Tag Archives: super nintendo

The Final Word on the NES Classic

nes_classic_retro_blast_splashIf you read this blog even semi-regularly, you’ve probably seen me talk about the NES Classic already. When it came out I ranked the 30 games bundled with the device and also speculated on what could be included on a likely SNES Classic. What I didn’t do was actually come out and review the device. I figured I had nothing left to add to the general opinions that already existed across the internet. Which is to say, the NES Classic Edition is a fun little device, but it’s hampered by short controller cables and not every one of those games is really worth owning in 2016. Since then, the NES Classic became the hot holiday item and was also probably the hardest to come by. Nintendo evidently didn’t anticipate how popular it would be, as it couldn’t meet demand though it assured consumers more were on the way. Now we’re in April 2017, and the NES Classic has been discontinued.

If you were one of those individuals who got a NES Classic then you’re probably feeling pretty fortunate right now. It was never in stock to the point where you could walk into a store and take one-off the shelf. I suspect those who didn’t get one during the holiday rush probably expected them to eventually be in stock in reasonable numbers, just like Nintendo devices from years past. And while the fervor died down a bit following Christmas, consumers still needed to be vigilant in order to get one.

If you’re still pondering getting a NES Classic you’re probably down to third-party sellers as your only option. As of April 27th, the Nintendo store in NYC has stopped selling them and most big box retailers have either unloaded all of their stock or will do so this weekend. Online, no one has had stock since early April except Amazon’s Prime Now delivery service which has had flash sales sporadically and appears to be done as of this writing. And people selling Classics on Amazon or eBay know full well that the item is still highly sought after and essentially unavailable at retail and the prices reflect that. If you were lucky enough to encounter a Classic in the wild, you were likely charged 60 bucks to purchase the console which came bundled with one controller, a micro USB cable, wall adapter, and HDMI cable. A few places up-charged, and Gamestop offered mostly bundles full of other stuff no one wanted, but for the most part retailers stayed at the MSRP. During the lead-up to Christmas, prices climbed high enough to more than quadruple the MSRP with some even fetching around $300. After the holidays, the prices came down to the $120-$150 range, which was still a lot considering the MSRP, but perhaps not prohibitive. Now they’re back up to $300 and higher and who knows where they’ll settle at as they become more and more scarce.

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The NES Classic! Available at all of these places! Maybe!

At $60, purchasing the NES Classic wasn’t much of a dilemma. At that price point it could be considered a novelty. Had it actually managed to be well stocked it probably would have been a popular impulse buy. At the prices they’re going for now though, it becomes a much tougher proposition. I was fortunate enough to purchase two NES Classics. When the item was first announced, I got it in my head that it would make a great Christmas gift for my best friend, so I went to great lengths to acquire one eventually scoring one on Prime Now in a city that wasn’t my own. I had to pay extra to have the item shipped by UPS after having it delivered to one of its stores, but it was a small price to pay to secure a cool gift for my buddy. After Christmas, I happened to be at my computer at the right moment when Best Buy’s website put some up for sale and was able to get one for myself. I’ve had the NES Classic for months, so I feel well equipped to tell you what it’s worth.

To properly judge the NES Classic, you have to consider what it does well and what it doesn’t and why you want it. It contains 30 Nintendo games, about half of which are classics. Some of that lesser half is still playable, and some of it are titles you’ll likely play once and then never again. For sixty bucks, you’re getting each game for essentially $2, so it’s hard to get upset about Ice Climber when you also have Super Mario Bros. 3. None of these games are particularly rare, but you’d be hard pressed to find many for less than $2 if you were trying to get actual NES carts. This makes getting a lot of the best Nintendo games pretty convenient and pretty affordable. Of course, this ignores emulation piracy which I know a lot of people engage in. You don’t need me to tell you that you could probably download all of these games at no expense to you with probably minimal risk of actually running afoul of the law. Don’t confuse that statement as an advocation for illegal ROM downloading, it’s just an acknowledgement of reality. In other words, these games are all easy to come by and probably for really cheap. And if you were an early adopter of Nintendo’s 3DS handheld, you even received a bunch of these games for free from Nintendo itself.

What it all comes down to, you only have a few reasons to actually buy an NES Classic:

  1. The emulation is great and probably the best way to play these games. There’s no latency even when played on a modern television. You can play these games in crisp, bright, HD or opt for a filter that mimics a CRT television (my preferred mode). Nothing else I’m aware of does a better job, including Nintendo’s own Virtual Console service. Simply put, while these games are of limited value visually speaking, they’ve also never looked better and likely never will.
  2. The novelty of it all. And really, this is probably the big reason why people want this thing. It’s cute. It’s a tiny Nintendo Entertainment System that fits in your hand. It’s exactly the type of thing people get nostalgic over and want. Even people that know they won’t actually use this thing much still want it because it looks cool.
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If you actually get one, you probably should also get some controller extension cables. They’re practically mandatory.

