Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mega Man 3

Mega Man 2 was a huge success both critically and commercially, so you knew a sequel was coming. By now the formula was tradition: eight themed stages each culminating in a boss battle with a themed robot, the defeat of whom unlocks a themed weapon that does massive damage to one of the other themed robots, and so forth. So let's skip the long introductions on this one - Capcom sure as heck does.

Stage select.The first thing you'll notice about Mega Man 3 is its stunning lack of anything before the title screen. You'd expect some little 8-bit cutscene giving a general plot outline. I mean, we all know how the game will play out, but at least you'd think they'd try to justify it before thrusting you into action. And don't act like they couldn't do it, because there are cutscenes in the rest of the game. Why neglect the beginning? I'm not easily deterred though, so I hunted down the game's backstory. Evidently Dr. Wily is now claiming to be reformed, and is helping Dr. Light build some sort of robot for some sort of purpose. But the robots in charge of various mining operations across the world start going haywire, so Mega Man is sent off to handle them. Whatever. Who decided tops were ideal mining equipment anyway?

I'm thankful to not see an ice or heat derivative robot in this one, I must say. As outlandish and silly as the bosses may be, at least they're trying to branch out and avoid rehashing the same concepts over and over in this one. There is, sadly, an obligatory lava-based stage, even though none of the bosses are fire-related themselves. Also, a quick complaint about the stage I like to call Spark Man's Seizure Emporium. The background for the whole thing is flashing lights, and I don't mean just a few. They're all over the place for the entire level. The whole thing! I wish there were some sort of study I could reference indicating the percent of Mega Man 3 players who acquired headaches on this stage, but you'll have to just take my word for it. It's rough.

Infringement.Of course, some habits do die hard. Like ripping off Bullet Bills. Again, Capcom? Wait, don't tell me - because you used these in the first game you now feel like they're a "classic" Mega Man enemy. I'm sorry guys, but no matter how hard you try, you will never lay claim to a bullet with eyes and a mouth. Never. Stick to the hard hat bots. Which, by the way, are now capable of piloting bulldozers. Some of them have propellers in their hats and fly around dropping crap on your head. There's even a giant one that spawns the small ones infinitely. Didn't see that one coming.

But maybe it's for the best that the game's designers weren't given free reign to invent all new enemies. Because you know what showed up when they did? Fish eggs. Literally, fish eggs. Gemini Man's level is loaded with walls and walls of fish eggs for no good reason. Shooting one hatches the egg and a little fish or tadpole or whatever the heck it is wriggles in your general direction unless you kill it. What in the world? And even if you're dead set on including this in the game, why Gemini Man? That theme has absolutely nothing to do with fish, nor their underdeveloped spawn. When you fight Gemini Man, you know what he does? He splits into two and fights you two-on-one. That makes sense. Fish eggs? Not so much.

Spikes.Spikes are every bit as ridiculous this time around as before. Perhaps even more so. Look at Mega Man just closing his eyes and shaking his head. Can you blame him? That room has no business existing. How is it possibly convenient or cost-effective to construct all of this? How many robots died to make this room? Just one finger prick on one edge of one spike and it's Explosionville: Population, you. And why the platforms? Why would Mega Man use them? At the end of every stage we see him turn into a little blue line and shoot up into the air. Can't he just do that for like half a screen, then grab the ladder? Why can't I ever use that ability? Quit holding out on me, game.

But hey, you do get a couple new toys. First is the slide. In the previous two games, Mega Man couldn't so much as duck from enemy fire. Well, he still can't bend those little robo-knees, but he can launch himself into a slide across the floor, which accomplishes basically the same thing. He can also fit himself into tight little horizontal spaces using the technique, and he moves quicker sliding. Still, it's not perfect; you can't slide through boss doors. Anyone who's anyone knows that one of the best things about Mega Man games, for no good reason, is jumping through boss doors. Now you give me this epic looking slide move, and I can't do it through a door? Humbug.

Good dog.And God bless the other new stuff you can do, all revolving around Mega Man's new robotic dog, Rush. Designed essentially to replace the ambiguous "Item-1" and such from the previous installment, Rush initially can extend a spring from his back to launch Mega Man high in the air at the cost of a little special energy. After completion of a certain stage, Rush is upgraded with the Rush Jet, which lets Mega Man ride him through the air anywhere he pleases, at the cost of a constant drain on the special energy reserves. But perhaps most important is the Rush Marine adapter, also acquired after a certain stage. It turns the dog into a boat...wait, I really need to emphasize that. Your dog turns into a submarine of living death. It's easy to forgive the water levels when you can ride through on that badboy! Naturally, then, there are only two areas of the whole game with enough water to use it. Figures. Water levels. No winning with them.

There's another new character too, by the name of Proto Man. Seems Dr. Light created him first (hence "Proto," like prototype) and he's stronger offensively than Mega Man, but with a weaker defensive core, so Dr. Light made Mega Man to address that flaw. Throughout the game Proto Man will play a tune on his dandy whistle, leap out, and starting blasting shots at your face. Talk about sibling rivalry. Ostensibly it's just to "train" you for the game's actual bosses, but if you die, you're dead. How am I going to save the world now, jackass? And why is it that at a certain spot in the game they call him Break Man instead? Come to think of it, they also call Dr. Light "Dr. Right" in one of the cutscenes. Make up your mind, game.

