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Kirby’s Star Stacker!

The final months of the year always mean handheld gaming for me due to the travel that time of year always necessitates.  I always try to load up my 3DS with a few games to get me through the season.  Back in November, Nintendo was having a sale on a handful of Virtual Console titles, and I decided to snag Kirby’s Star Stacker for the measly price of $1.49.  I have mixed feelings about Virtual Console.  I would love to load up my 3DS with a bunch of classic games, but knowing that these purchases won’t transfer over to future Nintendo platforms is strongly off-putting.  Consequently, I tend to only buy things when they go on sale for super cheap (which they rarely do considering Nintendo’s aversion to sales).

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Star Stacker is a Game Boy falling block puzzle game of the kind that was so prominent back in those days.  In this entry of the genre, falling from the top of the screen are dimeric blocks that are composed of either star tiles (or other special tiles) or animal tiles featuring one of Kirby’s three animal friends (the hamster, owl, and fish from Kirby’s Dreamland 2).  The goal of the game is to specifically eliminate sequences of star tiles, which is done by sandwiching any number of them between two matching animal tiles.  For each star tile that is eliminated, a counter on the right side of the screen is reduced, and the round is cleared when the counter hits zero.  The counter is meant to be indicative of King Dedede’s HP, and his face hovers above it while displaying a range of emotions in reaction to the player’s current condition.  In addition, any time two or more matching animal tiles touch each other directly, they are eliminated from the screen, but these do not affect the counter.  In later rounds of the game, special tiles come into play, like bombs that wipe out a row of tiles when triggered.  

As a falling block puzzler,  Star Stacker’s main mode is more akin to Dr. Mario than the archetype’s progenitor, Tetris.  Star Stacker is composed of discrete stages that begin with a preset configuration of blocks and end when King Dedede’s HP has been depleted.  Thus, stages in Star Stacker are more like stages in Dr. Mario where the player has to clear a preset configuration of the virus enemies to progress, as opposed to Tetris where the entire game is one continuous session and the stage number rolls over when a certain score threshold has been met.  I think I tend to prefer Star Stacker and Dr. Mario’s style, as completing handcrafted stages gives me a better sense of progression.  Usually, I don’t care much for games that are purely score attack, especially when there are no online hooks to foster competition.   

Star Stacker initially offers the player four difficulty modes (Normal, Hard, Very Hard, and Super Hard) each with their own unique sets of stages.  Despite their formidable names, these modes aren’t especially challenging.  The thing about this part of Star Stacker is that it’s actually really easy to get lucky and wipe out huge portions of Dedede’s HP in one move.  There were many many times when I was on the edge of filling up the screen, but then, out of nowhere, I triggered a long chain reaction that that wiped out a huge number of blocks and slid me to victory.

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In this first part of Star Stacker, it’s just really easy to “accidentally” set off massive chain reactions.  I think it’s because it doesn’t take much to make a match in this game.  There are only three animal tiles, and it only takes two adjacent to each other to make a match, so the probability of matches being formed as part of a chain is very high.  This is exacerbated by the fact that, as a reward, after each step of a chain, the game will randomly dump clusters of transient star blocks that can make matching sequences like normal star blocks, and only exist for the duration of the chain reaction (they disappear afterwards).  I realize I’m probably not explaining that last concept well, but I’m just mentioning it to illustrate that chains in the game tend to be self-propagating, which makes it easy to wipe out huge chunks of Dedede’s HP in one swoop.  This adds a huge element of luck (which strongly favors the player) to the game.  Personally, my brain is really only fast enough predict chain reactions up to the second, maybe third, step in the chain, so any additional matches I get past that is pure luck.

While even Super Hard mode seems like a breeze, the game shows its true colors once this last “normal” mode has been beat, and the secret Insane mode becomes unlocked.  This mode is where things get tough.  Insane mode possesses 50 stages (far longer than any other mode) and is arguably where the real game begins.  I had initially been a bit disappointed by how simple and easy the game had been up until that point, and then my opinion immediately did a complete 180, as the game became incredibly challenging.  Especially the back half of this mode is super difficult, and some levels can take well over an hour to put to rest.  This is due to the sheer perfection the game begins to demand from the player, as a single mistake can completely ruin your chance to succeed.  For me, round 42 was particularly overwhelming.  I estimate it took me three to four hours just to beat that one.    

The difficulty spike in this stretch of the game is due mostly to the way the blocks are arranged at the start of each round.  Often times, these stages start with a good chunk of the screen filled with special blocks that need to be “sandwiched” by the animal tiles twice to be eliminated, and the difficulty of clearing these things can get each level off to a rough start, especially as these rounds tend not to begin with many animal tiles already on screen.  In addition, King Dedede’s HP really begins to balloon, which makes each level quite a bit longer, and thus the potential for critical mistakes to occur much more likely.

The gruelling nature of Insane mode really started to get to me after a while.  I found that finishing off the final gauntlet of levels often required a lot of luck and incredible precision.  I really started to reconsider whether my mission to beat the game was worthwhile.  Considering the many hours I put into getting to the end of this game, I probably should have given up on it and spent that play time elsewhere.  But, I really can’t deny that the basic matching mechanics of Star Stacker are incredibly compelling (to the point of compulsion).  Add to that the fact that I just reached a point where my pride and competitiveness eventually awoke and wouldn’t let me let myself be beaten by this game, and I ended up sticking it out to the very brutal end.

 
I guess I have a strong love/hate relationship with the game, as cliche as that sounds.  The central mechanic is incredibly fun, but the wonky difficulty tuning that swings from too easy to too hard created a lot of frustration.  Ultimately, it’s just one of those puzzle games that’s just hard to put down, like the original Tetris or Lumines.  

