Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance – GBA

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I’d take more pleasure in riding Death like a bitch if he wasn’t wearing his mom’s high heels on his hands.

Might as well kick off this year’s Halloween season with Castlevania game, everyone’s favorite horror series from the classic days of the NES, which has progressively become about as scary as some leftover beans thrown on a compost pile. Rather than focusing on iconic horror, pitting your character against beast after beast from cinematic enemas, the terror-induced colon cleansing films that gave people nightmares before they realized that Hollywood didn’t actually hire a vampire to murder their actors on film, the series has now become a practice in running Symphony of the Night through Xerox machine over and over until the games still play like the original, but the only monstrous quality left is the low resolution, which they have to hide by putting the game on the GBA. But much like the aforementioned beans, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance still has value, albeit not for its original purpose.

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Charles Schultz had a short-lived career writing horror before authoring Charlie Brown.

Harmony of Dissonance opens with the same now-standard explanation that, in a series with over 40 games, the earliest of which is set in 1094, Dracula’s castle appears once every century. I’m just going to assume they mean “at least once” so as to move on with this review without introducing some pointless, confusing, Zeldafied time line. The story begins with the only macguffin ever used in a video game—the kidnapped girl. Personally, I take offense to this idea, and no, it’s not because I need to get my kum-ba-yas on with my feminine side and rail against violence toward women in a medium where violence happens toward everyone regardless of age, gender or the size of their katamari. I just don’t think we really need a reason to go charging into a vampire’s castle with a super soaker full of holy water. Is “compulsive serial murder via oral exsanguination” not enough of a crime? Name one movie where a character says, “Hannibal Lecter might lull his patients into a false sense of security, murder them with his teeth and then eat their liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti, but no judge in the world will prosecute that. Now if he kidnaps a girl, then we have a case.” Part of what it means to be a “monster” is that people don’t have to feel bad about killing it. The NES games used almost no text and still told a compelling story. Symphony of the Night was great…err….let’s say decent…but that was because the protagonist was a monster as well. But trying to introduce a story to each Castlevania game just opens them up to questions like, “Why would the vampire who is constantly foiled by the Belmonts need or want to lure the vampire hunter into his private residence?” That would be like if I left a tray of sugar water near an open window, hoping that a swarm of wasps build a nest in my living room.

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Shortly after this, Pazuzu was called away to pull Professor Farnsworth out of the Fountain of Aging

Okay, so the story has so many plot holes that it’s only good for shredding cheese. But how does the game itself stand up? I would assume with much help from a physical therapist. Harmony of Dissonance plays like a cheap Asian knockoff of Symphony of the Night. It has the same Metroidvania combination of exploration, item collecting, and RPG stats, but it seems tired and worn out in its old age. Sure you find a bunch of items that increase your abilities, but you find a bunch of them up front and then spend a good chunk of the game wandering back and forth through the castle like you’re struggling with early onset Alzheimer’s. To make that worse, the game gives you two parallel, nearly identical castles to explore, with a few common areas between them. Speaking as someone who has grown accustomed to driving with a GPS in my constant line of vision, I felt like I had to check the map way too often to get through this game.

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Jesus fucking christ, the feminists are going to be pissed over this one.

