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.

Gauntlet – Arcade, NES, GBA, Sega Genesis

As none of my screenshots from the Sega version seemed to take, you get this title screen.

As none of my screenshots from the Sega version seemed to take, you get this title screen.

The more astute readers may have noticed already that the title of this week’s game doesn’t precisely match up with the list of consoles. Technically, I suppose, each of the installments merits their own entry, but even my power has limits; how much can I really write about a dungeon crawler with virtually no story involving extremely simple quests and objectives–namely, “get to the exit!” Because there you have it: my summary of the story. You choose your character at the beginning of the game; Thor the Barbarian, Merlin the Wizard, uh…er…Brunhilda (?) the Valkyrie or…let me look this up…really?…”Questor” the elf. Yep. They named the elf after his primary function in the game. Whatever…once the game begins, you make a mad dash for the exit of a small but labyrinthine map, after which the game whisks you away to the next bit o’ labyrinth. Oh, and on your way, monsters beat down on you from all sides as you gently push your way through them like rush hour in the Tokyo subway. Or you can shoot them, which I guess makes it more like the New York subway. And you keep this up for…good god, 108 levels?

I swear I went through this level about twenty times, each with a slightly different variation on the maze.

I swear I went through this level about twenty times, each with a slightly different variation on the maze.

Gauntlet, I’ll say, truly deserves its title. The game never relents in its struggle to violently dismantle both character and player; I could appropriately use the terms “rent” and “asunder”. And, full disclosure, I didn’t finish. Even after two and a half hours and an endless supply of credits, I got to level 52 and promptly celebrated by going to sleep. But even though I didn’t plow through another two hours straight of the crawliest dungeon of all, I came away from the experience with a deeper understanding of myself and the world around me. No really. You can learn some pretty profound truths playing Gauntlet. For example, gold really doesn’t have any value, even though you know you want as much of it as you can gather. Furthermore, your health ticks downward like a clock. Just like life. Also, as a single coin won’t get you to your second birthday party, Gauntlet reminds us that life favors the rich. Even without taking damage from a single enemy, you’ll gasp your last poorly-synthesized breath long before seeing the later levels of the dungeon, unless you keep feeding quarters into the machine like it’s that plant from Little Shop of Horrors; poverty-stricken valkyries can’t buy anything except the farm.

Also–true story–people with friends live longer. Gauntlet becomes exponentially easier with each player joining in, while reminding us why we hated group projects in school. Many of the corridors can only fit one at a time, so one player ends up doing all the work while the others kick up their heels and coast by without damage. Plus, each character has different stats, so while Speedy Gonzales the elf might lock on to the exit like a baby xenomorph going for a guy’s face, he’ll have to stand there and wait–his own health ticking downward, while his cousin, Slowpoke Rodriguez the Barbarian, catches up. Death appears as an enemy in the game, as much a bitch as in real life. Other enemies will vanish forever if you touch them (also like real life). Not death, though. You can shield yourself from him-hide behind a wall or something-but you can’t win and he won’t leave until he takes what he wants from you.

Note that a lot of these screenshots look alike. Gauntlet doesn't exactly offer much in the way of scenery.

Note that a lot of these screenshots look alike. Gauntlet doesn’t exactly offer much in the way of scenery.

But other than those random observations, the game offers as much variety as grocery store muzak, thus limiting anything really worth saying about it. Even magical, fantasy-themed maze solving starts to feel as exciting as fishing in an empty pond after the first few hours. Fortunately, the arcade version spawned a series not just of sequels, but different versions of the original–with each one even more original than the last!

After my last attempt to cycle through the same levels, plow through the same enemies, unlocking the same doors, and glancing over to check the same clock, a thought struck me; didn’t I buy a Game Boy Advance port of this game years ago? Might that have refined this system into something I could pause and come back to later without sacrificing all those hours of my life? After about twenty minutes of rifling through my Nintendo DS cases wishing I had periodically alphabetized the GBA cartridges stored there, I found it, plugged it in, and immediately shut it off. Here’s some advice to any developer/publisher interested in porting an arcade game–remember to let the players insert coins! This port didn’t change much from the original, but they bundled it with “Rampart” and stripped away any function that arcade cabinets could do that the GBA couldn’t. So don’t bother looking for coins. They give you one credit. Granted, they don’t skimp on the health, but I wouldn’t call them “generous.” Your health insurance can’t pay 100,000 for a pediatric checkup at birth and then call it good for life. Also, on this lifetime limit of health, you have to get through all 108 levels alone. The GBA doesn’t have a second-player controller, so the port doesn’t offer more than one player. I want to issue a challenge: anyone who can beat the Game Boy Advance port of Gauntlet, take a picture or video of the end–with the GBA or NDS visible in the frame–and I will immortalize your name alongside Odysseus, Aeneas, Beowulf and Arthur by writing–and posting–an epic poem about your victory.