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Donkey Kong 94

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Donkey Kong is easily one of the most important games ever released.  It started Nintendo on its path to becoming a titan of the art and probably the most influential creative force in gaming history.  Not only that, it was the world’s introduction to the character that would become gaming’s most iconic symbol.  But this post isn’t about that game…… rather, it’s about a Game Boy classic that many might not know parades under the guise of the arcade masterpiece.

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Donkey Kong has principally had two eras of peak popularity.  The first, of course, came with the arcade series of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and (to a far lesser extent) Donkey Kong 3, and the second occurred toward the end of the Super Nintendo’s run when the Donkey Kong Country trilogy breathed new life into the sunsetting 16-bit machine.  But wedged in between these two series was a 1994 Game Boy title simply called “Donkey Kong,” that managed to completely reinvent the arcade classic just months before Donkey Kong Country would turn the character completely on his head.

Donkey Kong 94, as it’s usually called to distinguish it from the arcade version, starts off innocuously enough.  Mario must tackle the original 4 arcade levels in a quest to rescue his girlfriend Pauline from the clutches of the renegade primate.  But after Donkey Kong falls to his doom at the end of the fourth level and all would seem well for the reunited lovers, something completely off-script happens.  Donkey Kong doesn’t stay down, rather he springs back up, snatches Pauline, and makes a mad dash out of the construction zone that the arcade duel took place in.  At this point, the player is introduced to the first world map in the game, and an amazing new adventure begins to unfold.  

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In many ways, Donkey Kong 94 is a logical extension of its arcade forebear, but in other ways it sets out to create something deceptively fresh.  Rather than having levels that mostly see Mario travelling from left to right across a linear series of obstacles as happens in the Super Mario Bros. series, DK94 focuses on condensed platforming stages that are usually not much larger than a few screens.  This makes it similar in design to its namesake.  However, after the initial four throwback levels are completed, the game takes on a puzzle platforming twist.  The goal of each stage (aside from the boss battles) is to reach a key that needs to be carried back to a locked door which blocks Mario’s pursuit of the ill-tempered ape.  Often there is a bit of trickery involved in getting the key to the exit which is where the puzzle aspect comes in.  All-in-all, DK94 has a formula that is incredibly well-suited to portable gaming.  

In some ways, though, I feel like calling the game a puzzle-platformer is a bit misleading.  I feel that most games that carry that moniker are heavily skewed to puzzle solving, which is to say that they are really just puzzle games delivered via a side scrolling perspective.  But DK94 actually requires a relatively high degree of skill in navigating the obstacles in each environment.  An important new aspect is that Mario’s moveset has been expanded a bit, and he can do backflips and handstands that let him jump higher, but require deft reflexes and timing to pull off right.  Perfect execution of these moves is often critical to success.  I would say that the challenge of DK94 is split roughly 50/50 between puzzling and skill-based platforming.

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The “real” world setting of the first Donkey Kong game makes a return here, not the Mushroom Kingdom that would later become Mario’s home.  Many of the worlds resemble the current day, such as the first world which is a contemporary city that prominently features skyscrapers and modern architecture.  There is also an unusual world simply called “Airplane” that takes place on what I think is a large cargo plane.  There are no Toads or Goombas or the like to be seen.  Instead, a new set of enemies appears that is in-line with the new aesthetic, and there are some prominent baddies that return from the arcade games.  Furthermore, Princess Peach is entirely absent.  The leading lady is instead Pauline, Mario’s long forgotten first damsel-in-distress.  Meanwhile, Donkey Kong Jr. also makes a few mischievous appearances to thwart Mario’s progress.  A big part of the reason why I favor this game so much is because these characters and settings make it feel so distinct from the rest of Marioverse content.  

You know, I’ve always thought Donkey Kong was a cool arcade game, but it’s unfortunately short.  The coin-op machine had a mere 4 levels, and the NES port had even less than that (the cement factory level was cut) and doesn’t even loop back to the first level when you beat DK.  Consequently, I’ve always found it hard to be particularly passionate about that game.  It provides a fun time and is an iconic part of gaming history, but I don’t necessarily feel the need to return to it.  And that’s why DK94 is so special.  It takes that awesome original Donkey Kong game and explodes it into an epic new adventure.  It has enough familiar aspects to make a rightful claim to the Donkey Kong name, but adds enough of its own ideas to sustain itself for an amazing ~100 level quest.

And before going on, I would be remiss not to mention the excellent music.  If you want to listen to some bleep-bloops sing, DK94 definitely doesn’t disappoint.  Even to this day, these catchy tunes still get still get stuck in my head sometimes.  I’m particularly partial to the theme of the Desert world:  

If you’ve read my recent post on my Top 30 games, you may remember that DK94 was one of those that made it high on the list (which means it immediately comes to my mind as one of the greats).  I really love this game.  It’s probably my favorite Game Boy game, with the only other real contender being Super Mario Land 2.  I think DK94 has a slight edge, since SML2 is kind of an easy game, which makes it less replayable to me as an adult.  

Loathe as I am to admit it, I never actually beat DK94 as a kid.  I remember getting stuck in one particular level in the Iceberg world, although I can no longer remember exactly which level it was.  My problem really had to do with the fact that I couldn’t get the key to the door fast enough before the timer ran out.  This was an incredibly frustrating experience, since I loved the game so much as a youngster.  Later in high school, I found the game in a drawer and decided to give it another go.  I sailed through to the end this time, never encountering the same trouble I had before.  I couldn’t even figure out which specific level was the one I had issue with!