Somehow, even though Harmony of Dissonance closely replicated a great game, it turned out to be a disappointing experience, like marijuana laced with ether—it could be the most awesome trip ever, but what does it matter if you sleep through the whole thing? It could be the protagonists. Alucard picked up dozens of useless abilities, like transforming into a dog, something you only ever do by accident while looking for the mist button. But at least they made him more and more vampiric. Juste “Juicy” Belmont—a discount Alucard rip-off who looks like he’s wearing bad Orochimaru cosplay—just becomes more like Mario. “You can jump? Well, now you can DOUBLE-JUMP! And now you can ROCKET JUMP! And now you can break bricks by jumping!” What’s more, Alucard explored a castle. Not a real castle, but at least the regions were named after things you might expect to see in an eccentric Medieval aristocrat’s dwelling, like the clock tower, outer wall, catacombs and coliseum. Justes explores the skeleton cave, the sky walkway and the luminous cavern, which feel about as authentic to a castle as the man cave, the produce aisle and the ball pit. Symphony of the Night had a clever, story-related method to obtaining not just a better ending, but a second half to the game. Harmony of Dissonance requires you to loot the castle for useless crap and shove it into a single room like you’re opening up an Ikea to compete with that lousy merchant who never sells anything worthwhile. (“What’re ya buyin’?” “Potions. Like before. Because your merchandise is crap, I might as well stock up on healing items that break the game.”)

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And yeah…this is pretty much how you beat every boss in the game.

As usual, Juicy has full access to (most of) the same sub-weapons that the Belmonts have passed down for hundreds of years. Naturally they’re a bit dated, but in the one seed of originality Konami planted in this compost heap is the magic system. By combining the sub-weapons with spell tomes found throughout the game, Juicy can cast some impressive spells. Of course, the cross is just a little bit stronger than all the others, so once you find one and mix it with the Wind tome, you’ll spend the rest of the game avoiding power-ups with more care than you use to avoid enemies.

Castlevania - Harmony of Dissonance-170603-023425So other than the bland environments, the dated weaponry, the discount protagonist, the plot holes so big it couldn’t catch a tuna, the difficulty broken by an excess of healing items, the lame and undiversified abilities, the bosses more from mythology than horror, the excruciating focus on feng shui and…where was I going with this? Who cares? If you need a portable Symphony of the Night, go play Aria of Sorrow instead.

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Zelda II: The Adventure of Link – NES, Game Cube, GBA

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After having retrocookie’s background set to a scene from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link for maybe a year and a half, it occurred to me that maybe I should have an entry for the game itself. Zelda II, you see, has a number of notable distinctions, being the final game in the Zelda chronology (providing you don’t give yourself an aneurysm trying to figure out the official timeline), the first game to introduce a magic meter, the first appearance of Volvagia, Shadow Link and the Triforce of Courage, and it’s easily the most hated and least played game in the series because Nintendo completely abandoned the gameplay of the original to bring you Super Mario RPG. Oh, and it’s hard enough that King Leonidas could build a wall out of the Link corpses you’ll leave littered on the side of the road. But aside from the unfortunate fact that they mixed this game with 4 parts Mario, 2 parts Dragon Quest, 3 parts Castlevania with a shot of green food coloring to nominally call it a Zelda game, it’s actually a pretty good game in its own right.

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Link’s slides of his vacation to Easter Island.

The instruction manual describes the story like a heated debate between two Nintendo employees who couldn’t agree on why Link is still romping through Hyrule slaughtering octoroks like a burgeoning serial killer who hasn’t quite moved up to humans yet. Either an ancient prophecy finally got its act together, stopped drinking and sent its resume to Link, expressing an interest in a career of waking up narcoleptic princesses, or Ganon’s minions have put out a hit on Link, and he needs to stay alive long enough to get the Triforce, which I guess will scare them off. I don’t know. The game kind of leaves that point gaping like a meteor impact crater by the end. Link still has a hit out on him. If Ganon’s minions sacrifice him—which sounds as much like a sacrifice as giving up abstinence for Lent—and drizzle his blood over the pile of ash that used to be Ganon, the pig comes back to life.