There’s also a third reason, though it ties into number 2, and that’s this thing has no protection built-in really what-so-ever. It’s a popular item for modders to hack, and its storage capacity is vast enough that some claim it could store the entirety of the N64 library on it. For those who are really into emulation, it’s kind of the ultimate device because it’s an official Nintendo product capable of playing every single NES game in glorious HD with save states to boot. Considering most that are into emulation do so because they just want to play the games cheaply and easily, they’re probably no longer willing to pay hundreds of dollars to get a novelty box for their illegal games. Especially when you consider that if you mess up the ROM dump you can brick your tiny NES and that just doesn’t seem like a risk worth taking considering what they’re worth.

The decision to purchase or not purchase the NES Classic isn’t that complicated: you either really value silly little niche products or you don’t. If you have a ton of money at your disposal, then have at it, but if you just thought it would be fun to play these games again on a novelty device then passing on it at quadruple the retail price should be pretty easy. That said, if prices come down over the coming months then I could foresee a price range that would have made me comfortable that exceeded retail. At $100 to $120, I could probably talk myself into buying this thing all over again (if I for some reason wanted two of them), but I’d probably stop at around $150. If you really want to play a game or games that are included with the NES Classic, it’s just too easy to go elsewhere for a similar experience.

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What’s harder to get than the NES Classic? The extra controllers. If you have some old NES controllers hanging around, these work great, plus you can take advanage of the original’s  longer cord!

This whole post also assumes that the NES Classic has truly been discontinued. It makes little sense for Nintendo to cancel the thing. It costs them very little to produce, it likely has little or no impact on Switch production, and Nintendo probably isn’t selling tons of copies of these games via its Virtual Console platform. It’s possible Nintendo just wanted to make a quick buck, but was afraid of cannibalizing its virtual shop. It’s also possible the NES Classic was a bare-bones test run of a dedicated Virtual Console set-top box. Perhaps Nintendo will just release a new version later this year that is capable of adding software and likely would be harder for modders to crack, as it would seem the ease of doing so with the current NES Classic was a big factor in its cancellation. At least, that’s the only thing that makes sense. A rumored SNES Classic is on the way, so hopefully the scarcity of the NES Classic wasn’t intentional and the SNES Classic arrives in far greater numbers. If I can’t pre-order it I’ll probably lose my mind, or I’ll likely just end up outside a gaming store hours before it opens to get what I want silently cursing Nintendo the whole time.


Ranking the Zelda Games – The Top 3

5caa2739-c222-443c-8d6a-dff6048064c4We’re down to the top three in our rankings for the best games in The Legend of Zelda franchise. As far as climaxes go, this one is probably fairly anti-climactic as there’s a pretty clear top two in this series that the majority of gamers agree on. Though, as these games collectively get older there is undoubtedly more affection for the more recent games as suddenly a title like The Wind Waker is a normal gateway for players in their teens and twenties. Nostalgia always plays a role in a subjective exercise such as this one, though I sincerely feel these three games are the most dense and most fun Zelda experiences that Nintendo has put out. And I’m also not beholden to them. I really hope the next game in the series dethrones our champ, or at least forces its way into the conversation. Time will tell.

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Link’s Awakening is the rare Gameboy game to utilize cut scenes.

3. Link’s Awakening (Gameboy 1993) – Of the three titles I’m going to highlight in this post, Link’s Awakening is probably the one with the least tenable hold on the number three spot and the most fluid of the titles. I mentioned it in part two, but games six through three are really interchangeable. The order isn’t that important, but I chose to put Link’s Awakening in the three spot because it’s a very unique entry in the series, an important one, and it’s also a damn good game. Link’s Awakening is a direct sequel to A Link to the Past, which is probably why the cover art is almost indistinguishable from that of A Link to the Past. When it first came out, I actually thought it was just a Gameboy port, but I of course found out I was mistaken. It’s the first portable entry in the series and is quite easily the best game released for the Gameboy, and it’s color edition is the best on the Gameboy Color, which is a pretty impressive accomplishment. It laid the groundwork for all of the portable Zelda titles to follow establishing certain trends like the ability for Link to jump and equip any combination of any two items he wishes. Want to walk around with bombs and the bow? Go for it! You don’t need to just carry sword and shield everywhere. It also features a totally offbeat approach to world-building. This game is pretty wacky, and of particular delight are the numerous cameos from characters common in the Super Mario universe, in particular the US edition of Super Mario Bros. 2. There’s a lot of genuinely funny dialogue and the plot is very care-free and loose. The Gameboy hardware has some obvious limitations when it comes to handling a Zelda title, but it’s surprisingly capable here. The only aspect of the game where the hardware limitations persist is really in the two-button control setup. It does become rather tedious switching between items constantly. There’s no shortcut to do so forcing the player to pause the action and access the items from the game’s menu. It’s an inconvenience, but a necessary evil. That’s really the game’s only negative for me. It’s challenging, provides a lot of replay, and is pretty unique among the other games in the series. If you never played it, it’s available on the Virtual Console. Go for the DX version as it’s in color and has a bonus dungeon. It’s truly one of the best Zelda titles around.

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Hyrule may not look as good now as it did then, but many games from this era have aged worse.

2. Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64 1998)  – Ocarina of Time has become perhaps the defining, and most popular, game in The Legend of Zelda series. Its use of three-dimensional polygons makes it modern, and since the game is almost twenty years old it’s become a popular introduction for many gamers to the franchise. It’s also a well-crafted, expertly paced, and visually impressive title for its era which has since been improved upon with a 3DS re-release.

Let’s go back to the mid 90’s for a minute and reminisce about the era defined by the Playstation and Nintendo 64. There was a battle for supremacy between those two consoles, and poor old Sega was left behind in the dust thanks to the Saturn. When Sega created the Saturn, they foolishly decided not to make the system natively capable of 3D graphics (it had no geometric processor and achieved 3D with the use of 2D sprites). It was a puzzling move since Sega had been at the forefront with such technology with titles like Virtua Fighter and Virtua Racing. The Saturn was built to be a 2D powerhouse, and it was as it was the only title that could probably handle the Marvel VS series. Since it couldn’t do great 3D, consumers and game developers largely ignored it leaving Sony and Nintendo to duke it out for console supremacy. And when it came to 3D titles, Nintendo had an advantage with its more powerful hardware and analog control stick which Sony had to add years later. In this era, many popular 2D titles tried to make the move to 3D and fell hard. Eight and sixteen bit legends like Castlevania and Mega Man just couldn’t cut it in 3D, but Nintendo had great success with its properties. It started with Super Mario 64, one of the most well-received games in history, and it continued with Zelda.

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These guys were freaking terrifying in 1998.

Nintendo’s solution to making Zelda work in this new environment was to move the camera behind Link. The toughest challenge with any 3D game is the camera and getting it to be in the most optimal position, especially when negotiating jumps. Nintendo, realizing Zelda was never about platforming, decided to institute an auto-jump feature for Link. To attack enemies, the Z-trigger was used as a lock on mechanism where pressing the button would cause Link to lock onto an enemy. This was called Z-targeting, and once Link engaged an enemy no other enemies would pester him. As such, the combat was essentially a series of one on one affairs. While locked on, Link’s controls changed slightly allowing him to dodge left and right and hop away and towards enemies. This approach was called context sensitive actions, and it applied mostly to the A button on the N64 controller which was used for almost every action in the game. This all sounds elementary to anyone who grew up with the game, but at the time this was the kind of thing that stumped developers, but Nintendo figured it out.

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Another one of Ocarina of Time’s popular additions:  fishing.

Ocarina of Time’s defining trait, aside from the whole 3D thing, was the ability of Link to move back and forth through time. In the present he was just a kid, but in the alternate, dystopian future (does any other type of future exist in games?) he was an adult. The game didn’t require too much back and forth which helped keep it from getting stale. It also featured one of the better plots for a Zelda game that even saw the titular princess get her hands dirty. It introduced Ganondorf, the humanoid version of main villain Ganon, and even gave him a pretty interesting backstory. Gorons and Zoras also became more fleshed-out in Ocarina of Time and have largely remained unchanged since. The game has been so popular and so successful that every console edition of Zelda has basically played the same. That’s somewhat a weakness for newer games, but for Ocarina of Time I hardly consider it a weakness. Like the original Legend of Zelda, the game’s only real weakness is that it was limited by the technology of the time. The open fields of Hyrule are sparsely populated and pretty boring by today’s standards and it’s a damn shame the game was on a cartridge and not a CD as the score is too good for such compression. That’s all fairly trivial though. I’d tell you to go out and play the game if you haven’t already, but you probably already have numerous times.

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This world still looks beautiful to me.

1.A Link to the Past (Super Nintendo Japan 1991/North America 1992) – In retrospect, it’s kind of surprising A Link to the Past wasn’t titled Super Legend of Zelda, following basically every other naming convention of the time. It may not have received such a lazy title, but in many ways A Link to the Past is simply Super Zelda, because it feels like the game the original Legend of Zelda was trying to be. Not only does it look and sound much better, but it’s huge, boasting more items, more dungeons, and two whole maps! The Legend of Zelda felt like a beast of a game when it came out, and it’s crazy that in a relative short amount of time it could be bested and improved upon so completely. It makes me miss the days of old when a new console was clearly a new, and more powerful, entity.

A Link to the Past basically added everything that has become standard to the Zelda franchise. Running, tossing items, changing worlds, ocarinas, you name it – A Link to the Past has got it. The game also features a tighter narrative so gone are those cryptic messages and random puzzle switches. It might not be as hard, as a result, but it also isn’t an easy game. Be prepared to die and hear that horrid beeping sound when low on health as you try to make your way to the next dungeon. The path isn’t always clear, making the game feel like a true puzzle at times. Remember the shock of going to The Dark World for the first time and finding Link transformed into a rabbit? Or pulling the Master Sword out of the stone for the first time? A Link to the Past is full of classic moments and classic sounds. The score is legendary now and is probably still the best of the series, even if it’s not as grand in scope as the more recent entries due to limitations of the time. It’s also no less fun to play. I challenge anyone to play this game for an hour and not have a good time.

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One of the game’s many boss encounters.