The game was made available on 3DS Virtual Console relatively early in Nintendo’s 3DS VC initiative, which I was extremely pleased with.  For the most part, I prefer to use Virtual Console to get into games I didn’t get a chance to play before, as opposed to rebuying games I’ve already had a go with, but DK94 is one of the few exceptions I’ve made.  I would, of course, highly recommend anyone interested in the game with a 3DS to check it out.  However, original Game Boy games on 3DS VC are all monochrome, and I think the coloration that you get when playing the cart on a GBC or GBA is fairly good.  So if you’re inclined toward “authentic” hardware, I would recommend grabbing a cart to play on a (backlit) GBA.

DK94 would get a worthy successor on the GBA, called Mario vs. Donkey Kong, which continued the puzzle-platforming formula.  Although it’s reasonably faithful to the original DK94, Mario vs. Donkey Kong would introduce the Mini-Marios, which were wind-up Mario toys that Mario must collect in each stage to help him out in the boss battles with DK, and these little creatures would become the central focus of the MvDK series in subsequent releases.  The first title to feature the Mini-Marios as the star of the show was Mario vs. Donkey Kong: March of the Minis, a Nintendo DS game that operated like Lemmings instead of a platformer.  Despite being a significant departure from its predecessors, March of the Minis was a pretty good game that made a lot of sense for the DS, as it was designed nicely around the DS’ touch controls.  

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Unfortunately, the series has basically stagnated since then.  The Lemmings-style gameplay has become the crux of almost all of the subsequent sequels.  There have been five games in total that have been released since the inception of the DS era which follow this formula.  The latest release was Mini-Mario & Friends: amiibo Challenge, a free-to-play game that requires the player to own very specific amiibos to unlock packs of levels in the game.  Unfortunately, Nintendo has never really gone back to the puzzle-platforming design of DK94 and MvDK on the GBA.  However, the first release on 3DS, titled Minis on the Move, did shake things up a bit, introducing a new type of gameplay that is somewhat reminiscent of Pipe Dream, an old DOS game.  I really liked Minis on the Move in particular, and the Lemmings-style games have mostly been solid (albeit quite stale), but I do wish they would at least make an attempt to return to the old-school style of the series.  I have no idea what’s stopping them.

I honestly don’t think I can praise DK94 enough.  It made my Maximum 30 list, so of course it has a lot of personal significance to me.  It’s a cart that I had a lot of good times with, and it left a lasting impression.  I wish I had more profound things to say about it, but I don’t, because really this is just pure and simple gaming bliss.  I think anyone who has any love for the old Game Boy should at some point in their life give this classic a go.  

 

Game Boy Advance Turns 15

March 21 marked the 15th anniversary of the Game Boy Advance’s first release in Japan.  To me, it always felt like the first true successor to the long-running and super popular Game Boy handheld, a machine that was over a decade its senior, since Game Boy Color was kind of a half-step.  GBA was an amazing system for pixelated gaming that came out at a time when consoles simply weren’t doing these kinds of games at all.  It was in that time between 32-bit 2D games like Symphony of the Night and Mischief Makers and the indie games, like Braid and Super Meat Boy, that would later revive the scene on consoles.

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Considering the long lifespan of the GB, the GBA was surprisingly short-lived.  The Nintendo DS launched roughly 3 years after the GBA and would take off in an enormous way about a year later.  This means that the GBA only had, at best, four really good years of releases.  Nonetheless, I’ve always been amazed by the huge number of incredible titles that came out during its short life.  I think you can probably divide GBA’s best into two groups, original titles and SNES ports.  There were a lot of SNES ports for the GBA, but for me this worked out well, since I never owned a SNES and got to experience a lot of great games that I missed out on.  But I also don’t think you can understate GBA’s original games.  I’m going to outline some of my favorites here.

If you’ve read my blog before, you might remember that I’m a huge fan of Mario RPGs, and it all began with Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga.  That game was a ton of fun and felt like a breath of fresh air among the other RPGs that were coming out at the time.  Considering how serious and convoluted Japanese-style RPGs can be at times, the goofball sense of humor of Superstar Saga really made it endearing to me.  I think I liked it for the same reason I liked the old Pokemon games.  They’re both just fun adventures that don’t really try to be so heavy.  I also really enjoyed the turn-based battle system which incorporates minigames into the attacks and defensive moves.  Often in RPGs, I think the battles against the ordinary minions can get stale pretty quickly, but Mario and Luigi’s battle system managed to make them more engaging and stimulating.

Fire Emblem has been running in Japan since the Famicom days and, from my understanding, is the originator of the console-style strategy RPG.  But for those of us in the West, the GBA gave us our first taste with both Fire Emblem (which was actually a sequel) and Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones.  My interest in the series began with Sacred Stones.  The notorious permadeath mechanics made for a strategy game that was more intense than anything else I had ever played.  If one of your characters dies in battle, that’s it.  They’re gone for the rest of the game, unless you restart the mission and succeed in keeping them alive.  And since the missions can be fairly lengthy, I think Sacred Stones was the GBA game I’ve sunk the most time into as a result of having to restart so many times.  I leave no man behind.  These Fire Emblem games also had some *excellent* sprite animations (see below).  Along with Advance Wars, Fire Emblem made the GBA a surprisingly good scene for strategy games.

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Fire Emblem Sprite Work

Symphony of the Night created a breakthrough combination of Castlevania, RPG elements, and a Metroid influenced map.  It was a great thing that they decided to continue the formula with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, especially considering that the Castlevania console games they were putting out at the time weren’t so hot.  It’s good that Symphony of the Night wasn’t just a blip in gaming history, and that the GBA (and later DS) was able to provide a home for these games.  Circle of the Moon was probably the best game available at the US GBA launch, although it’s infamous for its dark color scheme that really didn’t appear so well on the dim side lit screen of the first GBA model.  Ultimately, though, easily the best Castlevania on the machine was Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, which takes the interesting step of setting the game in the near future after the final defeat of Dracula.  It also has one of the most surprising (and difficult to discover) secret endings that I’ve ever seen, although it comes at the price of a rather boring and lackluster normal ending.