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Fuck you, Nintendo of America Censors! Look what I got! Religious iconography! (But they insisted on renaming the temples as “palaces”)

But whatever the reason, Link sets off. The overworld map gives a top-down perspective, but unlike the first game, you don’t fight enemies on the map itself. Rather, you contend with random encounters. But unlike the jarring Final Fantasy shifts that hit you like the raptor you never even knew was there, these enemies appear as groups, wandering the map like a touring punk band, and if Link touches them he has to fight his way out of the mosh pit to escape. These encounters, as well as towns, caves, bridges, and dungeons, play out as a side-scrolling platformer. Yup. A side-scrolling platformer. Nintendo took the most original idea they’ve had since Super Mario Bros, and turned it into…well, Super Mario Bros. The side-scrolling combat is interesting, to say the least. Link can attack and defend in both upper- and lower-body positions. He can also learn a downward stab that lets him stomp his enemies like a goomba, or combine an upward stab with the power glove to let him break bricks above his head. But Link earns experience, while Mario doesn’t. (Although after rescuing the same damn princess for 25 years, it would be nice if he had enough experience not to leave Peach alone in turtle-infested waters. Or maybe he could put two and two together concerning all those kidnappings.)

Link also learns magic. In each town, he can gain access to an old man who adds another rabbit to his hat. Usually, though, they won’t just scrawl out avada kedavra on a sheet of paper and point you at the monsters threatening to enslave the world. Nope. Usually you have to do some chores. One old man lost his trophy to a thieving goriya, and I guess his high school basketball record is so important to him that he won’t teach the “jump” spell until he gets it back. Some requests make sense, like rescuing a child lost in the wilderness. But one woman wouldn’t let me in to see the elder until I walked over to the fountain next to the house, cupped some water in my hands, and poured it down her throat. Only two elders didn’t ask me to turn my pockets out to rifle through the results of my latest scavenger hunt. One gave me the shield spell freely, but I had to find the other old man, who had stuffed himself into a fireplace.

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If I had a hammer…

Dungeon items, on the other hand, are as disappointing as a bachelor’s degree in English: they’re time-consuming to obtain, completely useless, and only serve to let you move on to get another one just like it, but even harder to get. Out of the eight main items, six of which are found in dungeons, only the hammer and the whistle do more than create a passive effect, and only the glove and arguably the hammer do anything but open up a path to get to the next area of the map. All other items are used once or twice and then take up space in your inventory, like an Englebert Humperdink 8-track your grandma gives you at Christmas—you know you’re never going to use it, so it sits in a box doing nothing but preventing you from the crushing guilt of throwing out your grandma’s present.

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…it’s not what it looks like! Unfortunately. And did I mention that this, faeries, and a “life” spell are the only ways to regain health?

The game is as hard as a Cialis overdose, and while you can continue as many times as you’d like, after three lives you go back to the beginning of the game, starting over in Zelda’s bedroom as though you’re trying to fill up a punch card to get your tenth burrito free. I’ll attribute this to either a glitch or a translation error, as the instruction manual clearly states that if you continue from a dungeon, you’ll restart from the dungeon entrance. This only works in the final temple, but by temple four, the walk alone from the start of the game is enough to kill you out of boredom, if the monsters don’t mug you along the way. It’s a good thing that video games don’t need realism any more than the beef at Taco Bell, or Link might be tempted to skip town before the assassins find him and let the princess sleep for another thousand years or so. It’s not like anyone needed her for anything until now.

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.

Lego Star Wars – GBA, NDS, PS2, Game Cube, XBox, PC

Featuring the stars of Lego Schindler's List and Lego Moulin Rouge.

Featuring the stars of Lego Schindler’s List and Lego Moulin Rouge.

