Star Fox – SNES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did someone forget to finish programming the boss?

Did someone forget to finish programming the boss?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Metroid Super Zeromission – SNES Hack

Kraid's Room Redesign

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

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

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

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

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

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

...you bastard.

…you bastard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ridley battle

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

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

Secret of Mana – SNES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me just flag down a cab here...

Let me just flag down a cab here…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RetroArch-0908-175043

Super Star Wars (series) – SNES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh, is that hair gel?"

“Oh, is that hair gel?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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…

Super Metroid – SNES

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I might say I like the original Metroid, but I’ve heard other people say they like coffee or wine, and I always find myself wondering why.  They might be good ideas, but one taste leaves a bad taste in your mouth and the feeling that you’ve just wasted a little bit of time and a lot of money.  I’ve made it through Metroid, although if I didn’t dig up a map online, the game would have lasted long enough for me to realize that every room differed from the others only by location, and since the developers didn’t have the foresight to include a ball of string among the gear Samus finds on planet Zebes I had no way of knowing whether or not I was actually progressing through the game.  I also find refilling life a bit tedious since it requires camping out by pipes, toasting enemies as they pop out one at a time until I’ve consumed enough monster s’mores to rival a seven course meal in order to refill my energy tanks.  Modern developers, I’m afraid still insist on padding out games with long tedious fetch quests and back tracking.  Metroid Prime spent an entire game sending me to the farthest edge of the map from wherever I happened to be standing as though the game were a popular kid trying to find amusing ways to get rid of me whenever I tried to hang out with the cool crowd.

Fortunately, though, Nintendo has provided us with a period of their history when they made games that challenged us without being convoluted, and as such, today I bring you a review of Super Metroid!

At least, I’d like to review it, but that would require thought, objective reasoning, integrity, yada yada.  But I’ve played this game far more than any other game I’ve written about yet, and don’t really see much of a downside. Nintendo conceived the series as combining the action/platforming aspects of Mario with the adventure and item collection from the Legend of Zelda.  I don’t know whether to credit them with brilliance for figuring out how to make platforming games bearable, or with more luck than the human mind can fathom since they managed to add platforming to Zelda and not screwing up completely. For further spice, Yoshio Sakamoto, in a power play move I outlined in my Pitfall review, ripped off tone, setting design, and a name for a recurring antagonist from Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, Alien.

Super Metroid follows the continuing adventures of Samus Aran, intergalactic bounty hunter, role model for young girls, and prime candidate for Miss Universe (having been one of only a few women in the gaming world to have actually lived in the Universe), as she hunts down the galaxy’s last remaining metroid larva.  Stolen by Space-pterodactyl-dragon-thing, Ridley of the Space Pirates, she tracks it to the planet Zebes, home world of Samus and the extinct Chozo race, as well as the setting of the first game.

RetroArch-0713-075234The brilliance of Super Metroid shines through very early on in the dismal, gray, creepy section of the game.  Samus lands on a seemingly abandoned planet, and immediately explores areas identical to the few areas from the NES game that actually stood out from the others.  Having lived on a planet that takes millions of years to move continents, I’ve often found video game geography a curious phenomenon that redesigns plate tectonic structure sometimes within a matter of hours.  While an entirely new map does give a fresh new take to each instalment of a series, the fact that a few areas present actually make sense to be there helps make the game seem a little more plausible.

RetroArch-0713-082146While I’m on the topic of geography, Nintendo bestowed another gift upon us, an in-game map!  Honestly, I jest, but as the lack of a map seriously hampered the players ability to finish–or play through–the first game, simple changes such as this make the game highly valuable. Other additions to the game just add flavor.  Samus once again travels through the plant-infested tunnels of Brinstar and the liquid-hot ‘magma’ of Norfair, but also takes a swim through Maridia and explores a wrecked ghost ship on the surface.  Some old bosses return–as a prank played on fans of the original, you fight a kraid who is proportionately the same size as the 8-bit morbidly obese uncle to Godzilla, only to find out that the real Kraid has grown to double-screen size.  New bosses and mini-bosses join the mix, each with a unique attack pattern.

Samus finds new items on planet Zebes, which as usual make me question the sanity of Chozo engineers.  While people in a fantasy-inspired medieval setting could reasonably find uses for all of the items in The Legend of Zelda (at least, the first handful of games), I still wonder what use a sci-fi bird race has for an item that turns them into a ball, especially considering that a majority of Americans would pay top dollar for a device just like it, but that works in the opposite direction.  Still, tools such as the spring ball, space jump, and screw attack give the player a certain satisfaction out of being able to explore new areas and reach new items.  Many games place high-value power ups in difficult to reach spots, ensuring that once the player reaches them, they’ve already completed so much of the game that the new item may surpass all else in coolness, but becomes absolutely worthless since there’s nothing left to use it for.  Super Metroid, though, offers the ability to increase missile, super missile and power bomb capacity, so the player has the opportunity to use high-value items to locate useful missile upgrades near the end of the game.

CrocomireSuper Metroid adds up to a colorful, in-depth game that you can still play through in under three hours.  If NES developers kept falling back on beefing up difficulty to enhance replay value, then current-console developers can share their guilt for buffing up play time.  Yes, it’s nice for a game that cost $50 to last a little while before you get tired of it and throw it on the heap, but that doesn’t mean we’ll never want games we can play in a day, and some games just drag on indefinitely–by the tenth hour of turning giant stone gears in God of War, I can just about feel the burn for myself.

Metroid, on the other hand, not only takes less than three hours, it also rewards you for completing it that fast! The quicker you finish, the more parts of her power suit Samus takes off after the end credits.  This feature of the game holds me up (shut up! That wasn’t a pun!) a bit, though. The NES Metroid featured a character that everyone–developers included–assumed came equipped with standard action-hero genitalia.  Near the end of the project, one programmer mentioned offhand how neat it would be if the person in the suit was a girl.  The rest of the team ran with it, and as a result, the original Metroid ended with a surprisingly powerful statement on gender roles and assumptions in society, along with giving us a positive female role model (however manufactured she may actually be).

Still, she took off the suit regardless of your performance (shut up! I’m not making puns!) in the first game.  Here, she offers it as a reward, and the broken-down gender roles patch themselves up and slather on a new coat of cement.  The purpose of setting this as a goal does nothing more than prey on a young male audience desperate for any sort of vicarious, pixellated sexual encounter they can pretend they’re having.  If I had to pick out a flaw in this game, I’d have to say the goody at the end turns Samus into pre-adolescent nerd porn.  Hopefully, the fact that she’s a kick-ass female Boba Fett with no goofy femme problems or love affairs shoehorned into the story (I’m ignoring “The Other M” for the time being) will cover up this indiscretion.  And if you don’t agree, here’s a picture of Samus in a bikini:

Samus gets naked. Mostly.

Sexy…if you go for women from the 1980s.