Metroid had a long absence after Super Metroid, but it seemed like out of nowhere there was a sudden resurgence of the series with the announcement of both Metroid Fusion for GBA and Metroid Prime for Gamecube.  I know Metroid Fusion isn’t as good as Super Metroid, but I think it deserves more credit than it gets.  Metroid Zero Mission, which is a remake of the first game, is also quite good.  Too bad there was never a DS or 3DS followup to these games (Prime Hunters doesn’t count).

And finally, as I admitted in my recent Twilight Princess post, I began the Zelda series with Wind Waker, so I never played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past when it came out on SNES.  But I was introduced to the game by the GBA version and was blown away.  The world of Hyrule is huge and the quest is absolutely epic for a 16-bit game.  Yet despite the grandiose scale, I find it still has a “pick up and play” quality, because the start of the game gets you almost straight into the action without being bogged down by a lot of exposition.  I still find myself starting this game up maybe once every other year or so, a thing I only do for a few other retro titles.

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The GBA had a huge library, and of course these are only a few highlights for the system.  If anyone else has something they’d like to add, please feel free to do so in the comments.  Thanks for reading.

 

Super Mario Land 2 on the 3DS Virtual Console: A Retro Review

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The Club Nintendo rewards program is something I’ve finally started to keep up with this past year. Previously, I had never bothered with it, as I had never really bought enough Nintendo products within a single year to really qualify for any rewards. But last year, I picked up a 3DS XL(which was an excellent time to get into the 3DS) and a handful of games, and, consequently, decided to register everything and fill out the multitudinous mimetic surveys in the hope of accruing enough points to finally get some free stuff. And free stuff I did get, although nothing overly exciting. Not managing to reach the highly exclusive, super-elite “platinum” tier, I instead was treated to the reward options of the lowly “gold” tier, which consisted mostly of virtual console games. To be fair, they did choose some cool virtual console games to offer members at this level, but it still felt a little anticlimactic after filling out all those surveys and copy-pasting into the suggestions box my go-to request of “PLZ BRING GBA GAMES TO 3DS LOL!” In the end, I settled on nabbing Super Mario Land 2, a game I had a blast with when I was younger.

As with its predecessor, Super Mario Land 2 feels a little off-beat for a Mario game. This is on account of it being the product of the team that masterminded the Game Boy, Nintendo R&D1, as opposed to the team behind the monumentally significant console titles, R&D4. I’ve heard that internally the Nintendo development teams were fiercely competitive with each other, a behavior which was greatly encouraged by Nintendo’s upper management. It shows in SML2, because R&D1 was clearly not interested in simply trying to make an imitation of the console games but rather venture into creating a Mario title that feels very unique and idiosyncratic. But, on the other hand, they did succeed in creating something that has the feel of a Mario game which cannot be said about Super Mario Land 1. You can definitely tell that they had mastered developing for the portable’s hardware by this point. The game possesses the polish, length, and creative flair of a “real” Mario game. As is classic to Mario, you run, you jump, and you stomp on enemies and ram your head into question blocks for powerups and coins. But there are a few little tell-tale differences that clue you into its origins. You don’t attain a 1-up after collecting 100 coins. Rather, your coin count keeps going up after 100, and you use the coins to gamble for lives and powerups in a minigame available from the overworld map. (Using coins to gamble for prizes would be a major part of the Wario games which R&D1 later developed.) The game also breaks from the standard Mario level themes and allows travel to the moon, a submarine, a haunted cemetery, a giant clockwork Mario robot, and several other original locales. Also, I find the bosses are somewhat “out of left field” for a Mario game. I don’t think Mario games have ever really had notable bosses aside from Bowser and the Koopalings. In Super Mario Land 2, on the other hand, the boss fights get a little strange and include battles against the three little pigs, a witch, a giant rat, and Tatanga (the boss of the original SML) amongst others. The game climaxes with a battle against Wario, who sees his introduction in this game.

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One thing I think gamers who played this game as a kid will notice when picking it up on Virtual Console is that the game is really easy. After replaying this game, I had the same sort of revelation I had after replaying Final Fantasy VII a few years ago. For both of these games, I actually found them very tough when I was much younger, but now as an adult, I find them to be absolute pushovers. I was particularly amazed at the ease of FFVII. I remember grinding for hours in that game as a kid to prepare for difficult bosses like Air Buster, Reno at the top of Sector 7 pillar, and the Materia Keeper. During my replay, I blew through all of those bosses and the rest of the game with incredible speed. I can’t understand how I could ever have been so bad at that game to need grinding, especially considering that it’s turn-based. But that’s how it goes I guess.

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That leads me to wonder how new players to Super Mario Land 2 would receive it today. Despite the ease, I still really enjoyed replaying SML2, as I did with FFVII. But a lot of that has to do with how important the game is to me. The only Nintendo console I owned as a kid was the NES, so the Game Boy provided a valuable link to Mario, one of my favorite gaming series, during the Genesis and PSX years. For new players with perspectives not clouded by such personal attachment, they may find the game simply too easy and too off-beat for a Mario game (especially if they are comparing it to modern titles in the series). But I feel that some may appreciate the off-beat nature of the game because it is the result of there being a fairly large amount of creative levels and enemies on display here. The music is also really great, truly on par with the mainline Mario entries. And while the game may not be particularly challenging, there are a fair few secret exits in the game which open up hidden levels on the overworld map. The secret exits aren’t extremely well hidden, but you won’t stumble upon them unless you’re specifically hunting for them. These secret exits are good at creating an impetus to take time and explore the levels, instead of just blowing through the areas because they are so easy.   Super Mario Land 2 - 6 Golden Coins_26

In the end, I think new players with an interest in exploring retro gaming will probably find a lot to appreciate in this game, but those not so attracted to gaming antiquity likely won’t be as absorbed. As for me, I find that I still rank SML2 among my favorite Game Boy games. The only other game I feel that could possibly compete with it for my number one favorite on the platform would be, of course, Donkey Kong.

