Macbat 64: Journey of a Nice Chap Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch release*

 

Macbat 64: Journey of a Nice Chap is – as you may have guessed from the title – a nostalgic love letter to the Nintendo 64 era, primarily the games made by Rare for the console (because let’s face it, outside of Mario and Zelda, the N64 was the Rareware machine). Originally released via Steam in 2017 and ported to the Nintendo Switch (its most fitting platform) in 2020, indie developer Siactro does a great job at recreating the visual look of the N64, and a “pretty good” job at capturing the idea of Rare’s games for the console. The initial nostalgic glee is short-lived, however, as Macbat 64 is so bitesized that it feels more like a prototype used to pitch a more complete game to a publisher, as opposed to the final game itself.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with short games. I have often said I’ll take a great short game over a needlessly long one any day. But there’s a difference between a game that’s simply short but feels fulfilled (like Portal), and a game that feels short because its recourses could only take the developers’ vision so far. As you may have guessed, Macbat 64 falls into the latter category. It provides some fun and charm, but not any more than you might find in a tech demo.

The game is mostly inspired by Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64, though it does try its hand at some variety and features a Diddy Kong Racing-esque stage, and even a 2D level that deviates from the Rare motif and seems inspired by Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards.

 

Siactro’s heart is definitely in the right place, and its nice to see them try to implement a variety of N64 inspirations. The problem is that all of Macbat’s ideas are only realized in their most marginal forms. Despite the Banjo-Kazooie inspiration, there’s no hub world or anything of the sort connecting the stages. You simply select the stages (in sequential order) on the title screen. And each of the game’s stages can be completed in less than five minutes. I maybe completed the whole game in about forty-five or fifty minutes.

Players naturally take control of Macbat, a monocle-wearing bat whose only actions are walking and jumping (he can jump several times in a row thanks to his wings, but tires out after reaching a certain height, possibly another nod to Kirby 64). Every stage – with the exception of the Diddy Kong Racing one – simply features Macbat accomplishing a series of tasks, which usually involve him collecting five coins to purchase a special item from an NPC, or four balloons to send a particular object floating away.

“Banjo-Kazooie composer Grant Kirkhope has a fun little cameo as the voice of a monkey.”

Macbat is recruited on an adventure by a pirate parrot (who probably would have made for a better choice as the player character, if we’re being honest), who set out to save their world’s water supply, as the “Water Factory” has stopped working. So you travel across different levels collecting different objects, and are ultimately rewarded with one of the Water Factory’s keys at the end of a stage. It’s silly nonsense, but the characters lack the personality of their inspirations to liven things up.

Again, Macbat 64 is a game of honest and respectable ambitions, but those ambitions are too barebones and barely realized to amount to much. The initial smirk you may get from the visuals and music from each new level quickly melt away as the level is completed before you realize it. On the bright side, the game only costs two bucks on the Nintendo Eshop, so you can’t exactly say you were shortchanged.

 

If a college student made this same kind of game to showcase their abilities and ideas as to pitch them to a studio, I’d see a lot of promise here in Macbat 64. But as a final product, it feels more like an empty promise.

3

Super Mario Sunshine: The Mario That Should Have Been More

I was originally just going to write one of my “Replaying” articles in relation to Super Mario Sunshine, which I am currently replaying via Super Mario 3D All-Stars (which came out on my birthday, something I may have mentioned once or twice). But as I’ve been playing it, I feel I have more to say about Sunshine than what my “Replaying” features usually entail. The more I thought about it, the more I think something closer to my recent write-up on Howl’s Moving Castle is more apropos. So here we are.

Look, first thing’s first, Super Mario Sunshine is not a bad game. In fact, if this is the weakest 3D Mario offering, then Mario has done well for himself, because Sunshine is still a very fun game in a lot of ways. But with the possible exception of Super Mario 3D Land on the Nintendo 3DS, Sunshine is undoubtedly the weakest 3D Mario game by a mile, and possibly the weakest “main entry” in the whole series (unless we’re counting the Super Mario Land and New Super Mario Bros. titles as part of the main series of Mario games). And that’s a shame because it could have, and should have, been so much more.

In more recent years, Super Mario Sunshine is talked about in a more positive light than in years past. Though it’s surely no coincidence that Sunshine’s newfound reverence should occur around the same time those who were young tykes during the game’s 2002 release are now old enough to reflect on Sunshine with rose-tinted nostalgia goggles.

I have seen a number of YouTubers and people on social media try to defend Sunshine to the death, but again, it’s probably no coincidence that all of its defenders are of a certain age. Yes, I myself have nostalgia for Super Mario Sunshine, and I repeat that it isn’t a bad game. But playing Sunshine today, it would be incredibly difficult to put forth a credible argument that it’s one of the better Mario games once the nostalgia glasses come off.

Travel back to the early 2000s, and some of the backlash against Sunshine may have been excessive (the gaming community has a bad habit of only working in absolutes), but it wasn’t entirely unfounded. Super Mario Sunshine is a good game, but not good enough for a series that’s usually associated with greatness.

Think about it this way: Up until Sunshine’s release in 2002, every “proper” entry in the Mario series was considered an all-time great in the medium (unless, again, you counted the Super Mario Land titles. Though Nintendo themselves only seemed to retroactively include those games in the canon in more recent years). Super Mario Bros. was the biggest game of all time when it was released in 1985. Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World were released in the early 90s and are still considered some of the best games ever made even today. The same goes for Yoshi’s Island, albeit to a humbler degree. And of course, Super Mario 64 revolutionized gaming from that point onward. Even Super Mario Bros. 2, which is now often labeled the “black sheep” of the series, only really earned the moniker in hindsight, after its status as a reworked Doki Doki Panic became more common knowledge. But Super Mario Bros. 2 was still better than most other NES games, and it’s still fun today. Not a whole lot of NES titles can boast that.