More clones.This is a game that specializes in the odd. It doesn't end with fish eggs and seizure stages. Snake Man's stage takes place, by and large, on the bodies of enormous robotic snakes. Someone actually constructed - as a mining site - huge robotic snakes, intertwined them, gave them the ability to shoot stuff out of their mouths, and deemed the work well done. Heck, even the enemies there are really screwed up. One of the common ones is some little trash can looking thing sprinting at you with a push broom. When it gets close to you, it actually pole vaults off the push broom before landing behind you and running away. Huh? People make robots to serve functions. What the hell kind of function is that? I didn't even mention the giant robotic cats who barf balls of yarn. And I won't.

Anyway, after beating the eight robot masters, guess what? Wily steals the robot he was helping Dr. Light to build, sends out four robots of his own (four Mega Man 2 bosses in new bodies), and retreats to his castle. Again. Just kill the dude already, seriously. So you kill his four other robots, then do a "final test" against your robro Proto Man, and it's off to Wily's fortress for the same old dance.

Search Snake.Sadly, the special weapons this time around leave a bit to be desired. A couple are useful - Magnet Man's weapon seeks targets vertically which is nice, Gemini Man's laser bounces off walls and such...but moves like "Top Spin" are just a waste of cartridge data. Mega Man leaps into the air and pirouettes, costing him about a third of his special energy. What does this accomplish? Sure, there's the one boss with a fatal weakness to it, but otherwise tell me when you'll use that. But you know what's just embarrassing? "Search Snake." It's a little green "snake" that looks a bit too ready to fertilize something, and it drops limply out of your arm cannon before squirming along the floor until it hits something. That's super uncalled for. And insult to injury - you're going to need it to beat Wily, since he's shielded from every direction but the top. Yep, you'll be dropping your seed snakes down on his head to finish up the game. Lovely.

Overall, the level design remains pretty good, and the game is certainly playable and enjoyable. While things like Rush and the slide are improvements to the gameplay, there's not a whole lot of fresh excitement here. It's up to the standards the series had set to this point, even if a sliver less fun than its immediate predecessor. Fans will love it, haters will find nothing new to like. Except that Rush Marine. Freaking water levels.

Bottom Line: 14/20

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Know what's charming? Communism. Or specifically, the rampant belief throughout the mid-late twentieth century that Soviet Russia would be a thorn in the free world's side indefinitely. And that's why in 1989, just two years before the USSR would dissolve completely, you get a game like Strider appearing in the arcades.

Landmine leap.The story goes that in the year 2048 some Soviet Grandmaster is acting dictator over the oppressed world. The Striders, a secret group of ninja armed with advanced robotics, want to assassinate this guy and send Strider Hiryu to do the dirty work. Which is heartening, because it means even in 2048 in a communist world, ninja haven't lost sight of their favorite pastime: efficiently murdering people more important than themselves. And while the times and technology have changed, the ninja are no less effective at succeeding in their missions. It's at the point where the dude had to basically booby trap all of Siberia just in case you happened to approach from that angle. I'd call it unnecessary, but judging from the fact that I actually did cross a bunch of minefields on the way, I guess I have to yield. Good planning, Future Stalin.

In the future I guess ninja stars have fallen out of fashion, along with shivs and heck, even masks. Instead you get some sort of plasma sword that you hold like a police tonfa. But that's not all! Hiryu's also got hooks he can use to scale walls and hang from ceilings. Think like more advanced versions of suction cups, except in a style that would make pirates jealous. It's their design, after all. And Hiryu is about as acrobatic as you might expect, though in some ways that's a problem within the game. The jumping can get pretty awkward since you're always flipping and cartwheeling all over the place. If you're standing against a wall, you can't jump forward over it; you've got to back up because Hiryu needs room to flail. I could do without that.

Stridellite.One of the things Strider does that's really nifty though is play with gravity. There are several areas of the game featuring total gravity reversals in which the ceiling becomes the floor and vice versa. It's a little startling the first time you leap into the air and fall upwards, but after a while you sort of get used to it (though it's always more comfortable to move through the levels right-side up). When it gets really awesome is when there are gravity bosses like the one pictured. They'll zoom around a large room trying to kill you in various fashions, but by jumping toward them you can actually put yourself into orbit around them and attack them while doing so. It's pretty fantastic.

The other thing pictured there floating around is the Ouroboros, which in reality is a snake eating its own tail. For whatever reason they decided that concept applied to a little mushroom with robotic feet, so that's cool. But it shoots out rings at stuff as you swing your sword, so it's at least helpful. There are a number of other little robot buddies too, like mecha-tigers and mecha-hawks. These are all acquired by breaking power-up containers that appear in the various stages at planned intervals. I don't honestly know where I stand on the whole "should a ninja have robotic tigers" debate, but I'm certainly paying attention to arguments on both sides.