Game Boy Demakes: Resident Evil Gaiden

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Resident Evil Gaiden for the Game Boy Color was released all the way back in Summer ’02 (late ’01 if you were in Europe) and was actually outsourced by Japanese publisher Capcom to UK-based developer M4, although its development was presided over by Resident Evil producer Shinji Mikami and Code Veronica director Hiroki Kato (who is credited with writing the game).   It strikes me as a bit strange that the Japanese developer would outsource a handheld version of the series. The culture of handheld gaming has always seemed like it’s been quite a bit stronger in Japan than other territories (even before the DS and PSP dominated consoles last gen), and one would think that the Japanese company would target the handheld version of such a popular series primarily to its Japanese player base. It would be kind of like Microsoft outsourcing a PC port of Halo 4 to a company like Falcom. I guess it shows that the Capcom higher-ups may not have had much serious interest in bringing Resident Evil to the portable market (which at the time was really just Game Boy) and probably just treated it as an opportunity to make a quick buck off the lucrative Game Boy shovelware market.

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When dealing with downporting sophisticated 3D games to Game Boy platforms, there were two paths that could be followed. The first path is to try to make the 8-bit gameplay of the downport a reasonable facsimile of the original version. Metal Gear Solid is probably the best example of this approach. The GBC version of MGS actually replicates a huge portion of the gameplay aspects of the PSX progenitor, such as mapping enemies on the soliton radar, being able knock on walls to draw the attention of guards, hiding in boxes that you keep in your inventory, using a cigarette to detect laser tripwires, etc. Partly, this is more natural for MGS, as it is played from a top-down perspective that is easy to replicate with Game Boy graphics (the original Metal Gear ran on the 8-bit NES, of course). But for other games, like Resident Evil (or Daikatana which I covered earlier here), their camera and control setup requires a significant rethinking of how the gameplay actually works. Of course, a game like Resident Evil with its prerendered backgrounds and odd camera angles would need to be modified to something more suitable to an 8-bit device, for instance a sidescrolling or top-down (as is used in Gaiden) view. Of course it would, right?

Actually, before there was Resident Evil Gaiden, a company contracted by Capcom named HotGen (another UK-based studio) developed a faithful conversion of Resident Evil 1 for the GBC that included the odd camera angles, prerendered backgrounds (with way low resolutions of course), and familiar tank controls. You can see screenshots of that version below. The game was supposedly completed and submitted to Capcom in 2000, but Capcom decided that it wasn’t enjoyable to play (I wonder why?) and subsequently cancelled the release. However, from what I can gather, code of an unfinished version leaked on the internet. I haven’t played the leaked code, but interestingly enough, I’ve read from a few who have, and some actually disagree with Capcom’s judgment and described the game as surprisingly playable and fun.

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Resident Evil 1 for the GBC

Resident Evil 1 for the GBC

Regardless, Capcom tried to shrink down Resident Evil again a very short time later with Gaiden which was first released in Europe in December 2001. This time they tried to significantly rethink the Resident Evil gameplay to make it more suitable to the limited hardware they were dealing with, replacing the third person action with a more simplistic shooting gallery style system. The story takes place post-Raccoon City when Leon Kennedy and surviving S.T.A.R.S. members have gone underground and banded together to expose the truth behind Umbrella’s continuing B.O.W. research. Reports come in about an outbreak aboard a cruise liner and Leon Kennedy (whom the player primarily takes the role of) and Barry Burton are sent to investigate.

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You explore the zombie-infested cruise ship from a top down perspective as you uncover the true nature of the outbreak. Only certain areas of the ship are initially accessible to explore, but new areas are unlocked in true Resident Evil style by finding keys, performing very light inventory puzzles, and reaching story events. The most interesting departure from the Resident Evil formula comes in combat. To target zombies, Leon must go into a shooting stance which raises a reticle on the top-down screen. Moving the reticule over a zombie does not actually result in Leon firing at the zombie; rather it takes the player to a first person “shooting gallery” style screen. In this screen, the zombies are visible in front of Leon, and will slowly progress toward his position until they are in attack range, at which point they will begin inflicting damage. At the bottom of the screen is an oscillating reticle that moves from left to right. To successfully hit a zombie, Leon must fire when the moving reticule is right beneath the approaching creature, and he will gain extra damage if he fires when the reticule is in a sweet spot positioned beneath the middle of the monster. Zombies can also initiate the shooting gallery mode if they manage to grab Leon, but in this case, the zombie will start immediately in attack range.

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Ammo is limited in the game, and consequently accuracy is key. As is typical in Resident Evil of the time, when you enter an area with enemies, you will need to decide on whether it is possible to run past them without getting grabbed, or if it is necessary to expend precious ammo to clear them out of your way. Also, there is some strategy in choosing when to target the zombie from the top-down screen. Naturally, you will probably want to target them when they are as far away from Leon in top-down mode as they can get, because this means they will take longer to reach attack range. However, the farther away the zombie is, the smaller of a target it becomes and thus better timing is required to get a successful shot and not waste ammo.

