters in any given area (which he can only do once per area). With a limited number of stat increases, the difficulty in later stages depends on how thoroughly you can ethnically cleanse the earlier stages—which isn’t all that difficult, considering the generous head start that 16th century Spanish explorers gave you. Later on, the game ramps up the difficulty not only by making enemies harder, but by hiding one or two in each area. Not a bad idea, really, although it was a little frustrating running through the Ankor Wat hedge maze like Jack Torrence, playing a murderous game of Where’s Waldo as I hunted down the lone hedge monster I needed for my upgrade.

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Freedan fights ancient Nazca robot while a string of anal beads looks on.

Will doesn’t have to run around jabbing his flute into things for the entire game. At various points he can transform into the Dark Knight Freedan, or Shadow, the bio-weapon made from the comet’s light, in what has to be the weirdest metaphor for puberty I’ve ever seen. Freedan and Shadow are both stronger than Will, but each character has a unique set of abilities that will be required to progress, so like any troubled teen, you’ll spend a lot of time altering your body in order to fight the evil establishment. While Will can perform special acrobatics, Freedan can reach across long distances, and Shadow can…make puddles on the floor like a dog that hasn’t been housebroken, all three characters have telekinetic powers. While mostly this is only good for a. collecting the mostly-useless items dropped by enemies and b. making the case that Will is “the chosen one,” it can also be used to block most projectile attacks. Because the best way to dodge a bullet is to stand right in front of it and pull it towards you with psychic force.

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And I would walk 500 more…

I say the enemy drops are mostly useless as with very rare exception, they’re all gems that serve the basic purpose of Mario’s coins. That’s right. Illusion of Gaia has a life system. Instead of going back to the beginning of the stage when you die, if you’ve collected at least 100 gems, you’ll only go back to the beginning of the room you’re in. With severely diminished health. And any healing items you used before death are gone for good. And healing items are rare enough that they could be the subject of the next Indiana Jones movie. In most cases, it would be far easier to reset the game and start over from the last save point than to take the free life the game offers.

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The George W. Bush homeland security policy. Gaia does a wicked harsh cavity search.

But really, these issues don’t amount to anything that might dissuade me from playing the game. Some of the more serious crimes involve key items being introduced with a text crawl so slow that it sets off a bomb on a bus somewhere and an end goal so confusing that even the main character questions why you’d want to replace the natural fantasy world with a modern urban sprawl. But if anyone told me these flaws actually amounted to something, I’d probably react the same was as if someone gave me a ticket for jaywalking.

Brandish – SNES

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In the same way that getting shot develops an ability to withstand bullets.

I suppose I commonly stretch the definition of “retro” on this blog. A lot of what I review isn’t retro at all; Wii, PS3…books. Honestly, I’m starting to feel like a myopic hipster, clinging to the good old days of blackberries and flip phones and rejecting the ever-so-trendy man-bun-lumbersexual look in favor of coiffing my hair to resemble a freshly frosted cupcake / toothpaste advertisement / steaming dog shit resting atop my head. The point being, if I’m trying to reach into the past while only grabbing things I can reach from the couch, I’m doing it wrong. In my defense, it’s easier to go out and buy games for the Wii or the PS3—much in the same way it’s easier to buy an iPhone than a hand-cranked Victrola—but I have to remember my roots periodically so as not to get carried away. One root to remember involves an SNES game I rented one weekend in high school and completed 75% before I had to return it. Well, it may have taken me nearly two decades to get around to it, but I finally finished the SNES…uh, classic?…Brandish.

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…I don’t know. It might be worth it to let her catch me.