See no evil.Other power-ups in the game are more traditional, I suppose. You've got health items, which include ones that increase your maximum life as well as ones that simply heal you. There's the mandatory invincibility here and there, which also has the lovely effect of creating little shadow Striders behind you that will mimic you and kill things on their own as well. But sometimes the best things in life are the simplest, like the sword power-up that doubles your attack range, letting you hang from ceilings and kill cybernetic silverbacks. Wait, what? It's so baffling on so many levels. First off, what??? Secondly, why are the Soviets of the future building giant mechanical animals? What could this possibly accomplish? Why deposit them in the middle of frigid Siberia? Is it so they won't overheat? Why an ape, of all the animals you could choose? Even Hiryu goes with hawks, which at least can fly around and scout and crap. And tigers, which are fast and have sharp parts to erm, cut stuff. He could probably even ride them if he wanted. And don't act like the ape has some sort of special ability that I'm overlooking. It takes two steps forward and limply raises an arm. That's it. No wonder Reagan beat you guys.

As awesome as that sword looks in action, and as pleasant as it may be to slice guys up when you first start playing, there are some definite drawbacks. First and perhaps most importantly, there is no way to attack vertically. Strider Hiryu, so far as I can tell, is completely incapable of hitting anything over his head or under his feet. That's terribly embarrassing for an elite future ninja, don't you think? You'll also get sick of hearing the "schwing!" sound every time you press the attack button, and trust me - you're going to be pressing that attack button an awful lot during the game. Virtually every second, if we're being honest. Seriously, my finger was getting tired as I reached the later levels. So the good news is that if you've got a bit of finger pudge, Strider is the perfect way to work it off.

In mother Russia.From the size of that primate earlier, you might think it would be a stage boss, but you'd be sadly mistaken. Actually, the first boss you encounter is what's at the left here. You see, as you crash a little Soviet council meeting in the Kazakh region of the Soviet empire, all the council members are noticeably upset you're there. It's hard to blame them, considering your mission is clearly to wipe out their government. What's unexpected though is that they react not by fleeing, or even by shooting guns (or future lasers) at you. Instead they all fuse together into an enormous Soviet centipede, armed with a hammer in one hand and a sickle in the other. That at once makes both the most and the least sense possible. The human mind is literally incapable of deciding how to feel about this. So instead you can just hop on its back and ride it around. It's as rational as any other response.

What I think does make sense, though at this point I honestly can't be sure about anything anymore, is that a lot of crap blows up in this game. With so many robotics and electronics all over the place, explosions seem as natural as anything. The problem is that when things explode, they like to keep exploding. For instance, whenever one of those big gravity orbit machines explodes, it sets fire to the area around it, and that fire starts spreading. You've got to run away from the fire in order to survive, but again you're your own worst enemy; every time you try to jump down a shaft or something to make a quick getaway, you'll just barely touch a wall and latch onto it with your hooks. It's pretty much impossible to ever jump down anything, since you'll always just wall climb by default at the slightest touch. Sometimes I don't want to do cool ninja things, man. Sometimes I just want to run and live and save a quarter. Why can't you fall down?

Brontohorsus.But naturally, when you don't want to fall down, Strider's all over it. Every bit of downhill terrain you descend, no matter how gradual a slant or how slow you go down it, will cause Strider Hiryu to skid forward as he tries desperately to maintain his balance and slow his momentum. This often results in running into enemies or landmines, which gets really annoying really quickly. So let me just remind everyone here of a fact that's easy to lose among the craziness of this game: Strider is an arcade game, and arcade games are designed to drain your bank account one quarter at a time. This is no exception. Yes, I know, you can ride around on dinosaurs for no good reason. Don't be deceived. That has no bearing on how much this game wants to steal your money.

I'll tell you something else they did well though: voice modulation. Unlike other Capcom ventures like, say, the first Street Fighter, Strider manages to make voice modulation not sound like dying walruses. Don't get me wrong, nobody's going to win any awards for outstanding voiceover work or anything, but none of the voices in Strider are painful to listen to, and none really take you out of the atmosphere of the game...whatever that's supposed to be.

Whaaaaaale!The icing on the cake comes appropriately at the end of the game, when you're asked to fight a mecha-Kong simultaneously with a Tyrannosaurus. Should you succeed, you're rewarded by a fight with a humongous golden dinobot that shoots its claws at you. Killing it allows you to fight another Sovietpede, which you can ride all the way to the Grandmaster for the final boss battle. All without a break in between. Sheesh. The Grandmaster himself is some legless creep in desperate need of a manicure, wearing a raggedy red cloak. Oh, and he shoots green lightning at you from his hands. Why not? Then you kill him, jump on a whale, and job well done.

I knew from the premise of the game that there would be some...interesting moments to be found here, but yikes. This game got really out there in a hurry, didn't it? Luckily the game is fast-paced enough that your brain goes too numb to question any of the absurdity until you've actually finished it and had time to reflect. Seriously, the first time you jump on the back of a sauropod I promise you won't think a thing of it other than "Oh hey, that's convenient." So I guess that's a plus - Strider has created the dumbest, most random video game world anywhere short of Moonwalker and still manages to get you to assent to it. There are enough small gripes to prevent it from being a real standout, but it's certainly worth checking out for a bit of a mindblow.