Point being, the Super Mario series had (rightfully) earned a reputation unlike any other in video games (Zelda comes the closest, but back then Zelda games were much less common, though I still think Mario would ultimately win out when taking things into consideration in modern times). Yes, Mario still has a peerless pedigree in video games, but at that point, the series was undefeated. Its record unblemished.

Super Mario Sunshine became the series’ blemish.

Sure, Super Mario Sunshine received some strong review scores upon release, but that may have been a case of the hype getting to the reviewers (this was the successor to the legendary Super Mario 64, after all). It didn’t take too long for fans and critics alike to realize Sunshine didn’t quite have the same magic as its predecessors (something similar would happen with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword over nine years later, and lord knows it’s happened with most western AAA releases over the years).

At the time, most of Sunshine’s detractors pointed at the F.L.U.D.D., Mario’s new water pack, as the gimmicky reason why the game wasn’t up to the series’ standards. I think that’s unfair, as F.L.U.D.D. was actually a fun idea, one that still feels unique not just for the series, but platformers in general. It even added to some of the acrobatic moves carried over from Super Mario 64. Seriously, a platformer centered around water is still a pretty great idea. So maybe F.L.U.D.D. stood out like a sore thumb, but I don’t think it was the reason for Sunshine’s shortcomings.

Others lamented the lack of variety in the environments, with the entire game being centered around a single tropical island theme. Sunshine’s contemporary defenders argue that this gives the game’s setting, Isle Delfino, a stronger sense of place than the environments of other Mario games, often pointing out how you can see one level in the distance while playing in another. I find myself somewhere in the middle of this. I like the little details such as how Isle Delfino is presented as one connected world, but considering the variety of different places Mario visited even back on the NES, it does make things feel pretty stagnant in Super Mario Sunshine by comparison.

What really brings Sunshine a peg below other Mario entries is simply that it lacks the polish the series is known for. Mario games tend to be timeless, with the forward thinking creativity in their design making them outlive the hardware generations they’re released in. It really should be no surprise why Mario was such a big hit in the 1980s. Compare the series’ 8-bit outings with virtually any other NES title. The Mario games are still fun. The others…kind of show their age. Some may wish the Mario series had more focus on stories and stronger world-building, and while such additions certainly would be admirable, if we’re looking at things from a pure video game standpoint, the Mario series is practically untouchable.

At least, it usually is. Sunshine does admittedly try its hand (relatively) harder in regards to story than the other non-RPG Mario games – something its modern defenders love about it – but such elements really can’t make up for Sunshine’s shortcomings as a video game.

“The bonus stages have more traditional Mario platforming. It’s no surprise these sections are often considered the game’s highlight.”

The GameCube was the first time a Nintendo console would be released without a Mario game beside it. Luigi’s Mansion made it to the GameCube’s launch, and may feature Mario characters, but calling it a “Mario game” wouldn’t feel accurate (and not just because the lesser Mario brother had the starring role). It may be because of this that Sunshine can feel like it was rushed out of the gate, with Nintendo hoping to release it as soon as possible to help lift up the GameCube. But more development time would have done Super Mario Sunshine a lot of good.

I already mentioned the game’s lack of variety in setting, but the real bummer is how these limitations are seen in the game’s ideas. Once again, one of the things about Mario games that gets the most praise is their willingness to introduce new ideas at every turn, and retiring these ideas before any of them can overstay their welcome. These ideas may not always be winners (even Super Mario 64 stumbled in some areas). But the effort that goes into these ideas to tinker and toy with the gameplay of Mario’s world are always appreciated.

“This section in the game’s fourth stage combines Super Mario World’s cage-climbing with the F.L.U.D.D. mechanics. It’s actually really fun and creative. The game could have used more of this.”

That’s why it’s so disappointing when Super Mario Sunshine can’t seem to stop throwing Red Coin missions at the player. Yes, Super Mario 64 featured fetch quests for eight red coins as well, but these missions were limited to one per level, and a few bonus stages. But Sunshine revels in them. Each level in Super Mario Sunshine claims to have about two red coin missions, but actually feature more than advertised, considering many of the game’s ‘secret Shine Sprites’ are earned by re-entering bonus areas within the stages, and collecting the red coins that are found within them upon a second visit.

You might think “that isn’t that bad.” And perhaps on its own it wouldn’t be. But when you consider every stage also houses an obligatory “chase Shadow Mario” mission in order to progress the story, things start to feel repetitious really fast. Super Mario 64 may have had one red coin mission per level, but Sunshine’s stages feel like they’re comprised of a series of the same missions with little exception (it wouldn’t be until Galaxy that the series reclaimed the bombastic imagination of its 2D heyday).

The best moments of the game are the Shine Sprites that are built around obstacles within the level, such as the aforementioned bonus areas (where Mario is temporarily robbed of F.L.U.D.D.) and some fun obstacle courses in the main stages themselves. But they’re in the minority, with Sunshine all too often falling back on the same few tricks.

This is all the more glaring by the fact that Sunshine features considerably less levels than Super Mario 64. 64 had fifteen proper stages (plus bonus levels and three Bowser stages), while Sunshine only boasts seven proper levels. Some might bring up the “quality over quantity” argument, but that’s just the thing. 64 filled its larger library of levels with more ideas, while Sunshine has fewer stages that repeat a small handful of ideas over and over. So 64 has Sunshine beat in both quality and quantity, and it was released six years prior…on weaker hardware… during the pioneering days of 3D gaming!

Sadly, this feels like a side effect of Nintendo trying to get Sunshine on the market as soon as possible. Who knows how many more levels could have been added, and what could have been added to the existing levels, had Sunshine been given more time in development.

Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it. Sunshine, clearly hoping to replicate Super Mario 64, features one-hundred and twenty Shine Sprites to collect, just as Super Mario 64 housed one-hundred and twenty Power Stars. If the red coins and Shadow Mario missions weren’t padding enough, than the blue coins really feel like they’re just filling out a quota.

Super Mario Sunshine has two-hundred and forty blue coins to find across the game. Unlike Super Mario 64, where blue coins were simply worth five regular coins (an easier means to claim a level’s “100 coins” star), the blue coins of Sunshine are their own separate collectible. Now, this could have made for a great side quest, with players unlocking new features and secrets whenever they reach a certain milestone of collected blue coins. Instead, the blue coins are simply traded to acquire… more Shine Sprites.

It’s ten blue coins for one Shine Sprite which, if you do the math, means a good chunk of twenty-four of the game’s one-hundred and twenty Shine Sprites are simply acquired by trading in blue coins in the game’s hub world. This is where it really feels like the development team had to cut corners. The search for the blue coins could have made for an intriguing side quest, if it provided some unique rewards (say, for example, if the rewards included things like F.L.U.D.D. being able to store more water, Mario getting extra health, unlocking new colors of Yoshis, things like that). But by making the blue coins simply a means to collect all the Shine Sprites, it all just comes across as padding. Both the main quest for Shine Sprites, and what could have been a promising secondary endeavor with the blue coins, feel unfulfilled by smooshing them together.

I wish I could say that’s the end of it. Sadly, Sunshine has some more cut corners in the gameplay itself. As I said, Mario games usually hold up really well because they’re much more polished than their contemporaries, but that simply isn’t true of Sunshine. Some fans like to claim that Super Mario Sunshine is the hardest 3D Mario game. It’s not. But if it were, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

Case in point, there’s a Shine Sprite in the game’s second stage, Rico Harbor, that sees Mario surfing on a Blooper to collect eight red coins (of course). Once you’re on the Blooper, you can’t get off the Blooper. Once you collect the eight red coins, you freeze while you watch the Shine Sprite animation, only to revert back to full speed in a split second, which really throws you off. And to collect the Shine Sprite, you have to land on it dead center while riding the Blooper, but if you bump into any walls on the Blooper, you die!

Here’s a montage of videos I took on my Switch to show you why, when you put these things together, it makes for an aggravating time.

To this I have to say… did no one at Nintendo think this one through? Or test it? This is the kind of sloppy design you would find in poorly-aged NES games. To think that a Mario title would be guilty of something so clunky seems unheard of. But here we are.

It’s not an isolated incident, either. Yet another mission in Rico Harbor (which is at least an aesthetically pleasing level), “Yoshi’s Fruit Adventure” is a chore. In Sunshine, Yoshis will hatch from their eggs by bringing them their desired fruit. In the Yoshi’s Fruit Adventure mission, the Yoshi egg in question will always want a durian. In order to get a durian, you have to get on some rooftops to reach the switches on top of two giant fruit dispensers. Pound on the switches and a fruit comes out. But it’s a random fruit, with the durian only showing up some of the time. So you have to jump between the fruit dispensers pounding the upright switch over and over, just hoping that a durian shows up. If one does show up, there’s a good chance it will fall down the nearby ledge. And of course the durian is the one fruit Mario can’t simply pick up (he probably doesn’t want his gloves to smell of durian stank), so if it falls it’s almost impossible to get it back where it needs to be to get it to Yoshi, meaning you have to get back on top of the fruit dispensers and start over.

Once you manage to kick/squirt the durian over to Yoshi, you have to ride the dinosaur through something of an obstacle course. Sounds promising, but again, it feels untested. Yoshi has to spit juice at jumping fish to create platforms (as one does), then ride said platforms to more stagnant ones that are part of the level. But if you shoot the fish at the wrong time, the platform won’t be in the right spot. You either can’t reach that platform or won’t be able to reach the place it carries you to, and the fish don’t respawn until the platform moves its full distance. Not to mention Yoshi only lasts for a limited time in this game. And if you fall off the platforms, you’ll land in water which dissolves Yoshi meaning you have to start the entire process over again!

Suffice to say, Sunshine feels like its difficulty can stem from all the wrong places.

That’s before we even get into the game’s inconsistent animations (notice how Shadow Mario makes a flipping sound even when he doesn’t perform his flipping animation), or the arduous task of keeping track of your blue coins (you can go to a screen that tells you how many you’ve collected in a level, but it doesn’t tell you how many are in a level or which ones you’ve already claimed).

“On the other hand, Sunshine is the only Mario game that has a boss that’s a Stephen King reference. That’s pretty cool.”

Again, I have to stress that Super Mario Sunshine is a good game. But it’s a good game in a series of great ones. It provides fun gameplay and some memorable moments, but whether because of a rushed schedule or lack of creative passion, Sunshine just doesn’t have the Mario magic.

Imagine what could have been, had Sunshine been given more time to be polished. Perhaps it would be talked about in the same regard as 64 and Galaxy are today, instead of being “that one Mario game” that only fans of the right age conveniently seem to herald.

Super Mario Sunshine would be the first time a “proper” Mario game would fail to deliver a defining title in its era. A fun and enjoyable experience, to be sure. But to all those revisionists who insist Super Mario Sunshine is one of Mario’s greatest adventures… No. It really isn’t.

Replaying: Super Mario 64

Super Mario 3D All-Stars is great (it was released on my birthday, ya know). I mean, it has it’s problems (a series of this caliber deserves grander presentation than a simple startup screen and brief descriptions of the games included), and the absence of Galaxy 2 really is inexcusable (had it been included, this would be the best video game compilation ever). But it’s still a compilation of two amazing classics and also Super Mario Sunshine, so I’m not about to complain too much.