An adventure RPG, Brandish opens with a story of a greedy king transformed into a monster before the powers that be decide to punish all the innocents in the kingdom (No, I’m not talking about a Trump presidency) by burying the entire land deep in the earth. And then everyone forgets about it, so really, have we lost anything? I mean, if New York were to vanish off the face of the planet, you can bet that even Texas would put that in their textbooks until doomsday. South Dakota, on the other hand, could be gone already and none of us would know about it for decades. Thousands of years in the future (in Brandish, not Dakota), the player-character, Varik, is being chased by Alexis, a blond sorceress wearing traditional high-level fantasy armor who wants to kill him for “destroying [her] teacher,” a plot point that ends up as thoroughly as the rationale behind making a Tetris movie. Their fight opens up a hole in the ground and the two fall to the deepest point of a 45-floor labyrinth, fortunately avoiding impaling themselves on all those high-level monsters and…you know…floors…closer to the surface. Because damn it, that’s how this works!

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Fuckin’ sphinxes. They’re like rats, infesting the labyrinth and leaving their “riddles” all over the place for you to step in.

Varik then proceeds to explore his way to the surface through a top-down perspective, and before I go any further, I need to address something. You may notice upon taking your first steps, that you can only move forward and backward, and that any attempts to turn left or right induce a nauseating change of scenery. Well, apparently the developers couldn’t be bothered to animate sprites for moving side-to-side or toward the player. I guess rather than change direction, it was easier to make the entire map rotate 90 degrees to one side. Fortunately, when the mighty dragon sunk the kingdom, he installed a few ball-bearing casters so the residents wouldn’t have to worry about silly things like turning. There’s a reason no other game has controls that fucked up; it’s because people who think like that can’t make it to work because they get stuck at intersections waiting for the road to turn. Congratulations! You took tank controls, a design scheme that frustrates players by making them feel like they’re guiding a drunken sorority girl to the bathroom to puke, and simulated the puking experience for the player as well. It turns out that the game is a port of a computer game from 1991, so that may have had something to do with it, and I did figure out that you could strafe from side to side by holding L or R. Still, developers, can we just consider “character moves in direction pushed on D-pad” to be both public domain and a mechanic that doesn’t need improvement? Anything weirder than that, and players are going to accept it about as well as a Neo-Nazi at an NAACP convention.

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What do you mean there’s no ethnic diversity in fantasy? That dragon clearly has a Cthulu somewhere in his family tree.

Beyond that—but don’t get me wrong, that’s a pretty significant “that”–I’d say Brandish could be considered a hidden gem for the SNES. It does get a lot of things “right” for the genre; labyrinth full of monsters, useful items and magic, challenging yet logical puzzles, and a surprisingly healthy system of commerce for a lost civilization full of vicious bloodthirsty monsters and a handful of shop keepers. The gameplay centers around making your way through the labyrinth, but every floor manages to find some unique feature to introduce, so even though my eyes wound themselves together like a case of testicular torsion in my head, I never felt the game was slow-paced or repetitive. It was kind of like being in the movie Labyrinth. Except the labyrinth is underground. And there aren’t any muppets. And Sarah is replaced with a man in armor. And David Bowie is actually a Lovecraftian monster that shoots fire from his…let’s go with “appendages,” and Hoggle is a fiery, magic-wielding sex kitten…okay, so it’s nothing like Labyrinth. But it has a nice, adventurous feel to it nonetheless.

Some boss fights are hellishly difficult, a problem augmented by the fact that all the swords you find seem to be forged with the highest quality peanut brittle, and a lot of monsters are either resistant to magic, or it outright slides off of them like they’ve been heavily varnished. The game offsets this by allowing you to save whenever you like. I recommend you save often, but even with the best of precautions, be prepared to become as familiar with the logos and title sequence like a pole is with a stripper’s thighs.

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“How is the game?” “Lobsterrific!”