A Link to the Past arrived early in the life cycle of the Super Nintendo. It wasn’t a launch title, but gamers only had to wait about a year for it. And since the console launched with Super Mario World they had plenty of time to kill before Zelda dropped. It was a must have title when it did, and my friends that got the game first became very popular overnight. Playing through it and completing it felt like a serious accomplishment, because games just weren’t routinely this big at the time. The same phenomenon would repeat itself with Final Fantasy II and III. It wasn’t that games like this were overly difficult, they just felt like serious tests of endurance. In truth, they just highlighted how much time average gamers spent playing video games. We probably spent as much time on Super Mario Bros. 3, we just weren’t as aware of it.

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Atta boy, Link!

A Link to the Past is the best Zelda game because almost everything in it has been carried over into the games that have followed it, even more than twenty years later. It also holds up in every respect. It may not be in 3D, but it’s still easy on the eyes and possesses a lot of visual charm. I already mentioned the fantastic soundtrack, and it’s suitably challenging and a bunch of fun to play. If I had to find a fault with it then I’d say its storyline isn’t very compelling, but that can be said of just about every Nintendo first-party title. They’re not storytellers at Nintendo, just game makers, and with A Link to the Past they may have created the greatest game ever made.


Demon’s Crest

Demon's Crest (1994)

Demon’s Crest (1994)

There is something about the 16bit era of gaming that I just find inherently charming. This is the era where games started to grow up, tell complex stories, but without losing site of what makes games fun. The visuals, music, sound effects, pacing – it was like gaming nirvana. That’s not to say it’s been all downhill since; far from it, actually, but I always enjoy going back to these games. And when I can find a good, quality game from that era that I’ve never played? Well, that’s just divine.

Demon’s Crest is one such game. Released by Capcom late in the Super Nintendo’s life-cycle, Demon’s Crest has garnered a reputation as a cult classic. Because of its late arrival, few people actually picked up a copy and experienced it in 1994. The Gargoyle franchise also has never been one of great importance for Capcom. For those unaware, Demon’s Crest is the third game in the Gargoyle trilogy which started on the GameBoy. The main character of these games, Firebrand, is that annoying red, flying enemy from the Ghosts ‘N Goblins games thrust into a starring role. The storyline for these games isn’t all that interesting or important, but credit Capcom for spinning off a seemingly random enemy into its own franchise. Since the end of the 16bit era and the dawn of the retro era, Demon’s Crest has become one of those handful of SNES carts that fetches over 100 bucks routinely on the secondary market. Thankfully, the Virtual Console exists so these games can be experienced by anyone with a Wii/Wii U console and a game like Demon’s Crest can get the recognition it deserves.

Cap com apparently saw something in this little, red, demon to warrant giving him his own game.

Cap com apparently saw something in this little, red, demon to warrant giving him his own game.

Demon’s Crest is essentially a side-scrolling platform game, but it’s a hybrid title in that it incorporates elements from the run and gun genre and the RPG. As Firebrand, the player explores various stages from the ground, in the air, and underwater. At the start, Firebrand can shoot a fireball as his lone attack, cling to walls, and fly through the air. The flying mechanic is neat and doesn’t feel cheap, as it often does in many games like Super Mario Bros. 3. By pressing the jump button while in air, Firebrand deploys his wings and can hover indefinitely. He can move side-to-side but cannot gain altitude (a power-up later in the game allows him to ascend in the air from a flying position). He can still attack, and pressing the jump button again causes him to drop and re-pressing the button at anytime while falling will initiate the process all over again.

After the first level is completed, the player gains access to a world map not unlike what is seen in the Final Fantasy titles from that era. Firebrand can fly to any stage from here and the game can essentially be completed at any point, though playing thru every stage multiple times is encouraged to collect power-ups and explore every nook and cranny. Firebrand is on a quest to recover various crests, each one grants him a new power. The earth crest, the only one that basically can’t be missed, removes Firebrands wings but gives him access to a dash move and a ground-hugging projectile. The water crest lets Firebrand breath underwater, the air crest lets him fly freely, and the best crests are basically a jack-of-all trades kind of power. Additional projectile attacks for Firebrand’s normal form can also be found, along with other power-ups, bottles for storing potions, and vellum for spells. The goal is to conquer the enemy Phalanx, but the secondary goal is to collect everything and get the best ending plus additional content in the form of power-ups and additional boss battles.

Some of the game's bosses dominate the screen.

Some of the game’s bosses dominate the screen.

At first, the game seems like it’s going to be massive, but it can be completed in an afternoon, especially if you’re not after the best, ultimate, ending. There’s an element of trial and error at play, as the game intends for the player to acquire new powers to advance past certain spots. The game is forgiving in this regard as it grants unlimited continues and you can always quit to the map if a scenario seems too difficult. The levels are not simply “go right” kind of levels. They encourage exploration in all directions, and additional gargoyle powers will open up new sections so re-playing levels is practically essential to completing the game. Uncovering new powers is addicting and fulfilling and I was always eager to try out each new one I found.

