Mega Man: The Wily Wars – Sega Genesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby steps, Capcom. Baby steps.

Shining Force II – Sega Genesis

You cannot pass!

You cannot pass!

Last year around this time I decided to indulge in a bucket list game of mine: Shining Force. Given the choice between all the options released for the Sega Genesis, I randomly decided to begin with the first title that bore the name, all the while hearing over and over from sources online that the sequel blew that game out of the water. So in the mood for an old-school RPG, I pulled out Shining Force II and prepared for it to impress me with…a game almost completely indistinguishable from the first. Don’t misunderstand me, the first Shining Force more than justifies the cost of a Sega Genesis. But I had hoped that the improvements touted across the internet might include a story not ground from the same petrified chunk of mammoth shit, or a menu system a little cleaner than a congressman’s after-hours activities. Sadly, the game fails to deliver on both counts.

Davey Jones?

Davey Jones?

Shining Force II centers around tactical role-playing. As the leader of the force, the hero, dubbed “Bowie” in all media except for the game itself, commands a cast of characters with rudimentary job classes, mostly determined by species. Centaurs come equipped with all the important parts of the horse, so they make good cavalry. Dwarves make good, stout, infantry, while elves tend to work best with ranged weapons. Still, so as the king can cite examples in opposition to passing any civil rights legislation, you’ll occasionally get magic-using elves or humans, a centaur with a bow, or some other such crossover. For the most part, classes only determine what type of weapon the character will use, or in the case of magic-users, their spells and MP. The game’s primary difference involves a cast of hidden characters, each with special requirements to fulfill before they’ll join you. Furthermore, while all your characters should receive a promotion at level 20, you can promote some (apparently) to alternative classes. On both counts, I can’t say for sure whether or not I unlocked any of these, since even the main story often fails to clarify the steps you need to take to advance.

But we don't have the courtesy to do this during battle, of course.

But we don’t have the courtesy to do this during battle, of course.

The story begins with a careless thief (but one with a good heart!) unsealing an ancient Devil on Granseal island. This demon unleashes his hosts upon the world. They possess one king, try to kill another, suck the princess into an alternate dimension, and somehow embed two jewels into Bowie’s neck. Shaking off this pretty intense body modification as no more than modest bling, Bowie sails with the other survivors to the continent in order to found a new Granseal. He meets a phoenix named Peter who somehow becomes an important character, they travel around, do…stuff…and somehow they find the Peruvian Nazca drawings in this fantasy world otherwise unrelated to Earth, fly back to the island, and face off against a host of devils, demons, cliches, and WTFs.

Ah, yes, a translation to rival the works of Hemmingway, Milton, and Chaucer

Ah, yes, a translation to rival the works of Hemmingway, Milton, and Chaucer

Much like the previous game, the plot serves as an engine (albeit a badly tuned engine with a few pistons not firing and the “check” light constantly blinking on the dash) to get players from one battle to the other as fast as possible. While many games of this era can defend themselves with the “poorly translated” argument, Shining Force II has a special kind of bad writing that you only see when both the writer and the translator habitually abuse strong narcotics. The kind of writing that, while not overtly suggestive, makes dialog such as “They took my jewels” and “Don’t touch it! I’ll shake you off” sound like they lifted it right out of Leisure Suit Larry. One of the primary cliches–I mean, antagonist with a heart of gold who joins you after a major epiphany–suffers from one of the worst mistransliterations I have ever seen; rather than squaring off against the valiant Baron Ramon, the game expects you to take seriously repeated encounters with a villain named Lemon. However, I think I’ll grant my coveted Drunken Developer award to the end of the game where they can only break the curse on the sleeping princess with yet another cliche, and the characters hold a meeting to choose which one can deliver the true love’s kiss. While I never doubted for an instant that Bowie would get all the action here, they actually disappointed me by suggesting your healer–the blue-haired, sparkly-eyed elven priestess–could have possibly broken the curse, and then didn’t follow through on that.