The one other aspect of this game that irritates me like a pair of boxers made from the prickly side of Velcro strips is the menu interface. The select button opens the menu, which freezes certain functions like attacking or defending. The game keeps going to let you do things like cast magic or drink health potions without needing to equip the item, but at certain critical moments when your skin is bursting at the seams and you’re about to spill messy innards all over the floor, you may literally not be able to go on unless you drink that potion. I may be spoiled by all those other games where the monsters take their legally mandated 15-minute break whenever you call a time out to root through your sack of accumulated crap, but I find it just downright rude if an enemy doesn’t shut off the flame thrower long enough for me to rub on some burn ointment. Even more obnoxious are level-up text boxes. These things will pop up whenever you gain a level, increase your arm strength or your knowledge, or improve your magic endurance. And it also disables certain functions until it goes away. I really do believe it’s important to celebrate the small things in life, but honestly I’d rather wait until the giant lobster I’ve been hacking to pieces is wounded enough to lose consciousness (at the lest) before I raise a glass in a toast to my newfound ability to not feel quite as bad when giant lobsters remove my kidneys.

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Uhh…do you really have to look at me that way when you say that?

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!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time – Arcade, SNES

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…am I interrupting something?

As I’ve established in recent posts, I currently have about as much spare time as a 120-year-old end stage cancer patient; therefore, I’ve needed to stray from my usual RPG/Survival Horror predilections to find games I can finish in a short afternoon. Even better, though, why not cash in on the gaming industry’s Paris-Hilton-level of ambition and write about a game that didn’t bother to make any contributions to its genre, innovations for gaming, or changes to any previous games in general? Why not write about a game exactly like one I’ve already written about, thus raising this circle of laziness to college-student-on-pot-who-still-has-a-few-days-before-the-term-paper-deadline-to-get-started proportions!

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Shredder’s script here reads, “Prance with lightsaber.”

In my TMNT II: The Arcade Game post, I described how even though the original NES Ninja Turtle game was well-conceived, fun to play, and unique, the simple facts that a) it was not the arcade game and b) it had a jump in the third stage so difficult that it rendered the rest of the game inaccessible, made the game only slightly less disappointing than The Force Awakens. As such, Konami released it the following year on NES. But unable to allow their fan base to experience any more satisfaction than a eunuch in a brothel, they had to release an even better arcade game the following year. And by “better” I mean essentially identical to any other beat-em-up game released between 1987 and the Second Coming.

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The tactical advantage of being air-lifted in a meter off the ground by a pterodacty ready to die of exhaustion is somewhat underappreciated in the shadow of using medieval weaponry while you have access to the entire history of weaponry.

TMNT: Turtles in Time tells the story of a villain who we’re supposed to respect as a badass super-ninja, but who really has less a grip on reality than the Creation Science Museum. The Shredder has invented time travel, but rather than manipulating his knowledge of the future in a Biff-Tannen-style bid for fortunes that would humiliate Donald Trump, or even studying all the crucial battles in history in order to sweep through the past and conquer the entire world, he opts to enact a cockamamie vengeance on the Ninja Turtles under the assumption that he only loses to them time and time again because he’s never faced them from the back of a velociraptor on the deck of a pirate ship. I suppose we’re not supposed to ask how the Shredder formed an alliance with pterodactyls and fire-breathing deinonychuses, although I assume it wasn’t a hefty salary. Shredder seems to have spent so much on the time machine that his foot soldiers can’t afford anything more than medieval weaponry, even in the distant future. He could have probably evened out the odds against the turtles if he had sold the technodrome and bought an AK-47. Although if the Turtles have taught me anything, it’s that slicing the solid-steel barrel off of a gun with a sword leaves it as useless as a squirt gun filled with jello.

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Exploding mud. Taking a page from Goldeneye’s playbook here.

The game plays…literally like every other beat-em-up game to that point. You have an attack button and a jump button. Enemies come at you. Go get ‘em, tiger. To Turtles in Time’s credit, though, they did improve a handful of things. If you hit the attack button multiple times, the game will cycle through a short series of attacks, rather than repeating the same animation over and over like a buzzfeed gif with no caption. Occasionally, you’ll pick up a foot soldier and chuck them at the screen; I don’t exactly know how and the game only gives instructions when that knowledge won’t interfere with you putting more quarters in the machine. The game is, however, designed to do just that. Like any good arcade game, Turtles in Time puts you at a severe disadvantage. Bosses, in particular, have an excessive amount of health, and they don’t do that thing where they start flashing as they get weaker. It often left me wondering how many times I had to stab a guy in the head before he started showing signs of fatigue.

