Category Archives: Video Games

Mega Man X

snes_mega_man_x_p_xky270When Mega Man X was released in 1993 I was so confused. I saw the X in the title and assumed it stood for 10. Back in the 90s, it wasn’t uncommon for games to not get localized and released in North America for various reasons. Famously, we only received 3 Final Fantasy titles in the same amount of time as Japan getting 6. At the time, there were 6 regular old Mega Man titles released, and the sixth one had just been released on the aging NES hardware, so it didn’t really make sense that there would be three titles missing. Of course, there wasn’t and Capcom had basically just felt it was a good idea to give Mega Man a slight rebranding when moving him to the new hardware – the Super Nintendo.

Mega Man X, or just X, is a future Mega Man who is just a bit more advanced than his predecessor, and yet it feels like he’s moved so far beyond what Mega Man was previously. When the game starts, X mostly looks like Mega Man but with a higher detail sprite making him look more like the character art than the old in-game models. He comes equipped with the X-Buster which mostly functions like the old Mega Buster including a charged shot. He’s lost the ability to slide, but instead can dash forward either with the press of a face button or a double tap of a directional. He can also do a wall kick which allows him to continuously jump off a wall and scale it. Combining the dash with a jump or a wall kick can open up new areas for X and adds a new level of exploration not really found in the prior games.

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Minus the cool armor upgrades, X doesn’t look THAT different from the old Mega Man.

Aside from all of that, the conventions of the game are still really familiar. Dr. Light and Dr. Wiley are both dead, but in their place X has an ally in Zero, a Maverick Hunter who goes after rogue robots and mostly looks like a red version of X with a ponytail. The villain is the Incredible Crash Dummy look-alike Sigma, a former Maverick Hunter turned….Maverick. The plot is basically that X was the first robot created with free will, and fearing he was too strong and unpredictable, Dr. Light sealed him away. Well past his expiration date, a Dr. Cain found X and basically reverse engineered him to create Zero as well as legions of other robots. A bunch of them went nuts, became Mavericks, and here we are with X having finally awakened on his own. Like any other Mega Man game, the story is simply there for you to take in if you wish, but it’s hardly essential to enjoying the game.

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The opening stage introduces the player to ally Zero and enemy Vile.

The rest of the setup is also essentially the same. Eight robot masters stand in the way of X and a showdown with Sigma. There’s an intro level which introduces both Zero, as an ally who comes to Mega Man’s aid, and Vile, an enemy robot who pilots a mech suit. The robot masters are only changed in the sense that now they resemble an animal of some kind. They still possess unique weapons and each one is weak to another. Clearing a stage means X can re-enter it and exit it at will, which is important because there are numerous extra goodies to uncover. In addition to the familiar E-Tanks, now called Sub Tanks, X can also find health upgrades that extend his overall health meter. And more importantly, X can also find capsules Dr. Light left behind which contain new upgrades for X’s armor like a chest guard that allows him to absorb more damage and leg upgrades that let him break certain walls. There’s even a special upgrade that allows X to perform a famous maneuver from another popular Capcom series. These armor and weapon upgrades will become a staple of the X franchise, which now has as almost as many games in it it as the regular Mega Man series.

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The eight robot masters are all now aligned with animals of some kind, a trait that will continue throughout the X series.

Once the robot masters have been dealt with, Sigma’s base opens up and X is free to pursue the ultimate enemy of the game. Sigma’s base is broken up into three stages, and unlike traditional Mega Man games, there’s no boss-rush room. Instead, X will encounter the defeated robot masters throughout the three stages which makes things a little more fun than the usual room full of capsules. There are also additional other bosses to take down, including a showdown with Vile, before Sigma can be challenged. Like Dr. Wiley before him, Sigma’s fight will encapsulate multiple parts (in this case, three including the fight with his mutt) and is designed to test X’s skills up to this point. Whether it does or not is a matter of opinion, I suppose, though like most boss battles, once you figure out the patterns he’s not particularly difficult. Especially with some fully stocked Sub Tanks.

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Gameplay wise, you’re not getting anything you aren’t used to, and yet it feels new.

What makes Mega Man X such a resounding success is the sense of freedom within the game. The various health and armor upgrades are all basically optional and you’re free to make the game as easy or as challenging on yourself as you like. The X-Buster is fairly strong on its own, offering multiple levels of “charged” for damage output. As a result, the robot master weapons need to provide other functions to make them worthwhile and the game does an excellent job of just that. And once X acquires the X-Buster upgrade he can even charge all of the enemy weapons giving them new functions such as Chameleon Sting’s invincibility or the forcefield offered by Rolling Shield. There’s even one weapon that has a Cut Man property to it and can cut-off certain parts of enemies weaponry including some bosses. The generous amount of Sub Tanks that can be acquired also seems to encourage some experimentation as you can always farm power-ups and refill the tanks if you hit a tough part or happen to fail to recognize what weapon works best on a particular enemy.

Visually, Mega Man X looks great for an early Super Nintendo title and holds up quite well even today. The sprites are colorful and well-detailed and there’s very much a Cybertron-like quality to the design of X’s world that works for the franchise. There are numerous large-scale enemies that are common throughout the levels and the usual amount of setting variety as well such as more jungle-like levels and even an underwater one. The bosses are all pretty fun, and they seem a little more agile this time around since X is better equipped to dodge them. Some of the easier ones will let the player exploit X’s wall-kick, but later enemies will know how to get you off the wall and out of the corners. The music is also a strength. It may not be as classic as a Mega Man 2, but it’s still a high point for the franchise.

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X does look pretty bad ass once he gets all of his upgrades.

The only negative with Mega Man X is that the abundance of enemies and detailed graphics do lead to some slowdown. Even when playing on the SNES Classic, slowdown is pretty common at certain points. I especially notice it in Armored Armadillo’s stage when X has to ride a mine cart like device and the screen is loaded with enemies. The slowdown won’t really impact play, since X is largely required to be stationary throughout all of this, but it can be a bit frustrating. I at least can’t recall an instance of slowdown during a tricky platforming section or something.

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If you can find it, the 2006 X collection for PS2 and Gamecube is a worthwhile pick-up, though it probably makes more sense to wait for the PS4/Xbox One/Switch release.

If the only negative in your 15 year old game is occasional slowdown, then that’s a pretty good legacy to leave for Mega Man X. It was at the time, and still is today, a bright spot for the Mega Man franchise. It felt so fresh at a time when Mega Man was definitely growing stale and playing it today after recently playing both Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 8 it still feels that way. It injects a bit more fun into the formula by making the main character just more fun to handle. It’s the main reason why Mega Man X is arguably the greatest Mega Man game ever made. I’d rather play it over any of the mainline games, though I’d love to revisit Mega Man X4 before declaring it’s definitely the best. Like the regular series, the X series would also suffer from over-saturation as Capcom would fast track another pair of X games for the SNES and then continue along with the Playstation. The games would eventually add Zero as a playable character, which definitely helped reinvigorate the franchise as Zero played differently from X and offered a new set of challenges.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter where Mega Man X fits in the overall series because by itself it’s pretty damn awesome. And thankfully, it’s still pretty easy to come by. It sold really well when it came out so cartridges for the SNES can be found for a reasonable cost today. There was a compilation of X games released on both the Gamecube and PS2, but that’s actually a little harder to come by. Capcom is prepping a new collection of X titles for 2018, so it should be easily available relatively soon. And if you happen to find one, it’s also included among the 21 games on the SNES Classic, which is thankfully a lot easier to find than the NES Classic, but still not as easy as just walking into a store and buying it on any given day. However you go about experiencing it, it’s likely you’ll have a pretty good time with Mega Man X.

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Mega Man 8

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Mega Man 8 (1996/1997)

Mega Man 8 is perhaps the most divisive game in the history of the Blue Bomber. The first developed without series creator Tokuro Fujiwara, it was the only mainline Mega Man game released during the 32 bit era, and for a long time, was the last to be made with current generation technology, even though it didn’t seem like that at the time. After the release of Mega Man 8, the series essentially disappeared in favor of the many Mega Man spin-off franchises such as X, Legends, Battle Network, and others. When Capcom finally reconvened to create a Mega Man 9 it opted to pretend as if this game (and to some extent its predecessor Mega Man 7) never existed going back to a visual style akin to the original NES games and a gameplay style that went even further back. Capcom would stay with that look for Mega Man 10, but finally announced in 2017 that a new Mega Man game is coming and it won’t feature illusory 8-bit images.