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When this game was released, it was mostly trashed by critics and gamers alike. Personally, I have a strange fondness for it, but I completely understand where its flaws lie. It is a difficult game for me to recommend, because, while it is a fun game, most people will get bored with it for entirely rational reasons. What’s wrong with it exactly? Well, pretty much all aspects of the game are just very simplistic, with the shooting gallery style combat being the worst. The only enemies you fight in this game are zombies and they are all dealt with in the same way. The exception to this is that there is a Mr. X style boss that follows you around, but fights with him are just as basic as the zombies, except his attacks are stronger, and he takes more damage. The puzzles in this game are all very rudimentary, and mostly just require you to find the right item to use on the right door/lock/barricade/obstacle to progress. In addition, there story is merely serviceable, not terrible just very (here’s that word again) simple.

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A little imagination could have gone a long way for this game. Perhaps they could of shook things up with additional enemy types that are fought differently. Perhaps you could have, say, lickers that jump to the ceiling and ambush Leon from above, making targeting them much harder than zombies. Perhaps it could have enemies with multiple critical points which are telegraphed with different animations. Perhaps the different enemies could be fought in different mini-game styles instead of just the shooting gallery view mode. I don’t know, but it seems like making the combat a little more varied would have gone a long way to spicing this game up. Also, the puzzles could have been made more interesting. Resident Evil has never had the most sophisticated puzzles to solve (it’s got nothing on Silent Hill), but Gaiden’s puzzles are shallow even by the standards of the rest of the series. I don’t know if the lack of variation is the fault of the developer or Capcom. But as I talked about above, I suspect Capcom had given up on making a quality Resident Evil for the GBC and were just looking for a quick-cash in release. The lack of variation would certainly be consistent with the developer having little time and money to complete the game.

So you might be wondering at this point why I profess to like this game. Well first off, it is a fun game I think, just perhaps not an impressive game. There’s nothing particularly offensive about the gameplay, even if it lacks variation. Some of it’s also just nostalgia. I had some fun times with this game, and I always look back upon all the old Resident Evil games fondly. For me, they are like strange symbols of my middle school and early high school years. But beyond that, I’ve always had an attraction to low-fi, low-tech horror games, including old classics like Sweet Home, Alone in the Dark, and Friday the 13th (“classic” might be a bit of a stretch with that one) as well as modern attempts such as Lone Survivor and The Last Door. Some people think it’s impossible to make scary games with primitive graphics, but I actually think such low-fi aesthetics allow for a level of abstraction that can drive the imagination to run wild with fantasized horrors. Resident Evil Gaiden sort of does a good job with that, there is definitely a pervasive creepy atmosphere to the ship. The limited ammo and healing items do succeed in creating some tension (as well as any of the PSX games I think), but I definitely wouldn’t call it a scary game. Really though, you might consider that just another area of wasted potential for this game. I guess in the end, my fondness of Resident Evil Gaiden could stem from the same place I appreciate games like Knights of the Old Republic II or Mirror’s Edge, those being other examples of games that could have been so much more. I like it for its potential, even if that potential goes largely unfulfilled.

So there it goes, as I’ve stated it’s really difficult for me to highly recommend Resident Evil Gaiden, as my own attachment to the game is the result of deeply personal reasons. However, Capcom has been a big supporter of Game Boy Virtual Console on 3DS, so I wouldn’t completely rule out a future rerelease for Gaiden. I doubt there is much love for this game by the publisher, but on the off chance it does get released on VC, I think Resident Evil fans would likely find enjoyment in it if they can snag it for a few bucks.

Game Boy Demakes: Max Payne

This is a part of a continuing series of posts covering Game Boy downports of popular console titles. You can find a detailed introduction here.

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Max Payne for the GBA was released in 2003, a little over two years after the PC version. With a story essentially identical to the PC game, Max Payne tells the violent noir tragedy of the titular character, an undercover agent investigating the trade of Valkyr, a new illegal substance that has appeared on the streets of New York. While probing a bank robbery, Max is framed for the killing of his only contact on the right side of justice. Against his better judgment, Max then sets out on a bloody quest to gain vengeance against those who would destroy him, ultimately resulting in him confronting the root cause of the Valkyr trade.

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For the handheld version, we see the popular noir third person action title converted into an isometric shooter. As one might imagine, this has many drawbacks. Max will often get attacked by unseen enemies just off screen which can get frustrating in some of the more wide open environments where it is difficult to pinpoint where those enemies are. Also, Max is only able to shoot in the direction he’s facing which can make evasion of enemy fire difficult, as you can only move in the direction you’re trying to fire in. In addition, there’s some light platforming which can be difficult since it’s hard to gauge relative positions in 3D space (if you’ve ever played Landstalker, you know this is a problem for isometric games). The problem with platforming is exacerbated since missing a jump results in instant death, and, unlike the PC version where you can quick save anywhere, the GBA version only allows four deaths before the entire level must be restarted again.

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It may sound like a frustrating game, but many of these idiosyncrasies are alleviated somewhat by the game’s bullet time. Max Payne is well known as possibly the first game to deploy a Matrix-style “bullet time” feature which allows players to slow down time and line up shots. The bullet time is limited by a timer which can be replenished with each kill. It seems that they were very conscious with the problems of aiming controls, as the GBA version is very generous with its timer, and it’s something you will need to rely on heavily to make it through the game successfully. Because of the aforementioned issues with combat, you will probably spend most of your time in bullet time where it’s far easier to aim. Consequently, the game is often rather bereft of challenge.

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Max Payne GBA tells essentially the same story as the much lauded PC version. Many of the set pieces remain, such as storming Club Ragnarock and the rooftop chase of Vinni Gognitti. While the combat can be sketchy in the handheld version, it does manage to nail the moodiness and gloom of the original. The game is fully voice acted, with many of the original’s lines intact. Cutscenes are also in the familiar comic book panel style. Some fans will be glad to hear that the dream sections of Max’s family are largely no longer playable sections, instead relegated to cutscenes.

