Final Fantasy VI – SNES, GBA, Playstation, Android/iOS

The original Insane Clown Posse

The original Insane Clown Posse

Like most people over the age of thirty–at least, those who play video games–Super Mario Bros hooked me. I took one dose, one afternoon at a friend’s house, and that spiraled into a life-long addiction and tens of thousands of dollars I had to scrounge up and commit to feeding my problem. But Mario only acted as a gateway drug. I didn’t really settle into a specific class…er, genre…until the early nineties, when my cousins, on their annual visit to Northern Michigan, brought their Super Nintendo with them along with a little unheard of gem called “Final Fantasy VI.” Er…Final Fantasy III. Whatever. The one with Terra and the espers. I didn’t realize that Square had raised the bar on RPGs forever with this game. I just knew I could play it over and over until the chocobos come home. So, like those in my age range, FFVI became the standard against which I will judge all other RPGs. But how, pray tell, does it stack up as a game by itself?

Well, it turns out that when you use a game as a standard to measure itself, it comes out rather well.  In fact, I couldn’t find anything in which it failed to perform. There. End of article. I can’t remember having an easier time reviewing a game! But…I suppose for the sake of filling out some reading material, I should elaborate.

1/1200 of nothing! Give me the next two minutes of my life back!

1/1200 of nothing! Give me the next two minutes of my life back!

Final Fantasy VI follows a long-term trend in FF games to update technology and streamline design until eventually they’ll have as much in common with the fantasy genre as “The Jetsons,” and instead of riding around on flying boats like in FFIV, the characters will travel on the S.S. Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon. Wait…what? Anyway, FFVI falls in a steampunk-ish world where a power-hungry emperor has discovered the lost power of magic and couldn’t think of any better use for it than building mech armor that protects everything from the waist down, leaving all the soft, vital organs exposed to the swords, lances, and crossbows used by the rebels. Coming out of a magical apocalypse, scholars warn the emperor about using magic, as it might repeat the global destruction from a millennium ago. This makes as much sense as a comet passing over the White House and calling off the raid on Osama bin Laden because we don’t want to repeat the horrible tragedy at the Battle of Hastings.

Just slowly replace the entire script with Star Wars references, and pretty soon you'll have a game as popular as Star Wars.

Just slowly replace the entire script with Star Wars references, and pretty soon you’ll have a game as popular as Star Wars.

Anyway, the Empire uses Terra, a half-human, half-esper, half-protagonist, for her innate magical power. Then the Returners, a group of rebels, rescues her and hopes to use her for her innate magical power. But we don’t mind, because the Empire used a mind-control device to enslave her, whereas the Returners just used good, old fashioned, natural guilt. Because Tolkien taught us that kings always have our best interests at heart, while Star Wars shows us that emperors only want to blow up our planets and strike us dead with lightning. The Empire wages war to collect magic and subdue nations until the Emperor’s “court mage,” Kefka decides to destroy the world and rule the rubble heap as a god. The heroes rush to stop him. Then they lose. Failing to avert the apocalypse, the second act of the game takes off in a non-linear direction in which the player must find all the lost characters, then hunt down side quests that give them each a reason for living.

This game, as I’ve mentioned, defines “good RPG” for me. The story provides fourteen fully unique characters, each with a single unique special skill. Except for two, none of them learn magic naturally or in a pre-programmed order.  All spells are taught by equipping magicite (the petrified corpses of fairy-tale monsters, the Espers) in whatever configuration or order the player chooses. Each character has a certain configuration of base stats, suggesting a use for the character (The old mage, Strago, has higher magic power than physical power, while if you try to teach magic to your ninja, Shadow, you’ll find he has about as much aptitude for casting as a one-armed, epileptic fly fisherman…so about the same as every other ninja that Square tried to improve by giving low-level black magic powers), but magicite often grants stat bonuses when a character levels up, so the player can also customize these. I’ve only played two RPGs that have better character customization mechanics than FFVI: Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics. So with all these fabulously creative systems, naturally Square moved on to FFVII, where you forge your characters with as much care as it takes to put books on a shelf, and who have all the unique features of an NES with a sticker on the top.

So I know we have to fight an epic battle to save all of existence in about three minutes, but this seems like the best time to tell Relm I'm her father.

So I know we have to fight an epic battle to save all of existence in about three minutes, but this seems like the best time to tell Relm I’m her father.

So when I joked about comparing FFVI to itself earlier, I may have lied somewhat, as it actually does exceed the standards it set. While the SNES version reigns supreme in the hearts of those who played it, I actually recommend playing the Game Boy Advanced version, which gives the game an upgrade akin to using a chainsaw to cut down a tree instead of a pocket knife. While Ted Woolsey’s original translation may have won the hearts and minds of 14-year-old boys who listened to the Pimsleur Japanese free sample so they can criticize the subtitles of Sailor Moon episodes, the GBA translation reads as though people actually speak the language used in the story.  It corrects mistakes such as “Lete River,” “Fenix Down” and “Gradius” (Lethe, Phoenix, and Gladius), it allows Cyan and Doma to exercise a Japanese culture rather than bleaching them whiter than a Disney Princess, and it un-censors a lot of the original story.  It also turns some of Woolsey’s garbled nonsense into meaningful dialog. “This kid’s loaded for bear” now reads as “When you showed up, I thought you were one of Vargas’s bears.” (After which, the game humorously speculates on Sabin’s sexual orientation.) Furthermore, Shadow, who learns of his relationship with Relm through a series of dreams, no longer drops that bomb on her just before the final battle, instead suggesting it more subtly.

Look away children! The Goddess statue will steal your soul way if you see her without those extra blue pixels covering her legs!

Look away children! The Goddess statue will steal your soul way if you see her without those extra blue pixels covering her legs!

This most recent playthrough, I decided to watch Star Trek on Netflix while I worked on some side quests. In easily the weirdest moment I’ve ever had playing video games, I look up from FFVI to hear Kirk talking about espers. The term “esper” refers to someone with the ability to practice ESP at will. That, I suppose, clarifies the connection with magical monsters about as well as a six-year-old with cholera clarifies a public swimming pool.

This...might take a little more strategy than "Stick him with the pointy end."

This…might take a little more strategy than “Stick him with the pointy end.”

While the second act glorifies non-linear side quests, RPGs always contain the flaw of running out of stuff to do as soon as all the highest-level weapons, armor and magic becomes available. Like the other GBA ports of the SNES FF games, FFVI adds bonus dungeons to the end. The major dungeon, the Dragon’s Den, resurrects the eight dragons, presumably with a mixture of phoenix down, high doses of caffeine, and anabolic steroids. After making your way past these new challenges, you fight the Kaiser dragon. With even a moderate attention toward leveling up, the game’s final boss will drop faster than a politician’s pants in a truck stop bathroom, and I have literally destroyed him in a single attack on more than one occasion. The Kaiser dragon, on the other hand, puts up more of a fight than a triple-amputee undergoing chemotherapy, so his addition not once, but twice, spruces up gameplay by a healthy amount. He appears a second time in the other bonus dungeon, a 100-battle fight through various enemies and bosses encountered throughout the game.

Also, nostalgic lenses can successfully make the Three Stooges funny.

Also, nostalgic lenses can successfully make the Three Stooges funny.

Yes, I’ll fully admit I may see the game through nostalgic lenses, an unfortunate pair of glasses that look back on high school without the crippling social anxiety or need for anti-depressants, but I’ll also gladly confess to all the standard RPG schlock that comes along with the package. For instance, disposable tents (“I put it up, damn it! What more do you want? You don’t actually expect we’ll need to heal or sleep ever again, do you?”), a comically large cast, thus ensuring you spend half the game trying to decide which four characters to put in your party and denying any of them a significantly flushed out back story and personality, and some carelessly written scenarios, in which the game wants us to question the loyalties of a character who never even hints at ulterior motives, at one point having Kefka place a sword in her hands. At that point, expecting her to do anything but stab him with it would make less sense than dumping a pizza on your lawn every night and expecting the raccoons to not build tiny condominiums under your deck.

This most recent playthrough, I decided to watch Star Trek on Netflix while I worked on some side quests. In easily the weirdest moment I’ve ever had playing video games, I look up from FFVI to hear Kirk talking about espers. The term “esper” refers to someone with the ability to practice ESP at will. That, I suppose, clarifies the connection with magical monsters about as well as a six-year-old with cholera clarifies a public swimming pool.

With extra weapons, armor, espers, spells, and dungeons, plus with a translation that suggests at least one person on the development staff spoke more than one language, the GBA version clearly surpasses the original. However, even the original holds high standards that many games developed recently still fail to live up to. Square filled FFVI with as many options for customizing characters and exploring the worlds as possible, as well as a level of detail and culture into their world that gives even the post-apocalyptic landscape a more appealing atmosphere than our car-exhaust-choked Earth. If you happen to fall into an age range that didn’t hit this game’s popularity at its peak, go out and find a copy. You shouldn’t have trouble; they ported it to just about every system imaginable. Why? Well…I guess the more ports they make, the easier they can hide from the fact that THEY STILL HAVE NO PLANS FOR A 3D REMAKE!! Get your act together Squeenix!