It’s interesting that the game has become so maligned over the years, since at the time Mega Man 8 was supposed to be a celebration of Mega Man and the impact he had made in the world of gaming. Coinciding with the 10 year anniversary of the first game, Mega Man 8 stayed true to the series roots by sticking with 2D gameplay when the whole world was demanding 3D. Sony Computer Entertainment of America (SCEA) initially wanted nothing to do with the game because of its use of 2D visuals. Wanting to highlight the processing power of the PlayStation, SCEA nearly prevented the release of the game in North America, but eventually relented when Capcom agreed to dress-up the packaging. Since it was also to be released on the Saturn, SCEA wanted exclusive content and thus received a little booklet to be included with each copy of the game recounting the legacy of Mega Man. Maybe out of spite, Capcom would introduce better, exclusive, content on the Saturn with optional hidden bosses.

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There’s a whole bunch of new enemies for Mega Man to vanquish.

Mega Man 8 largely follows the formula of the games that came before it building off of Mega Man 7. So unlike more recent entries in the series, this one still retains the charge shot and slide maneuver as well as the bolts currency which can be used between levels to purchase upgrades for Mega Man. Dr. Wiley is the main antagonist once again and Bass and Treble return from 7 to make Mega Man’s life more difficult. The plot isn’t of much importance, suffice to say that Wiley is up to no good and has created 8 robot masters that Mega Man has to get by before he can ultimately take on the mad scientist. A new character is introduced, Duo, who’s from outer space and brings with him some kind of weird energy that Wiley wants to make use of. He starts off as an ambiguous character, but will eventually become an ally when he “senses justice” within in Mega Man, or some nonsense.

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Most of the levels have an appealing design that serves its robot master well.

What you need to know as a gamer is that Mega Man has roughly 12 new stages to topple. After a simple introductory level, four additional stages are open to Mega Man and each features a robot master to take down. Following their defeat, an intermission stage is unlocked before the final 4 robot masters are available and then eventually the multi-stage Wiley Tower. Splitting the 8 robot masters into two separate groupings of four does make it a little easier to determine an order to tackle them in. As is the case with virtually every Mega Man game, defeating a robot master earns Mega Man a new weapon and each one is a natural weakness for another robot master (Wiley should really avoid doing that when creating these things). There is an added challenge in introducing the robots this way as the player needs to figure out which robot to tackle first – twice! There’s no overlap in terms of weaknesses between the two groups of four, so the first boss you fight and the fifth will basically necessitate relying on the Mega Buster to topple. If you want my advice, I suggest starting with Grenade Man and Aqua Man, respectively. Although I did have this game before I had internet access and a boss order available to me so I have taken down more than just those two with the Mega Buster.

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Mega Man 8 is gorgeously animated, but few appreciated it in 1996 since it wasn’t 3D.

Scattered throughout the stages are bolts. There is a finite amount of them in the game and they serve as currency for Mega Man to purchase upgrades. Since you’re limited by the amount of bolts in the game, this also means you’ll be unable to purchase all of the upgrades in a single save file. Some of the upgrades available to Mega Man include a fast charge attachment, a shield that will prevent knock-backs, a laser shot, and a spread gun, among others. Basically all of them are useful to some degree, though I’d argue the most essential is probably the quick-charge. One annoyance, the ability to exit already completed stages must be purchased, so if you want to go back for bolts that you missed (and you will, since some require a weapon acquired later to access) you will have to either waste bolts on this feature or play through the entire level again.

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There’s some auto-scrolling segments to break-up the gameplay. This Rush segment works well, but don’t ask me about the snowboarding one.

The stages feature a solid mix of run and gun and platforming gameplay, as well as a couple of auto-scrolling events. The levels offer a rather average level of difficulty for a Mega Man game sitting this one squarely in the middle of the pack if arranged accordingly, though perhaps closer to the easy side. Continues are unlimited, so the game is forgiving in that regard, but the checkpoints are spread out enough that having to use a continue does hurt a bit. There are no E Tanks in this game, which might explain why it’s a touch on the easier side, but there is a Rush attachment that can be used once per stage that summons Mega Man’s trusty robotic canine who will drop power-ups as he flies back and forth. It’s not as seamless as an E Tank since Mega Man still has to chase down the power-ups and there’s no guarantee that Rush will drop exactly what you want. This makes him a bit unreliable during the chaotic boss encounters in the game and he’s also basically useless if you’re in an area where Mega Man is limited by where he can stand (auto-scrolling segments, spike pits, etc.).

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In what was apparently common for Capcom at the time, fan input was sought for boss designs. Some of the original fan-submitted works appear in the credits.

Of the main stages available, none are probably memorable enough to supplant a Quick Man or Flash Man stage, but they mostly offer plenty of variety and avoid the pitfalls of tedium. Tengu Man’s stage features a pervasive gust of wind that extends Mega Man’s jumps when moving with it, but also hinders his ability to backtrack. This stage also features one of the auto-scrolling portions where Mega Man hops aboard Rush and uses him like a jet-board as he soars through the air. During these segments Mega Man can also summon his lesser allies like Auto and Beat to assist him in taking out the various enemies he encounters. Astro Man’s stage features some maze-like portions as well as a frantic escape from a sinking tower. Sword Man’s stage is broken up into sections that can be tackled in any order, sort of like the boss gauntlet that appears towards the end of every Wiley Castle. Some levels also feature a mid boss and defeating that boss unlocks a new Rush ability (4 in total) that include the health power-up, as well as a few other things that aren’t really essential but can be useful.

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Mega Man has finally learned how to swim, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Some levels, on the other hand, don’t go over as well. Frost Man’s stage features the snowboarding auto-scrolling bit and it is not enjoyable. The input feels laggy, and the developers apparently noticed this as well because they inserted audio prompts commanding the player to “Jump! Jump!” or “Slide! Slide!” These segments are mercifully short, but also short on fun and it’s a shame they recognized the need for the cues but not the need to just cut them entirely. Aqua Man’s stage also features scenarios completely submerged in water. Mega Man has apparently received a software upgrade that taught him how to swim, as he no longer just jumps around slowly in water. Swimming basically works the same way in Mega Man 8 as it does in Super Mario Bros, which is to say it’s not good. Mega Man is also a lot longer relative to Mario so it’s not easy to maneuver him around enemies. You’re better off to just plow through those segments and hope for the best.

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Mega Man’s “sister” Roll runs Dr. Light’s shop which you can visit to purchase upgrades for Mega Man after acquiring enough bolts.

The bosses themselves are all fine. They’re fully voiced, like Mega Man (more on that later), and it’s kind of funny to hear them taunt Mega Man before and during confrontations. There’s nothing particularly logical about who is weak to who, unless you know more about the robot than the game presents. For example, Sword Man does have a fire element associated with him that’s not apparent just by looking at him and Aqua Man’s Aqua Bubble is his weakness. There’s also no weapon on par with the Metal Blade that makes life easier across the board, though the multi-hit Grenade Bomb is pretty good and seems to have the most uses. Other weapons are more utilitarian. The Tornado Hold can be used to levitate Mega Man or hit enemies that are high in the air and the Thunder Claw can be utilized like Bionic Commando’s claw at certain points in the game (another benefit to splitting the bosses in groups of four means levels can be designed to utilize certain weapons because it’s guaranteed the player will have it). There’s also a 9th weapon that Mega Man receives in the opening stage:  the Mega Ball. It’s basically a soccer ball and pressing the fire button causes Mega Man to drop the ball. He can then dribble it if he likes or even jump on it for a small height boost on his subsequent jump, or press the fire button again to kick it. The ball can ricochet off walls, but it’s mostly too unwieldy to properly utilize. Only one boss requires its use. Two other very useful weapons include the Homing Sniper, which can fire up to three homing missiles, and the Astro Crush which rains down death on the entire screen. As a result, it has a very limited amount of uses.

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This is the only boss who requires the use of the Mega Ball, and as a result, he’s pretty annoying.

Where things start to fall apart with Mega Man 8 is after the eight robot masters have been vanquished. Wiley’s various stages are lackluster and downright annoying at times. The first opens with another snowboard segment, this one far more annoying and longer than the ones from Frost Man’s stage. Worse yet, it ends with the only boss fight that requires use of the Mega Ball, and as a result, it’s pretty tricky. If you have to resort to a continue you’ll be stuck playing through that snowboarding segment once again and you’ll want to snap the disc in half. After that is another Rush auto-scrolling segment that uses the scrolling gimmick to kill you if you’re not paying attention (and it’s mean enough that you probably will die at least once when you hit that part for the first time) and concludes with the worst boss fight in the game. It’s long and tedious, but as a plus it’s not particularly difficult so hopefully you take it out on the first try. The third level is better and finally presents what feels like a fair challenge plus a dual boss fight when you take on the Bass + Treble machination and then the Green Devil, or whatever it’s called. The Devil boss is probably the easiest one of them all, but if you don’t know its weakness it is considerably more difficult.