Bottom Line: 13/20

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dragon Warrior

What does RPG stand for? Radioactive plutonium giant? No. Remember Peter Gabriel? No. Rocket-propelled grenade? N...well, yes. But no. No, what we're looking for here is "role-playing game." In 1986 the concept was relatively foreign to gamers, at least those who liked pictures. There were text RPGs, sure, but nothing really fit the image of a console RPG we have today. Nothing, that is, until Dragon Warrior showed its face.

Jello ain't yellow.Called Dragon Quest in Japan, the game follows a knight (named whatever you want him to be named) descended from the hero of legend, Erdrick. The Dragonlord residing in a nearby castle has stolen the "Ball of Light" and somehow this is going to cause apocalyptic destruction for the world unless you personally go recover the ball. Well, that's a little extreme, but I guess it's better than the whole "save the princess" crap every other game tries to pull. Oh hang on, this says there's one more plot detail. Let me see....ah, it seems that Princess Gwaelin was also kidnapped by the DragonlOH FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! How hard is it really? Why do all these princesses keep getting taken like kids after some sweet sweet stranger candy? Why is it my job to go bail them out every single time? You're the heir to the freaking throne, you'd think you could learn some freaking responsibility for once. Or hey, how about, I don't know, a bodyguard or some castle security?

And I'm not excusing you either, oh kings and queens of ages past. It's your daughters getting swiped by the Winona Ryders of the world. Maybe go out yourself and take care of it instead of sending me. "Oh but I have a kingdom to king," ye say. Well damn fine job you're doing of it, what with letting a freaking dragon come into your castle and yoink your little tiara-toting bink. My job is to prevent the the world from falling into complete and utter ruin and you want to task me with hunting some stuck-up prude in a cave? And you think I'm going to respect your ruling authority? Pshaw, I say, PSHAW!

No tomatoes.  Not today.At least things can't get much worse....oh dear mother of pearl. They took the tomatoes too? That. Is. IT. Dragonlord, you are so done now. I'm ready. Ready to beat you down and make you cry for your little scaly momma. Let's see, I go to the world map from the castle, and hey, there's your place just slightly southeast. Oh it is on now....wait a minute. Why can't I get down there? You're kidding. You absolutely must be kidding. The only thing separating the starting castle from the Dragonlord's castle is a small river. And you can't cross it. So now, on top of everything else, we've got a hero of destiny who can't even swim. Will the king make you a boat or something? Of course not. Legendary heroes, they walk. F that, man. F that.

And it ain't long walking before you start fighting the many denizens of the world. Battling in Dragon Warrior is turn-based. You input a command, the monster chooses to attack you using one of its available moves, and both things happen. Then it repeats. None of it you'll ever see on the screen - you'll just get a still image of the enemy you're fighting and it'll flash occasionally when something happens. It's not very pretty or exciting, but it is time-efficient, so I can give some props there.

Mindflames.Of course, that time efficiency goes straight out the window when you consider the quantity of battles you'll have to engage in if you want to actually complete the game. The world map is pretty well segregated into different enemy types. One region might have nothing but slimes and little bats, while walking to the next square over results in ghosts slaying you in a single stroke. There's a good deal of trial and error involved in figuring out not just where you should go next but especially where you can go next, in terms of how much abuse you can survive. So while technically speaking Dragon Warrior isn't linear and you can go anywhere you please at any time, you'll die unless you progress through the game the way they want you to, and in order to survive you'll need to spend a lot of time in each spot grinding up your levels. A chore, to say the least.

Each battle gives you experience and gold, both of which you'll need. Certain monsters give a ton of one and virtually none of the other, so you'll learn as you go which spots to farm whichever you need more. The good news is that when you eventually do find the princess, she's not out of your way - although technically the whole game is out of your way...seriously, you can't even just build a bridge? What kind of kingdom can't figure out how to build a bridge? But I digress. When you find her and kill the creature guarding her, guess what she has you do? If you guessed anything other than "carry her lazy ass all the way back home," you guessed wrong.

Miracle drug.I mean, don't get me wrong. She's got the common decency once you get her back to the castle to fall in love with you and pledge herself to your manly desires, so there's that. And considering every other woman in the game is a hag, you could certainly do worse. But of course, getting down to business would mean abandoning your slightly more important mission, so the inn will have to do. But more good news - sleeping in a medieval hotel is basically the greatest medicine ever conceived. For real. All ailments cured, all wounds completely healed without so much as a scar, all soul juice (or mana if you're an atheist) replenished... sheesh. Holiday Inn Express got nothin' on that.

Speaking of your soul juice, I guess this protagonist must be some sort of prodigy. As you level you'll automatically learn new spells. I can understand maybe having some of the game's sages teach you stuff or whatever, but it's pretty darn impressive for a dude to just spontaneously learn how to radiate light out from himself at will. And it's a good thing you can do that stuff, because the Dragonlord apparently has a little mojo himself. Throughout the game you hear about some town called Hauksness, which got all infernoed on by the Dragonlord. Naturally, this town is now inhabited by some of the most nasty foes you'll encounter in the entire game, and naturally it contains the legendary armor of your ancestor that you'll need if you want to take out the Dragonlord.