And just for fun, let's add in some cactus juice. Only mildly hallucinogenic!

And just for fun, let’s add in some cactus juice. Only mildly hallucinogenic!

Jurassic Park – SNES

All right. This will show up that smug bastard from Duck Hunt. Look at my retriever!

All right. This will show up that smug bastard from Duck Hunt. Look at my retriever!

So I had originally planned to post about Skyward Sword today, but something came up: Jurassic World. Not only has Hollywood finally realized that they don’t have to write sequels by running the original screenplay through a shredder and then taking a dump on what comes out, but they chose Jurassic Park to learn this lesson! Back in 2007, they had announced plans for a movie about genetically engineering raptor-human hybrids for use in Iraq; then Michael Crichton died (*sad*) and Spielberg said, “Why not make a good movie instead?” And Jurassic Park! The movie that gave 10-year-old me more thrills than Michael Jackson at a boy scout convention. Every night, lying in bed, I’d watch my door knob, waiting for it to jiggle, and for the raptors to come in and find me.

Uh, sorry to wake you Miss Raptor, but, uh...I need to kill you.

Uh, sorry to wake you Miss Raptor, but, uh…I need to kill you.

Naturally, Jurassic World brought me back to my ten-year-old self, and since I doubt Spielberg will hire me to write JP5 (I have some ideas, Steven, and I’ll work for free, if you want to talk!), I decided to go back to some old Jurassic Park video games, in no way intending to capitalize off the recent surge of people searching for the movie, mosasaurus, velociraptor, indominus rex, Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Owen, Claire…have I missed any? Uh…cool Indian helicopter guy…meh. I’ll get them in there somehow. Anyway, since I didn’t plan this at all, and since I’d like to do occasional videos (watch out, JonTron!), I went to the game I had played most often and, of course, actually own.

In 1994, Ocean Software released Jurassic Park for the SNES to…well, to stores willing to sell the game. It didn’t make huge news. It didn’t develop much of a fan following. Developed at the tail end of the NES life span, versions for the NES, Game Boy, and several Sega systems all came out together. For all practical purposes, this game appeared as nothing more than another licensed video game cash grab. Gameplay involves…(what? Did you expect me to disagree with that? Say that critics vastly underappreciated it? Honestly, I think it earned the reception it deserved.)

Gameplay involves wandering around the park, blowing up the absurdly high population of predators, accomplishing missions to restore the park to order so you can evacuate and let nature reclaim it. Yeah, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, either, but I guess you need something to do. These missions include harvesting raptor eggs, fumigating the raptor nest, blocking raptors from entering the visitor center, and clearing raptors off a ship bound for the mainland (and also giving it orders not to sail, just in case). The game derives most of its disproportional hatred of raptors from the book, rather than the film, and even contains some animals, like the compies, that only appeared in the novel.

This mission assigned by Dr. Flintstone.

This mission assigned by Dr. Flintstone.

The film’s characters all issue hints and commands to you (as Dr. Grant) from a safe distance, presumably already off the island. Of course, none of them bothered to give you their ID cards before they left, and instead scattered them around the island, often in dark, claustrophobic rooms filled with dinosaurs and behind locked doors. Thanks guys. Furthermore, Dennis Nedry appears with deliberately malicious advice; obviously because an underappreciated, disgruntled computer nerd engaged in industrial espionage clearly cast his lot with the dinosaurs and wants all good humans dead.

Yeah. That stuff can make you go blind. Wouldn't it suck if I couldn't see the dinosaurs jumping out of the trees at me?

Yeah. That stuff can make you go blind. Wouldn’t it suck if I couldn’t see the dinosaurs jumping out of the trees at me?

For all the messages you get from people, they never clarify any details, making them less helpful than Miss Cleo and an army of psychic friends. Block raptors from entering the visitor center? Maybe you could have told me that, in a game where you don’t interact with the environment, you gave me one piece of furniture that moves! A lot of times, their unsolicited advice pops up right over a dinosaur ambush. Tim pops up to say, “Don’t shoot the gallimimus! They might stampede,” and ten seconds later when the message vanishes from the screen, I find a raptor flossing with my intestines. (Almost as though she waited for just the right moment…clever girl!)

Giant beakers full of bubbling liquids. Because science.

Giant beakers full of bubbling liquids. Because science.

While most of the game gives you an overhead view of Dr. Grant, it switches to first-person when entering buildings. Grant doesn’t have a lot to fear here, as the only damage comes from looking left/right when entering a room, only to find the dinosaur on his right/left. Raptors walk back and forth or charge straight at you, and dilophosaurs stand there and spit. Unlike their outdoor counterparts, they take significantly higher damage, and usually explode if you so much as look at them disapprovingly. Any challenge in the first-person segments comes from the labyrinth of identical rooms with no reasonable floor plan, map, or distinguishing features to help you figure out where to go. Most buildings have multiple floors linked with elevators, the largest of which–the ship–has five stories to explore and get lost in. Apparently they decided that skyscrapers have excellent buoyancy.

The computer interface makes up for its obnoxiousness by offering user settings, like desktop backgrounds. Because what can model chaos better than a Bush? (I think Jeb may have discarded that slogan...)

The computer interface makes up for its obnoxiousness by offering user settings, like desktop backgrounds. Because what can model chaos better than a Bush? (I think Jeb may have discarded that slogan…)

With no saves or passwords, the game can take upwards of four or five hours to finish, so make sure you don’t have anything going on that day. I first beat this game in 8th grade, staying up late, tag-teaming the game with friends. Jason had just got a dial-up internet connection and I guess game walkthroughs seemed like the best thing for people to upload at the time. Six hours after starting, Jason had control of the characters, I relayed information from ol’ dial-up Bessie, and Chadd sprawled out on the floor with a migraine from focusing on the screen. But we made it. At roughly 2:00 am, we finally got to the helipad and evacuated the island…only to find out that the game’s ending just played the introductory booting animation in reverse.

Uh...so...can I assume this means game over?

Uh…so…can I assume this means game over?

Meh. Whatever. I love Jurassic Park. I read the novel at least sixteen or seventeen times, and recently started reading it to Anne, who as a former researcher, occasionally stops me to explain that she used to do what Crichton wrote about, and how he accurately described science a quarter century ahead of his time. She has a thing for the compies, so one of these days I expect to come home to a herd of chicken dinosaurs. But while not all of the franchise’s installments live up to the novel or the original movie, I still get excited about dinosaurs in my thirties. Chris Pratt made an excellent Alpha raptor, indominus rex proved surprisingly effective as a villain, and while I like that the T-Rex came back for a cameo at the end, we all know that the mosasaur really saved the day. So I hope you enjoyed today’s entry; if not as funny as some of my others, hopefully you’ll appreciate the gushing over Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Jurassic Park 3, Jurassic World or, if the Mario trend in naming continues, the upcoming Jurassic Park 64 and Jurassic Galaxy.

I’ll let you know if Spielberg asks for my script ideas.

Super Mario World – SNES, Game Boy Advance

By the way, anyone who can surpass my score (without hacking) gets their own shrine set up on this blog. Good luck.

By the way, anyone who can surpass my score (without hacking) gets their own shrine set up on this blog. Good luck.

One night a while back, I finished a game rather early in the evening. Anne put on a movie, and I found myself with nothing to do. I needed something to keep my attention (and I didn’t feel like watching Paranormal Activity 4 for the twenty-seventh time), but without making too much noise or launching me immediately into another long-term game commitment (see, I just got out of a serious game and don’t feel ready yet…). So congratulations Mario! I finally found your strengths as a game! Now get in there and let me do some low-thought, mindless time-killing!

Disco ball and dancing ninja star reused from Nintendo's failed attempt at putting Mario into a DDR game.

Disco ball and dancing ninja star reused from Nintendo’s failed attempt at putting Mario into a DDR game.

I know I’ve railed on Mario in the past, but I suppose I should confess–I don’t actually hate Super Mario World. Before you picture me throwing myself to the ground in self-flagellation driven by my sorrow for having offended the mascot-god of video games, let me list a few other things I don’t hate: the Star Wars prequels, Pauly Shore, banjo music, China’s one-child policy, and ancient literature. While Mario did invent the primary plot device of Man vs Gravity, I shouldn’t draw and quarter him for the fact that every other game developer took platform jumping, avoiding holes and collecting hoards of coins and junk like a pack rat with ADHD as Aristotle’s Unities of Gaming. Of course, if so many industry professionals can look at Mario and miss the point as badly as a prostitute sucking on an elbow, what chance to I, a mere hobbyist, have of saying something profound? Well, remember that “industry professionals” have also brought us the controller with an “annoy Facebook” button and a camera that lets Microsoft watch you like Norman Bates.

Apparently, beating the special zone turns the island into mint chocolate.

Apparently, beating the special zone turns the island into mint chocolate.