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Seriously, fuck this shit.

Finally, there’s Wiley, and unfortunately he kind of sucks too. He’s very similar to his Mega Man 2 version in which you take on his tank thing before fighting him in a floating capsule/bubble contraption. The tank is not terribly difficult, but it’s also not easy, and given the lack of E Tanks there is a bit of added challenge. The capsule part is a bit boring because he just doesn’t take much damage. He doesn’t appear to be weak to anything, so you just have to make sure you outlast him.

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The anime cut scenes by and large look great considering they’re stored on CD ROM, but the voice acting just kills it.

Since this was the 10 year celebration for Mega Man, Capcom decided to dress things up with some anime cut scenes! Xebec was contracted to do the scenes and they actually did a really nice job considering these are forever trapped on a PlayStation disc. Since the total run-time for all of the sequences put together is probably only 10-12 minutes, they could afford to take their time and put a lot of effort into making them look good. Unfortunately, the same degree of care was not put forth into the voice acting when it came time to localize the game for North America. I don’t know if the Japanese voice acting was equally terrible, but the English version is hilariously bad. It’s the most infamous part of the game and what people think of first when they think of Mega Man 8. Mega Man sounds like an adolescent high-voiced girl while apparently no one realized that the characters Bass and Treble refer to music and not fish. Dr. Light is especially bad and sounds like a bumbling old fool who refers to Dr. Wiley as “Dr. Wow-ee” while the voice actor for newcomer Duo just sounds like he would rather be anywhere than in a studio voicing this character.

The voice acting is a real shame because outside of that the production values are pretty great. While few wanted 2D games in 1996, no one could argue that Mega Man 8 wasn’t attractive to look at. It’s hand-drawn visuals have aged way better than basically anything else on the PlayStation. Mega Man is the right size in relation to the screen and is lovingly animated. Many of the generic enemies are brimming with personality and the bosses, in particular Frost Man and Sword Man, are also a lot of fun to look at. The music is solid as well, and while most are probably nostalgic for that 8 bit sound I doubt few would suggest the soundtrack is poor. And while the voice acting during the anime bits is atrocious, it does succeed in adding some personality to those bosses and its mostly welcome in that space.

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An assortment of mini bosses keeps things interesting and provide a vehicle for awarding Mega Man with even more power-ups.

Mega Man 8 performed rather well at retail when it was released, but reviewers were far more mixed. Incidentally, what it was maligned most for (its visuals) is what it’s most likely celebrated most for today. There was an undercurrent of backlash from some outlets because of its simplified look and there was also some Mega Man fatigue at the time. After all, this wasn’t just the 8th Mega Man game. It also followed three Mega Man X titles and some handheld ones as well. That’s a lot of Mega Man games in the span of 10 years so reviewers and gamers could be forgiven if they weren’t as excited for a proper Mega Man title in 1996 as maybe they would be today. Opinions are still divided on this one though. As recently as 2010, IGN considered it the worst of the mainline Mega Man titles. More recently, Retronaut’s Jeremy Parish ranked it as high as 5th among all of the Mega Man games (did you know there’s 20 total as of this writing?) which is probably the most praise I’ve ever seen given to the game. Perhaps not surprisingly, I tend to fall somewhere in between those two extremes. It certainly is not the worst of the Mega Man games, but Mega Man 2 and 3 are probably superior, at least. I definitely would rather play this one than Mega Man 7, though I’m less sure when it comes to other games. I’m not an expert Mega Man gamer and I never touched the ultra hard Mega Man 10 because it sounded like something I wouldn’t enjoy. When I picked this game up in 1997 as a birthday present I had some fun with it and returning to it in 2018 was by no means a bad experience. If you like Mega Man, but have never played this one and have only heard bad things then I’d suggest giving it a shot. It’s not hard to come by thanks to the compilations put out by Capcom nor is it prohibitively expensive if you want an original PlayStation version (if you want it for Saturn you will have to pay a lot, though) so you only have yourself to blame if you haven’t played it.


Super Dragon Ball Z

Super_Dragon_Ball_Z_CoverartRecently, Bandai-Namco conducted an open beta for its latest game based on the venerable Dragon Ball franchise:  Dragon Ball FighterZ. The game is a 3 on 3 tag-fighter that exists on a 2D plane but contains three-dimensional characters. The art style is done in such a way that it more closely resembles the 2D anime that’s recognized around the world. It’s a fast and beautiful looking fighter and yours truly did check out the beta. Like most open betas where an upcoming game is essentially free to play briefly, it was a bit of a challenge actually getting logged into the servers and paired up with a match. I mostly spent my time in the training area just checking out how the game handles and plays. It’s very similar to the old Budokai games in some respects, mostly the speed and the fact that all of the characters seem to have the same move-list, only the animations for each move are unique from character to character. For example, a traditional Ryu fireball motion for Goku results in his kamehameha wave while the same for Krillin is the destructo disc maneuver.

FighterZ seems like it will be a pretty entertaining game, but it’s not what I wanted or expected. The developer, Arc System Works, is best known for Blaz Blue so I expected a more traditional 2D fighting experience with some Dragon Ball styling. Instead, FighterZ is apparently courting a more casual crowd that grew up on those old DBZ games and Super Smash Bros. as opposed to Street Fighter. This naturally lead me back to an old favorite of mine:  Super Dragon Ball Z.

Not to be confused with the currently airing anime Dragon Ball Super, Super Dragon Ball Z is a 3D fighter that plays like a 2D fighter. It was developed by Arika, the company headed by Akira Nishitani who is best known as the brain behind Street Fighter 2. The company is known for its work Capcom on the Street Fighter EX series, a 2.5D fighting game that was relatively popular in the late 90s and early 2000s. As you would expect, a DBZ fighting game developed by the father of Street Fighter plays a lot more like a Street Fighter game than the casual arena brawlers that had become the norm for DBZ. It was released to arcades at the tail end of 2005 in Japan and Europe only before arriving on PS2 in 2006 worldwide. Because it’s not what people were used to out of a DBZ game, it went somewhat overlooked. While I would not consider it on par with the best the Street Fighter series has produced, Super Dragon Ball Z is a pretty damn fine game on its own.

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End a battle with a super move and you’ll be treated to some manga-inspired word art.

Super Dragon Ball Z has the typical fighting game maneuvers you would expect of a Street Fighter clone. Think hadokens, shoryukens, and so on. Not every character has the same standard set of moves, but they do share some similarities so it’s not as streamlined as simpler games, nor as complex as the most hardcore fighters. The characters are presented in 3D with a cell-shading effect and the default colorization is meant to resemble the original Dragon Ball manga as opposed to the anime. The stages are arena types and characters can move into the foreground and background with relative ease. An action bar at the bottom of the screen controls movement within the foreground and background as well as dashing. Deplete that and you will find your movement severely hindered until it replenishes. It does refill rather quickly, but the gauge prevents characters from endlessly dodging to prolong a match or from spamming dash attacks.

The game’s button layout is a bit unique. The square and triangle buttons are your weak and strong melee attacks while circle is the jump/fly button and X is guard. The shoulder buttons contain both dash attacks and a dedicated throw button. Any fighter that utilizes a dedicated block button takes some getting used to, and the jump/fly dynamic is a bit wonky in execution. It’s mostly used to go after your opponent, as opposed to setting up an attack. The dash buttons are useful for closing the gap quickly with your opponent or just to get you on the same plane as your opponent.

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It may not be the flashiest DBZ game, but your favorite characters will still have their most recognizable moves.

The fighting mechanics are a mix of traditional fighters and DBZ fighters. Projectiles play a large role, but up close combos are also present and a major part of combat. Certain characters function better as ranged attackers versus up close ones and the AI for each character feels rather true to the source material in terms of how they attack the player. There’s a simple health gauge that needs to be depleted to end a round and there’s also an ultimate gauge that gradually fills up during a match. This gauge is expensed when using a character’s best attacks, but unlike other DBZ fighters, there is no charge button to build up ki forcing you to better manage the resources you have. The big moves are also less destructive than in other games. There’s more of an emphasis on dealing out damage gradually as opposed to in big chunks. Being able to dodge properly is the best way of avoiding damage as opposed to blocking and countering and canceling are certainly effective ways to victory.