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Why do I feel like something obscene is going on here?

Beyond that, I really can’t say much about the game. You progress through levels. You drop in your entire college savings fund. You fight the monsters from the live-action Turtles movie as though Bebop and Rocksteady are the only henchmen in super hero history that are too delicate to survive routine pummelings. You eat pizza off the ground. A mud monster explodes. Michelangelo makes nun-chucks look like a weapon that wouldn’t constantly give its user accidental concussions. You chase around Kraang in his homoerotic Cho-Aniki bodysuit for a while. Then you fight Shredder.

I still think “Foot Clan” would be an awesome name for a band.

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Okay, I KNOW something obscene is happening here.

Chrono Trigger: Crimson Echoes – SNES ROM Hack

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L’chaim!

One common lament I often hear wailing from the insincere lips of our species, Homo Obliviosa, criticizes books, literature, television, and within five years, I guarantee those game-show infomercials that play on the pumps at gas stations, for being too predictable and not having a shred of originality that they didn’t pick up at a yard sale somewhere. Still, if we’ve learned anything from seven Saw films, twelve Friday the 13th movies, The Land Before Time 14, the entire James Bond series, and 27 years of watching Debbie gyrating her aging pelvis across Texas until she files her bones into a fine powder, we’ve learned that Americans have a serious problem when it comes to sequels. And sequels don’t even do it for us anymore; our problem has spread like a raging yeast infection to cover things like adaptations, novelizations, novelizations of adaptations, and fan fiction. Personally, I’ve never finished a story and thought, “I need to fix this so Hermione marries Malfoy and Hagrid ends up with Dumbledore!” or felt that I couldn’t really judge Star Wars until I read about how some 35-year-old McDonald’s assistant shift manager would have destroyed the Sith, brought balance to the Force, and made passionate love to Queen Amidala. But a fan-made adaptation has come along once or twice (no wait…twice. Exactly twice) that makes me take note, and so with a heavy heart, I introduce you to Chrono Trigger: Crimson Echoes.

 

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They were going to go with “Time Lord,” but the phone booth ruined the epic showdown feel.

A team of devoted fans produced Crimson Echoes after compiling everything they knew about Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, hacking the SNES rom for six years, and presumably smoking so much weed that they felt implying a romance between Frog and Ayla wouldn’t come across as weird and out-of-character as Gollum shacking up with Galadriel. The story weaves together several plots, including a war between Porre and Guardia, Magus’ search for Schala, Dalton’s quest to find new and more creative ways of being a major douche while demonstrating all the power of crystal therapy after a viking raid, and some weird jazz about alternate timelines. King Zeal emerges from the shadows as the primary antagonist, who aims to resurrect the kingdom after his ex-wife gained custody of it and ran it into the ground (literally) in the first game.

 

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Yet somehow I still have all of the other me’s memories and skills.

Chrono Trigger rocks, and I can understand wanting more of it, but a game with a setting that spans “all of history” leaves about as much room for more as a fat guy with a lifetime pass to Old Country Buffet. Writing a sequel to a time-travel game has to carefully weave in the events of the previous game–a la Back to the Future Part II–or it looks like the heroes spent the whole quest to fight the god of hedgehogs oblivious to all the other action going on. “Fuck you, fans of the first game,” it says. “You should have been paying attention!” For better or worse, though, it works, as the developers understand the literary mechanics of time travel about as well as a teenage boy with Asperger’s Syndrome understands a speed-dating event. “Marty!” I hear doc Brown’s voice saying, “You’re not thinking fourth-dimensionally!” They get points for trying new ideas, but their idea of extra timelines gives the impression that time flows normally, centered around Crono, and these other timelines are just tacked on in weird succession, like a video editor with ADHD (God, I’m being just brutal to people with disabilities in this paragraph.) Time Travel feels more geographical than fourth dimensional, as if 65,000,000 B.C. lies just past the Wisconsin border.