I’ve previously compared platformers to religion. They appear simple on the surface, but require constant practice, which usually demands tedious repetition (apparently, society feels that I need to hear about Jesus’ torturous execution every single year, but that one time I eked out a C in differential calculus pretty much got the point across for my entire life). Furthermore, if you want to find any value in them, they have to hook you young, otherwise people won’t really understand why they should invest all their time into getting better at it. That last point explains why I can–occasionally–enjoy Mario, whereas that time Knuckles and Tails showed up at my door asking if I’ve accepted Sonic as my personal lord and savior of all woodland creatures, I slammed the door in their face. Mario games don’t really have an advantage over Sonic, but I never had a Genesis as a kid. Likewise, I can mumble through the Nicene Creed in a pinch, but don’t know anything in Hebrew and can only name one Sutra, albeit not for religious reasons.

What, you mean like the vacation they took to Dinosaur Land that got them into this whole mess?

What, you mean like the vacation they took to Dinosaur Land that got them into this whole mess?

So like the birth of Christ, what story requires such intense study that we need to repeat it in about 50 different games? Bowser kidnaps Princess Toadstool (Peach, to her friends). Okay, okay, so Super Mario World does have a bit more than that going on. Mario, Luigi and the Princess went on vacation to Dinosaur Land because they apparently thought Jurassic Park looked relaxing. Toadstool disappears. Mario and Luigi find a dinosaur, Yoshi, trapped in an egg who tells them about Bowser. Then they take turns punching Yoshi in the head, force-feeding it bullets, bombs and sentient creatures, and dropping him into pits. After they do this for a few hours, they beat bowser and rescue the princess. No innovations there. We always knew Mario had a sadistic side–which, I suspect, encourages the princess to run off with Bowser so often.

Get used to this screen. You'll spend more time going back and forth to this area than you'll spend playing each level.

Get used to this screen. You’ll spend more time going back and forth to this area than you’ll spend playing each level.

How about the game play? I could tell you about that. Let’s see…you collect coins, as usual, but now they’ve introduced another type of coin. Likewise, you need to find power-ups, but this time you find a feather that makes you fly instead of a leaf. You still go through pipes (because dinosaurs invented plumbing?), but sometimes the pipes will shoot you out like a cannonball. You break blocks, but…you know what? This game doesn’t really care about gameplay. You get to ride Yoshi. Everything else, they lifted straight out of the Mario formula. This game exists for the sole purpose of showing off the power of the Super Nintendo. In fact, has Nintendo sold a console since the SNES that came with a bundled game?

Genius! I would have posed for a lot more family portraits if I didn't actually have to pose with the rest of my family.

Genius! I would have posed for a lot more family portraits if I didn’t actually have to pose with the rest of my family.

Of the few noteworthy things to mention about the game itself, it has a now rare appearance by Bowser’s own litter of minions, the Koopa Kids–although, since the series never mentions any romantic interests for our reptilian antagonist, it forces me to question their maternity. What exactly does Toadstool do with Bowser? Does this mean that Rosaline shares some DNA with Lemmy? The koopalings all bear names suggesting famous musicians, as well as the new Fortress Mini-Boss, Reznor. Technically, this feature sprang from Super Mario Bros. 3, but I mention it here because it seems odd that in a game celebrating music, every last fucking level uses the same damn melody! Koji Kondo, well known for his musical variety on the Legend of Zelda series, decided to play it easy for Super Mario World, and just wrote variations on the same theme for each stage. Don’t get me wrong–he wrote them brilliantly. But that sort of repetition has an insidious tendency to take root in my brain and never leave.

Actually, that seems like a very good description for this game. You won’t get rid of it. Ever. In fact, you didn’t come here to decide whether or not you want to play this game. If you’d like it, you already know. If not, keep moving. And since I have so very little to actually say about Super Mario, I’ll give you some bonus screenshots. Enjoy.

Mario World's walk of fame. Clockwise from the top: Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, Bob Hoskins, Fox McCloud, with Zsa Zsa Gabor in the center.

Mario World’s walk of fame. Clockwise from the top: Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, Bob Hoskins, Fox McCloud, with Zsa Zsa Gabor in the center.

Try this, if you will...we know Mario will head straight toward the boss room, right? How about you take out the platform entirely and have Larry watch via CCTV from another room?

Try this, if you will…we know Mario will head straight toward the boss room, right? How about you take out the platform entirely and have Larry watch via CCTV from another room?

Note the look of shock on the adult Yoshis' faces. I can only assume they expected contained rubber gloves, IRS Forms and a healthy mixture of mud.

Note the look of shock on the adult Yoshis’ faces. I can only assume they expected contained rubber gloves, IRS Forms and a healthy mixture of mud.

Donkey Kong Country – SNES, Game Boy Color

Obligatory Ice Level Cliche.

Obligatory Ice Level Cliche.

Between applying for PhD programs, Evil Dead: The Musical performances, and preparing for next semester’s classes (while this post says “January,” I actually wrote it about the day my Evil Dead: Hail to the King entry posted), I’ve had just enough time to glance longingly at the pile of 20+ books that I may some day have a chance to read. Sorry to say, my to-do list requires a few sacrifices, but rather than ritualistically stabbing my Playstation until my hands run wet with sticky, electrical discharge, I opted to suck up my pride and whip out a platformer, under the assumption that the pain, at least, wouldn’t last long, and I could count on the popularity of Donkey Kong Country to garner a few more views per week than normal. Sadly, I think the entirety of this paragraph might tip my hand a little prematurely, but before you all start chucking barrels at me, I promise to remain as objective as I can. Even if game reviews inherently rely on subjective analysis.

Congratulations. You'll have more use for them than the Kremlings. But 99% of them will still rot before you can eat them. An illustration of wealth distribution in Ape society.

Congratulations. You’ll have more use for them than the Kremlings. But 99% of them will still rot before you can eat them. An illustration of wealth distribution in Ape society.

Anyway, Donkey Kong, after a ten-year hiatus in which he realized Mario had turned to completely lavish his attentions on Bowser, returns to his home island. However, Donkey Kong Country has its own reptilian antagonists, and they want bananas. Yes, for some reason, a crocodillian race of carnivores has need for a cavern full of bananas and will fight to retain their plunder from its rightful owners, a family of five apes who likely couldn’t eat that much fruit before it turned black and shriveled up anyway. So Donkey Kong and his nephew Diddy Kong–whom he finds stuffed into a barrel like he hadn’t paid his protection money to the crocodile mafia–set out on a banana-hunting quest, taking a path so roundabout that it would only make sense in an action platforming game.

Obligatory Underwater Level by character with infinite lung capacity cliche.

Obligatory Underwater Level by character with infinite lung capacity cliche.

Through my first impressions of the game, I reasoned that while Donkey Kong hadn’t participated in the Mario games since 1983, he at least spent a good deal of time playing them, and has learned much specifically from Super Mario World. I’ve established his cold-blooded baddies already. Much like Mario, DK takes out the majority of opponents via massive head trauma. When he can’t bring the full weight of a 300kg gorilla down on their skulls, he can throw barrels at them, a move clearly taken from the original game, but vaguely similar to Mario’s koopa shell kicking. Both Mario and DK travel from level to level through multiple zones of their respective islands. They can take up to two hits with appropriate power-ups–if we compare Diddy to an amanita mushroom–and collect either 100 of something, or a small number of level-specific items to get an extra life. They also ride animal pals–four of them–who each have unique abilities. They both shoot themselves out of cannons and find secret rooms with bonus games. Rare simply changed the characters, maps, and artwork from Super Mario World and called it a new game like an electronic Sword of Shannara, hoping we wouldn’t notice.

An illustration of Karma in Ape society.

An illustration of Karma in Ape society.

I don’t like platforming games and really can’t pretend to hide that. Years ago, before Final Fantasy VI introduced me to RPGs, I did play my fair share of Mario, and I’ll even admit that an afternoon playing Super Mario Bros. at Danielle Lehto’s house in first grade introduced me to a lifelong meth-style addiction to video games. But the idea of running through levels trying not to touch monsters except on their heads, all the while avoiding the plummet into bottomless holes appeals to me about as much as the thought of telephoning strangers at 11:00 pm to bring them the word of Lovecraft and convert them to the Cult of Cthulu. Simplicity, repetition, and pointlessness don’t make for great selling points, and much like religion, if you didn’t grow up with it, platformers just provide a tedious, time-consuming practice of learning thoughtless, reactive patterns with very limited returns.

I'll call him "Bright Eyes." Comment if you get the joke.

I’ll call him “Bright Eyes.” Comment if you get the joke.

Having said that, I recognize you may not agree with me. In fact, I know a lot of people out there think that nothing epitomizes enjoyable entertainment like trying not to fall into holes. If you like this, if you want to find a game with simple, bland gameplay that lacks all the cumbersome issues of a well-written story and the addictive, rewarding noises, flashes, and rewards of an iPhone game, then yes, Donkey Kong Country might deserve the 9/10 stars reviewers commonly give it. If you like Mario, you might want to try it. It does differ quite a bit, though. Rather than a hub design, DK Country lays out its world map like an air-travel montage from an Indiana Jones movie. Most levels run exclusively from left to right horizontally. They have multiple hidden bonus rooms, but no secret endings or branching paths. Some have stage-exclusive gimmicks like fueling up a moving platform, turning on lights, or traveling with a parrot holding a flashlight.