Though Galaxy is easily the best game of the bunch, I decided to do things chronologically and started with Super Mario 64 first. Super Mario 64 is, from a historical and influential standpoint, one of the greatest videogames of all time (with Tetris and the original Super Mario Bros. perhaps being the only games to top it in those categories). Super Mario 64 is also one of the defining games of my life. Though I think there were better games before and better games since (Super Mario World is a far better game, for example), there are few games that are as ingrained in my mind as Super Mario 64. I played and replayed it so often as a kid, that even when it’s been years in between playthroughs, I can still recall where, when and how to collect (almost) every star and red coin. I know the stages inside and out, and can track down most everything in the game without giving it a second thought. Super Mario 64 is burned into my psyche.

Playing this classic again on the Switch reminds me what an integral part of gaming Super Mario 64 was (and still is). Yes, it’s definitely rough around the edges – with its camera being cumbersome and Mario sometimes feeling a little slippery to control – but creatively, it was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing, it still amazes.

I’m not sure if it’s ironic or poetic that gaming’s biggest icon of the 2D era was also the one that, in its first go around, got 3D gaming so right (okay, it’s poetic). Yes, some of its technical aspects have aged, and Super Mario 64 isn’t pretty to look at (though the HD sheen of the Switch version makes it look better than ever), but when you consider how 3D video games at the time were so unwieldy and broken that the concept was considered a fad doomed to die a sudden death, Mario’s transition into 3D was as flawless as anyone could have hoped for, perhaps more so.

Playing Super Mario 64 again today, it’s still a lot of fun, which is more than you can say for…pretty much every other early 3D game. Yes, its blemishes are more apparent to modern eyes (that damn camera), but it still feels like a delightful virtual playground whereas its contemporaries feel like taxing eyesores.

I do have to admit, it is a bit of a bummer that Nintendo opted to only optimize the game’s presentation and give it an HD makeover, as opposed to remaking it entirely. I mean, I get that new games are the priority, but surely Super Mario 64 is one of the games in Nintendo’s history that warrants a from the ground-up remake. I mean, Crash Bandicoot had it done, and as much as I love Crash Bandicoot, he’s certainly no Mario.

Whatever. As always, it’s the game that ultimately counts, not the look. And as stated, Super Mario 64 is still a great game, and its inventiveness for the medium as a whole can’t be understated. Super Mario 64 wasn’t simply “Super Mario World but in 3D” (an unpopular complaint I have against Ocarina of Time is that, structurally, it’s essentially A Link to the Past with a 3D makeover, with all the added hiccups that come with the N64). It reworked how platformers are structured. Sure, you still had linear goals, but you could go about them in different ways, and sometimes achieve a goal other than the intended one. And one thing Super Mario 64 did that I still don’t think many 3D games have done (even the 3D Mario titles, until Odyssey came around) is how it gave Mario moves and abilities that were made solely for the sake of taking advantage of 3D space, and how the game incorporates certain goals (stars) simply by utilizing these moves.

There are stars that simply require the player to master Mario’s wall jump in order to reach them, areas that can only be reached with Mario’s trickier to perform movements, and hell, Mario’s little breakdancing move seems to only exist because it could now that Mario was in a 3D environment. The player can almost sense that Miyamoto and company must have had an absolute blast making the game, and just had fun discovering what they could make Mario do with his added dimension.

“It’s strangely seldom mentioned how, in Super Mario 64, you’re actually controlling two characters. Mario himself, and the Lakitu holding the camera.”

This infectious sense of joy doesn’t just apply to the technical aspects of the game, however, but the creative ones as well. As much flak as I’ve been giving the game’s camera, how fun of an idea was it to make the in-universe reason for the camera being that Mario’s adventure is being recorded by a local news station (which, naturally, uses a Lakitu flying on a cloud as the cameraman, explaining away the controls for the camerawork)? Or what about the clock-themed world behaving differently based on where the clock hands are when you enter the stage? And to this day, a gaming moment from my early years that I can still recall clear as day was chasing after a rabbit in the lower levels of Peach’s Castle, and running into a wall that began rippling upon Mario’s contact with it, revealing yet another of the game’s levels just waiting to be explored. Up until that point in the game, the stages were all accessed via jumping into painting. So for just a basic wall to deceptively be the portal to one of the stages might still be the most beautifully mischievous detail in video games.

Suffice to say, I’m having a lot of fun revisiting Super Mario 64. Of course, there’s a lot of frustration as well, trying to wrangle around the camera, controlling the flying power-up, and Mario’s sometimes sporadic actions. Frustrations I don’t get when playing either of the Galaxy games or Odyssey (which, with all due respect to Super Mario 64, are all superior games), or even 3D World for that matter (which might also be a better game from a technical standpoint). But hey, Super Mario 64 was the first of its kind, for it to still be as fun and creative as it is today is probably more than anyone could have asked for.

The Mario series has had more “perfect games” under its belt than any one series (I might even argue it’s had more than most other prominent series put together). Super Mario 64 is not one of the perfect Mario games. But it still, to this day, is a one of a kind gaming experience. A video game wonderland that, while it may feel aged in a number of respects, still comes across as a timeless classic.

So Much Mario Goodness!

Nintendo had a brand-spankin’ new Direct today, focused on the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. There were so many announcements, that I can’t even remember them all. So I’ll just leave said Nintendo Direct here.

 

The big news here is the confirmation of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, and a battle royal version of the original Super Mario Bros. There’s also that augmented reality Mario Kart thing. That looks interesting.

I think it’s safe to say this Mario-focused Direct left me feeling like this…

Anyway, I am beyond excited for Super Mario 3D All-Stars! I mean, two of the greatest video games of all time – and also Super Mario Sunshine – all in HD and whatnot? Sounds great! Though I am greatly saddened (and baffled) by the omission of Super Mario Galaxy 2, which is arguably the best video game ever made. They didn’t even show Galaxy 2 in the Mario retrospective video at the end of the Direct! What’s up with that, Nintendo?!