Acquiring these new special abilities make the game easier, which is welcomed since the game is fairly challenging. No, Demon’s Crest is not among the most difficult of games to grace the SNES (like the title it’s spun-off from) but it isn’t a breeze. Most of the early challenge involves getting used to Firebrand’s controls. He handles easy enough, but the mind needs to be trained in order to best utilize the hover/flying ability. There are usually numerous enemies at ground level and in the air to contend with, and learning to dodge is the best way to succeed. The game is also fairly cryptic in that it doesn’t explicitly tell you what your new powers are capable of. As a result, the player has to experiment a little which may lead to some deaths here and there, but it’s not too bad. The game is fairly generous with restorative items and the in-game currency allows the player to stockpile health potions and the like. There are also some mini games to spend time on, though nothing exciting. The boss fights are usually a test to figure out what the best approach/power to use is. Some boss fights will seem impossible without the right ability, but once found, they’re a piece of cake. The hardest bosses are a challenge no matter what. They’re not controller-tossing hard, but will offer a nice test for the player.

Acquiring new crests opens up new forms and powers for Firebrand.

Acquiring new crests opens up new forms and powers for Firebrand.

The music in the game is heavily reminiscent of other gothic-inspired titles, most notably Castlevania. It’s tempo is slower and Demon’s Crest finds it’s own sound. It’s not on Castlevania’s level, but it’s very enjoyable. As a later era SNES title, the game is pretty nice to look at. Firebrand is nice and big without dominating the screen. Many of the boss characters have a lot of personality or take up the entire height of the screen. The regular enemies, the canon fodder, are a little boring though and the game gets bogged down at times when a lot is going on. Sometimes the slowdown is actually helpful, but it is a weak point of the game. The controls are quite good, but there’s some missed opportunities to be found here. The shoulder buttons are not utilized when they could have at least been devoted to cycling thru Firebrand’s gargoyle forms. It gets tiresome having to constantly pause the game to switch relics, and many boss encounters require this very thing. The spells available to Firebrand are also fairly useless, and the only potion worth spending money on is the best one which restores all of Firebrand’s health.

When it comes to old games, I always prefer to experience them as they were intended: on their original console. When that is not possible (or in this case, too expensive), the Virtual Console is more than adequate. I played the game exclusively on the Wii U Gamepad utilizing the Gamepad’s screen instead of a television. The game plays just fine, and the ability to save is definitely welcomed. The original cart only provides a password save functionality, and while the game isn’t terribly long, it’s one I chose to experience in one or two hour at most sessions. It probably took me around six hours to finish the game, with some additional time spent after the fact going back and finding the items I missed to tackle the secret boss. This strikes me as being a pretty average game for the era in terms of length making it comparable to Super Metroid and Super Mario World.

Demon’s Crest is an excellent example of a forgotten classic. It’s probably not a top 10 game on the SNES, but that’s only because the SNES has arguably the greatest library of games of any console. Demon’s Crest is a unique blend of several genres, and its setting and style help set it apart from many of its contemporaries. If it sounds like something you would enjoy, I can’t recommend it enough as it’s worth the 8 bucks Nintendo is charging. And if you’re on the fence, I still say give it a shot because it’s a game that’s just inherently fun. Hopefully, this re-release on the Virtual Console makes Capcom some money and inspires them to revisit the Gargoyle series. A modern take on the franchise would be a most welcomed thing, indeed.


Ranking the Mario Games – Conclusion

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

images-155There’s certainly very little suspense with these kinds of things.  Anyone familiar with the Super Mario franchise can figure out at this point which two games are going to top my list, whether people disagree or not is another story.  Rather than dive right into these last two games, I think it is important to point out just how many of the games that I’ve talked about could have been number one.  Super Mario 64 seems like an easy one to argue in favor of.  What the original Super Mario Bros. did for the 2D side-scroller, Super Mario 64 did for the 3D platformer.  Only the games to follow in that genre have really done very little to deviate from the Super Mario 64 style of gameplay.  Sure the worlds have gotten bigger, and the graphics have certainly improved, but the core mechanics are still mostly in play.  Super Mario Galaxy 2 could also be argued as top dog.  The inventive gameplay of the Galaxy franchise has a ton of appeal, and Galaxy 2 is bigger and harder than its predecessor.  In a world where Mario games seem to be getting easier and easier, it’s nice to know some of the games are trying to hang onto some semblance of difficulty.  And of course Super Mario Bros. 3 will always have a claim to best Mario title on the planet.  It’s the game that really expanded on the Mario world for the first time giving gamers tons of variety in terms of level design, power-ups, boss fights, and basically every other aspect of the game.  Many of the titles today still borrow heavily from Super Mario Bros. 3, and I feel like I could go on for another two-thousand words on the subject and it still wouldn’t feel like enough.

In short, Mario has had a lot of great adventures over the years.  As overexposed as he tends to get, it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of just how important the character has been to gaming.  A lot of people my age claim to have outgrown Mario, but I don’t think that’s possible.  You can’t outgrow fun, just lose touch with it.

2.  Super Mario Galaxy (2007, Nintendo Wii)

For the first time ever, Mario gets to spend an entire game in space.