Donkey Kong and Diddy supposedly have different skills. Diddy can jump higher and farther–but still can’t quite make it to the hard-to-reach barrels and items. Donkey Kong supposedly has more strength, but has to jump on most enemies just as often as Diddy. Occasionally I stumbled across an item located deep down in a hole with absolutely no clear method of obtaining without winding up as donkey guts on a rock somewhere. For these, I took a few leaps of faith before converting to Donkey Atheism. I suspect the secret involves some of these character skills, but I didn’t have the patience to keep replaying levels just to figure out the puzzles. After a while I found an enemy that Donkey Kong could kill that Diddy couldn’t, but using this to proclaim uniqueness of character falls under the same category as trying to sell a new model NDS on the virtue of an upgraded picto-chat.

Uh...this just disturbs me.

Uh…this just disturbs me.

Due to Donkey Kong Country’s incredible simplicity, I can’t really find much to say about it. People love this game, but I don’t see it, and while I find alliteration light-hearted and cartoonish, whenever someone starts converting Cs into Ks for such a purpose, I generally eye them up with the astonishment I’d give to a banjo player performing minstrel tunes in blackface. Rare didn’t provide the easy access to save points that Mario has, but a skilled player could probably recover Donkey Kong’s entire banana hoard in two or three hours, coincidentally the same length of time a fresh banana in my possession usually takes to turn into a brown slimy pulp.

Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars – SNES

Here we see Smithy at his forge, creating the Republican Party platform.

Here we see Smithy at his forge, creating the Republican Party platform.

Square must have cornered the market on awesome with Final Fantasy. Yes, I can say “I love those games!” emphatically as though someone had offered a roomful of people a potion that would make orgasms last fifteen minutes each, and they will only give the potion to the loudest, most excited person in the room, but I still might understate the effect of those games. See, people keep going to Square and handing over the rights to their personal characters, requesting they scan them, digitize them, and build a game around them. And this doesn’t mean any yahoo on deviantart with a thrice-yearly web comic about a stick figure super hero who beats up all the people who called him names in high school. No, Square has people handing them Batman. And Disney (which means we’ll likely see Darth Vader team up with Sora in Kingdom Hearts 4). And, of course, Nintendo’s own Super Mario. Apparently, Shigeru Miyamoto felt his favorite character still wallowed in obscurity after his debut fifteen years ago, and thought that redesigning his game into an RPG might help Mario find his niche.

Obviously "Mushroom Retainer" doesn't refer to a feudal warrior bodyguard. Perhaps it means the Princess regularly pays Toad for legal council?

Obviously “Mushroom Retainer” doesn’t refer to a feudal warrior bodyguard. Perhaps it means the Princess regularly pays Toad for legal council?

The game opens with the Super Mario Super Cliche. Bowser kidnapped Princess Toadstool. Mario goes to the castle to rescue her. Pretty standard stuff, and thankfully, Square only subjected us to that torturous redundancy for the first ten minutes of the game. In the middle of Mario’s duel with Bowser, a sword big enough to loosen even Crocodile Dundee’s bowels falls from the sky and embeds itself in Bowser’s keep, presumably until a titanic-sized King Arthur comes along to declare his rule over an entire solar system. But in absence of giant boy kings, the sword declares the glory of the Smithy Gang, and claims the Mushroom Kingdom in the name of Smithy. The force of the colossal impalement sends Bowser, Mario and Peach flying to various assorted parts of the game. Mario assumes a quest has begun, although no one ever really states whether he wants to rescue the princess or defeat Smithy, but both those points become irrelevant about five or six hours into the game when he meets up with Geno, a spirit from the Star Road, searching for seven star pieces destroyed in Smithy’s latest giant knife-throwing circus routine. Without the star pieces, the world will have no more wishes. And go.

You can't ignore fan theories as crazy anymore. Mario officially lives in a world with psychadelic amanita mushrooms.

You can’t ignore fan theories as crazy anymore. Mario officially lives in a world with psychadelic amanita mushrooms.

The design team attempted to create an RPG that still had the feel of a Mario game. As such, Mario retains his signature special abilities. Namely, he can jump, and subjects of the Mushroom Kingdom constantly request demonstrations and/or autographs from him. In fact, other than his basic attack, Mario can only either jump on or shoot fire at enemies in battle, and leveling-up only teaches him upgraded versions of those two attacks. Jumping in battle consumes three flower points, the game’s version of MP, except the party shares one communal total of FP rather than giving each character their own. So if Geno shoots off his beam too much, Mario simply won’t have the energy in him to jump, and will have to resort to blunt trauma instead. Until the battle ends. Then he can jump until his shins shatter without even stopping to catch his breath. While the game functions perfectly from a technical and mathematical standpoint, that inconsistency really marks the game as confusing, to say the least.

After jumping over these things since 1981, do you think you could help me out a bit, Princess?

After jumping over these things since 1981, do you think you could help me out a bit, Princess?

For instance, the first half of the game sees Mario hunting down Princess Toadstool and rescuing her from a bizarre man-child with the most severe case of Asperger’s syndrome I’ve ever seen. The game relegates her to the role of Damsel in Distress because, let’s face it, if she didn’t enjoy the thrill of a good kidnapping, she would probably have upgraded her security after SMB 3–if not after the original SMB. For contrast, the introduction to the title screen shows her sitting alone in the middle of a field staring at flowers when Bowser swoops in–on the same clown-duck thing he used to kidnap her in Super Mario World–and carries her off. After you rescue her, though, she joins your party and, despite fighting with stereotypical glove slaps and healing spells, actually shows a remarkable competency in battle. So, uh, Princess…how about rescuing yourself for once? Sound like an idea? Give Mario a day off and bust out of Bowser’s dungeon yourself.

Peach slaps the snake. Should we interpret that as a euphamism?

Peach slaps the snake. Should we interpret that as a euphamism?

Beyond that, Mario displays quite a few skills that would have come in handy in some of his other games. For example, touching monsters without throwing himself to the ground, screaming in pain. Maybe taking more than one hit, or having the ability to block? He apparently can shape shift, which he uses in lieu of language, but not for anything practical like a stealthy disguise or a hilarious mistaken-identity comedy-of-errors. Maybe, though, these abilities mean to offset his nasty habit of standing around in silence watching various major enemies escape. I mean, yeah, he catches up with them later, but why not make the game a little shorter and fight them now? At least the weapons he can equip show some consistency. Mario can use hammers, alluding to his days fighting Donkey Kong; a turtle shell, an obvious reference to his side-scrolling, koopa-stomping adventures; and uh…gloves, which hearken back to his ability to break blocks with his fist? Maybe? Or referencing his time as a referee in punch out? Super Mario RPG really excels at these nods to Mario’s history, which players of the older games may appreciate more than those just coming into the series in the last fifteen or twenty years (god, I feel old…they released this game eighteen years ago!). One room in the penultimate dungeon even requires you to leap over barrels thrown by an ape.

I don't know what bothers me more; that I only had a 10% success rate with three choices, or that they put "Yoshi" in quotation marks.

I don’t know what bothers me more; that I only had a 10% success rate with three choices, or that they put “Yoshi” in quotation marks.

So I’ve put this off long enough–I know everyone loves this game, but yes, I found issues with it. Three-dimensional platforming didn’t work well in Super Mario 64, which felt like playing skeeball blindfolded. The attempts at action-platforming on the Super Nintendo upgrades that analogy to…let’s say, playing piano blindfolded while wearing hockey gloves over numb hands. Also you can’t hear the piano. For most, but not all, attacks, special abilities and items, you can tap the command button at a certain time during the animation in order to receive an upgraded effect; however, counting for the difference in animations, the uncertainty of whether or not the attack has an upgrade, and the lack of a clear point to double-tap the button makes this…uh, let’s say like playing banjo in hockey gloves? (Hey, I don’t have a limitless supply of analogies and I just have to make them up based on what I see in the room!) Geno’s special “charge” attacks almost never worked for me, but honestly, regular attacks outclass special attacks by so much in this game that I rarely used flower points for anything but healing. Square included these elements in order to give the game a more action-oriented feel. Thank you, Square, for interpreting the challenge in turning Mario into an RPG as “How to make it feel less like an RPG.”

Yes! Level 2! Now to just finish off the final boss...

Yes! Level 2! Now to just finish off the final boss…

Also, Square populated the Mushroom Kingdom with enough enemies to rival a plague of locusts or an invasion of army worms. In a genre where people criticizes most games for repetitive, time-consuming battles, “adding more enemies” really doesn’t make up for a short game length. And no, the solution employed–handing out exp with the generosity of a Republican in a soup kitchen–doesn’t really fix the issue. In fact, if I spend twenty-some odd hours in battle alone, I’d appreciate it if I could finish the game a little higher than level 25. Character growth, for the most part, remains static, so no matter who you use in battle, they all level up at the same speed, and learn their predetermined skills at a predetermined time, allowing for no more customization than adding one or two points to your choice of stat at each new level. Because fighting Smithy with an attack power of 225 made a world of difference compared with 200. (And before you ask, I dumped all of Geno’s bonuses into his special attack, and even at level 25 his physical attack did more damage.)

...yo, is this racist?

…yo, is this racist?