Repelmore.Since you are inventing this magic on the fly, it's not very promising that your creativity in naming the spells is so limited. I can envision all kinds of lights and sounds and flashes and glowing and otherwise very intimidating energies flowing around you as an enemy looks on, horrified. And then you go "Prepare thyself fell demon! I call this one...HURT!" Kindergartners are laughing at you, dude. I mean, you could even call it "Pain" and that'd be sufficiently frightening. Who wants to get hit with a big blast of pain? Yikes. You can do better. You ought to do better.

The Dragonlord himself is rough to approach. His castle is littered with powerful guys, and if you need to rest and recover, you'll have to flee and make the whole journey back again. Of course, that's sort of the point - it's not supposed to be easy, but you're leveling up every time you push a bit deeper into his crib. When you finally encounter him, he asks if you'll join him in extinguishing the living world and governing what's left. And you actually get a choice box! You can actually choose yes! If you do he'll even double check. Credit to the villain for being suspicious, but if you choose yes again, he actually hands over half the world and you guys conquer it. That's freaking awesome. Do I want to side with the all-powerful sovereign of dragonkind, or with the guy who can't figure out how to cross a stream? The downside is that allying with the Dragonlord ends the game, so you'll have to refuse his offer if you actually want to finish. Weak.

Royal heinieness.The Dragonlord is immune to magic too, so good luck with all that Hurtmore nonsense. He's actually really tough to beat, but if you do kill him you get the Ball of Light and expel the shadows from the land, blah blah blah. Let me get back to hookin' up with that broad I saved. You'll cast a spell to get back to the castle and everyone in the place quite clearly wants to worship you. Who wouldn't, right? The King even begs you to take his kingdom. Hot damn! And it's at this point you kind of ask yourself "What am I even doing here?" These guys are so far from self-sufficient it's scary. Kinging these scrubs is like the the worst babysitting job ever. No way. So you decide to go make your own kingdom somewhere far away. The princess wants to come with you, but you know what traveling with her means - hauling that bimbo around because she's incapable of walking on her own. No thanks, babe.

Dragon Warrior is a simple, straightforward game that doesn't try too hard to be too much. That's its charm, really. Grinding gets old....brutally, terribly old....but at least you feel accomplished when you can enter a new region without getting slaughtered. It's about breaking it down into little mini-goals. If you can do that, you'll find enough to like about the game. If you can't, you're probably better off building a boat and sailing away from it all. Not like anyone from this game could follow you anyhow. For real, guys. It's a freaking river.

Bottom Line: 12/20

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Metroid II: Return of Samus

Half a decade after the abominable first Metroid game, Nintendo finally opted to release a follow-up. This was odd in the sense that most sequels tended to come out only a year or two after the original game's release. For instance, Super Mario Bros. was followed by its sequel a mere year later. Ditto virtually every other game that warranted a sequel. So why did Metroid II take so long to come out? And...Game Boy? It's on the Game Boy?

5 Years Later.At first the idea of putting the first sequel to a franchise-worthy game (in terms of popularity...obviously not quality) exclusively on a big gray and green paperweight seems moronic. But on further reflection, it just might be genius. Consider all the people who were reluctant to invest in a Game Boy. It's too big, drains batteries too fast, doesn't play in color...apart from its portability it really didn't have much going for it. And by 1991 the system could only really boast Tetris and Super Mario Land, and we all know that wasn't much to brag about. So really, by putting Metroid II on the Game Boy, Nintendo was forcing fans to go out and buy the system if they didn't already own it. Pretty tricky stuff, eh?

The story of Metroid II takes place some vague length of time from the first game. In that first game you destroyed the Space Pirate base on Zebes and killed Mother Brain, their freaky leader-in-a-jar. In doing so you helped prevent them from experimenting with metroids to their nefarious ends, and the Galactic Federation (the "good guys" who hired you) decide metroids are too dangerous a species to have alive in the galaxy. So they start sending teams of troopers to planet SR388, which they have determined is the metroid homeworld. These troopers were assigned to eliminate the metroids, but all got killed on the planet. So Samus is hired to go to SR388 and do the job herself, and be quick about it. So let me make this abundantly clear: your goal in Metroid II is to commit genocide as efficiently as possible.

Metroidmorphosis.To that end you have some sort of device that I guess can read metroid energy signatures or something. It tells you how many metroids are left alive on the planet, so you know at any given time how close you are to successfully murdering a species. But when you first encounter the bodies of metroids in the game, which doesn't take long, you'll notice that they are empty. That is, the jellyfish-like shell is there, but there is nothing inside. You can even jump in yourself if you're feeling that demented. And this is because apparently the metroids you that you had come to know from the first game were just the larval stage of the organism. So you will encounter what are known as Alpha Metroids, which fly around trying to headbutt you and are immune to any weapon but missiles. Occasionally, as above, you can even catch them emerging from their shells. It seems a novel concept, and while I can't really complain about not having something latch onto my head incessantly, the whole thing just feels totally out of place and bizarre.

On that note, the entire layout of the game is different than might be expected. Whereas the first Metroid was just open-ended and had you explore everywhere to find powerups that might let you into new areas, Metroid II is far more linear. At the beginning of the game, only certain metroids are accessible to you, because acid blocks your way to all other areas. Upon killing every metroid you can, an earthquake occurs. This earthquake will remove some of the acid that had been in your way, revealing a little more of the game world, with more metroids there to kill. Killing them removes more of the acid, and so forth. The first game was all about finding powerups and trying to locate Mother Brain, but this is just an exercise in "find the metroids in this area, then proceed to the next" over and over until the last bit of the game. It's not necessarily a bad thing; it just feels odd and never stops feeling odd the entire game.