Months ago I played Grand Theft Auto III, and hated it so much that I didn’t finish. At the time I had another GTA game on my shelf, which you may have noticed never made it to this blog. I didn’t just set the disc on fire out of hatred for the series–although in an Odyssey of the Mind style hallucination, I did consider re-purposing it as a coaster, a wall decoration, a tiny stage for pet mice to perform on, a projectile to hurl at my neighbor’s overly-excitable dog, or a shim to level out my wobbly kitchen table. No, instead, I put it in my PS2, which immediately responded, “Ha, ha. Funny joke. Now put a real PS2 game in my tray, would you?” I tried repairing the disc, but apparently someone before me had re-purposed the game as a nail file. “Fine by me!” I thought. I didn’t want to play it anyway! And I moved on to a more interesting looking game: Lego Batman. Which promptly seized up at the beginning of the Penguin’s story arc. Moral of the story: don’t buy used games at Savers. But what can you expect from a store that would chuck Mega Man 2 in the trash for its age, but then try to sell six dozen Madden games for $4 each? Yesterday, I actually found high school sports trophies, engraved with the names of the winner. But Conker’s Bad Fur Day? Burn it! Damn cartridge!

I want a good clean fight. No severing arms. No blasters. No Force grabs below the belt. Oh, and your droids. They'll have to wait outside.

I want a good clean fight. No severing arms. No blasters. No Force grabs below the belt. Oh, and your droids. They’ll have to wait outside.

So to reign in my tirade, when I pulled out the Lego Star Wars disc and could not even with a generous heart refer to it as “round,” I didn’t have high hopes of finishing the game. But as you can see, God does have a sense of humor, and he chose to perform his miraculous Hanukkah Game Technique to keep the disc spinning for as long as it took me to finish, thus forcing me to write about a game virtually identical to Lego Star Wars II, which I reviewed only a few months ago. So here it goes…

Lego Star Wars covers the prequel trilogy, but otherwise bears no differences to Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy.

Pretty good, huh? One of my best reviews yet. Oh! Wait! I’ll do it as a haiku!

Lego Star Wars has
No major differences from
Lego Star Wars II.

Special Ed...momma dropped him on his head...now he's not so bright, instead...he stars in the Phantom Menace.

Special Ed…momma dropped him on his head…now he’s not so bright, instead…he stars in the Phantom Menace.

But seriously, I should probably at least pretend to have some journalistic integrity (I’ll get it when someone starts paying me to write, damn it!) and try to say something worthwhile about it. Lego Star Wars marks the first of the licensed Lego games developed by Traveler’s Tales. Oddly enough, this rookie attempt actually makes it easier to write about, since it lacks a number of things that have become staples for the Lego licensed series. Characters can’t assemble bricks into objects to interact with. The Jedi sort of can, but only as part of their Force powers.  Also, you’ll notice that none of the levels have Free Play areas, places you can access only by bringing other characters into the level using Free Play mode. And now, a limerick:

Uh, Obi-Wan...maybe not use the Force on me for a while. That light looks like it might cause cancer.

Uh, Obi-Wan…maybe not use the Force on me for a while. That light looks like it might cause cancer.

When playing a Star Wars with bricks
the Jedi all play Pick-up-Sticks
The blasters shoot bolts
The Gungans are dolts
While the enemies all act like pricks.

While the other Lego games don’t exactly force you to look up walkthroughs, this attempt eliminates the need entirely.  It doesn’t really employ puzzles or more than a few secrets, instead focusing on a run-and-gun, Mega Man style of gameplay. The vehicle levels control well, surprisingly welcome from Lego Star Wars II’s underwater-shark-rodeo vehicle handling. It does result in a slightly too easy game, but they don’t exactly market these games to the World of Warcraft or the competitive Smash Bros. crowds. Beating the game in two days actually made the experience rather pleasant.

A 900-year-old arthritic ninja muppet and an 8-foot tall Wookiee, pissed off that he missed Life Day. I think we have either the makings of a buddy road comedy or an action cop drama here.

A 900-year-old arthritic ninja muppet and an 8-foot tall Wookiee, pissed off that he missed Life Day. I think we have either the makings of a buddy road comedy or an action cop drama here.