Honestly, until that point, I didn’t think any of the characters had an inkling of personality behind them. They join your party out of the blue and fade into obscurity almost as quickly. To save space (presumably) on the cartridge, battle menus display character classes as four-letter abbreviations, such as RNGR, PGNT, RDBN, and SDMN, which I can only assume stand for Ringer, Pageant, Robber Barron and Sadomasochist, respectively.




The battle system helps this game stand on its own. Battles occur on the map, but like the first game they switch to an isometric animated environment whenever a character acts. Like any other tactics game, characters have a certain distance they can move per turn, each attack has its own range and effect areas, and different attacks seem to affect enemies differently. The limited number of attacks and the inability to customize characters make it a very rudimentary strategy game, but it plays well and forces you to think about your actions (even at one point dropping you onto a chess board and making you fight the pieces). Unlike the first game, you can freely explore the map and return to areas previously visited. Rather than having a set number of battles, they’ve introduced random encounters, which always seem to follow the same presets–kind of a nice gesture, I guess, but since you retain any experience when you die, it really makes level grinding unnecessary unless you really need some quick cash.

The system for awarding exp, though, leaves a lot to the imagination. The amount you earn after each attack seems about 10% dependent on whether the attack connected or missed, 10% on whether it defeated the enemy, and 80% on whether the game feels like giving you only 1 exp. Also on my list of criticisms, I’d like to add that I enjoyed the opportunity to explore the map (on account of having that option in every RPG released since the 1980s.), but the game didn’t always clarify where to go or what to do. At all. I felt good when I got a cannon and read that it could destroy rocks while also remembering a rock from halfway back to the beginning of the game that blocked my path. However, when I got there: nothing. Only by looking up a walkthrough did I learn it wanted me to backtrack to New Granseal and talk to a random guy outside the weapon shop in order to get ammunition. And while the game should take the blame for not giving me so much as a hint, I end up looking like a dumbass who tried to shoot a gun with no bullets.

Should I mock the mass of amalgamated hair, or the softball stuffed down her dress?

Should I mock the mass of amalgamated hair, or the softball stuffed down her dress?

But I have to look really hard for those flaws; while I appreciate a strong story, I can look past that to see the strong gameplay. I can’t comment on the music since I turned the sound off and played the game while watching seasons 3-5 of Dexter–all the while, of course, not missing out on storyline for Shining Force. Looking back at last year’s entry on the original game, I did the same thing with the sound. Losing track of how many times I compared the two games, I can say confidently that Shining Force II really stands out as an excellent jewel (hehe) of a game; I just disagree with the assessment that it surpasses the first.

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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh, is that hair gel?"

“Oh, is that hair gel?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh wait…

Shining Force – Sega Genesis, Game Boy Advance

When you wish upon a copyright infringement lawsuit...

When you wish upon a copyright infringement lawsuit…

Let’s have a quick word about how to increase endgame difficulty.  You want the game to feel more challenging near the end.  That way it works toward a climax, following a natural plot arc.  Some games do this better than others.  For instance, some bosses fight with status attacks.  Others will introduce bosses as random enemy encounters.  Valkyrie Profile II demanded I use the level 64 character they introduce for the final battle when even the easy enemies can vaporize all my level 90 characters like a meteor entering the earth’s atmosphere. Still, most games will bump up the level or stats of endgame enemies to give them a slight edge over the player.

However, raising the enemies’ evade rates doesn’t accomplish this as much as the Shining Force developers seemed to think it did.  Watching characters swipe the air like an epileptic in a dance club feels less exciting than, say, going outside and slashing bushes with foam pool noodles or watering your lawn with a water pistol.  This contributes to slowing the pace of a tactics game in which most battles start with bottlenecking your characters or putting them so far from the enemies that, if they worked together, they could measure the speed of light.

...have we met?

…have we met?

Not that they would do that, mind you, because like many mill-ground fantasy stories, Shining Force weighs itself down with themes like “Light is good” and “Dark is bad.”  The game opens with the formulaic war-between-two-countries-with-a-supernatural-threat-looming-vaguely-on-the-horizon.  The rival military general shows up looking like he dumped a life-size Wooly Willy set over his head and kills the king.  On his deathbed, the King gives you the order to form the Shining Force and defeat the darkness.  Light good.  Dark bad.  The enemy leader calls himself Darksol and he plans to resurrect the ancient Dark Dragon (who is neither dark, nor a dragon).