Room to jump.That's not to say that powerups aren't a big part of Metroid II as well. Every powerup from the first game makes a return in Metroid II, with the exception of the morph ball (which you start with) and the long shot (which is unnecessary because your shots now actually travel the length of screen to begin with...imagine that). It also adds a few new powerups, all of which are helpful and interesting. The spring ball allows you to jump in morph ball mode, which relieves a lot of the tedium of trying to propel yourself with bombs. The spider ball allows you to cling to walls and travel on ceilings. The space jump allows you to jump in midair repeatedly, and when combined with the screw attack makes you virtually invincible when leaping. There are also two new beams: the spazer and the plasma beam. The spazer splits your shot in three ways making it easier to hit targets, while the plasma beam burns through enemies, crossing the length of the screen unhindered by enemies or walls, killing everything in its wake. You can still only hold one weapon at a time though, so there is some planning involved. And as you can see, perhaps the greatest powerup improvement is the fact that the statues holding them can now actually be jumped over. Gone are the days of being stuck behind a giant stone bird. Thank goodness.

It just Zeta missile.As you progress through the game, you'll start to see further incarnations of the metroids. You'll enter a room with an Alpha Metroid only to see it grow in size, gain armor in the back (making it only vulnerable from the front or below), and a big swinging electric tentacle. Thus you fight your first Gamma Metroid, and soon thereafter every metroid you find is of this harder variety, which also take twice as many missiles to kill. Then you'll see the Gamma transform as well, growing legs, having the tentacle turn into a tail, sporting a distinctive head. This is the Zeta Metroid, which takes twice the missiles to kill as the Gamma did, is only vulnerable from the front, and spits balls of fire at you. I'm going to go on record as saying that by now any claim these creatures had to the name "metroid" is gone completely. Now it's closer a floating space toddler. What happened to the standard metroids? I never thought I'd miss them, but sheesh.

So it doesn't help when the Zeta Metroids then transform yet again into the Omega Metroids. They look the same really, except that they're a lot bigger, spit bigger balls of plasma, try to run into you a lot, and take 50% more missiles to kill than the Zeta. That's six times more missiles than the Alpha Metroids took to kill, if you've been keeping track. Ridiculous.

Device of saving.Which is why it's wonderful that this game made a few really key improvements to the series. First, the game actually had a save feature. While the first Metroid had a save system, it only existed in Japan. America had a bulky password system that only showed you your password when you died. If you were out of time to play, but far enough in the game, you had to sit there in acid for 5 minutes killing yourself just so you could continue later. Metroid II eliminates these issues with the save post. Just stand on one and save your game instantly and completely. Man, it's so simple. And not only that! But the first thing you might notice when you start the game is your health. It's at 99. That's right folks, you actually start the game off with full life. Amazing. And loading a save file puts you at whatever life you had when you saved. Brilliant. Moreover, in various spots in the game are energy and missile refills. Touching either will max out your supply of that item. So you don't even have to sit there grinding life in increments of 5 anymore. You can also now shoot directly below you when in midair, which you will use a lot throughout. You can even fire while crouched. While these improvements are fantastic, their inclusion doesn't make Metroid II a great game. Rather, they're all so simple and obvious that it just makes the first Metroid game look even more atrocious in retrospect for not having them.

And speaking of not having something, you know what else the first game didn't have? A freaking map. Know what Metroid II still doesn't have? A freaking map. Oh sure, the game is more linear, harder to get lost. If you're stuck you at least know where to be looking for stuff. But give me a damn map already. Stop trying to make me buy Nintendo Power to actually see how to get around the place. And don't act like selling magazines wasn't your goal this time as well. We know where you put that map.

So anyway, after you maplessly find your way to the lair of the Metroid Queen, you finally encounter some of the "standard" metroids again. And at first you feel nostalgic and relieved, because these are the guys you remember. But you'll quickly be pissed off, because these are the guys you remember. They'll latch onto your head too quickly for you to react, take multiple bombs to get off, reattach in less than a second...and they're still immune to everything but the ice beam. Good grief. On second thought I didn't miss you folks at all. At least this time around Nintendo put another ice beam right next to them so it's easy enough to reacquire. There's also a save point and an energy/missile refill there. Ain't it funny what common sense design can do for a game.

Too far.Common sense clearly didn't apply to the Queen though. So you're saying that metroids will, if given the time and resources, evolve into giant bony dragon dogs who spit gobs of plasma at anything that comes near? I call shenanigans. And naturally it's not weak to ice. None of the other metroid "evolutions" were, after all. So instead you get to pound its face with stupid amounts of missiles. And you have less room to maneuver than you'd think looking at that picture, because the Queen pretty regularly sticks her big head out and waves it around. The good news is if you nail it in the mouth with a missile, you can roll your ball into its throat and down into its stomach thing. Then you can start laying bombs, and it dies a LOT faster this way. I guess they're rewarding outside-the-box thinking, and I can appreciate that.