Oh, and perhaps best of all (for me, anyway), Super Mario 3D All-Stars releases on my birthday, September 18th! Oh, Nintendo, you do care!

Super Mario 3D World being re-released on Switch was also expected, but nice to have confirmed. What wasn’t expected is it comes included with some kind of new game called “Bowser’s Fury” (getting the Mario & Luigi 3DS remake treatment with that “+” in the title). Unfortunately, from what very little they showed, it looks like you still play as Mario and friends in Bowser’s Fury, which is fine, and only unfortunate for me personally who is baffled that Bowser has yet to get his own game after 35 years. Notably, the Switch version of 3D World will have online multiplayer, and Nintendo promises to reveal additional new elements between now and its February 2021 release (I’m guessing some kind of new stages).

Also, I like the idea of that battle royal-ed version of Super Mario Bros. Reminds me of Tetris 99, but with Super Mario Bros. So that’s both of the two most influential video games in history getting the battle royal treatment. Nice.

Suffice to say, I’m really excited for all this Mario news. Now hopefully we’ll get a re-release of the first two Paper Marios (AKA the good ones) and some kind of Super Mario RPG remake and/or sequel. And Geno in Super Smash Bros. Let me dream.

But c’mon, where is Galaxy 2? #JusticeForSuperMarioGalaxy2

The Origami Sting (Paper Mario: The Origami King Impressions)

“Somehow… Palpatine returned.”

And somehow… Nintendo made something as wonderful as Paper Mario not fun anymore.

Yes, I hate to admit it, but Paper Mario: The Origami King is little more than validation for my (and everyone else’s) skepticisms. Just like Sticker Star, just like Color Splash, Origami King is a gimmicky endeavor that continues the series’ awkward mixture of being utterly shallow and overly thought out at the same time.

Yes, there are good moments, but those are found solely in the exploratory elements (finding lost Toads, combing for all the secret items in an area, etc.). But once you begin the battle system, it all goes to hell.

Nintendo and Intelligent Systems once again decided the original Paper Mario formula – a simplified RPG system that retained depth and strategy based on individual enemies and Mario’s moves – is too complex. So instead of an RPG battle system with action commands, they went the much “simpler” route of starting battles off with a bizarre ring system, where you have to solve the puzzle that is the enemy layout in order to align them in such a way as to make your moves more effective, all within a short time limit.

Thankfully, your moves are no longer completely consumable like in Sticker Star or Color Splash, but aside from Mario’s standard boots and hammer, you do have to keep buying weapons repeatedly since they break after a while (because weapons breaking is all the rage in games these days for some reason). The fights themselves are already tedious, made all the more so because you don’t even gain experience points or anything of the sort after a battle, so there’s no leveling up. All you get for completing battles are coins (with more rewarded for how well you line up enemies, taking no damage, and so on). And what do you need coins for? To buy more weapons!

Good lord, what incentive is the player supposed to have in regards to these battles? Fight battles to get coins to buy weapons to use in battles to get coins to buy weapons… Geez! What’s the point?!

As purposeless as the regular battles are, they pale, pale in comparison to the boss fights. Good heavens, the boss battles of Origami King are bad. Just straight-up bad. How bad? Bad enough that – every time the game starts to win me over with it’s exploration and adventure elements – the boss fights make me not even want bother with that, because I know it will all culminate with a tedious, obnoxious, boring as all hell boss fight. They make me not care.

“Bosses will repeatedly change up the formula of battles, without letting the player know how that change effects things until they make a mistake. Yay, that’s always fun, right?”

What makes the boss fights so bad? Well, on top of following the general format of the already pointless battles, the bosses will add additional puzzle elements to the fights that are more cumbersome than clever. More often than not, figuring out how to solve these puzzles requires blatant trial-and-error, as opposed to problem solving skills. The game leaves the boss strategies unexplained until you try the obvious and fail while doing it. And if you don’t follow these fights exactly as the game wants you, the bosses will just heal and the whole thing starts over.

I hate this. I flat-out hate this. It’s not fun. Not at all. I thought Color Splash’s boss fights were annoying with how they were literally unbeatable unless you used specific items at specific times, but I’ll take Color Splash’s boss fights over Origami King’s any day.

Of course, another downward spiral that Origami King obnoxiously indulges in is its lack of character (both figuratively and literally). Though the game has its charms, it follows the bizarre trait the series has been cursed with from Sticker Star onwards of not having any original characters. Every Toad is simply named “X-Toad” (that is, when they even have “names.”).  And the first “partner” character who joins Mario is a Bob-omb named (wait for it)… Bob-omb!

Does this Bob-omb have any defining character traits or features? No, it’s a Bob-omb, plain and simple. And he jokes about once having a friend who was also named Bob-omb (Haha! Get it? They’re all named Bob-omb!). Well, at least you actually get partners in this one, which is more than you can say for Sticker Star and Color Splash, right?

But wait, do you even get partners here? The Bob-omb joins you in battle very infrequently (he conveniently chooses to stay outside dungeons to take naps), and when he can be bothered to help Mario out, he automatically attacks with a single move (which is simply bumping into an enemy), and half the time he trips while doing it, making it a complete waste.

“Get it? His name is Bob-omb, and he IS a Bob-omb! It’s totally a clever gag and not a side effect of creative limitation or anything.”

I actually found this to be kind of passive-aggressive on Nintendo/Intelligent System’s part. It’s like they’re saying “Oh, fans liked the old Paper Marios and want partners back? Okay, we’ll give them partners, but there’ll be nothing that stands out about them, they’ll automatically attack with the most basic move, which won’t even work half the time, and they’ll only join Mario in battle on occasion! Lol!” It’s like the game is literally making fun of the classic Paper Marios.