The game is overall a lot slower and less manic than other DBZ fighters. Characters do not move at crazy speeds and only Frieza can do the popular teleport move in battle. Battles feel a bit more strategic as there’s still an environment to navigate with obstacles to hide behind or toss foes into. Combos are present and they’re more similar to Tekken style combos than Street Fighter ones requiring a series of well-timed button presses. With only two dedicated attack buttons, they’re fairly similar but the timing for each character is a little different and requires some practice. It may be different, and to someone just watching the game it will likely seem less authentic when compared with the anime, but it feels more strategic and ultimately it has its own rewards.

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Even after unlocking the hidden characters the roster is still on the small side when compared with its contemporaries.

The character roster is much smaller than what fans are used to. At the onset, the characters available are:  Goku, Gohan, Vegeta, Trunks, Piccolo, Krillen, Chi Chi, Androids 16, 17, and 18, Frieza, and Cell. Additional characters can be unlocked and most are just variants of existing characters. The saiyan characters have the ability to go super in battle, and it’s an ability that rapidly depletes stamina so it’s not meant to be a permanent state. Only Super Saiyan level 1 is available, so there’s no going 2, but it does make those characters a bit more interesting than the non saiyans. Of course, every character has pluses and minuses. Piccolo, by virtue of his stretchy limbs, has incredible range and Krillen’s destructo disc can carve through every move in the game. It’s a roster a bit on the small side, but each character feels relevant and the secret characters are also fun too (and some of my favorites).

The game has a standard set of modes including Arcade and training as well as a survivor mode dubbed Z-Survivor. Arcade is a series of seven battles with five of them being random. Each subsequent opponent gets stronger and their strength is represented by a scouter reading before battle, which is kind of neat. The mode always ends with a battle against Frieza followed by a fight with Cell. There are no custom endings for each character, which is a bit disappointing, nor is there really much of an ending at all, but if you’ve seen the anime and played almost every DBZ fighter released then you’ve seen how the story ends more times than you can count. What is interesting is that after each victory you get one of the titular dragon balls. By collecting all seven, you can summon Shenron and make a wish. This is how you get additional characters, and also how you improve your existing ones.

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Spend enough time collecting dragon balls and eventually you’ll unlock additional characters like cyborg Frieza.

By far, the most interesting aspect of Super Dragon Ball Z is the custom character process. Other games have dabbled with this, but Super Dragon Ball Z really seems to go for it. As you fight with a custom character, your character naturally gets stronger. Once you fill an experience bar, and completing arcade once is more than enough for the first go around, you can learn a new skill. The skills range from increased health to faster action regeneration time as well as to new and better moves. The most powerful attacks are reserved for custom characters, and some of them have to be wished for. This encourages you to pick a character and stick with it. As a bonus, if you max out a character you can then take another character and inherit moves from the previously maxed out character. For those who really want to craft the ultimate character, doing this is necessary since only some characters have the worthwhile Super Cancel ability.

The only real issue with the character customization is that there is little you can actually do while leveling-up your character. It’s only so amusing to beat the arcade mode over and over so if you don’t have a friend to play it can get a little old. The Z-Survivor mode helps out as this is a mode where you’re given one health bar to vanquish 10 foes in succession. After each conquest, a roulette wheel is spun to get a little power-up for the next fight and it’s not hard to stop the wheel on what you want. However, you can’t just repeatedly select the health restore option as it gets worse each time you land on it. It starts off with a 50% health recovery, but after the next round it will drop to 40% and so on. You have to be strategic with the best rewards if you want to survive to the end. If you do manage to defeat all challengers you’ll be confronted with one more and the fun part about that is you’re allowed to wager basically all of the experience you’ve gained throughout the mode in a bid to double it, if you win, of course. It’s definitely more challenging than Arcade mode and it might end up being the mode you spend the most time in.

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Few DBZ games let you play as Chi-Chi giving fans of that character some added incentive.

Visually the game holds up pretty well. The cel-shading approach helps give it a timeless look, though some characters come off better than others. Goku, for example, has always had a some-what tough time making the jump from flat 2D image to 3D polygon. The stages are, as a whole, more interesting to look at than other DBZ games and the manga approach to its styling helps to add a little extra charm to everything. Sadly for anime purists over here, the soundtrack for the US version is a mix of industrial music that’s designed to resemble the score to the Funimation dub of the show, though it’s an original score and not authentic so even Funimation purists have a reason to be irritated. Other versions utilized some of the actual music from the Japanese anime and I’m sure a lot of US fans would have preferred that. If you hate the manga look though, know that anime colorings do exist in the game so if you want your Future Trunks to sport a royal blue coat instead of teal you can certainly make it happen. Overall, the presentation is solid, though like the gameplay, you won’t get much in the way of flashy big graphical spectacles in the form of massive super moves. At least not on the level of other DBZ fighters.

Since this is a PS2 game, there’s no online mode to easily find other challengers. And even if there were, the servers would undoubtedly be shutdown by now anyway. Having a group of friends who all enjoy the game helps increase the amount of enjoyment you’ll get out of it, but that’s also true of basically every fighting game ever created. It would have been nice if each character had a story and an ending to uncover, but then again, that would work against the drive to just use the same character over and over to make them more powerful. How eager you are to see the secret attacks and unlock the hidden characters will be your primary motivation to revisit this one. If you’ve ever played a DBZ fighting game and wanted it to be more like a traditional fighter, then check out Super Dragon Ball Z. It’s very easy to find a copy for a relative pittance these days so you won’t be risking much by doing so.


The Simpsons: Hit & Run

151790-the-simpsons-hit-run-windows-otherAfter a long stretch of posting about Christmas and Batman exclusively, it’s time to get things back on track here at The Nostalgia Spot. Here’s a subject I’ve been sitting on for quite some time. I love The Simpsons, and I also love video games, so it stands to reason I should love Simpsons video games! In a perfect world that would be true, but alas, we do not live in such a world.

The fact that Simpsons video games exist in the first place is kind of funny when you stop and think about it. After all, The Simpsons is essentially a family sitcom like Full House, except it’s actually good. I’ve never heard anyone sincerely bemoan the fact that there are no video games based on Full House, and yet we have around a dozen games based on The Simpsons. The most obvious difference between the two is that Full House is live action and The Simpsons is animated. Is that the criteria needed to enter into the world of video games?

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The main stars of the game. Sorry, Maggie.

Not exactly, but we’re getting there. The wonderful folks over at Talking Simpsons, a podcast that is a chronological exploration of the series, spoke with writer and show-runner Bill Oakley about his time on the show and he revealed an interesting tidbit about The Simpsons that I wasn’t aware of:  the audience was predominantly children. It’s not a total surprise to hear that, but as someone who watched the show regularly growing up with his entire family it did surprise me some. Because the art form is most frequently used to create children’s content in the US, animation inherently appeals to kids. And Bart Simpson was a character most kids looked up to, rightly or wrongly. So given that, it’s not at all surprising why The Simpsons received so many video games in the early days because, back then, no one really associated video games with any demographic other than children.

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Your first car is the (surprise!) famous Simpsons pink sedan which has inexplicably been turned into a convertible for this game.

Sadly, when the aim of a piece of media is to just appeal to children the end product is often pretty lackluster. The Simpsons were unremarkable in that respect as pretty much every licensed game from the 8-bit era was pretty terrible. The inaugural Bart vs The Space Mutants at least had an interesting They Live! inspired plot, but playing it was about as much fun as a trip to the dentist. The games that followed were the same, but without the quirky plot. Following the NES era the games became mini-game compilations on the GameBoy and SNES and the results were just as bad. The Playstation gave us Simpsons Wrestling, which the less said about that one the better. It wasn’t until we hit the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox generation where we actually received a home console game based on The Simpsons that was any good. Up first, was Road Rage, a Crazy Taxi parody that was decent, followed by Simpsons Skateboarding which was bad. The best though? A Grand Theft Auto parody called The Simpsons:  Hit & Run.

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Basically every major Springfield landmark is in this game, some of which you can even enter.

Hit & Run took a lot of the assets created for Road Rage and made them more interesting. Road Rage was okay because the taxi setup leaves a lot of room for the characters to just be funny, but the gameplay gets a little old a little fast. Hit & Run slows things down and lets the player exit the vehicle. Even though it’s a GTA clone of sorts, the game plays more like a generic 3D platformer when not in a car. Characters can run, jump, double-jump, attack, and butt stomp just like Ratchet from the Ratchet & Clank series but without the awesome gadgets. Generic characters litter the virtual Springfield driving generic vehicles you’re free to commandeer at your leisure, though the best vehicles are the ones you actually have to purchase.