For licensed games, the Lego series don’t suck. I know that describing them like that equates to calling someone the world’s tallest leprechaun, or naming someone hacky sack champion of the hospital’s paraplegia ward, but unlike most game licensing, Traveler’s Tales doesn’t seem to do it for a quick cash grab, hiring three people to code the game and twenty-five to design the box and marketing material. Instead, they aim for humor, for ease of gameplay, and amusing moments like when Yoda, who hobbles at a snail’s pace, opens his lightsaber and becomes the God of All Ninjutsu. I know they all play pretty much identically, but look for a few other Lego articles in the future, since I can probably repair my Batman disc. And I bought Anne Lego Lord of the Rings for her birthday. And Lego Jurassic World looks fun…

Nope. I checked. Still no one wants cares about the pod race.

Nope. I checked. Still no one cares about the pod race.

…yeah, I just make my job harder for myself. Maybe I’ll have something to say six months from now. Oh, and Pod Racing? Still stupid.

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!

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.

Metroid – NES, GBA

Riding an elevator down through the maw of a giant, two-headed demon. What could possibly go wrong?

Riding an elevator down through the maw of a giant, two-headed demon. What could possibly go wrong?

In the past few days, I’ve finished three games and written about four of these entries. While I enjoy the prospect of getting ahead a few weeks on my posts, the ol’ well of humor might risk drying up. Or burning out. I don’t know. I do know, though, that while I enjoyed Metroid Prime 3, it left me with an aching feeling in my heart (which beats Custer’s Revenge, which left me with a burning sensation in my pee) that nothing quite compares to the old school 2-dimensional Metroid games. To my surprise, when I tallied them up to see which one drew the short straw and had to cleanse me of my first-person nausea, I realized that Nintendo has only made five: Metroid, Return of Samus, Super Metroid, and Zero Mission, which only really should count for half credit as it partially remakes the original. Why do we get so few of these classically styled games, but jumping plumbers have such a fan following that they’ve metastasized into multiple series? Someone contact the New Super Mario Bros. team and tell them what we really need. Still, I needed something to fill the void, and since I’ve already written about Zero Mission, Super Metroid and Return of Samus, I opted to go with the classic 8-bit original.

The story, as typical for games on the NES, has all the complexity Nintendo could detail on six whole pages of an 11.5×9 cm instruction manual. In the year 20X5–because apparently the fact that half the decade has passed matters more than which decade–all intelligent life in the Milky Way has come together into a peaceful federation rather than Earth setting up colonies and raping foreign planets for their resources like would probably happen in real life. However, to fill the void of assholes, a group of space pirates have hunted the wise Chozo bird race to extinction,  taken control of their planet, and used it as a base of operations to rob and loot and pillage from everyone else in the galaxy. You know…like the United States in real life.  Too inept to land a force of Federation Police on the planet, guns a-blazing, the government decides to outsource the job to a single bounty hunter who promises to do a better job for less money while simultaneously dealing with severe PTSD caused by the very space pirates she’ll have to face with no back-up or emotional support. A sort of space Mowgli (fitting with today’s neo-colonialism theme), Samus lived with the Chozo after space pirates killed her human family.

Prepare to spend some time killing bugs for energy.

Prepare to spend some time killing bugs for energy.

To add to the list of reasons why not to send her in, you begin the game at 30% health.  The power suit she wears, which the instruction manual says makes her a cyborg…and also apparently a man…apparently serves more of a Darth Vader suit function. Anyone else starting a game at 30% health would fade into view during the opening fanfare in a full-body cast along with their IV drip. This feels like more of a scathing criticism of the Federation. Why even keep a standing law enforcement agency when a hyperglycemic cancer patient covered in third-degree burns offers a better chance at bringing criminals to justice? But yeah. Samus begins the game with 30 health out of a total of 99, and no matter how many energy tanks you collect, each time you die or continue a game via password, you’ll still begin on the brink of death with only 30 health. Farming energy proves difficult, as you get to choose between doing it safely and doing it quickly, and even the “quickly” option takes time, as the drop rate decreases the more you shoot monsters that continuously spawn out of pipes. So prepare yourself to spend long hours going back and forth, shooting monsters in hopes of seeing those flashing purple baubles worth more than gold. And don’t go in to fight bosses until you know you can take them.