 

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Apparently the guy designing backgrounds was sick that day.

I’ve played through Chrono Trigger probably fifty times in my life and seen the Back to the Future trilogy probably into the triple digits. The thing that gets me stuck in an ever-repeating loop of irony is this sense of how time stacks on itself, about how, like a good party, billions of years worth of events can happen in one place (and how as the guy who shows up the next morning to pick up his drunk friends, I seem to miss all the exciting parts.) Crimson Echoes doesn’t give me the feeling of the vastness of time, or how it connects with each other. Whereas Lavos was eternal, living his life content to move down time like a one-way street, meeting up with our heroes whenever they felt like visiting him, King Zeal pops up in random time-periods as Crono et al. do the same, in a cosmic game of whack-a-mole. Furthermore, the three gurus somehow watching all the changes Crono makes from some point in the distant future makes about as much sense as learning about the life span development of a chicken by studying an omelette mcmuffin. Near the end of the game, the gurus dish out a list of side quests, but while in the original game, these added to the enormity of time and centered on the seven playable characters, the Crimson Echoes sidequests have little to do with anyone or any-when. Most of them are damn near impossible to even find without help, and the ones I did felt so fetch-questy that the only way they’d develop character is if you happened to be a labrador retriever.

 

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Travel twelve hours through time! Explore the mysterious “night.”

In adding to my swelling list of grievances, the designers cranked up the difficulty setting like crazy. For whatever reason, the general video game fan community interprets the quality of a game as directly proportional to how hard it is. God knows if you want to find a version of Castlevania that’s been hacked to remove life limits, you’ll inevitably stare down lists of hacks for people who thought the original NES game felt too simple, then another list of hacks for people who thought the first list of hacks didn’t successfully raise their blood pressure enough to burst from their veins like an anime blood-geyser. But when it comes to simple ideas to maintain challenge without tedious repetition of hours worth of gameplay, game hackers dry up like the Sahara desert as described by Henry David Thoreau and read by Al Gore. But even if challenge did implicitly make a game better, how exactly does one make an RPG harder? You can raise monster stats all you want, but the only thing a player can do in response is level grind which only challenges them to stay awake long enough to build up their stats. Most bosses don’t especially put a good fight, but rather wind up like a college drinking game, with the player slamming back as many potions and ethers as possible, hoping the other guy passes out first. For a while, I actually appreciated that the astronomically high enemy HP forced me to dig into my otherwise unused techniques, but by the end of the game, most enemies could absorb at least three of the four styles of magic (and Magus apparently has suffered a stroke in the intervening years, rendering him unable to cast anything but shadow magic), leaving me to tape down the A button and go scoop the cat box.

 

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Forthwith anon! Thou shalt besmirch thy honor if we henceforth discover…uh…something cool.

This isn’t to say, of course, that the developers simply chewed up the ROM and spit it back out into whatever arrangement the physics of projectile vomiting so decided. They added some interplay between Magus and Frog (who they renamed Glenn and completely abandoned his formal, pseudo-Middle-English style of speech), and the residual animosity actually approached something feeling organic. None of the characters are hidden, although Ayla doesn’t join until nearly the final dungeon. In another bold and senseless act of violence against the original game, the designers re-imagined the artwork, replacing Akira Toriyama’s  character portraits with new, updated ones supposedly reflecting the five-year time difference. Sorry, guys, but if you want to infringe on copyright, at least keep the stuff worth infringing upon.

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And saying this in no way alleviates any legal ramifications you may have faced.

Dr. Mario – NES, Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, Arcade, SNES (with Tetris)…

Fdrtitle

I’ve spent my life trying to discover something I could do during my days to play nice with society, while still leaving plenty of free time to pursue things that make me not want to hurl myself into the blades of an industrial snowblower. So I decided to rank, from least time-consuming to the most, some positions I’ve held in the last ten years.