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It’s difficult for me to recommend this game, even to Max Payne fans. While it completely manages to capture the atmosphere of the original game in spite of the lo-fi GBA graphics, the core game play is only okay at best. I won’t say it’s terrible, as it usually offers a means of working around its idiosyncrasies, but it’s really not exceptional either. And if you’ve already played the original version, you basically know the story (and if you haven’t, you should go play that version).

Game Boy Demakes: Daikatana

Across its long and successful reign over portable gaming, companies always found serious value in porting their console games and franchises to the Game Boy brand. But because of the platform’s relative technological primitiveness, these handheld ports often had to undergo serious downgrades and workarounds to maintain playability on the reduced hardware. For instance, in Super Mario Bros. DX, the low resolution of the Game Boy Color screen meant that the camera is much more zoomed in on Mario and less of the level is immediately visible. To combat this problem, Nintendo allowed for a limited ability to actually scroll backwards in the game, which was not possible in the original. Others contended with the limited memory of Game Boy cartridges, such as with the Megaman ports which saw a reduced robot master count.

Things started to get even trickier in the mid- to late-90s when console gaming became largely polygonal. Suddenly, downports had to become a great deal more imaginative in how they translated new 3D games into enjoyable experiences for the stalwartly 2D and 8-bit Game Boy and Game Boy Color machines. I’ve always had an interest in these Game Boy “demakes” of popular series. It’s an interesting display of game design skills when you see how developers handle converting their near inextricably 3D games into 2D throwbacks. Some succeeded quite well at this test, and others failed abysmally. Here, I’m going to kick off a short series of posts I have planned for these Game Boy demakes, where I discuss which ones aced it and which ones fell flat.

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I think it is fitting to start the series off with a portable translation that actually managed to outdo its originator. The original Daikatana is a notorious PC FPS from the lavishly acquainted Ion Storm, which was helmed by John Romero, one of the principal designers of the legendary Doom. The product of a long and tortuous development cycle, which received a great deal of attention because of Romero’s fame, Daikatana is unfortunately known for being something of a mess in terms of game design. After a notoriously aggressive (and some would consider offensive) marketing campaign, Daikatana became a punchline for bad video game jokes. The game focuses on protagonist Hiro Miyamoto, whose ancestors forged the mythical Daikatana, a lost blade which can sever the fabric of time itself. In the dystopian future Hiro finds himself living, the world is ruled by the despotic Kage Mishima, who had successfully unearthed the long missing Daikatana and used its powers of time travel to alter the course of history to result in his ascension to global domination. In a failed attempt to wrest the sword from Mishima, Hiro is cast into the past and sets out to return to the future with companions Mikiko Ebihara and Superfly Johnson. The game sees the characters off through time periods such as Ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, and the modern day.

The AI partners Mikiko and Superfly are an important part of the original game, as they are almost always with you and are a constant source of ire. They have notoriously incompetent path finding, often either getting stuck in the level or just stubbornly getting in your way. The game has plenty of issues beyond inept partners as well. All in all, the level design is notoriously sloppy and confusing, and later sections have absurdly finicky platforming sections that make Xen feel like a stage in Super Mario World. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone defend this game, which says something. Usually a bad game will have at least a few champions out there, but I’ve never heard a word in favor of Daikatana.

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But enough about the awful PC game, this is about the Game Boy Color port, which is actually quite stellar! Released in 2000 shortly after the PC version, Daikatana on Game Boy Color sees the FPS converted into a top-down action adventure game. The story is essentially the same, with Hiro being joined by Superfly and Mikiko on an adventure across time to regain control of the Daikatana. However, instead of hopeless AI partners, Hiro’s companions mostly travel with him unseen, kind of like how in Final Fantasy the party is represented by just the main protagonist outside of battle. Occasionally, you will switch control from Hiro to one of the companions, but functionally all the characters are almost the same. This immediately turns your traveling buddies into bros, as opposed to frustrating deadweight.

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The gameplay bears a fair resemblance to Zelda, or at least it would if Zelda had guns. Combat is noticeably somewhat loose. Sometimes the game will have enemies firing at Hiro while he is confined in a tight area, leaving no way to dodge incoming fire. This is probably most pronounced in the first area of the game though, and afterwards combat becomes much more likeable. There are no Zelda-style dungeons per say, but puzzle solving and exploration permeates most of the levels, as well as platforming which is, at worst, unobjectionable.

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The GBC version has levels that, in terms of length, are far more concise than the PC counterpart. That is not to say they are too short, however. They are long enough to be memorable, while still maintaining the on-the-go nature a portable game needs. This contrasts well with the monotony that sets in during so much of the sloggish PC version.

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Everything in this game just seems to work so much more smoothly than its PC counterpart. The time-traveling adventure of these characters becomes so much more interesting and memorable when it’s actually attached to a game that is worthwhile to play. Granted they may as well be completely different games since their only similarity is in plot. I would hope someday it would see a release on 3DS Virtual Console, but the rights are likely controlled by Square Enix (via Eidos), and they have yet to release their more prominent Game Boy games, meaning the lesser known Daikatana has next to no chance. Nonetheless, I highly recommend Daikatana to those with an interest in the GBC library.

Donkey Kong on Game Boy: Why Can’t Mario Be Weird Anymore

Donkey Kong on Game Boy; or, Why Can’t Mario Be Weird Anymore?

The Donkey Kong arcade machine was a really cool game in its day, but with four relatively simplistic, single-screen levels, it has been almost completely eclipsed by its descendants, Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Country. While I think new gamers today could get in and enjoy the old SMB and DKC games, I think the original Donkey Kong would probably fail to make an impression.