For the first time ever, Mario gets to spend an entire game in space.

Super Mario Galaxy wasn’t the first title to take Mario into space, but it’s definitely the most memorable.  Galaxy is basically the sequel to Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario 64 before it as Nintendo decided Mario’s 3D adventures were ready to continue on the Wii.  Many people were curious how the Wii’s motion controls and Mario would meld, as I think many assumed Nintendo would use the game as a way to showcase what the console was capable of.  Instead, the developers for the game mostly downplayed the Wii’s motion controls in favor of a fairly traditional scheme.  Mario was still controlled via analog stick and he could bounce around just as he could in the two previous 3D games.  The only addition for the Wii was a spin attack that could be initiated with a simple flick of the wrist.  The Wii remote could also function as a pointer and could fire star bits.  These star bits could momentarily stun enemies but it mostly was just a tack-on feature.  I assume most forgot the feature even existed while playing.

Where Nintendo sought to distinguish Galaxy from the prior Mario games was to place an emphasis on gravity.  Mario would travel from galaxy to galaxy, planet to planet, and encounter all kinds of unique situations.  Some levels had Mario sticking to tennis court sized planets that were still large enough to apparently have a gravitational pull.  This could lead to some really disorienting experiences with Mario basically upside down or sideways but the game’s camera was so well crafted, and Mario so weighty, that it rarely felt as bad to the player as it looked.  I know initially I was skeptical at just how good a game could be that focused so much on trying to disorient the player but Galaxy proved me way wrong.  Running and jumping from planet to planet, sometimes within a level, was pure joy. The only comparable experience I can even compare it to are those warm, fuzzy feelings I had when playing Super Mario 64 for the first time.  Mario handles so well and the level design is so spectacular that it’s hard to not constantly wonder what’s next while enjoying the present.

I think Donald Duck tried this once.  It didn't go too well for him, from what I recall.

I think Donald Duck tried this once. It didn’t go too well for him, from what I recall.

Since this is a Mario game, there are numerous power-ups available to experiment with.  Of the new ones, the best and most enjoyable is definitely the bee suit which allows Mario to fly for short bursts.  Bee Mario flys just by holding down the A button, but he can ascend for so long before he needs to “recharge.”  It’s all pretty quick, but the ability to fly is curbed just enough to keep the player from flying constantly.  For more intense flight, there’s a special power star that lets Super Mario impersonate Superman.  It only exists in kind of a bonus level, but is fun while it lasts.  Some of the new power-ups are duds, like spring Mario who can do nothing but bounce which gets frustrating, and there’s some sequences where Mario has to balance on a giant ball.  For the first time in a 3D Mario title, the fire flower makes an appearance as does its opposite, the ice flower.  Both are kind of interesting in that they function very much like an invincibility star in that they only bestow Mario with special abilities for a brief period of time.  This does lend itself well to some puzzle situations, but it is a little disappointing to not be able to remain as fire Mario until damage is taken.

Mario gets shot out of canons (pipes) quite frequently in this one.

Mario gets shot out of canons (pipes) quite frequently in this one.

From a technological standpoint, Super Mario Galaxy is a star.  The Wii was never considered a powerhouse by any means, but Galaxy looks great.  The environments are varied, the color pallet is gorgeous, and many of the enemies dwarf Mario, especially Bowser.  The music is high quality as well, composed mostly of orchestral instruments giving it a very “Zelda” feel.  The plot for the game is basically the same as always, though the character of Rosalina is introduced which makes things slightly more interesting.  The game’s storyline may not be enough to get gamers to keep coming back, but the numerous objectives and hidden stars will.  As with Super Mario 64, each level has stars for Mario to collect and after collecting a certain amount challenge stars begin to appear.  This is where the game really turns up the difficulty and gives Mario vets a true challenge.  It’s probably not as hard as its sequel, but it strikes a very nice balance between challenging and frustrating.  That, along with all of the other positives I’ve cited, is why Super Mario Galaxy is the best of the 3D Mario titles to date.

1. Super Mario World (1990, Super Nintendo)

The layout of the world according to Mario.

The layout of the world according to Mario.

The mark of a truly special game is one that is inherently fun.  There are many games where aspects of them fit this description.  Mindlessly rampaging in any of the Grand Theft Auto titles is always a blast, political correctness be damned.  When it comes to multi-player, I’m not sure I’ve ever had more fun with a  game than I did with Super Bomberman and three of my buddies.  Both of those games contain moments of pure joy, but neither is able to achieve that and hold it for the entire duration of the full game.  Super Mario World is a game that is non-stop entertainment from start to finish.  Expertly crafted level design, colorful visuals, and tweaks to the Mario formula helped introduce a legion of fans to the Super Nintendo making Super Mario World not just the best Mario game, but the best pack-in game of all time.