I know everyone loves this game and it makes top-ten lists all the time. And in all fairness, I liked the cartoonish feel to it as well as traveling through a Mushroom Kingdom filled for the first time with people and villages and things other than jutting ends of pipes, piles of bricks and other mostly unfinished attempts at improving infrastructure. But the game feels more like a novelty than a masterpiece. Worth playing, maybe, but not often. Also, Mole Village gives off a vaguely racist vibe.

Star Fox – SNES

Okay, everyone turn to your right and look creepy. No, creepier.  Like something out of Norman Bates' childhood.

Okay, everyone turn to your right and look creepy. No, creepier. Like something out of Norman Bates’ childhood.

Back in the early nineties, I subscribed to Nintendo Power.  Video games had a pretty harsh stigma back then; not yet harsh enough to brand everyone with an SNES a school shooting waiting to happen, but you still didn’t talk about them unless in a safe zone–usually the woods behind the school playground during recess. The fact that someone bestowed upon us a magazine–a monthly periodical–that not only talked about video games, but provided screenshots, illustrations, top-secret cheat codes and all that other stuff that the internet would eventually render moot, well…who wouldn’t subscribe to it except old people born before the advent of video games and all those weirdos who never talked about anything but hockey and basketball? As a kid, who couldn’t play games all day long, I got my unwired fix from Nintendo Power, along with all my news about upcoming and recently released games. Interestingly enough, if you look through the covers of issues released from January 1993 to December 1994, you might find a lot of games I happened to have in my personal collection.

Dogs, apparently, live in giant blocks with no doors or windows.

Dogs, apparently, live in giant blocks with no doors or windows.

One game, though, touted in my first issue and hyped for at least the duration of 1993, never really appealed to me. Nintendo Power loved it, though, for something it called the Super FX chip, which ten-year-old me understood only enough to know it somehow advanced the technology of the Super Nintendo to produce things never before seen in video games, somehow improved the system far enough to deliver unto us the magic of hyper-realistic, futuristic, uh…flying triangles? Nintendo Power targeted ten-year-olds, which unfortunately meant a somewhat dumbed-down explanation of their subject matter. It didn’t bother to explain how the SNES needed help with things like frame buffering, scaling, and polygon rendering. As a result, Star Fox appeared to me as only a blank, empty-looking game about flying a triangle through space, shooting at things I could have easily drawn in my computer’s paint program. Still, I remembered the full year’s worth of comics printed in the magazine, the weird TV commercials, and, of course, enjoying the N64 game, so when I started this blog, the SNES Star Fox went on my list of games to play.

I think I designed something like this on my Laser 386sx.

I think I designed something like this on my Laser 386sx.

The instruction manual only drops hints of a story.  You know where you need to go, who and what to shoot down, and a little detail behind some of the planets in the Lylat system, but unless you’ve played Star Fox 64, considered more of a reboot than a sequel, the game just assumes you don’t need to know the details behind the mission or any moral qualms between the characters, and that you’ll just blindly follow instructions like a good soldier.  Either that or it figures none of the ten-year-olds who bought the game after seeing it in Nintendo Power will care about anything beyond “outer space battle with animals.”  Still, for those of you unfamiliar with the series, damn dirty space ape, Andross, has launched an invasion of the dog planet, Corneria from his base on planet Venom.  Cornerian General Pepper has called on the help of Fox and Friends, who unlike their counterparts on earth, want to detain Venom rather than spread it. When starting the game, the player selects one of three courses through the Lylat system, each one corresponding to an easy, medium, or difficult mode of play, indicating either that Andross had the courtesy to only invade a minor, easily liberated chunk of the solar system, or that Fox hasn’t figured out that he could probably just fly straight to the final stage and begin his invasion of Venom immediately.

Did someone forget to finish programming the boss?

Did someone forget to finish programming the boss?

After selecting a course and hearing a message from General Pepper that qualifies more as “small talk” than an actual briefing, Fox and team launch their arwings and the player immediately begins…flying a triangle around a series of rectangles and dodging diamonds. Honestly, this game should have clued Nintendo in to the potential failure of the N64. Since the Super FX chip essentially turns Star Fox into a 64 game on the SNES, using scaling and rendered polygons, the fact that it didn’t immediately become the standard against which we judge all SNES games should have indicated that more advanced technology doesn’t inherently translate to better games. I enjoyed the game, but playing it gave me a strong Star Fox 64 vibe, along with the little voice in my head constantly asking, “Why don’t you just go play that game instead?” It almost felt like playing a developmental demo for the 64 game, without skins and details added to make the world look like something other than flying through a geometry textbook.

Pshh. I think I know what to do if an amoeba attaches itself to my star fighter.

Pshh. I think I know what to do if an amoeba attaches itself to my star fighter.

I could mention other things about the game, such as the outer space water level, where all the objects that usually float through the ocean now float through space, or the dinosaur level which would eventually become the basis for Star Fox Adventures.  The SNES game features most of the same power-ups as the N64 installment, albeit fewer of them, and picking up some items, like the health rings, demands a targeting so precise that the only people who possess the skills can also shoot the center out of a dime placed inside a safe using an airsoft gun.  Even if you do manage to pick one up, its healing power ranges somewhere in between a good band-aid (on the high end) and the power of positive thinking. The halfway points restore a substantial portion of your ship’s shield, but they only give you one per level and don’t come before boss battles, so prepare yourself for playing through half the level every time a boss knocks you out with one hit because you had to play through half the level to get to it.

That last point really gets in the way for me. I like this game, and I would play it more often, but I play games differently now than I did twenty years ago. Back then I didn’t get bothered by repetition or time-consuming early levels. I had more patience for practice.  Having owned Nintendo products instead of Sega, I can never reach the skill at Sonic the Hedgehog that I still have at early Mario games.  Star Fox demands that kind of player, the kind who will patiently work through problems and develop a skill. Either that or save states. I could get through the game with save states.

I actually don't have a problem with this. Anyone else? No? Good.

I actually don’t have a problem with this. Anyone else? No? Good.

The technology, as I’ve mentioned, impresses the tech people more than the players. At the beginning of the mission, a synthesized voice tells you, “Good luck!” (Which sounds more like “Greeblock!”) Pre-sampled tones synthetically garbled make up suggestions of character voices, an idea later implemented in Star Fox Command; kind of neat, and undoubtedly difficult for a 16-bit processor to pull off, but they don’t really enhance the experience beyond what we’d get from Final Fantasy VI or a Link to the Past, which focused on complex story and gameplay, resulting in far better games. I may even argue that many 8-bit games, like Mega Man or the original Legend of Zelda, offered more to their players. I don’t want to give the impression that I have no respect for Star Fox, but unless you want to play it for curiosity or out of a die-hard love of the series, you may just want to go straight to Star Fox 64.

Metroid Super Zeromission – SNES Hack

Kraid's Room Redesign

So I should apologize for the all-things-Metroid theme lately. For anyone not into the series, I understand that you probably want to claw my eyes out, desperately waiting for me to do Mega Man or Onimusha or…I don’t know…Nintendogs or something. For those of you who actually enjoy the series (or any series for that matter), you know that a good game functions much like a gateway drug; sure, it excites you at first, and maybe for a few times afterwards, but eventually the high wears off, causing you to smash your piggy bank, rifle your couch cushions and shakedown everyone you know for cash so you can branch out into similar, but harder relatives from the same family, trying to get that same fix. (Wow…once again, I compare video games to drugs. Maybe I should seek help?) But as I mentioned last week, Nintendo has only released five 2-D Metroid games. So when I’ve run through all of them, I have no option but to increase my dosage and spend more time in the basement hunched over my obsession, trying to sate myself. Eventually, trying to get that rush, I work my way up to speed…running, until all the time and energy I’ve spent on Metroid pay off with an aneurysm and I drop dead. They find my body weeks later, reaching for Trauma Center to no avail.

Oh! Behind you! Look Behind you! I told you not to go in there!

Oh! Behind you! Look Behind you! I told you not to go in there!

You laugh, but every three or four years, some poor, overworked teenager in Korea will spend three days straight in a PC Room playing Star Craft with nothing but ramen noodles and a haze of cigarette smoke for nourishment, and winds up dropping dead. I’d prefer to avoid that, so for a fresh, unsullied bout with 2D space pirates, I’ve resorted to something a little unorthodox, a ROM hack. Yes, I know that rom hacking only lies the width of a computer science degree away from fan fiction. But while I don’t exactly see the appeal in spending ten hours of my life reading about some ditzy teenager’s difficult choice between her torrid, wild affair with Legolas and her stimulating romance with Will Turner, programmers tend to keep themselves out of the story–often by keeping the story out of the game. So with a little research I discovered a highly recommended rom hack blending aspects of Zero Mission into the basic Super Metroid data.

And for those of you sick of Metroid reviews, good news! Super Zeromission has cured me of my desire for Metroid the way an angry father cures his teenager of the desire to smoke by making him suck down an entire carton of Camels in an hour!