1. Substitute Teacher
2. Part-time undergraduate student
3. Public school teacher in Korea
4. Graduate student
5. University instructor (3 classes)
6. Full time Undergraduate student
578,903. Private school teacher in Korea during public school summer/winter vacations

Oddly enough, you’d expect stress levels to go down as amount of time went up, but no. It bottoms out around “Graduate Student” and hits a critical limit as “Private School: Korea” and “Substitute Teacher,” both of which exceed “hurl into snowblower” for things I wouldn’t want to do. Anyway, to get to the point of this rant, I’ve currently spent the last semester as #6 on this list, with two more of those hoops to jump through before I can legally hold a full-time job at a public school. Unless my novel suddenly takes off and becomes a best selling, direct-to-kindle, science-fiction…yeah that’s not happening. So video games, unfortunately, have to take a back seat for a while. And to that end, expect to see a lot of games I can finish in a few hours.

Despite a relatively minor infection, the patient suffers more from the side-effects of the treatment. How best to minimize these problems? Use more of the same drugs!

Despite a relatively minor infection, the patient suffers more from the side-effects of the treatment. How best to minimize these problems? Use more of the same drugs!

Doctor Mario! Because the only logical career path (as opposed to the career path outlined above) for a tradesman goes Carpenter → Plumber → Medical Practitioner. I guess rooting through all those pipes qualifies him for gynaecology. I don’t know, though. I’d really like to see his credentials, along with Dr. Dre and Dr. Pepper. Maybe ask Dr. Evil and Dr. Horrible to review the accreditation. But legally licensed or not, Dr. Mario solved one of Nintendo’s biggest problems: how they can make money off of Tetris when everyone and their pet wildebeest had cloned and/or ported the game to any device with a power cord or at least two batteries. So they took the idea of chucking blocks made up of smaller blocks into a jar for the purpose of reducing the amount of blocks in the jar, changed one or two things, and released Dr. Mario. Or, rather, Tetris with shorter line requirements that lets you build them vertically as well as horizontally.

For those of you who haven’t played the game and find your eyes spinning at my rant, imagine that the Tetris playing field got sick. The game starts with viruses of three different colors–red, yellow and blue–chilling in a jar. Mario, deciding to fight fire with fire, chucks in pills containing a combination of two types of medicine–red, yellow and blue, one block on each side of the pill. If you get four of the same color in a row of any combination of pill blocks and viruses–the whole row disappears. Let me point this out to you: one virus takes three doses of medicine to cure, while two viruses together only take two.

Pushed by Big Pharma to prescribe yellow drugs for a patient not even inflicted by yellow, Mario now faces a major malpractice lawsuit from the family of the survivor.

Pushed by Big Pharma to prescribe yellow drugs for a patient not even inflicted by yellow, Mario now faces a major malpractice lawsuit from the family of the survivor.

The major problem in the game revolves around Mario’s aforementioned medical training: namely, he doesn’t have any. So instead of carefully diagnosing the disease and measuring out the correct doses needed to properly treat the patient, he just lobs whatever he finds lying around the pharmacy like the patient were a carnival game who if Mario filled up with drugs faster than anyone else, he’d win a Sonic the Hedgehog keychain. No, strike that. Considering the fact that you can’t actually treat viruses with medicine, Mario works exactly like an E.R. doctor, prescribing whatever medicine won’t outright kill the patient, but will give them enough side effects for a good placebo effect to kick in, preventing a lawsuit from an angry patient upset that they couldn’t get “that drug that House takes” to treat the funny looking spot on their back shaped like a lemur.

Coming soon to an iPhone near you...

Coming soon to an iPhone near you…

However, other than the cheerful implication that every level failed means a dead patient, usually from overdosing on irrelevant medication rather than the actual viral infection, I’ve spent a lot of time with Dr. Mario. Tetris gets boring after having constant access to it on every game console, home computer, digital watch, graphing calculator, exercise bike, car dashboard, DVD menu, dehumidifier, wood chipper, coffee maker and pet iguana made since 1984. So what do you do when you don’t have the free time of a part-time undergrad, but more free time than a grad student? Do what I did: play Dr. Mario non-stop between classes in Korea.