Hit & Run contains a fairly large version of Springfield that’s broken up into three main stages, so they’re not interconnected unfortunately. There’s a suburban setting that contains Evergreen Terrace as well as the projects and upscale neighborhoods. There’s a downtown setting where you can find Moe’s, the remnants of the monorail, and infamous Matlock Expressway. There’s also a waterfront setting that inexplicably contains The Android’s Dungeon but also features Duff Gardens and the Channel 6 lots home to fine programming such as Krusty the Clown. Just about every major landmark from the show is featured, though the layout of Springfield is definitely not canon.  There’s a sense that in creating the three main stages the game designers just wanted to make sure they had some important landmark reserved for each one. It’s not a big deal, but Springfield isn’t as cozy as it could have been. It’s also very limited by the technology of the time since no section is nearly as large as an open world from today (even GTA: San Andreas featured a much bigger setting).

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In a surprising move, Apu gets to take center stage for a level.

Springfield is the star of this game, but lets not forget about the playable characters. As you probably guessed, they include the main cast from the show:  Homer, Bart, Lisa and Marge. As you probably did not guess, there’s also a level for Apu. Why Apu? No idea, but it’s nice to play as someone who isn’t a member of the main family and Apu is better than Milhouse. Nobody wants to play as Milhouse. Each level stars one playable character and takes place in a different section of Springfield. Levels get recycled eventually, but with a slightly different take such as night vs day. The last level does something different that I don’t want to spoil, but I’ll say it’s pretty cool. At the start of each stage, your character has access to their default car plus any car that’s been acquired along the way. Naturally, the further into the game you go the better the cars get so you probably won’t use most of the earlier ones. Just about every car is taken from the series too so you’ll get to drive famous cars like Homer’s Mr. Plow truck and Martin’s Honor Roller.

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Do it, Bart, take his head!

The setup of the game is pretty straight-forward. You’re given a task, and you need to drive over to a certain character to begin the mission. Just about every mission can be distilled into you driving to a checkpoint in a set amount of time. A timer counts down and often another character has hopped into the car with you to make fun of you while you drive. Complicating things is the hit & run meter. As you run over pedestrians and cause mayhem the meter fills. If it fills all the way you attract the attention of Springfield’s finest. Chief Wiggum and company are surprisingly capable of catching you, and unlike GTA they don’t have to yank you out of the car, just stop you. In the early stages you probably won’t have too much trouble, but as the game moves along things get harder and you’ll probably need to make sure you have the best vehicles available to complete the missions.

The plot of the game is unimportant and pretty weird, even for The Simpsons. Buzz Cola is spreading some new cola that turns people into zombies. It’s sort of a New Coke parody and for some reason there’s giant robot wasps. I mostly ignored it, but the plot pushes you along and into contact with basically every major character from the show. Since the game was released in 2003, it includes characters and references up to around season 13 of the show, so all of the best stuff was available and not as much of the not so great stuff. If you only like the old stuff, you shouldn’t feel too lost here. All of the voice actors contributed to the game and the dialogue is really funny. It’s easily the game’s best aspect.

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Say it with me now, “I am evil Homer! I am evil Homer!”

If Hit & Run did not possess The Simpsons license, it probably wouldn’t be remembered at all. The game probably runs about 8-10 hours depending on how thorough you are and towards the end the game’s structure does get a bit tiresome. There’s basically no mission variety to speak of, and while the game isn’t really hard some of the end stages will feature a mission or two that will likely get frustrating. I would often find myself getting bored and sloppy and that’s when my play quality would diminish leading to some angry moments. Usually putting the game away for a bit and returning another day remedied this and thankfully the game’s humor and charm were enough to keep me coming back. Once you’ve seen the three main hubs though the game does lose some luster since most of the Easter eggs have been explored by then.

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Of course the Monorail makes a cameo.

Hit & Run is at its best when you’re just exploring Springfield. Seeking out the special missions and homages throughout is definitely the most satisfying aspect of the game. The game keeps track of them too so you know if you’ve found them all or if there’s more out there. There’s some optional races too, but they’re sort of just padding. If that last level wasn’t so good I’d say you’ve probably seen enough after just level three. There’s also optional costumes to purchase in the game if you want to dress-up your character as Bartman or Evil Homer. Once you complete a stage too you’re free to jump back into it if you want in case there was something you failed to complete.

It’s debatable if Hit & Run is the best Simpsons game ever made. Virtual Springfield is much beloved by the community for its authenticity, though it isn’t really much of a game. Most people probably pick Konami’s arcade brawler, simply titled The Simpsons, as their favorite. It was available for a time on Xbox Live but I believe that is no longer the case. It is a fun game, though it’s also a traditional arcade game that exists mostly to devour quarters. It also was created during production of season 2 so it only contains references to the show’s first season, which is a bit disappointing. Hit & Run is definitely worth a look if you love The Simpsons. It was released across all three major consoles at the time, so it’s really easy to find a copy at a reasonable price. And if you like podcasts, definitely check out Talking Simpsons as, short of just watching the episodes, that’s the best way to enjoy the classic era of The Simpsons. The main podcast is free and is part of the Laser Time family of podcasts. There’s also a Patreon that has additional content (including the Bill Oakley interview I mentioned) most of which is available for just five bucks a month. I heartily recommend it (and no, I am not affiliated in any way with that show, I just enjoy it). However you go about, treasure The Simpsons since it won’t be around forever, as incredible as that may seem. Maybe we can even get one more game out of it. The Simpsons Game followed Hit & Run, and while the production values on that one blow away the other Simpsons games, the actual gameplay is atrocious and ruins the experience. A game that expands upon the basic formula of Hit & Run would probably work quite well, if enough time was sunk into it. I doubt we’ll receive another major Simpsons game, but it doesn’t hurt to wish.


Dec. 25 – Daze Before Christmas

maxresdefault-18Wait, what is this? We’ve reached the final day of this year’s advent calendar style countdown of Christmas specials and it’s not even a show, movie, or stupid commercial? No friends, for December 25th we’re taking a look at Daze Before Christmas, the Sunsoft produced 16-bit Christmas video game that never saw release in North America. Christmas and other holidays are rarely captured in video games. Sometimes a game might take place at Christmas time (Twisted Metal originally did), but few actually make the holiday a focal point of the game. Daze Before Christmas, developed by Norwegian outfit Funcom, said nuts to that and made a platform game starring St. Nick himself. And you know what? It’s actually not that bad.

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Funcom was a little developer out of Norway that apparently liked Christmas a lot.

Daze Before Christmas was originally released in Australia for Sega’s Mega Drive console (Genesis to you Americans) in 1994. It was eventually ported to the Super Nintendo for release in Europe and Australia, but a planned North American version was scrapped. Apparently, Santa is more marketable outside of the US. In this game you play as Santa Claus. An evil snowman has taken over the North Pole while Santa was sleeping or something and everything is in disarray. The player controls Santa through 25 levels collecting presents, freeing elves and reindeer, and even delivering the presents as well. Along the way he’ll explore his work shop, ice caves, and the skies of the UK and other countries and even take on some bosses here and there. When Santa finds a cup of coffee though, he’ll turn into Anti-Claus – a devilish Santa wielding a sack. He’s impervious to damage, but can’t collect presents (a trade-off most will take). As Santa, players can run and jump and shoot some white substance at enemies. There’s also a power-up that allows Santa to shoot fire which comes in handy when battling snowy fiends.

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I get the impression that Anti-Claus was supposed to be the break-out star of this one. I wouldn’t mind seeing him come back in a game of his own, as unlikely as that sounds.

The levels in Daze Before Christmas vary from short, linear, bursts with traditional genre trappings (moving platforms, disappearing ones, blind jumps) and numerous enemies to other levels that are more expansive requiring Santa to explore vertically as well as horizontally. There are checkpoints in each level and finding the star icon will end the stage. In addition to surviving a level and finding the exit, Santa is tasked with recovering presents for the delivery stages. Those stages are few and far between, but in them the game becomes a horizontal scrolling flying game where Santa and his team of reindeer (only four, and I’m giving the game the benefit of the doubt there since only two are visible from the side view) have to avoid obstacles while dropping gifts down chimneys (we call that the Fred Flintstone method of gift delivery). Those levels are simple, but offer a nice diversion and it’s good to see that Funcom made an attempt at getting Santa’s central purpose into the game.

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Santa coming face to face with his alter-ego.

The thing that sticks out most about Daze Before Christmas are its visuals. When I went to play this one, almost begrudgingly, I expected a very cheap looking game. And while some aspects of it are kind of cheap looking (namely the backgrounds), for the most part this looks like a game with some real resources behind it. The Santa sprite is pretty adorable. He’s short and round and has a red nose. When he ducks he goes into his hat and when standing idle he sways from side to side with a nice rotation effect on the sprite. He’s exceptionally well animated as everything is in motion as he runs and jumps through the air and overall he just plain looks great. The enemies have a lot of spunk and personality too, be they flying toys or angry rock creatures. My personal favorite was probably the snowmen that toss their own head at you. The bosses are well-animated as well and I particularly enjoyed the Louse the Mouse boss as he requires Santa to drop anvils on his head with some nice cartoon effects when successful.