Ridley StatueI’d like to establish first that Super Zeromission rivals canonical games for brilliance. While veteran players will easily note the basic data from Super Metroid, the hacker (or hackers) has (have) redesigned everything from the map to the basic sprite patterns, even utilizing some of the coding for enemies left unused in the original ROM. The game also drastically alters the original item acquisition order and adds in some new puzzles and door locks. This amounts to the game feeling new, something worth playing, and not just a burgeoning programmer trying to pass for clever by giving Samus an afro without actually changing the game.

...you bastard.

…you bastard.

It also follows a predictable logic. Let me explain; when I play a game, I assume at the very least that at least one person in the testing process has completed the game. And although weird stuff does crop up from time to time like giant ice keys or weird islands past the Archangel Dam, I can also reasonably assume that someone has solved all the puzzles, completed all the challenges, and not gotten stuck anywhere that would force them to restart the game. In short, if I get stuck, I can assume the developers made the game possible to complete, and that I just have to stop idling my brain in neutral in order to move forward. Now, I’ve edited entire books before, a process with all the enjoyment of separating beach sand into groups of different minerals with only a magnifying glass and a hand full of swollen fingers, and I’ve done it without experiencing the hulk-smash anger that washes over me every time I have to debug three or four lines of code. For a game ROM, not only does all the code need to work flawlessly, but it has to translate into a a flawless game world.  Games demand layers of editing the same way a toddler expects you to give him food AND clean diapers, and they’ll both give you a massive headache if you deny it to them. Players should never have to resign a game because the developers let them get stuck. I often got stuck in Super Zeromission. In fact, I’d often get stuck in small areas, where I could only go back and forth between one or two rooms, usually with the only visible way out requiring an item that the jackass hacker wouldn’t give me for several more hours. Still, rather than assuming he screwed up, I could rely on a second, more hidden, method of escape. At moments like that, not only did I enjoy discovering a secret more difficult to find than anything Nintendo would dare put in a game, but I knew I found it only because the hacker trapped me in that room. I tip my hat to him/her for showing more brilliance in level design than the entire team at Nintendo.

Chozo StatuesBut I also wag my finger at the sadistic bastard for his unnatural love–nay, his fetish–for shinesparking. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, after reaching full speed with the speed booster, hitting the jump button will rocket you toward the heavens, allowing you to reach untold heights and smash through speed blocks. Further manipulation of this will let you dash horizontally, diagonally up, or let you spin jump and start the dash in midair. In most games, running with the speed boster will get you through all the required puzzles and shinesparking only lets you access a handful of secrets. It also usually drains your energy, but the hacker shut off that feature. Why? Because as previously mentioned, he doesn’t want you to get stuck anywhere, and almost all speed booster puzzles require shinesparking. Lots and lots of convoluted shinesparking. While it made parts of the game feel like a platformer, I will say that it forced me to look up detailed descriptions of how to properly perform the maneuver, as well as how to master the wall jump. Well done, hacker. You’ve become that one teacher everyone hates, but has to respect anyway for actually teaching me something.

Fuck you, bitchtits! You fill your room with water and take away my platforms and I'll make a suitcase out of you!

Fuck you, bitchtits! You fill your room with water and take away my platforms and I’ll make a suitcase out of you!

He/she also has some interesting ideas about how to rethink the purpose for item collecting. Take the varia and gravity suits, which allowed the player in Super Metroid to access new areas, increasing your exploratory capabilities (thankfully, the developers opted for the X-Ray scope instead of the colonoscope). The hacker lets you access all those areas even without the suit, and usually gives you a way to navigate through them. He even goes so far as to require you to do so. That when, when you finally do obtain those suits, you’ll appreciate them like a burn victim appreciates the Klondike. I do like the way he/she thinks, although I have to admit that between playing through water rooms without the gravity suit and my emulator lagging to begin with, the game felt like it moved by at the speed of the film “300.” Even when dry, the difficulty  slowed the pace down to a painful crawl, and while I like the idea of worldwide locks that need releasing, but the releases gave no indication of whether or not you successfully released them. While I enjoyed the scenery redesign, it didn’t quite make up for the hours spent backtracking through a massive world map. Furthermore, the lack of walkthroughs online forced me to rely on youtube let’s play videos done by players who, to their credit, made me feel like Stephen Hawking by comparison.

Illustrating that a good game antagonist has more survival tricks than the Joker.

Illustrating that a good game antagonist has more survival tricks than the Joker.

The story…well, the story doesn’t exist. The game lacks any of that fluff we may call “plot” that the other games seem to like so much. Hell, even the first two Metroid games had instruction manuals that listed off a premise. Super Zeromission seems to follow the structure of Zero Mission, so maybe we can use that premise and assume this is another remake. Or since the metroid larva appears and Zebes explodes at the end, maybe the hacker wanted to reboot Super Metroid. I don’t know. I don’t think it matters. You fight Kraid, Ridley and Mother Brain, in that order, but the hacker recycled Phantoon and Draygon, redesigning their sprites as the ghost of Mother Brain and an oddly crustacean-like Mecha Ridley, both fought in the second half of the game. While electing for a non-kosher final boss seems like an odd choice, I understand the difficulty in writing new code, and feel like I should respect that this hacker has at least some limits. Every single boss fight, though, adds something to it that makes the battles more difficult than in Super Metroid. Spore Spawn lives in a room with rising lava–somewhat of a questionable move for a plant–and only the Crocomire can stand on the floor in his chamber, while Samus has to settle for small platforms. Kraid has no more platforms, and you have to rely on the ice beam to let you stand on the crap he shoots out of his stomach. But, at the risk of going too long, the bosses accurately sum up the experience of the game; harder than most 2D Metroids, but in a constructive way that adds to the experience.

————————-

Play Online or Download Rom Here: http://www.letsplaysnes.com/download-metroid-super-zero-mission-rom/

So...replay value? Or does this intend to shame me with feelings of inadequacy?

So…replay value? Or does this intend to shame me with feelings of inadequacy?

So giant flabby monsters can stand on shoddy masonry, but Samus weighs so much she just goes crashing through?

So giant flabby monsters can stand on shoddy masonry, but Samus weighs so much she just goes crashing through?

Ridley battle

Why, hello there. Just thought I might ask, you know...how do you operate the console without fingers?

Why, hello there. Just thought I might ask, you know…how do you operate the console without fingers?

Secret of Mana – SNES

The game's elemental magic system lets you build snowmen! Out of the dying corpses of your foes, nonetheless.

The game’s elemental magic system lets you build snowmen! Out of the dying corpses of your foes, nonetheless.

Anyone between the ages of, say, 23 and 35 might understand the sheer disappointment of nostalgia, how delving deep into the caverns of your past usually only uncovers the noxious fumes that kill the canary of our fondest childhood treasures. Did any of you ever watch “The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest,” Hannah-Barbara’s update of their classic science-adventure series into the computer age? I loved it! I stayed up every night one summer to tape it. I wanted to dive into Quest World, to meet the Evil Stephen Hawking guy who only felt truly alive in virtual reality. I wanted to know what ran through the mind of the psycho religious fanatic. I wanted to travel the world, see exotic animals and mess with cool science gear. And a few years ago when I dug up some of those old episodes, I found I wanted to surreptitiously leave the room when the writers decided to let Hadji bust out a few “Sim Sim Sala-bims.” Yep. Despite possessing the ability to change with the times, “The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest” only succeeded in blandness. And racism.

After rescuing him from a plot to create a tropical resort...in the arctic.

After rescuing him from a plot to create a tropical resort…in the arctic.

And so, with heavy heart I have to confess I had a similar reaction to Secret of Mana, Squaresoft’s epic Final Fantasy Spin-off. Don’t worry, though, I don’t intend to condemn the entire game. Just one guy. Which guy? Guess. Which early 90s Squaresoft employee did everyone know simply by virtue of having the only Western name in the credits? The one whose translations dropped text into the game with the care and precision of a spastic colon? Ted. Fuckin’. Woolsey. Now, it appears that the internet uses people’s opinions of Woolsey as kindling for flame wars, I should give him the necessary credit he deserves: direct translations don’t work. People simply use languages differently, and certain words and phrases don’t translate at all.

Rather, I’d like to say (if I can ever learn to shorten my introductions) that one shouldn’t confuse the Japanese “R” and “L” sound when a) you speak English natively and b) The same name appears both in Final Fantasy (Gestahl) and Secret of Mana (Geshtar). And seriously…he honestly didn’t know Biggs and Wedge, Luke Skywalker’s trusty wingmen during the first Death Star Assault?

So while the old games, even with Woolsey’s translations, don’t fall to the level of Johnny Quest, re-playing Secret of Mana recently made me painfully aware of the jagged, incoherency of the story. The main character, who rarely has any direct interaction with the plot, comes off as a silent protagonist after the first few scenes, but occasionally mumbles just enough so that he comes off as a second-rate mime. Jema, the game’s Obi-Wan Kenobi figure, offers no more advice than “Go to the Water Palace” or “Go to Gaia’s navel,” and the Yoda figure literally tells you nothing more than your next random destination for a good chunk of the end-game. Furthermore, the game introduces a fascinating villain, Thanatos, who shares a name with the God of Death, and we sort of infer is manipulating the war between the Emperor and the Kingdoms (the standard stock war included free with every purchase of a fantasy plot), but we get very little dialogue from or about him and the other villains. These inconsistencies seem to reach a peak when you sneak into the Imperial Capital, leaving the world of medieval-style fantasy villages and plopping yourself down into the horrible, dreary, nightmarish…contemporary urban town with paved streets and cheerful music, where the sun shines down warmly and everyone walks around with a smile on their face.