However, while immortal fame remains inaccessible to me in handheld dungeons, the Sega Genesis port (released as Gauntlet IV) solves the issues from the GBA port. Amazing foresight, I’d say, considering it predated the Game Boy Advance version by over a decade. Gauntlet IV introduced different modes to the game. Arcade mode simulates the original hardware, allowing players who apparently never have more than $2.25 to their name, to “insert coins” for more health. You don’t get much health per credit, so this doesn’t immediately make the game playable, but you can fiddle with difficulty settings and maximum credits (as previously mentioned, up to a total of 9). Record mode helps a little; players can’t die and can use passwords to continue, but they have extra loading screens to breakdown their progress and weigh out their score based on health, enemies killed, and gold collected. I do take some issue with the game, as they felt the need to completely redesign most of the levels. It still feels like the arcade game, but all the cash you dropped into the machine as a kid won’t prepare you for the Sega release.

While pillaging and murdering your way through the dungeon, don't forget to stop and loot once in a while.

While pillaging and murdering your way through the dungeon, don’t forget to stop and loot once in a while.

Fortunately, quest mode rocks. Gauntlet IV introduced the concept of 4 towers to complete to gain access to a castle. Each tower consists of the same small-ish labyrinths, but they differ from all previous installments by giving the players the ability to freely move up and down levels, adding a vertical component to labyrinth-solving. The player has to locate specialized “trap” tiles that remove walls from key pathways, enabling them to get to the top. (Or the bottom. Apparently they felt that some towers needed inverting.) At the final floor of each tower, you fight a dragon. You can fight towers in any order, but difficulty increases (along with gold and exp received) each time you kill a dragon. Each tower has a specialized tile that impairs the player while standing on it. Unlike other installments, you can level up and purchase equipment, but enemies level up along with you, making the game as effective as using an exercise bike as your main mode of transportation; even if you get better at it, it doesn’t move any faster. Even so, I beat this version. Let me shout that from the mountain tops: I actually finished one installment of Gauntlet!

But I still have to navigate your stupid dungeons? Fuck you!

But I still have to navigate your stupid dungeons? Fuck you!

Even so, I don’t think I enjoy Gauntlet IV quite as much as the NES “port.” I say “port” lightly, since it features different graphics (downgraded for 8-bit), completely new levels, and six world maps with labyrinthine routes dependent on which exits you take in each level. Gold has a purpose; collect enough and your maximum health increases. Periodic treasure rooms (a staple of the series, previously as useful as Mega Man’s score system) now refill health if you find the exit in time. Best of all, you can pick up your progress using a password system (provided your hardware doesn’t fail when you try to start the game after you die….). The game does have one obnoxious drawback, though, in that along the way you have to collect parts of a password to get you into the final level. You can only find these in select rooms along the way, and you usually can’t access these rooms unless you find the secret exit in a previous level that takes you there. And if you miss the password, the game keeps going, but you can’t finish. Yay.

This exciting screen. Every. Bleeping. Level. It adds about an hour on to your play time.

This exciting screen. Every. Bleeping. Level. It adds about an hour on to your play time.

But for all the obnoxious tedium of these early Gauntlet games, I should clarify that, while I enjoy finishing games, I can enjoy a game without finishing it. While the term “dungeon crawler” usually sends me screaming for higher ground, I actually rather enjoy this, and I can probably recommend any of these games–well, maybe not the GBA port–as long as you don’t expect to see the end. And if you do see the end…let me know.


Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow – GBA

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

Furry and *Fabulous*!

Furry and *Fabulous*!

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

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


General Soma Crosses the Delaware

General Soma Crosses the Delaware

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metroid: Zero Mission – Game Boy Advance

Like the 80s never went away.

Like the 80s never went away.

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

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

I once caught a lizard THIIIIIIS big!

I once caught a lizard THIIIIIIS big!

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did this...

How did this…

...turn into this?


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

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

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

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

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