Super Mario World was not the leap forward for Mario that Super Mario Bros. 3 was.  It didn’t have to be as that game was nearly perfect itself.  It only needed to improve upon it and give gamers a reason to play Super Mario World other than its inherent “newness.”  Obviously, that’s easier said than done as many developers have tried to improve upon a game like Super Mario Bros. 3 and failed.  When it came time to create Super Mario World, it would seem Nintendo took a back to basics route when comparing it with its predecessor.  Power-ups were de-emphasizd as the game only included two permanent power-ups (aside from the mushroom) for Mario and Luigi:  the venerable fire flower and the shiny new super feather.  The fire flower worked the same as always, but the feather gave Mario a yellow cape and the ability to fly.  Rather than have the cape mimic the raccoon tail, it worked in an entirely different manner.  Mario still had to run to take-off, but once airborne Mario zoomed to the top of the screen before dive-bombing back to the ground below.  This could double as an attack, but if the player so desired Mario could be made to “parachute” his cape for extended flight.  It took some getting used to, but once mastered a player could easily soar Mario over an entire level.

Mario's dino-buddy Yoshi, was the most talked about addition to the Mario universe.

Mario’s dino-buddy Yoshi, was the most talked about addition to the Mario universe.

The other major gameplay addition was Yoshi.  Yoshi functioned as a power-up himself, giving Mario not only an extra hit but also giving him a new attack.  Atop Yoshi, Mario could direct his dino servant to devour all kinds of enemies.  As a bonus, certain turtle shells gave Yoshi special abilities such as fireballs or his own ability to fly.  Mario could also use Yoshi to reach higher places or travel over certain terrain.  Green Yoshi was the standard, but different colored Yoshi’s existed in the secret Star Road area that had limited power-up potential, but also an exploitable skill (the blue Yoshi, for example, would sprout wings and fly with any turtle shell in his mouth, while green Yoshi could only do so with a blue shell) that had its own advantages.

The storyline for the game was really no different, other than the fact that Mario is on vacation in Dinosaur Land.  Mario still has to topple Bowser’s seven children before facing him to save the princess.  Where the game stands out is in its scope.  Super Mario World is appropriately titled.  It may not seem huge compared to today’s games, but at the time it seemed massive.  Each world is distinct and varied as well, and they’re full of hidden exits and secret levels.  This made Super Mario World both challenging and highly replayable.  Some staples of future Mario games were introduced in this one, such as the Ghost House or Wiggler enemy.  Furthermore, the game was hard.  It eased the player in with the deceptively tame first world but the difficulty increases as the game moves on.  There are plenty of scrolling levels, levels with small platforms for Mario to negotiate, and levels requiring some puzzle solving to escape.  The boss encounters with the koopalings were also more varied, and the final showdown with Bowser was satisfying as well.  And if the main game was too simple for some, the Special Zone provided its own brand of torture with many having their own personal nightmare level among one of them.

Secrets abound in Super Mario World.

Secrets abound in Super Mario World.

Aside from the bells and whistles, Mario also handled better than ever and the score was another strong addition to the Mario universe.  The main melody is used throughout, though I was also most fond of the subtle bongo notes introduced whenever Yoshi shows up (a trend that has continued over the years).  If the game has short-comings, it’s that there are less mini games when compared with Super Mario Bros. 3.  The lack of more power-ups is also a slight mark against the title when holding it up to the others, but it’s the gameplay that matters most.  Always.  When it comes to Super Mario World, there just isn’t a better Mario game on the planet.  Everything that came before it was refined and improved upon to craft the perfect platformer.  Nintendo wisely chose to not truly follow-up on the title for well over a decade because it couldn’t be topped.  There was nothing left for Mario and Nintendo to prove with this genre.  And over twenty years later, Mario still hasn’t appeared in a better game.


Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge

Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade's Revenge (1992)

Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge (1992)

Expectations influence just about everything we come in contact with.  Expectations can help lead to a more fulfilling experience when those expectations are met.  Other times, they can help make the bad seem worse when something fails to meet though expectations.  When I was a kid and I heard there was going to be a video game featuring a team-up between Spider-Man, possibly the most popular character ever created by Marvel Comics, and the X-Men, easily the hottest comic at the time, I was giddy with anticipation.  This seemed like a no lose situation and Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge vaulted to the top of my list of must own Super Nintendo games along with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV:  Turtles in Time.  One of those games would turn out well and provide me with hours of entertainment, that game was not Spider-Man and the X-Men.

What went wrong?  Well, let’s backtrack a bit first and see how this all came together and if my expectations were even justified.  At the time of the game’s release, Spider-Man had already been enjoying a run on the Sega Genesis and Game Boy as a platform star.  Perhaps star is a bit strong as his games weren’t really great, but they also weren’t particularly awful.  The best was definitely The Amazing Spider-Man vs The Kingpin for the Genesis.  The game was pretty difficult, at times frustratingly so, but it did a great job of making use of the Spider-Man license.  It was also quite popular and one of the best-selling titles at the time.  The X-Men, on the other hand, really only had the one NES game titled The Uncanny X-Men.  It was horrible and it tricked many uninformed gamers into renting or buying it with it’s X-Men branding.  Arguably, the best games for both franchises were the arcade beat-em-ups Spider-Man:  The Video Game and X-Men.  The Spider-Man game came first in 1991 and for some reason it isn’t as well loved and remembered as the X-Men game that followed in ’92.  It was a typical brawler allowing up to four players to join in and included playable characters Spider-Man, Black Cat, Hawkeye, and Sub-Mariner.  It’s selling feature was a more platform inspired design where the camera would zoom out allowing the players to take on gigantic enemies including a super-sized Venom at the end of the first stage.  The X-Men game was similar, but it’s defining characteristic (aside from the comical mistranslations) was the double-monitor cabinet allowing up to six players at once.  Both games were hard as they were designed to suck quarters out of its audience but they were a lot of fun, especially with a group of friends.