Let me just flag down a cab here...

Let me just flag down a cab here…

…uhh, why again do we want to disembowel the emperor with such a passion? Oh right…something somewhere about a cliched metaphor for limited resources and global warming. I think.  See, I can’t ever tell, because according to wikipedia, they cut a massive amount of text from the game to get it to fit on an SNES cartridge. And rather than economize the language available, artfully revealing key plot points and character development in as few words as possible, Woolsey just let it go. So when the hero’s village becomes overrun with monsters, they banish the only villager with a sword. Now, I support enforced background checks for lances and a ten-bolt limit for crossbows, but I also fail to see the reasoning behind believing that every monster and demon on earth wants to attack you simply because you have a weapon.

But leave you must, and just as the hero becomes unimportant to the story once other characters join him, you pick up weapon after weapon on your journey until you forget all vital details behind the sword, and all towns in your wake remain utterly defenseless.

The characters fighting a monster...Playboy? Well, the nuns at my sunday school did warn about the dangers of pornography.

The characters fighting a monster…Playboy? Well, the nuns at my sunday school did warn about the dangers of pornography.

However much the story lacks, the gameplay makes up for. Rather than the standard consumer economy provided by most RPGs, Secret of Mana tackles weaponry in more of a Marxist fashion, providing you with a set of weapons, free of charge, at or near the beginning of the game, that level up as the proletariat works harder and harder. (Unfortunately, the inventory does not include “hammer” or “sickle”) Combat takes place in pseudo-real-time, with enemies directly on the map, completely free of jarring explosions sucking you into isometric perspectives where the enemy kindly lines up and waits as you pound them. Rather, you move freely about the map, attacking freely as in a Legend of Zelda game; however, with the added encumbrance of an ATB gauge that needs to charge before your characters can summon up enough strength to penetrate the enemies outer layer of…epidermis. The player opens up menus at any time, in battle or otherwise, to use items and cast magic. Magic comes in the form of elemental spirits gathered along the journey, and they can level up with use, same as the weapons. While I usually write my reviews to ridicule the more absurd aspects of the game, I find myself at a loss for good jokes. The combat system wraps things up pretty tightly. It works.

Well, mostly. Despite giving us a rich selection of weapons and magic and a smooth, sleek ring-menu system to navigate between them, Secret of Mana gives you three characters and about half a brain of AI to split between the two inactive ones.  While they’ll refrain from wasting your MP and will generally wait to attack until their ATB gauge fills completely, they do wonderfully smart things such as dart head first into enemies, attack during the invulnerable period after a monster has received a hit, or try to get closer to the lead character by running straight into a wall nonstop like a squirrel confused by a sheet of glass. While you can program basic attack/defense strategies, you can’t send commands to switch these during combat, so it amounts to either one worthwhile character at a time, or the player needs to constantly switch between party leaders.

Fortunately, Square included a crafty solution, allowing up to two other players to join in. If you want to play the game, I suggest hunting down friends, relatives, co-workers, homeless guys, or  prostitutes, since it does make a world of difference, having someone with a brain behind a character who would otherwise serve as much purpose as one of these.

A good way to see the world without getting probed by Airport security.

A good way to see the world without getting probed by Airport security.

On the unfortunate side, I don’t really have anything interesting or witty to say about Secret of Mana. Really, what can you add to a game that considers “shoot you out of a cannon” as a viable method of travel, and has a travelling anthropomorphic cat-merchant rip you off by jacking up prices on normal items? The game doesn’t have a lot of visible flaws and its own unique sense of humor, so I have to resort to picking on the poor translator, and since so many people have played it already, I don’t really feel the need to describe it in detail. So ask Santa for a copy this Christmas if you don’t already own one. And if he fails to deliver, buy the game and kick his ass.

Because seriously…you fight Santa Clause about halfway through. Santa tries to kill you. Santa. An enemy. How can you improve on a fantasy death match with St. Nick?

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Super Star Wars (series) – SNES

Geeky Star Wars fans dress up their girlfriends like this. True Star Wars fans prefer to put themselves in Leia's place.

Geeky Star Wars fans dress up their girlfriends like this. True Star Wars fans prefer to put themselves in Leia’s place.

Despite my previous piece on the literary and artistic value of games, I’d like to make it perfectly clear that the deeper meaning many artists put into their work does no more than ask, “Do you want to super-size it?” That statement alone reveals the corporate world’s fetish for up-selling, as they used to ask, “Do you want fries with that,” right up to the point when they realized everyone always bought fries already, so why not try to sell us bigger fries? Andy Warhol realized that he couldn’t tell the difference between art and advertising, so he gave us a painting of a Campbell’s Soup can, which everyone treats as a cute novelty without actually understanding his point.

And so we get to video games based on movies; those of you my age might laugh as you remember such debacles as “Last Action Hero,” “Beethoven,” or “Home Alone.” More recently, we’ve had to suffer through Harry Potter games and an entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I fully expect a Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug movie to capitalize on the lousier points of the film and give us long sequences where we can have Legolas use every tree stump, barrel, ax blade and goblin as a snowboard.

It may look innoculous, but this level will make your hair fall out.

It may look innocuous, but this level will make your hair fall out.

Still, in the feeding frenzy of capitalism surrounding us, a few games actually make me stand up and proudly admit, “Meh. Not too bad,” and most of these games belong to the Star Wars franchise. Don’t ask me why. After announcing that N*Sync would guest star in Attack of the Clones, I nearly swore off Lucasfilm entirely, but since they backpedaled on that decision to avoid the Force turning angrily against them, I have to admit that George Lucas doesn’t always make crash-and-burn decisions.

Let’s face it, though; if nothing else, Lucas’ studios have consistently pulled of effects and spectacles well, and in run-and-gun action games like Super Star Wars, you don’t really need much else.

Yes, dear readers, I have wracked my brain for nigh on two weeks and I haven’t thought of anything else to say about this game–rather, these games–than “Meh. Don’t really need much else.”

Note: We need Chewie's lines. This completely changes the meaning of the story.

Note: We need Chewie’s lines. This completely changes the meaning of the story.

The three games that make up the Super Star Wars series (Super Star Wars, Super The Empire Strikes Back, and the aptly named Super Weekend at Bernies 3; Return of the Bernie) recount the story of Luke Skywalker’s journey to become a Jedi and save the galaxy. They do this mostly through cut scenes in between levels, more as a side-story, like a salad to a run-and-gun platforming entree. Also, they included gameplay. The gameplay lets players romp merrily through said galaxy killing things that usually have no relation to the movies. But hey…lightsabers. Doesn’t really need much else.  The first game opens with the familiar scene of Darth Vader capturing Leia’s ship and the droids ejecting toward the planet Tatooine. From their, we switch to the not-as-familiar scene of Luke dashing through the desert with a blaster as though he swore revenge on it for killing his mom. The first stage ends with the explosive death of the Sarlac Pit, thus rendering the climax of act I of Super Return of the Jedi completely nonsensical. From there, he sets off on a quest to liberate C3-PO, a droid he’s never met before, by killing his way through the entire population of jawas that he and his uncle depend upon to do business. I don’t know, Luke. Why would imperial stormtroopers want to slaughter jawas?

Once you’ve accomplished that task, relax, get yourself a snack, and use the bathroom because you’ve got about two and three quarters of a game left of these I personally enjoy the way they reworked Luke surrendering to Vader in Jedi as an epic battle through the forests of Endor, followed by a hack-and-slash run through the Death Star before he finds Vader and the Emperor.

Drive along a Northern Michigan highway at night in the winter, then switch on your brights. Seriously; it looks just like this.

Drive along a Northern Michigan highway at night in the winter, then switch on your brights. Seriously; it looks just like this.

But before you consign the cartridge you bought in exchange for handful of pennies and that shiny bottle cap to the ebay scrap heap, give it a run. LucasArts kept the nonsense to a minimum, really, and certain game elements follow a modicum of logic. Luke begins with a blaster and gets the lightsaber when he meets Ben Kenobi. He can switch between them from that point on, but the blaster deals more damage, so the game at least nudges you to follow the progression of Luke’s training. The lightsaber doesn’t become a reasonably powerful weapon until Luke lands on Dagobah in Empire, although it does deal a fair amount of damage to wampas. By Jedi, Luke loses the ability to use a blaster altogether.

On Dagobah, he can learn special Force abilities by collecting hidden power-ups, but if you don’t find them, you have to finish the duration of Empire without those abilities. Generally, though, using the Force causes more problems than it solves thanks to the clunky control scheme. For example, one skill lets the player toss the lightsaber and steer it around the screen to hit enemies. I might even enjoy that if I didn’t have to completely relinquish control of Luke, leaving him standing like a Tauntaun staring in the headlights of an oncoming AT-AT.  The levitate ability helped me stay out of holes, (a pesky element from the platforming genre, who like a drunken uncle at a Thanksgiving dinner only made it in because someone felt the need to include everyone in the family) but I primarily stuck with the heal ability throughout the game.