I have to ask: who is this game made for? It presents itself as being more approachable to kids than past entries, but its battle system is more convoluted than ever. I can’t imagine kids would have very much patience for it. It wants to be a puzzle adventure game, but felt the need to incorporate a turn-based battle system that slows the puzzle/adventure down considerably. It includes said RPG-style battle system, despite its utter disdain for anything resembling an RPG. And it certainly isn’t made for Paper Mario fans, as it continues to gut everything that once made the series so great.

I know I probably sound like an entitled fan. And I’m sorry for that. But Paper Mario is a bizarre, unique case where it seems like its developers actively refuse to listen to criticisms, and blatantly ignore fans’ wishes. They continue to work on a series by making games that feel like they want nothing to do with that series. It is a baffling disconnect if ever there were one in gaming.

I’m about halfway through Paper Mario: The Origami King, and I would love to review it. Normally, I like to beat a game before reviewing it, but to be honest, I’m not sure I want to push myself through the whole game. Would it be wrong to review a game without defeating its final boss? That might be the only way I can review it, because honestly getting through the game’s story is feeling more like a chore as I go on.

I know some people would balk at me to have an open mind. But I did go into Origami King with an open mind, the same way I did Sticker Star and Color Splash. In the case of Color Splash, I actually ended up having some fun and being charmed by it, despite its many flaws. But Origami King is feeling more Sticker Star than Color Splash to me. It’s tedious, monotonous, gimmicky, the battle system is pointless, the characters lack personality and charm, and those boss fights are just… NOPE!

I want to review Origami King properly, I really do. But do I have to beat it? Do I really have to? I feel like I’m deep enough in the game already to give a more detailed analysis of it (not that it would require delving very deep in this case). I feel like beating the final boss would just be a formality at this point.

You know what the worst part of all this is? I am not only a fan of Super Mario, but I have a particular fondness for Mario RPGs. That’s why – no matter how far previous Paper Marios may have fallen – I still gave subsequent entries their fair shot, simply because Paper Mario is part of that Mario RPG lineage. I felt obligated to give any game with Paper Mario in the title a go. Not even Sticker Star derailed that hope in me for the next entry. But Origami King has been such a disheartening experience, that I don’t even want to get my hopes up that the next Paper Mario will even be good, let alone go back to what made the series so special to begin with. Origami King has crushed my enthusiasm for the series, and that’s not something that happens to me lightly.

At least we have Bug Fables now…

Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version of Bug Fables*

When the original Paper Mario was released on the Nintendo 64 in 2001, it was not only the last great game for the system (and it still holds up today), but also the N64’s one and only truly memorable role-playing game. But if the system could have only one great entry in the genre, it certainly had an excellent one. Serving as a spiritual successor to the SNES’s Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario was another terrific mergence of Super Mario elements and RPG traditions. Though it was simpler than Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario’s accessibility didn’t come at the expense of depth, as it provided an RPG adventure as grand as any. Its GameCube sequel, subtitled The Thousand-Year Door, was further testament that Mario and RPGs are a match made in heaven.

Though the Paper Mario series continues to this day, Thousand-Year Door was sadly the last time the series served as a spiritual continuation of Super Mario RPG. And that’s largely because it was the last time the series was actually an RPG. The series’ third entry, Super Paper Mario, strangely abandoned the genre, instead opting for a 2D platformer with some RPG elements and a big, RPG-style storyline, to mixed results. From there, turn-based battles would make a comeback to Paper Mario, but in a butchered, shallow form, stripped of their substance and meaning, with more emphasis being placed on paper aesthetics and gimmicks than any deep RPG gameplay. Paper Mario continues to this day, but as a husk of itself. The heart and soul of the series were left behind on the GameCube, leaving many fans yearning for the series to go back to its roots and deliver another Mario RPG classic.

Well, since Nintendo seems hellbent on not delivering such a thing (even the handheld Mario & Luigi RPG series lost its way once it set foot on the 3DS), indie developer MoonSprout Games decided to make their own Paper Mario: Bug Fables.

Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is classic Paper Mario in all but names and faces. Rather than the iconic world of the Mushroom Kingdom, we have the insect world of Bugaria, in a future where insects have evolved to have human sentience. But aside from the change to a bug-themed setting and characters, everything else about Bug Fables is essentially the Paper Mario we’ve been waiting sixteen years for.

The battle system is virtually copied and pasted from the first two Paper Marios. And yes, the game adopts the flat characters amid 3D backgrounds that Paper Mario was known for (before it took the “paper” aspect far too literally). Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is indeed Paper Mario…but with bugs!

While that does mean the game isn’t the most original title out there, it’s a detail that’s easy to look past considering how starved the gaming landscape has been of a proper Paper Mario title for all these years.

As in Paper Mario, battles are a turn-based affair, where timing and button combinations take place during moves (“Action Commands”). If the player gets the timing or button combinations right, their moves are more effective, while the right button press at the right time during an enemy’s attack will reduce the damage taken to your characters. The player will also have to take note about how each of the characters and enemies function, as just like the Mario RPGs, certain actions can only be used on specific characters (grounded attacks can’t reach airborne foes, and things like that). One of the big reasons the Mario RPGs soared to such heights is their interactive battle systems, which added so much depth and timeless appeal to RPG norms, and Bug Fables is a reminder of why we miss classic Mario RPGs so much, and makes it all the more baffling how Nintendo can’t seem to grasp why people want it so badly.

“All three characters learn a few abilities that can be used outside of battle as well. For example: Leif can create ice platforms on bodies of water.”