I hate these stupid clowns and their stupid stage.

I hate these stupid clowns and their stupid stage.

It would seem to me that a track record was in place that at least suggested a console game featuring these two franchises could be great.  If I had been a little wiser as a kid and more aware I would have taken note of the LJN logo on the box and realized right away the game was going to be a giant turd, but sadly I just wasn’t.  Before I get into what the game did wrong I suppose I should point out what it did right.  First of, Spider-Man is represented fairly well given that he is able to stick to walls, shoot webs, and even make use of his spider-sense in the game.  The roster for the X-Men side is pretty solid as well as it features the obvious choice of Wolverine along with Cyclops, Storm, and Gambit.  Wolverine has an interesting dynamic to him as he retains his mutant healing power but it only works when his claws are retracted.  The game is packed with villains too like Apocalypse, Shocker, Juggernaut, and Carnage.  Arcade is kind of a weird choice for the main villain, but at least his Murderworld offers a lot of possibilities for level-design.

That’s basically it as far as what Spider-Man and the X-Men gets right, and unfortunately it’s a pretty small list.  So what makes this game suck so hard?  Well, lets first start with the presentation.  I’m usually not one to have much of an opinion on the audio within a game.  I expect it to do its job and often times I have to make it a point to touch upon it when doing these reviews because I tend to overlook it.  Here it’s easy to not overlook because the sound is so bad.  The score is okay at times, though certain levels (Wolverine’s) feature an annoying soundtrack.  It’s the FX that really bug me though as they just sound like, for lack of a better word, shit.  A lot of the characters, good and bad, let out a scream when they die that sounds fuzzy and distorted.  The machine sounds are just as bad and Spidey’s web blasts sound like they could be grenades.  The graphics are also piss-poor.  The characters are really small, except Storm but I’ll get to her later, and lacking in any sort of detail.  Wolverine even looks like he only has two claws on each hand while Gambit doesn’t have a face.  Some of the villains are almost unrecognizable, especially Apocalypse who looks like a blue bug or something.

Hey Gambit, where's your face?

Hey Gambit, where’s your face?

Perhaps what bugged me more than anything as a kid was just how un-super these super heroes felt.  Spider-Man and the X-Men is a pretty hard game made so mostly because these characters can’t seem to take a punch.  They die so easily and it’s a frustrating experience.  I get that it’s hard to make a super hero game because on one hand the super heroes need to be super powerful, but the game also needs some challenge.  That’s why we have super villains though, and Wolverine shouldn’t be getting annihilated by a jack-in-the-box with a tommy gun.  The X-Men games that would follow on the Genesis were hard, but at least those X-Men felt like powerful super heroes (well, for the most part), these ones are push-overs.  The level designs are also fairly lacking.  Spider-Man’s are just weird looking and kind of confusing as they’re intended to be maze-like.  The player is supposed to use his spider-sense to navigate but it just gets tiresome.  Cyclops’ stages feature an annoying mine cart premise where touching the tracks means death.  Gambit has to outrun a giant deathball and might be the best levels, which isn’t saying much.  Wolverine is in a circus and there’s nothing noteworthy about the first stage while the second stage he has to outrun the Juggernaut.  It’s basically the same concept as the Gambit stages, though at least LJN incorporated something from the comics to make it feel relevant.  Storm’s stages are quite different and probably everyone’s most hated as she has to navigate a flooded laboratory.  They’re swimming levels, but unfortunately Storm’s mutant powers over the weather don’t let her breath underwater.  Just about everyone hates the underwater Sonic the Hedgehog levels for the same reason, this is worse times ten.

The red guy is Carnage. That gray blob?  He's Rhino.  I think.

The red guy is Carnage. That gray blob? He’s Rhino. I think.

If the player manages to actually beat all of the levels then they get to take on Arcade as Spider-Man.  You kind of have to be a glutton for punishment to even make it that far as the game is both really hard and really bad.  That’s the worst combination.  As a kid, I never had much success and never made it past any character’s second stage so making it all the way to Arcade wasn’t in the cards.  Playing this game was a depressing endeavor as a game featuring a team-up between these two should have been awesome.  I remember a few years after I got it Toys R Us started their first trade-in program where people could trade in games they no longer wanted for store credit.  I grabbed my copy of Spider-Man and the X-Men and, thinking I’d get maybe 15 or 20 bucks, was offered only four.  I elected not to trade it in but in hindsight I should have taken the four Jeffry Dollars.  I could have used it for some Fruit Stripe gum or something.