They mumble this guy's name only once in a loud action scene, but somehow we all know Boba Fett. We have a Boba Fetish.

They mumble this guy’s name only once in a loud action scene, but somehow we all know Boba Fett. We have a Boba Fetish.

Chewie and Han each have small tweaks to balance out their power with Luke’s, although their default level-2 blaster disappears for the third game, making them somewhat underpowered. In Jedi, Wicket becomes a playable character, as do Leia in three different costumes, although compared to the other characters, she doesn’t have much to offer, and she usually fades into the background of the other characters, except for the fight with Jabba.

I know I've gone lightly on the side-scrolling screenshots, but the games go for an interesting variety with the vehicle levels.

I know I’ve gone lightly on the side-scrolling screenshots, but the games go for an interesting variety with the vehicle levels.

I really don’t have much to say about these games individually. They didn’t exactly innovate much as they released these over the course of three years. Even with minor differences between them, they could play as the same game. However, they do score points for creativity in their 3D vehicle levels. While many play out similarly, each one feels like driving a different Star Wars ship (even sometimes when different levels use the same vehicle). The player has a chance to drive Luke’s speeder, the X-Wing fighter, Snow Speeders, and the Millenium Falcon, each one in a unique level that, for the most part, resemble the movies with a degree of accuracy better than…uh…with a degree of accuracy.

Fortunately, these games play well, and despite only mildly acknowledging that they should bear a resemblance to the movie, it gives the player a Star Warsey feel to it. Worth playing, even for a movie tie-in game, but at least they didn’t base it off a commercial…or make it into a commercial. Speaking of which, look out for a Plants vs Zombies II article. I know it doesn’t qualify as retro, but I have important things to say.

May the Force not bend your NES connector pins out of place.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors! – SNES, Sega Genesis, Virtual Console

ZAMNTitleNaturally, when people find something they like, they tend to want more.  Lately it seems that America just can’t get enough of zombies. Apparently they can’t find nearly enough stories about the living dead as they’d like. After all, what can you do when Hollywood limits stories to: White Zombie, Revolt of the Zombies, Revenge of the Zombies, Teenage Zombies, Zombies of the Stratosphere, Night of the Living Dead (1968), Night of the Living Dead (1990), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Shaun of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II,The Re-Animator, Zombie vs Ninja, Redneck Zombies, Scooby Doo on Zombie Island, 28 Days Later, Hellsing, World War Z, Resident Evil and the Walking Dead.

In such a generic dearth, one may have to turn to literature, such as: The Zombie Survival Guide , Herbert West: Re-Animator, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls, Warm Bodies, Undead, The Dead, The Dead of Night, The Living Dead,  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After, Dead@17, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z, the Resident Evil novelizations, and the Walking Dead.

And when you run out of those, unfortunately, zombie video games don’t offer much more than: The Last of Us, Survivor FPS, Amy, Lollipop Chainsaw, ZombiU, Dead Block, Dead Island, No More Room in Hell, Yakuza: Dead Souls, Call of Duty: Black Ops: Zombies, Dead Nation, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, Zombie Panic in Wonderland, (the aptly named) I Made A Game With Zombies In It, Minecraft, Plants vs Zombies, Plants vs Zombies: It’s About Time, Zombie Apocalypse, Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil (1 through Six, Zero, Code Veronica, the Umbrella Chronicles, and Outbreak)…and the Walking Dead.

And if you blow through all those, I left off literally hundreds of titles listed on Wikipedia.

Zombie media has worn out its novelty. However, people haven’t quite figured this out yet. Every time a book, movie, TV show or game pops up with “Zombie” or “Dead” in the title, people flock to stores with no realization of how frequently artists use zombies to criticize mass consumerism.  Given the situation, I face a challenge in talking about “Zombies Ate My Neighbors,” a run-and-gun action/horror game from 1993: namely, no one cares about zombies anymore.

"Oh, is that hair gel?"

“Oh, is that hair gel?”

The title, however, might confuse people. Rather than a description of the challenges facing the player, it broadcasts the game’s sense of humor which parodies famous horror films prior to the sixties. The game has a simple design; you select either the girl character, Julie, or the 3D-glasses-sporting, Vegeta-haired boy, Zeke. After loading a squirt gun–presumably with a combination of Holy Water, WD-40 and sulfuric acid–the chosen avatar begins a mad dash through a top-down view of suburbia, trying to prevent–you guessed it–zombies from eating your neighbors. Initially, you have ten people to save per level, but since they have a tendency to stand by obliviously as werewolves knead their intestines like a ball of dough, this number drops rather quickly. If a victim dies, you begin with one less neighbor to rescue in the next level.

Ever wonder what they keep in the back room at the grocery store?

Ever wonder what they keep in the back room at the grocery store?

Zombies, rather than the focus of the game, serve more of a basic enemy goomba-type role, cheap, limitless fodder to throw at you whenever the game feels obligated to give you an enemy, but doesn’t want to put too much effort into it. After the first few levels, a whole slew of mummies, pod people, Chucky dolls, chainsaw maniacs, Martians, giant ants and more crawl out of the woodworks to grab a tasty mouthful of soylent suburbia.  The developer, Lucas Arts, clearly put some thought into this, which elevates Zombies Ate My Neighbors above most of the zombie books, films and games I listed at the beginning of this article. The game assumes familiarity with classic horror, then uses that as a foundation for parody. Each level sports an introduction with humorous titles such as, “Evening of the Undead,” “Dances With Werewolves,” “Where the Red Fern Growls,” “The Day the Earth Ran Away,” and more, with many sequel levels which proclaim themselves as “More Shocking” or “More Terrifying” than the one before it.

Even the music looks back to classic films, with tense ostinato tones reminiscent of the Twilight Zone theme, combined with a theremin melody inspired (much like Danny Elfman’s score to “Mars Attacks”) by Bernard Herrmann’s score for “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

ZAMN provides an early example of a classic video game trope: using random every day objects as weapons. You start out with a squirt gun and pick up some logical weapons like a bazooka and a weed whacker, and certain objects like crosses make sense, but you also chuck a fair share of soda cans, plates, footballs, silverware (for werewolves), tomatoes and popsicles at the hoard of beasties.  While it amuses me to no end envisioning what might happen if you fought a mugger by conking him with a popsicle, I have to side step that amusement for a word about combat.

ZAMN1
If I had any criticism for the game, it would stem from the combat system. You start with a finite amount of ammo and have to pick up more as you go along, and unlike the survival horror genre, you can’t usually just run away from fights. The zombies must have recently feasted on the Wicked Witch of the West because they explode at the slightest touch of water, but most enemies have significantly more health.  In addition, the game only sometimes lets you know that your chosen weapon has any effect on the monsters at all–bosses blur out-of-focus briefly, and some enemies flash, but only a few and not with every weapon. While discovering halfway through the game that yes, in fact, the squirt gun does harm mummies and giant ants may have only inconvenienced me slightly, I did from time to time realize I had spent the last thirty seconds launching ammo just slightly to one side of a monster, like I wanted to kill an even worse monster standing behind it to gain this monster’s trust back.  Unfortunately, to add to this, several monsters flit around like humming birds, making them hard to hit, and so I’d find myself tossing away my weapons supply as though it would give me cancer. ZAMN.3Enemies in general, but bosses more than others, have a little too much life, and I found certain key fights dragged on to the point of boredom. Snakeoids, a recurring boss seemingly based on the graboids from the movie “Tremors,” often found themselves the victims of long strings of verbal abuse. Not only did they need a sturdier pounding than Rasputin before they died, but they could only take damage for brief moments when they surfaced to attack. Sometimes they’d surface at reasonable intervals, and on a few occasions I got them to glitch out and surface repeatedly, but most often I’d just stand for minutes on end like a donut tempting them to ruin their diets while they ran circles around me, deciding whether they should eat me or not. ZAMN3They offset the NES-level of difficulty slightly by offering a password system. By entering a four-letter password, you can start near the last level played with none of the weapons except the squirt gun, one health kit, and the exact number of neighbors you had left. The fact that the game only has memory for neighbors actually doesn’t make the game as difficult as it would seem–fewer neighbors to rescue means less time spent in each level, and while you may not pick up as many items that way, you’ll take less damage and last longer. Still, if you lose all your neighbors, you lose the game. Furthermore, the game rations out passwords once every few levels like it might run out, so you may find yourself repeated a lot of stages that you already know you can beat.

But mostly this nice little gem of a game, now twenty years old, still finds ways to entertain, not just with gameplay, but also by tapping into timeless horror icons, much like the original Castlevania did. And even those who might not have a library of silver-screen films or the knowledge of trivia to make the connections can still appreciate the light-hearted horror humor presented in Zombies Ate My Neighbors.

Maybe we can look back to some extant pieces of the zombie canon and move on to the next big monster fad…I don’t know…werewolves or something. We have enough already to keep us entertained for a long time without getting bored. We don’t need to see any new, terrible zombie films. It’s a good thing Zombies Ate My Neighbors never sunk that low.

Oh wait…