If there is a big difference between Bug Fables and Paper Mario’s RPG systems, it’s that while Paper Mario saw Mario joined by one of several “partner” characters during battles, Bug Fables has a set party of three characters, all of whom are present in every battle: Kabbu is a beetle who is the group’s tank, able to take and dish out more damage than the other two characters, but at the cost of having the most limited attack range (only being able to target the closest ground-based enemy, save for a few of his special moves). Vi is a little bee equipped with a “beemerang,” giving her the most versatile range and can also bring down airborne foes, but with the caveat of the smallest damage output. Lastly, Lief is a moth who possesses ice magic, with which he can let it go to attack any ground-based enemies and even those who burrow underground, but will still need Vi’s help for flying foes.

“You’ll meet all kinds of cute and charming characters in Bug Fables. This little guy is probably my favorite NPC.”

It’s the party dynamic that serves as Bug Fables’ biggest change to the Paper Mario formula. On one hand, it makes things a bit more streamlined without having to switch party members for different situations. And the small amount of main characters means you get to know them a bit more in regards to the story (Kabbu is overly apologetic and sensitive, Vi is sarcastic and anxious to become a famous hero alongside her team, and Leif has been in a long hibernation, and can’t remember his past). But on the other hand, part of the charm of Paper Mario was found in those partners, and knowing which one to have at your side at what time.

I think the simplicity of Paper Mario’s partners is perhaps better suited for the style of gameplay provided. That’s not to say that anything is really lost from a gameplay standpoint in Bug Fables, but it does showcase a benefit an established franchise can have. Part of the joy of Paper Mario is how these familiar Mario enemies were now friendly characters (a Goomba, a Koopa Troopa, a Boo, etc.). Obviously, Bug Fables can’t go doing something similar, as it doesn’t have that history to tinker around and mess with. That’s not to say I hold this against Bug Fables, as that would be an unfair criticism. But I do think – in a time in which so many people insist new IPs automatically equate to originality and franchises are old hat by default – that this is an example of a creative benefit established franchises can have over other works, which is something that isn’t acknowledged enough.

“Discovering new recipes with the game’s three chef characters is a fun side quest.”

Much like Paper Mario’s badges, Bug Fables features items called medals that, when equipped, provide a variety of different bonuses. Once the player levels up (which works as the whole trio leveling up at the same time, as opposed to each individual character), the player can select which attribute they want to increase: hit points (self-explanatory), TP (Teamwork Points, Bug Fables’s equivalent of traditional magic points or, more appropriately, the Mario RPGs’ Flower Points), or Medal Points, which allow you to equip more medals.

So Bug Fables functions very similarly to the Paper Mario titles that inspired it, but aside from the set three character party, the main difference between Paper Mario and Bug Fables is the difficulty. Bug Fables is a more difficult game than Paper Mario, and it can be made all the harder right off the bat, as a prominent NPC in the game’s opening grants you with the ‘Hard Mode’ medal which, naturally, makes the game more difficult when equipped (and it costs no medal points to equip, so the challenge is open to anyone who wants it). While the challenge is mostly fair, I do have to admit that – at least with the Hard Mode medal equipped – the difficulty can seem a bit inconsistent. I actually found some earlier segments to be harder than some of the later ones, and some mid-bosses were more challenging than the big bosses at the end of the same chapter.

In a time when fans’ pleas for a return to form for the Paper Mario franchise continue to fall on deaf ears on Nintendo’s end, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is something of a gift, and the next best thing we could ask for after a proper follow-up to The Thousand-Year Door. Some have already claimed Bug Fables to be better than the games that inspired it. Though I can’t quite agree with that sentiment, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is the best Paper Mario game to be made since those beloved first two entries. And that in itself is cause for celebration.

8

Puyo Puyo 2 Review

*Review based on Puyo Puyo 2’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch’s SNES Online service*

Puyo Puyo is one of the most popular falling block puzzle series in gaming history. So it can be a little strange to go back and see how skittish publishers were with releasing the series in the west. The original Puyo Puyo received a makeover with established gaming franchises on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo with Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine and Kirby’s Avalanche, respectively. Meanwhile, the second entry didn’t even get a western release on home consoles until it was made available on retro downloadable services like the Wii’s Virtual Console and, most recently, the Nintendo Switch’s SNES Online service.

The gameplay of Puyo Puyo 2 should be familiar to anyone who’s played the series: multi-colored blobs fall from the top of the screen in clumps of two, which the player can move around and rotate. If you match up at least four blobs of the same color together, you will eliminate them from the screen. And if you plan and strategize the placements of the blobs well enough, you can connect more than four of them or even get a chain of eliminations one after the other, with both scenarios resulting in you sending marble-like ‘trash’ blocks to your opponent. The marbles will of course make get in your way, making it more difficult to connect the blobs. But if you can eliminate blobs adjacent to the marbles, you can remove them from your board. But should the blobs and marbles reach the top of the screen, it’s game over.

The adjustments to the core gameplay are minimal, with the biggest difference being that it takes bigger stacks of blobs and more chains of eliminations to send marbles to your opponent than the first game. The minimal changes aren’t really an issue though. Puzzle games are – along with platformers – the genre that represents gaming at its purest, and because of that, they never really lose any of their appeal no matter how much time passes. And Puyo Puyo, I must say, is one of the most fun and addicting of puzzle games.

The major differences here are that the game can be played with up to four players, which was a rarity in the Super Famicom days (it’s actually much easier to play the four-player modes in the Switch release than it was in Puyo Puyo 2’s day). Suffice to say, the more the merrier when it comes to falling-block puzzle mayhem. It should be noted, however, that the Switch release remains untranslated, so unless you can read Japanese, you’ll have to test out the game’s different options to figure out what’s what (there are some clues to the number of players per mode as indicated by the number of blobs next to each, but otherwise it’s a guessing game for sad sacks like me who can’t read Japanese).