So after killing the Queen and exterminating an entire species you proceed back to your ship. But on the way out, the last metroid egg hatches, and out comes a little baby, thinking you're its mom. And conveniently, there are barriers in your way that are immune to all your weaponry, but that metroids can just touch and destroy. It doesn't make a lick of sense, but what in this game has? So the baby metroid opens a path back to your ship, and you get super sentimental, don't kill it, and instead let it in with you. So in Metroid II you have killed off the entirety of a species with the exception of one...and you're taking that as your pet. That's simultaneously awful and badass.

Which might describe the game experience itself, really. Everything in this game is better executed than before, and so for the first time the concept of playing an interstellar bounty hunter feels pretty cool. But that's what the first game should have accomplished. The linearity of Metroid II manages to partially destroy the atmosphere of exploration the first game tried to establish, and the only reason this is acceptable is because if Metroid II had been expansive, its lack of a map would have driven players to suicide before game's end. And there's a definite ceiling on "cool factor" when you're asked to fight the sorts of absurdities Metroid II keeps pushing in your face. As a result, Metroid II is vastly superior to the first in terms of gameplay, but remains merely an average game in its own right.

Oh yeah, the music sucks too. Sounds like clowns burying themselves alive.

Bottom Line: 10/20

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Super Mario Bros. 2

While the success of Super Mario Bros. was swiftly followed by a sequel in Japan, the western hemisphere was mercifully spared it. However, the upshot of this was that the Super Mario franchise in the United States was without a second game for about a year and a half. But since Japan already had its sequel, and Nintendo didn't much feel like developing a brand new Mario game from the ground up for just one region, it decided instead to take the Japan-only title Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic and convert its Aladdin-like characters to Mario ones.

Luigi jump.At the beginning of the game, and the beginning of each stage thereafter, you can choose to be Mario, Luigi, Toad, or Princess Peach. Mario is the most well-rounded character, with decent speed and jumping and strength. And I guess that's to make up for the fact that Luigi jumps the highest (and kicks his legs in a ridiculous manner as he does so), solidifying his aerial superiority over Mario from The Lost Levels. He's weak though, and not terribly fast. They just couldn't let Luigi win, could they? Peach is weak and slow and doesn't jump too terribly high, but she can hover for a short time, which is pretty useful. And Toad, well. Toad is just a beast. Gone are the days of getting kidnapped by Bowser and tied up in a little brown sack praying not to suffocate before Mario can let him out. Now Toad has some biceps of his own to flex, and he's also really speedy (though his leaping isn't too good).

The mentioning of "strength" might seem a little weird, so let me clarify. Or maybe more accurately, let me further confuse. Mario 2 is full of vegetables. Littered with them. Everywhere. Every level has a bunch of little leaves sprouting from the ground which can be plucked up, revealing some type of vegetable. It might be a radish, or a turnip, even a pumpkin. Then the plucker brandishes the food overhead before flinging it away, killing whatever it strikes. Huh? Jumping on enemies doesn't even kill them anymore. Instead you just sit on top of them as they move around, and can pluck them up too, throwing them at other enemies. So when I say Toad is a beast, what I mean is Toad is the most adept at manhandling enemies against their will and using them as living projectiles to murder their allies. I guess he just snapped after all that kidnapping. He's like the Hulk now. You don't wanna mess.

Negatory.Sometimes though, you won't get a vegetable when you pluck. Sometimes it's a bomb. And sometimes it's a flask with a bubbly red potion that poofs into a door when it hits the ground. Walking through this door transports you to a negative dimension where you can collect coins and mushrooms to increase your life (indicated by the red hexagons on the left side of the screen). I could try to make some sort of joke or even give an explanation for how it all works or why it's in the game, but you know what? It's not worth it. I don't understand it at all, and I honestly believe I'm better off for it. If I could wrap my head around it, I'd be a little worried.

Actually, you know what? This whole game is just totally loopy. Featuring not a single returning enemy from the first Mario games, the areas of Mario 2 are instead filled with things like shyguys (little robed dudes with hockey masks) riding around on ostriches. Sure. There are POW blocks, taken from the Mario Bros. arcade game, that can be thrown and will obliterate everything on the screen when they are. There are hopping cats dressed up like ninjas. There are vases everywhere which can be entered, and apparently they've got some sort of magic crap going on, because these are the roomiest pieces of pottery I've ever seen. There are entire deserts down there. What?

Phantokey.Doors are a big part of the game too. Especially locked ones. That need keys. That are guarded by floating deadly masks called Phantos. The locked doors are, without exception, not optional. You must enter them to complete the level, and every key is guarded like this. It doesn't seem that bad maybe, but upon picking up the key one of those masks will start chasing you until you finally unlock and enter the door requiring it. It will chase you through other doors, across screens, anywhere. It is invincible. It is heinous. If you drop the key it will leave you alone until you pick it up again, so at least there's that. But it's legitimately frightening, which I guess gives it a weird sort of charm. When did Mario 1 ever make you feel afraid for your life?