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Look out below!

The high number of animation frames seem to have one cost though, and that’s with collision detection. While I never felt robbed of a hit when attacking enemies, vanquishing them has little or no satisfaction as they kind of just disappear. There’s a disconnect there and it’s really felt with some of the bosses as I wasn’t even sure at times I was damaging them. Some of the levels, in particular the earliest stages, almost feel directionless and play rather bland. I couldn’t help but get the impression that Funcom spent most of the development time on making sure the game looked right first, then tried to construct something that was fun to play off of that with little idea for what makes a platform game fun and unique.

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The flying levels are kind of ugly, but offer a nice change of pace. Norwegians also must think footballs are just constantly flying through American skies.

That’s not to say Daze Before Christmas isn’t fun, it’s a mostly solid play through with little frustration. It’s just not particularly ambitious in what it asks of the player. Even on the hardest difficulty setting, the game is a breeze for anyone with average skill and familiarity with games from this era. The biggest danger comes from blind or near blind jumps where the player might not be certain if they’re supposed to go down a certain gap or try to clear it. Actual fatalities from repeated collisions with enemies are pretty few, and the boss fights are pretty painless. Levels start to feel repetitive and too familiar by the time the game is nearing its end, and there’s even a pair of stages where Santa runs up and down a small hill and jumps into a hole, lasting all of 15 seconds or so, which feels like an obvious attempt at padding (the game operates like an advent calendar so Funcom needed 25 levels).

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The pre-level title cards are actually pretty awesome.

The presentation extends beyond Santa’s well done sprite. The game, perhaps not surprisingly, makes liberal use of “Jingle Bells” throughout as well as other Christmas tunes, but they’re all handled rather well and I was surprised by the fact that I didn’t get annoyed with them. There’s some original music as well that’s actually really good, especially one of the cave levels. In between levels you also get some nice title cards that usually depict Santa confronting an enemy or something that are drawings as opposed to sprites from the game. The storyline, touched on earlier, is a bit confusing, but hardly essential. At the start of the game, it sounds like an evil snowman named Louse has screwed Christmas up for Santa, but the snowman is dispatched in level 5. Louse is actually the mouse character I mentioned as requiring anvils be dropped on his head. There’s a clock boss too, and the final boss is actually a cloud named Mr. Weather. Sadly, Rudolph does not offer an assist to take him out. The present delivery levels also occur in different countries and there’s little touches in each to refer to the country being presented. Maybe it’s because I live there, but the United States level amused me the most as Santa flies by the Statue of Liberty and you have to avoid footballs sailing through the air. Though Japan did feature a mouse with a rocket strapped to his back.

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There are some nice touches to certain levels, such as these cartoony wrapping machines that can disguise Santa as a present.

Daze Before Christmas, due in part to its relative ease, is a game that’s probably completed in about an hour and a half. If you really know what you’re doing, where to jump, and care little about collecting presents, you can probably complete this one in under an hour. The only incentive to revisit is, as far as I can tell, is to get a higher score by finding all of the presents, but that’s not likely to motivate many. This is a pretty average platformer, though if you think the average platformer is actually pretty bad then maybe you’d consider this one slightly above average. It separates itself from the pack with its Christmas theme, and it got me thinking about the subject of Christmas games a bit more. Perhaps a game where Santa actually has to infiltrate houses to deliver gifts, avoiding detection by nosey kids, angry dogs, and cartoon wackiness would be a fun experience. It’s certainly not a genre that’s been tapped out and exploited by any means, as the most famous Christmas video game I could think of other than this one is maybe Elf Bowling. Because this wasn’t released in high quantities or in North America, it’s a pretty expensive cart to acquire. If you want to play it, it’s certainly not worth the dollars it commands on the secondary market and you’re better off experiencing it via other means you’re likely aware exist. If you want some Christmas cheer in your gaming life, you have few other options and this is certainly better than a lump of coal. Personally, I say get your Christmas cheer from other media and just grab Super Mario Odyssey instead.

Well folks, that’s a wrap. Hopefully you enjoyed this year’s countdown to Christmas. Tune in Friday for regularly schedule programming as we return to Batman: The Animated Series with an all-time classic episode. And by all means, have a very merry Christmas!


SNES Classic – Some Quick Thoughts

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The UK box had a bit of a rough ride across the Atlantic, it would seem.

So the SNES Classic is out and has been for a week. As expected, it’s been rather difficult to get one if you weren’t fortunate enough to land a pre-order (which was also rather difficult to obtain). Scalpers are out in full force, and based on the few bits of feedback I’ve received from some of those who waited in line on launch day, it’s the scalpers who are making up the largest portion of the buyers. That’s too bad, because this is a rather awesome gaming device. Niche it may be, it still contains some of the greatest games ever developed. I was fortunate enough to land two pre-orders:  one for the SNES Classic and one for the UK SNES Classic. It took my UK version an extra week to make it to my door, but I’m now ready to offer up some thoughts.

If you’re unfamiliar with the UK version of the Super Nintendo, it’s basically the same as the Japanese Super Famicom. Nintendo of America felt it needed to market the original NES as more of a secondary entertainment platform as opposed to a toy, and thus they redesigned the look of the machine for release in the US. For the Super Nintendo, they too also went with their own case design, though this one was far more in-line with the Japanese version as the carts were basically the same. I don’t know why they did this, and some speculate it was an ego thing, but I’ve always been partial to the Super Famicom design. When I first saw the Super Nintendo, I was underwhelmed as a child as I didn’t think it looked too “super.” Boxy with purple accents, it was kind of ugly. I got over it, of course, when I played Super Mario World, but I always wondered why some of those early games have a diamond shaped logo featuring three circular colors:  blue, red, green, and yellow. Years later I’d come to know that was the logo for the Super Famicom and it referred to the colored face buttons on the controller. I’ve never gone the extra mile and acquired a Super Famicom, but when I saw the UK SNES Classic, which is identical to the US one aside from the case and controllers, I knew that was the version for me.

IMG_1703Both editions of the SNES Classic are, naturally, pretty cute. Like the NES Classic they’re tiny and are closer in size to a game cartridge for the original system than the old system itself. They’re light, and pretty simple devices. Both feature working power and reset buttons that function the same as the ones on the original consoles. The eject buttons and cartridge door are non-functioning, and the there’s a little snap-off piece where the controller “ports” are that pop off to reveal the actual controller ports for the Classic edition. In the box, both units come with two controllers, an HDMI cable, and a micro USB cable. The US version has a USB to wall adapter that the UK one lacks, but any such adapter will work. The US version also comes with a poster with instructions on the reverse side while the UK version comes with an instruction manual designed to mimic the original. The UK version also comes with My Nintendo reward points, I’m not sure why the US version does not.

The software for both systems is the same. If you go out and import a Japanese unit you’ll get a few different games, but the UK and US get the same ones. The dashboard is slightly different as each one is mean to resemble the visual style of the actual unit, so the US dashboard has purple accents and the UK one has a power light in the bottom right hand corner. The little graphic of a controller beside a game is also updated to reflect the proper controller for each unit, so purple buttons for the US and multi-colored ones for the UK. Other features, like CRT mode, widescreen, and so on are all the same.

I’ve only had time to play a little, but the first game I fired up was Super Mario World. I wanted to test the game out and see if it felt like how I felt it should. Testing for things like input lag and any graphical stretching, I found the game to be picture-perfect. The emulation Nintendo has pulled off with both the SNES Classic and the NES Classic is fantastic and miles ahead of what the company did on the Virtual Console. It’s why whenever someone poo-poos these things and suggests just getting a Raspberry Pi I laugh at them. I think the Raspberry Pi is great, but games on that do not look and play as well as they do on these devices. There’s also something to be said for having an actual Nintendo controller in hand to play these things, which just feels right.

Following Super Mario World I made sure to play and beat the first level of Star Fox. I may want to redo my rankings and kick Star Fox to the end of the line because that game is a tad rough to play these days. I played it though because you have to beat the first level in order to unlock Star Fox 2. Truth be told, I don’t look really look forward to playing Star Fox 2 for any reason other than sheer curiosity. I suspect it has aged just as poorly, if not worse since it attempts to do more than just be a flight sim, and probably isn’t nearly as enjoyable an experience as most of the other titles on this collection. If I see fit to do so, I’ll post a review of it. Some day.