...a lot of time killing bugs.

…a lot of time killing bugs.

Beyond that, I think I should apologize for some unfair criticism of the game earlier. Previously, the lack of an in-game map challenged me to keep my blood pressure from rising in uncontrollable rage as I wandered through endless, identical passages trying to find something useful to do. This time, I decided to try it au naturale. I referred to a map briefly before I started, and realized that the later portions of the game had smaller segments of absolutely identical passageways, and while no less confusing, I could manage them far more easily than I had previously assumed.  So I memorized the initial path, from the morph ball to the missles, through the bombs, and eventually the ice beam. From there I only had to check the map once while looking for a well-hidden path through Norfair.

I'd like to go into McDonald's and have a giant stone human hand me my fries.

I’d like to go into McDonald’s and have a giant stone human hand me my fries.

Once free of initial map frustrations and the exciting and indefinite bouts of energy farming, the game plays a lot like the Legend of Zelda. Samus begins with a piddly array of attacks and range of motion. She hunts down items that increase her abilities. Items like the maru mari (morph ball) let her curl into a ball, allowing her to access corners of Zebes previously available only to the most intrepid of hedgehogs. The high jump boots, well…I shouldn’t have to explain what they do, but they let Samus leap to new heights, as well as making older heights less of a chore to reach. Weapon augments like the long beam allow her to one-up the actual side-scrolling Link, letting her shoot all the way across the screen! And bombs…well, enough with the Zelda comparisons. You get the point.

Most heros just kill their enemies. Samus humiliates them first.

Most heros just kill their enemies. Samus humiliates them first.

These items show the major advantage that the 2-D Metroid games hold over their Prime counterparts; you can use them everywhere, and they might help you anywhere. Lately, Samus’ arsenal consists of items that interact with specific items in the environment, allowing her to open up new areas. Same basic idea, yes, but when an item doesn’t benefit her all around, it amounts to amassing a giant ring of the most eclectic keys the Nintendo designers could think up. Getting the plasma cannon early on in Metroid Prime 3 excited me, until I realized it didn’t actually power up my shots and could only either open red doors or melt patches of ice and scrap metal that obstructed my path. You know, like a door. In this game, the beams actually have a function; the ice beam lets you turn your enemies into stepping stones, and the wave beam broadens your shot, reducing the pesky need to aim at stuff.

Ret-conning Samus' hair color already! Mostly a brunette, it changes to blonde and sometimes green within the game.

Ret-conning Samus’ hair color already! Mostly a brunette, it changes to blonde and sometimes green within the game.

Born in 1983, I owned an NES before I even heard of any other video game system. I have a certain fondness for the system and appreciate the games for personal reasons as well as for their famously superb design. So when I say Metroid surpasses most Nintendo classics, understand that I don’t say that to demean other games at all–it actually plays like a game far ahead of its time. You may have to deal with some obnoxious ret-conning from the storyline. The instruction manual introduces Samus both as a cyborg and a man–both ideas they don’t stick with even through the end of the game. Ridley, apparently, has a claim as the first life form on planet Zebes, which sounds kind of interesting, but the later games’ stories (as well as the Metroid Manga) come off as more compelling.

Completion bonus: After making your way through Mother Brain’s jar and successfully clearing the planet before it blows, the game places you back at the beginning, sans power suit (or with suit if you cleared the game without) and lets you play through again, this time beginning with the items of power–spin attack, high jump boots, varia suit, maru mari, bombs, and whichever beams you had before–allowing for a speed run attempt. While I usually only play through games once before writing about them, I ran through Metroid twice. Energy farming doesn’t take nearly as much time or effort with the spin attack, and a nice quick dash through the game felt like a nice reward–rather than a too-easy cheat mode–for the effort put into the first round.