The game is a bit shorter than its predecessors, featuring only seven worlds instead of eight, and only three levels per world instead of four (except the seventh and final world, which contains but two levels). That said, the level design is clearly superior here, although as the rest of the game, totally non-sensical in the Mario context. What's a plumber doing in the middle of a desert or hopping on clouds in the sky? Nevertheless, there are a lot of little bits of design throughout the game that will make you go "Huh, that's neat." Such as one stage in which you start directly over the exit, but the exit is underground and you're above ground. So you navigate the level on virtually the same screen, but it takes some time to get back there...all to a spot that was like 10 feet away at the outset. Many areas also have screens that scroll horizontally. That is, leaving the left side of the screen causes you to emerge from the right, and vice versa. This mechanic is used a few times throughout the game in pretty cool ways.

Whales blow.Less enjoyable here as in any game, I present the ice world. This is, in a word, inexcusable. The ice here is more treacherous than perhaps any game before or since. Adding to the pain are the little creampuffs with eyes that waddle at you. Oh, I know what you're thinking. What sounds more harmless than waddling creampuffs? Unless you've played this game, you have no idea what it's like. There are also flying monkeys with pitchforks who swarm you. Add to that the fact that you have to navigate around whale blowholes spouting water that hurts you unless it's blasting up your dress (despite enemies walking through with no problem)...all to get to a rocketship at the end of the area. Really? A rocketship? That makes sense guys. That's context-appropriate. Even beyond Mario stuff, even if you look at the content of Doki Doki Panic, where is there room for a rocketship? It's Arabian! There aren't Middle Eastern space programs!

Almost every stage ends as bizarrely as they play out, too. There's some sort of dinosaur type creature that spits eggs out of its blunderbuss of a mouth. To defeat the creature, for some reason named Birdo (despite its mislabeling in the game's credits), you have to leap on the eggs it spits at you, grab them out of the air, and chuck them back at the being. As the levels progress, Birdo changes color from its original pink, indicating its higher difficulty as it learns to spit fireballs in addition to eggs. Eventually it won't even spit eggs at all, instead having to be vanquished by little blocks that vaguely resemble mushrooms.

Italian cooking.When Birdo dies, it will leave behind a crystal ball (at least that's what I think it is) that causes the disembodied head of a giant bird of prey attached to the wall to open its mouth. To exit the level, you allow yourself to be eaten. What. The. Hell. It doesn't really strike me as much of a reward to be ingested by some sort of enormous feathered beast, you know. If given the choice, I'd rather have a high five. Or like, a flagpole or something where I could raise a banner indicating my victory. What happened to that guys? I tried to rationalize it by thinking that maybe the bird's body is just offscreen and it carries you from world to world as some sort of big organic vehicle. But after getting eaten, you get to spend coins you collected from that level's negative zones in a slot machine. So either my theory is incorrect, or there is a casino inside this bird. And at that point I'm not even sure which I'd prefer. Color me stumped.

The difficulty isn't too bad, and there are plenty of nifty little shortcuts to skip over areas or entire levels if you're clever and curious enough to find them. But at World 7 it really ramps up on you. Vases start to appear that infinitely spawn enemies out of them unless you plug them up with a block. This is really just nasty on 7-1, where shyguys incessantly emerge from a pot in clouds that are right atop one another. In order to progress you've got to zig zag down the clouds, because jumping will land you on a higher cloud; it takes you backwards, essentially. But you can't dodge these shyguys without jumping, and if you try to tank a hit and just run into them, it's unreliable too. It's downright rude.

Wart.The last level takes things to a whole new level, though. Erm...yeah, just roll with it. Finding the right spot to potion yourself up a pretty red door in order to find those elusive life-giving mushrooms is out of control here. There are conveyor belts all over the place with those spawning vats of enemies atop them, often bombs. The key you have to get to proceed is in the stomach of a Birdo, whom you also fight on a conveyor. When you finally reach the eagle head thing, collecting the crystal ball just makes it angry, and it starts swooping all over the place trying to beak you to death. Then you finally reach Wart, the big frog thing guy with a vegetable-spewing pipe organ in his royal chambers. He belches at you, and you've got to force-feed him veggies till he chokes and dies. YEAH. And it wasn't until actually fighting him that I got around to asking that most simple of questions: why? Why am I fighting this guy? What did he do? No princesses are kidnapped...finally...and I don't see any oppressed citizens anywhere. What's the deal? After defeating him you unplug some concrete from a hole and these unidentified flying critters come out, but that's really all I have to go on. Motives be damned.

But you know what? They couldn't leave it like that. The developers must have realized that this whole game was one giant LSD trip, even for Mario. So they made it a dream. Yeah, like unimaginative third graders who can't figure out a legitimate ending to their stories about cows rebelling against neo-Marxist special interest groups, they went the whole "It was only a dream" route. It's offensive. I felt like I was making a difference in this fantasy world, and you robbed me of that. But hey, at least it sort of justifies how almost nothing Mario related was in this Mario game, right?

The silver lining in all of this? Super Mario Bros. 2 is fun. It's so stupid and so crazy, but the level design is fantastic and you really don't ever get tired of seeing Luigi's dinky little feet kicking around every time he jumps. And when bombs explode, they actually say "bomb." Awesome. I recommend it, but don't get emotionally attached. It's all a lie.

Bottom Line: 14/20