Would I be asking too much for a well-written fantasy story that doesn’t draw morally unconflicted characters in a black-and-white scenario?  I thought about rewriting that last sentence to get around using the phrase “black-and-white.”  Why do we have to associate black and white with evil and good?  I don’t know about anyone else, but I find a bit of darkness rather pleasant when I’m trying to sleep, or sneak up on a ninja or get dressed in a room full of people.  A little more subtle conflict might make a more interesting story.  In fact, for most of the game I turned off the music (which didn’t prevent it from echoing in my head like The Master’s drums) and listened to a Jim Butcher audiobook in order to get a good fantasy story. The bulk of the plot just involves moving from one excuse to start a battle to the next.  In fact, at one point, after fighting a hoard of monsters outside of a town, the man at the gate casually remarks, “Sorry about that.  We thought you were someone else,” at which point I just tip my hat, wish him good morning, and waltz on by as though I’m not headed to a priest to resurrect my comrades murdered as a casualty of mistaken identity.

Shining Force-000001While it seems like they wrote the story in as much time as it took to look up a formula and transcribe it into the game, Shining Force does have strong points.  The game centers on battles–and when I say “centers,” it also rights, lefts, ups and downs on it too.  Don’t expect side quests or even random enemy encounters–all battles are programmed and static–but the strategy aspect makes up for the minimalist approach to this RPG.  I enjoyed FF Tactics more than many of Final Fantasy’s main-series installments, and Shining Force feels like a somewhat simplified version of Tactics.  Battles take place on a grid map, characters have different classes that affect their stats and the range of attacks, and while they can’t switch between them like FFT’s job system allowed, they can receive a “promotion” to a slightly better class once they reach level 10.

I can also praise the game for allowing the player to keep any exp they earned in battles they lost.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken an unexpected turn for the worst, then realized “I haven’t saved in an hour!”  Those moments make me acutely aware that time only moves in one direction, and that I’ve wasted hours careening toward death in front of the TV with nothing to show for it.  Shining Force, however, lets you stay at your new level, making the next round a little easier.  Although they probably included this to let players level-up in a game with no random encounters, I’d appreciate seeing this feature more often in RPGs.

New menu box . . . every time. . . can't stand it...but at least inventory management isn't as bad as in Skyrim.

New menu box . . . every time. . . can’t stand it…but at least inventory management isn’t as bad as in Skyrim.

While I appreciate the fast pace after playing some interminably slow Zelda games, I do have a complaint about the menu system, in which the player flips through single options box-by-box, resurrecting characters one at a time, transferring single items from character to character, purchasing and equipping items one-by-one, and needing to open a new menu and flip through all the options each time.  With Final Fantasy V already on the shelves for a full year, you’d think some of the programmers would figure out, “Wow! RPG menus don’t have to be complete shit!”

Like Final Fantasy Tactics, characters level up upon completing actions in battle, which again I mostly support.  However it leads to a common problem of healers never leveling up because they don’t act as much as any of the other characters.  Another option to gain experience might help.  At least in FF Tactics I could bounce rocks off my comrades’ heads until I had enough MP and JP to learn support spells.  Shining Force doesn’t give even that much.  I went into the final battle without effective cure spells because my healer was less than half the level of some of my other characters.

But don’t let the flaws get in the way of enjoying the game.  I made it through in about a week and a half, never feeling like the pacing dropped much, and only encountering minor frustration at whiffle battling enemies with high evade rates.  I finished the game feeling I enjoyed it very much, and look forward to the sequel.  Which I won’t play right away. Maybe some shorter games first.

Until this point in the game, they called him "Kane"

Until this point in the game, they called him “Kane”

A few notes before I leave, Shining Force has also been published for the Game Boy Advance, although it has a new subtitle, “Rise of the Dark Dragon.”  While I didn’t play that version, word on the net says they improved the translation massively and may have resolved some of the plot vacancies I mentioned earlier.