IMG_1710If you’re still unsure I can safely say the SNES Classic is worth the 80 dollar price tag Nintendo has placed on it. It’s a great little machine full of some truly excellent games, some of which would cost you hundreds to purchase on the secondary market. Like the NES Classic, it’s also not something you need to drop hundreds of dollars on to own so if you’re still looking for one I encourage you to be patient and not feed the scalpers. For now, Nintendo is claiming these will be shipped in abundance so hopefully they’re sincere and these are attainable for everyone who wants one. They’ll probably remain hard to get through the holidays, but if Nintendo keeps supplying them past 2017 they should get a bit easier to track down. If you live in an area with Amazon Prime Now, keep an eye on their social media accounts as it seems like they’ll be selling these exclusively through that service as well through their few retail locations and that truck thing they do. Supposedly, people who were able to pre-order through the US Amazon site are still waiting for them to be fulfilled. Meanwhile, Amazon’s European web stores seem to be getting stock regularly for their versions and most ship to the US. Sometimes they claim not to (when I pre-ordered my UK edition it said UK only, but it still went through), but will ship anyways. Just make sure to select the global shipping option, if offered. You’ll pay a few more bucks, but it might be worth your while, especially if you’re like me and prefer the UK look of the console.

As for my two units, I only wanted one. I plan to keep the UK version and gift the US one to my best friend who was not as fortunate as I. If you were concerned I’d betray my fellow retro-gaming enthusiasts and flip it on eBay, rest assured I have no plans to do so. I also do not need to collect mini systems and have a version of each. Hopefully who ever wants one will be able to get one because this thing is pretty cool. Don’t screw over your fans, Nintendo, and discontinue it while demand remains high.


The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

BreathoftheWildFinalCoverIt has taken me quite a few months, but I’m finally ready to offer up my full thoughts on the latest entry in The Legend of Zelda series:  Breath of the Wild. I first wrote about it as part of my initial thoughts on the Nintendo Switch. I was able to secure a unit at launch and naturally Zelda was the title I paired with it. Since its release, Breath of the Wild has been almost universally praised as not just one of the best titles in the series but as one of the greatest video games ever made. Currently it ranks fourth all time on game rankings.com, right in between Grand Theft Auto IV and Super Mario Galaxy 2 with an aggregate score of 97.28%. On metaritic.com, the game is in a massive tie for 6th all-time with a score of 97. The highest score of all time just happens to be 99, held by The Legend of Zelda:  Ocarina of Time.

The Zelda series is accustomed to tremendous accolades upon release. In some ways it’s Nintendo’s most pure franchise. While Mario will dabble in virtually every genre imaginable, the Zelda franchise is content to largely remain the same with some tweaks here and there. I’ve argued the franchise was starting become stale because of its reliance on its classic formula. The last main entry on a home console, Skyward Sword, was the tipping point for me as I found the game to be an un-fun chore that drew out the worst in the franchise. Perhaps Nintendo felt some of that as well as Breath of the Wild is the first Zelda title on a home console since maybe Zelda II to really try and break the mold.

As some have pointed out, part of what makes Breath of the Wild feel so fresh for the franchise in 2017 is an approach to the gameplay that’s reminiscent of the very first title in the series. In The Legend of Zelda, the player is dropped into the world with very little direction on what to do. There’s a cave immediately in front of the player’s character inhabited by the famous old man who bestows upon the player the sword they’ll most likely need to get their quest underway. After that, it’s basically figure it out, kid. Breath of the Wild begins with Link awakening in a cave. He’s an amnesiac with no knowledge of why he’s there. He’s immediately given the Skeikah Slate, a device that bares an uncanny resembled to the Wii U’s Gamepad that will play a pivotal role in the journey to come. Aside from that, Link merely possesses some ragged clothes and a voice in his head. That voice belongs to the princess Zelda, and she’ll urge Link to leave the cave and stop Calamity Ganon, who has overrun Hyrule Castle and imprisoned the princess 100 years ago.

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If the world looks big it’s because it is.

As is the case with most Zelda titles, plot isn’t always important. When Link emerges from that cave the game’s primary objective is clear, but overcoming it is not. An old man emerges to act as a bit of a guide in the game’s earliest portion. He’ll introduce Link to the towers that dot the landscape. Climbing them allows Link to download a map of the surrounding area to his Sheikah Slate (similar to the map function of Assassin’s Creed) and survey the land for shrines. The first part of the game takes place on a giant plateau that Link cannot leave. There are four shrines on this plateau Link must visit before departing. Each shrine contains a new function for his slate, and these new powers are what Link will rely on to complete his quest.

The shrines are not quite the dungeon replacement some though they would be. The shrines are mostly small areas that are puzzle driven and each one typically utilizes one of the powers of the Sheikah Slate. Those powers are:  remote bombs, cryonis, stasis, and magnesis. The remote bombs are straight-forward and reminiscent of the bombs in virtually all Zelda games. There are two shapes for the bombs:  rectangular and spherical. These bombs can be placed one each at a time and then detonated remotely. There’s a cool-down meter after each detonation to prevent spamming of the bombs and they’re about as useful as bombs usually are. The cryonis ability is mostly limited to being useful in the game’s early going. The ability allows Link to create up to three ice pillars on the surface of the water. Early in the game when Link’s stamina is low, this ability comes in handy to traverse large bodies of water he wouldn’t have the stamina to swim across. It also can be used to lift floating objects, such as a wooden treasure chest, out of the water by creating a pillar beneath the item. Stasis allows Link to freeze an object in time. When the object is frozen, Link can smash it repeatedly which stores potential energy in the object that will be unleashed all at once as kinetic energy once the stasis wares off. This allows Link to move heavy objects he can’t pick up. Later, it can even be upgraded to work on organic objects like enemies, which comes in handy for really tough enemies like the Lynels. Magnesis basically turns Link into a lesser version of Marvel’s Magneto as he can magnetically move and manipulate metal objects. He can’t, unfortunately, use the ability on himself or something he’s directly standing on for flight (though if you stack two metal objects on each other you can kind of create a rudimentary flying machine). This ability has pretty obvious uses and is probably overall the most useful ability Link acquires.

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The game tries to inject some true emotion into the plot, but it’s not all that successful.

Unlike past Zelda games, those core four abilities are pretty much it for Link as far as acquiring new abilities is concerned. There are no main dungeons to conquer containing a new permanent item, which is probably the most radical departure. Instead, Link can acquire equipment constantly throughout his journey. Armor is the only permanent equipment Link can acquire and he does so through conventional means such as buying it or by finding it in hidden treasures and shrines. Armor typically comes in sets with a head, torso, and leg component. Often these bestow abilities upon Link aside from just damage resistance and they can be upgraded at Great Fairy Fountains a maximum of four times each. Typically an armor set allows Link to resist elemental damage or move stealthily. Some of it is also just to look neat. Link’s offensive equipment, and shields, all have a durability score and will eventually break. Link is not a blacksmith and cannot repair his equipment, nor can seemingly anyone in all of Hyrule so once it breaks it’s gone. There’s basically no point in getting attached to anything. In addition to swords, Link can wield poles, axes, hammers, great swords, wands, and bows offering up some distinct combat style approaches. The only problem with that is that most gamers will naturally prefer one over the other, but sometimes all you have is one weapon type. Basically every enemy will drop whatever weapon they were using and Link can claim it, so weapons are easy to find, but good ones are not. There is, of course, a version of the Master Sword in this game. It too can break, but unlike the other items, once it breaks it just needs to recharge so at least you don’t have to go back and find it.

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The lumbering Hinox has one very obvious weak point.

As I mentioned before, the shrines are a main focus of this game though completing them all is not necessary to beat it. Once you leave the game’s first area, The Great Plateau, you’re actually free to beat the game whenever you wish. Completing all 120 shrines obviously is a help as each one gives Link a shrine sphere and those spheres are how Link expands both his maximum health and stamina. Health is self-explanatory, but stamina is just as vital as it allows Link to run, climb, and glide. Climbing is a huge part of Breath of the Wild as exploration is the name of the game with such a vast map. Link can climb almost any surface, as long as it isn’t raining, and the player is often rewarded for doing so. The map is gigantic, so crossing it on foot would take an extremely long time. When Link completes a shrine, it becomes a fast travel point adding even more of a necessity to find them all. Many are hidden in plain sight from the several great towers dotting the landscape, but several others are well-hidden, some even behind a side quest.  Most are fun, if not all  that challenging. They tend to be puzzle-like in nature, but the kind of puzzle where the objective is clear, but pulling it off is tricky. Some of them are strictly combat shrines where Link has to defeat a certain enemy to clear it. These were my least favorite as the combat never changes, it’s always the same enemy, and there are way too many combat shrines. Three shrines are hidden in large labyrinths which is kind of fun, and one great one exists on an island that setting foot on causes Link to lose all of his equipment. It’s definitely the most inventive out of all 120 of them.