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Fortunately though, in 1994 (the same year as the release of Rare’s Donkey Kong Country), a new version of Donkey Kong was released for the original monochrome Game Boy. This version begins in a familiar way, four levels, starting with the iconic barrels and ladders stage. But this time, after what should be the romantic reunion of Mario and Pauline, the defeated beast climbs to his feet, grabs the dame, and tears across 10 unique worlds of a much greater and expanded quest for Mario. These new levels are far more faithful to the original idea of Donkey Kong than perhaps Super Mario Bros. ever was. While SMB was composed of left to right obstacle courses, terminating in a flagpole, DK GB levels are generally much smaller, mimicking the arcade original and mostly never exceeding 2 or 3 screens in size. The goal is relatively simple; in each short level there is a key which you must bring to a locked door to successfully exit the level. Complicating this task is that while carrying the key, Mario’s movements are greatly restricted. He can’t jump as high, climb ladders or ropes, or enter tight spaces. Ultimately, a bit of puzzle solving is usually required to get the key to the exit. While puzzle platformers are super common today, they were less so in 1994, which the game somewhat unique.

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When this game came out, I think it surprised a lot of people with how epic of an adventure it really was. The smaller level designs felt like Donkey Kong, although being more puzzle like in nature, and the concise and focused arcade style gameplay felt like a natural fit for the portable Game Boy. The puzzle-like levels are also filled with a ton of creativity, constantly revealing surprising new elements as the game progresses, which is not especially unusual of Nintendo game design even today.

In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Mario was utterly weird. The Mushroom Kingdom is a bizarre place, filled with an inexplicable network of green pipes (used for transport?) and torn by a conflict between the turtle-like Koopa tribe and the peaceful mushroom people race (strangely called Toads), led by an inexplicably human looking princess and her champion, a portly middle-aged plumber. People have kind of become desensitized to the strangeness of the Mushroom Kingdom, but in those days it fell in alongside other bizarre Mario settings, such as Sarasaland, Subcon, Dinosaur Island, and his Wario-conquered island getaway from Super Mario Land 2.  Amongst these locations, the world of Donkey Kong feels unusual in just how normal it is, taking place seemingly on modern Earth. For instance, after completing the first four arcade levels, Donkey Kong whisks off to the second world, simply known as “Big-City.” These levels take place among modern urban streets and skyscraper rooftops. This is to be sure an unusual place to find a plumber whose exploits are mainly known to occur in the surreal, cartoonish Mushroom Kingdom.

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I guess that kind of brings me to a problem I have with modern Mario games. There is a pervasive lack of new settings to fuel new adventures. The standard Mushroom Kingdom setting, which was initially mystifying, has become routine. In the age before the N64, Mario visited a ton of wild places that we don’t see today, and fought a slew of enemies that weren’t in Bowser’s standard retinue. The Super Mario Land games are a good example of Mario striking out beyond the Mushroom Kingdom’s borders. Nowadays, there is a widely professed lethargy with Mario games, particularly identified with the New Super Mario Bros. series. Unfortunately, most of these games are the same grass-world, desert-world, ice-world blah blah blah archetypes that are regurgitated over and over again. Even Paper Mario has become infected by this lazy trend. Thousand Year door lets you visit a ton of cool setups, like a haunted pirate island and train ride caught in a murder mystery. Super Paper Mario isn’t exactly the height of the series, but it has imaginative chapters like a prehistoric world where cavemen fight a hostile plant race, a spaceship based level, and the private fortress of a giant geeked-out chameleon. The latest release, Sticker Star for the 3DS, however, strips away all that creativity and sticks you in the same grass-world, desert-level, etc. tropes we’ve been playing since SMB3.

Nintendo doesn’t seem super interested in reversing course here either. I kind of hold up Super Mario Galaxy as my ideal in this regard. Shooting Mario off into space offered them a huge playground upon which to foster new ideas. For me, the game did a lot to reinvigorate my lifelong love of Mario, a task for which the more standardized New Super Mario Bros. for the DS fell short. When I started playing Mario as a kid, the thing that drew me most to his adventures was just how inventive and offbeat they were. I kind of wish I could go to my six-year old self while playing SMB3 and tell him, “If you think this is crazy, wait till he goes to space.” But Super Mario Galaxy doesn’t seem to have created a lasting impact. Now we have the 3D Land/World games, which while sometimes inventive, are composed generally of the SMB3 archetypes situated in abstract spaces. While those games have a serviceable fun to them, I don’t feel they do a lot to inspire the imagination.

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So I guess what I’m saying, is that Nintendo needs to tap into its foundational weirdness to really refresh Mario. Leave behind the rote grasslands and deserts and islands to show us something new. Let the goombas and cheep cheeps and koopas have a little bit of a rest while new enemies decide to take up the futile quest of defeating Mario. Let people make new memories of these games, instead of just trying to rustle up sympathy with the old ones. Even if Nintendo isn’t ready to create a radical new invention with Mario, maybe they could at least give a fresh breath to some of their lesser used older ideas. Wouldn’t it be great to return to a 3D envisioning of Subcon, replete with turnip hurling, shadow world, vengeful Phantos, and rocketships that grow in the ground. Or maybe we could see a new envisioning of Donkey Kong for the Game Boy. Imagine Mario chasing DK through a lively modern cityscape!

Although… now that I think about it, Sonic started getting really bad when they entered into real world settings, so maybe we should be careful what we wish for here. But I still have faith in Nintendo. They constantly prove their creative edge, and I feel if they put their heart into it, they could create something great that didn’t rely so heavily on the tired tropes. But nonetheless, DK for the GB is a great game!

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