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The spider-like guardians are probably the best of the new additions to Link’s cast of foes.

Separate from the shrines are the guardian beasts. These four beings are the closest things to dungeons the game has, aside from Hyrule Castle where Ganon resides. They’re colossal mechanical beasts that Link must first gain entry to in some cinematic fashion. Once inside, Link can manipulate the movements of the beast to make certain areas accessible. This is necessary to not only find treasure, but also activate nodes inside the beast to gain entry to the boss. As you may have guessed, these beasts are more puzzling than anything and it’s a test of mind more than a test of strength. Clearing each one gives Link a special ability, some more useful than others, and also weakens Calamity Ganon for Link’s final confrontation. As such, they’re optional, but only by clearing them will you experience the full story. And they’re fun, so why not?

Breath of the Wild’s defining feature is clearly its size. The world is vast and rewarding to explore, even if it’s not as exciting as some other open worlds from other games. There isn’t much civilization for Link to find outside of a few towns, it’s just mostly vast emptiness. Link will encounter a lot of the same enemies throughout his journey, but there are always some super-powered beings lurking here and there. These include the centaur-like Lynels, probably the most challenging foe Link will cross paths with. There’s also large ogre-like beings called a Hinox, and the very durable stone-beasts known as the Talus. While it does get tiring fighting moblins over and over, those three at least liven things up when they’re around. There’s also the guardians which can be pretty challenging at first, though like basically every enemy, once you figure them out they’re not as bad. Combat is largely the same as it has been in all of the 3D Zelda adventures. The notable distinction is that locking onto an enemy doesn’t protect Link from being attacked by other enemies anymore. Well-timed dodges allow for a special follow-up attack which is very useful against tougher enemies, though not essential for clearing the game. All in all, the combat is fine, but it’s definitely one area where Breath of the Wild feels perhaps too familiar as combat sometimes feels like an obstacle to exploration, and not just as a fun game mechanic.

 

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Look at me; I’m Link:  home owner!

Breath of the Wild is unquestionably a great game, but I can’t help but feel that Zelda sometimes gets too much credit for the changes it makes. The open world format is a great addition, but it really shows that this is Nintendo’s first real stab at this type of game. The land is huge, but lacking in variety. Sure there’s your typical layout of snowy landscapes, deserts, and lush forests, but the NPCs don’t bring much life to the scenery. There are not scores of diversions as there are with a Grand Theft Auto game, nor is there the wonder of encountering something really special like there is with an Elder Scrolls game. The game has numerous side quests like most open world games, but they’re painfully boring fetch quests with little or no pay-off. The crafting system is also cumbersome requiring Link to hold the components and then drop them into a pot. The end results aren’t particularly worthwhile either, and I know many people who basically ignored the cooking component in the game all together. Once I saw everything the game had to offer, I basically busied myself farming resources to better my equipment. This meant chasing down the mystical dragons (not as cool as that sounds) and hunting Lynels, the latter of which appear in only certain spots and once killed you need to wait for them to respawn. The whole map gets reset by the moon cycle, a red moon will rise and all defeated enemies rise with it. The sequence is particularly annoying since a cinematic comes along with it that also brings load times.

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The great fairies allow Link to upgrade his armor, as long as he has the necessary components to do so.

The game does boast weather affects and a day/night cycle, like Zelda titles before it. At night is when the skeletal stalfos emerge from the ground and serve as more annoyance than anything. The weather in most parts of the game means very little, but in the desert the nights get extremely cold necessitating Link to wear appropriate clothing or use an elixir to keep warm. And during the day it naturally gets quite hot requiring Link to do the opposite. Lightning storms can pose a problem if Link is wearing anything metallic, and rain is the biggest obstacle of all as slick surfaces are essentially impossible to climb. I mostly like the inclusion of these effects, but the rain one is extremely annoying as if you’re in the middle of scaling a mountain or tower you either have to give up or wait it out, and who plays a video game just to stare at the screen and wait for the rain to go away? In that sense, the rain is a lot like the weapon durability. It’s kind of neat and certainly adds realism, but does it make the game more fun? I don’t think so, and I hope the weapon durability in place here is never repeated. Same for the more realistic approach to horses. In past games Link had Epona who could be summoned when needed, in Breath of the Wild Link has to capture and train horses and stable them at one of the many stables. He can’t though, just call on his horse whenever he wants which, for me, resulted in me basically ignoring the horse component of the game. On the plus side, Link can ride bears and deer, which is kind of fun.

Technically, this version of Breath of the Wild is essentially a port. The game was developed for the Wii U and ported to the Switch for a simultaneous release on both platforms. As a result, the game looks like a Wii U game and it even possesses a few relics of bygone eras. I can’t recall the last time I played a game with this much pop-in as the game sometimes struggles to populate areas, especially when gliding. Frame-rate drops are frequent, those most noticeable when the Switch is docked, and there are a lot of vast open areas to likely limit the strain on the processor. Artistically speaking, the game is nice to look at and is similar in style to Skyward Sword. Voice acting has been introduced, but only sparingly and Link is still mute. What’s there seems fine to me, but I know some have been very critical of the voice acting. The music, often a major component of Zelda games, has been de-emphaiszed as well. I assume it was a style choice to emphasize how large the world is and how alone Link is, but I’ve also seen a few complaints in this regard. I for one was fine with that aspect of the game. As for the final dungeon and battle with Ganon, I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s thankfully not a re-tread battle. While not the best, I found it satisfactory, if a bit on the easy side. Hyrule Castle, on the other hand, is pretty fun to explore. The only drawback is that it does make me wish the game had more dungeons like it, instead of just the one.

On the Switch, I mostly played the game in portable form. Playing it docked with a pro controller is probably a slightly better experience, but being able to just play it off TV is too convenient for me at this stage of my life. As a portable, it’s not the greatest as open world games tend to want to demand at least an hour, if not more, per session so playing in 20-30 minute bursts during a commute isn’t very rewarding. The game does allow you to save whenever you want and the Switch seems pretty good at conserving battery life when in sleep mode. I could basically get a little over 2 hours out of the console in handheld mode before needing to charge it. The back of the system does get pretty hot though after just a half hour, but so far I’ve seen no signs of over-heating. The game does offer gyro-scoping controls for aiming the bow and looking through a scope, which I find cumbersome in handheld mode. Disengaging the two joycons does minimize this, and even comes in handy for a couple of gyro-puzzles as you can move the controller while keeping the screen stationary. Doing those puzzles any other way is practically impossible.

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Cooking is part of the game, though not a particularly fun or essential part.

Criticisms aside, Breath of the Wild is one of the best Zelda games made and it feels like the most important since Ocarina of Time. Many reviewers rushed to give it a perfect score when it was released alongside the Switch, but I think the extra months have given me some clarity. It’s by no means a perfect game, and some of the changes made to the old Zelda formula are not for the better, but the overall product is still excellent. After playing Breath of the Wild I can say i never want Zelda to not be an open world experience. I never want a map to be smaller than what is here. What I do want though is more dungeons, refined combat that is actually fun, and for some of those old items to return. This game badly misses the hookshot which could have made mountain climbing more tolerable, especially in the rain, and some more inventive enemies would really add to the wonder of the experience. And while I never expect much from the storyline of a Nintendo game, I do still want the ultimate goal to be something more imaginative than simply saving the princess from the bad guy. Calamity Ganon is a step back for the Ganon character as he’s just an ancient evil in this world who exists to cause destruction. Though really, all he did was take over the castle and unleash his incompetent minions across Hyrule. The towns and villages seem fine, and I bet they don’t miss those expensive Hylian taxes! Seriously though, this is a game that’s not to be missed. If you have a Switch, you don’t need me to tell you to buy it because you already have. If you have a Wii U, but no Switch, I don’t think you need to wait for a Switch to experience it since it’s a port. And if you’re on the fence about getting either of those consoles, I can say this game is probably worth it, but it’s totally understandable to wait for the Switch’s library to expand or for the Wii U’s price to come crashing down further. I’ve also updated my Zelda rankings to include this game, and I do think it’s one of the best in the series, just don’t expect perfection when you go to play it or else you may be setting yourself up for some mild disappointment. Hopefully Breath of the Wild is the game we look back on as Nintendo’s baby steps into the open world genre that was but a precursor of the greatness that was yet to come.