The only real issue with Puyo Puyo 2 is the difficulty in its single-player mode. Puyo Puyo is often cited for its difficulty, going back to the Mean Bean Machine days. But the series usually at least gradually gets more difficult as you go. The difficulty of Puyo Puyo 2’s single player mode, on the other hand, feels all over the place. You’ll fight your way through several “levels,” each one comprised of multiple opponents, but the challenge of each individual opponent varies wildly. I’ve beaten the single-player mode a few times now, and there will be certain opponents early on that take me several attempts to conquer, followed up by easier opposition for the next few rounds before I run headfirst into another wall of difficulty.

Unfortunately, I’m not perceptive enough to notice if the easier and harder challenges were consistent with the character who served as my opponent (though I think that might be the case). Whether there is or isn’t that consistency almost doesn’t matter, because the order you face your opponents is done via a roulette wheel (the player can stop the wheel when they choose, but until you’ve chipped away and eliminated the opposition of each round, you’re not likely to land on the baddie you want to face). So again, the game doesn’t so much get progressively more difficult, as much as it is sometimes easy, and sometimes frustratingly hard.

“The fish with human limbs might be my favorite character.”

That’s not a deal breaker, however. And suffice to say that the core gameplay of Puyo Puyo 2 is as fun as ever. Plus, with the crisp 16-bit graphics, cute character designs, and catchy soundtrack, Puyo Puyo 2 is yet another puzzler that’s pleasing to the senses. Bring a few friends over to enjoy Puyo Puyo 2 to its fullest. But if you wish to enjoy the game alone, that works too. Just be prepared for a seemingly random difficulty curve.

 

7

Finally! There’s a New Pokemon Snap! And it’s Called New Pokemon Snap!

During today’s Pokemon presentation, there was one announcement that stood out above all the others… the long-requested sequel to the Nintendo 64’s Pokemon Snap is finally a reality! Here is the announcement trailer.

 

This makes me so happy. As someone who doesn’t have the most glowing feelings towards the mainline Pokemon games, this is the kind of Pokemon-related news I can truly get excited for.

I, like many others, have waited for over two decades for a Pokemon Snap sequel. It seemed like something that made so much sense for the Wii, Wii U, or 3DS, and mysteriously passed those systems by. But the Switch has been a special case for Nintendo, having the same commercial appeal as the Wii while also delivering heavily on what longtime fans have been asking for. And now this twenty-years in the waiting Pokemon Snap sequel is the latest in the Nintendo Switch’s lineup.

Sure, there are some people who don’t think the original Pokemon Snap has held up too well (it is a Nintendo 64 game, after all). That’s a fair argument, considering the N64 game only featured sixty-odd something of the original 151 Pokemon who existed at the time, and its levels were too brief to justify only having seven of them. But in concept, Pokemon Snap was always such a winning idea. It’s Pokemon, but you catch them on camera instead of in Pokeballs! Traveling on rail-based stages, seeking the best photo opportunities for the Pokemon you pass by, it’s a charming idea that always had so much potential. It’s a mystery it took this long for its developers to realize they could expand on the concept.

Finally, a Pokemon game I can be genuinely excited for. Now, if we could just get that Super Mario RPG sequel we’ve been waiting on…

Brawl Brothers Review

*Review based on Brawl Brothers’ release as part of the Nintendo Switch SNES Online service*

Brawl Brothers, released on the SNES in 1993 by Jaleco, is a side scrolling beat-em-up game, and the second installment in the Rushing Beat series. Curiously, it’s noted as being the only SNES game to feature both its western and Japanese releases on the same cartridge (the Japanese version being accessible via a cheat code). Other than that little piece of trivia, however, Brawl Brothers doesn’t provide a whole lot to write home about.

“The playable roster admittedly looks like the bargain aisle equivalent of Street Fighter characters.”

Let’s get one thing straight, I really like beat-em-up games. Their simple, straightforward, arcade-style gameplay makes them among the purest “video game-y” of video game genres, alongside the likes of platformers and puzzle games (albeit beat-em-ups don’t have the same depth of those genres). Walking from one side of the screen to the next, punching bad guys to a pulp along the way, is so simple and satisfying, particularly when multiple players are involved. But if not done right, beat-em-ups risk falling into monotony. Unfortunately, Brawl Brothers is one such beat-em-up.

The main issue with the game is that the hit detection feels way off. You repeatedly mash the attack button on an enemy, hoping that you’re aligned at just the right pixel to land your punches. You just walk into enemies to grab them for throwing attacks, but sometimes the enemies grab you instead, an issue that could have been easily avoided if you used a separate button to grab enemies instead of walking into them.

While Brawl Brothers provides a versatile (for the time) roster of five characters, each with their own special moves, another major issue with the game is that using these special moves drains your health bar. I’m guessing this was done to prevent players from constantly spamming the special moves, but surely there was a better way to go about that? Why not build up a separate meter with the more hits you land on enemies or how many of them you defeat, and once said meter is full, you can use your special move? That sounds like a better option than draining a huge chunk of your own health amidst an onslaught of enemies to prevent them from…draining a huge chunk of your health.

Perhaps the most aggravating issue with Brawl Brothers, however, are the maze levels. This is first present in the game’s sewer stage, with the player potentially cycling through the same screens non-stop unless they know which doors to take on which screen. The big problems is the game gives no indicator this is the case, so naturally, I followed the rules up until that point, going to the end of the stage expecting to move on, only to start doing the same thing over and over again. I had to look online to figure out what I was doing wrong, only to find out about the maze element. If you know the pattern, it’s not too difficult. But if the game is going to abruptly change the rules on the player, it would be nice if there were some kind of hint about that happening. Again, even if the answer isn’t too cryptic, having to learn that answer via the web for a game released in 1993 is kind of annoying.

Believe it or not, but the Japanese version of the game doesn’t include the maze elements, with those stages still following the more straightforward approach. Why the western release decided throwing in cryptic maze-like stages into the mix without any indication of such was a good idea, I’ll never know. Thankfully, as previously mentioned, the Japanese version is readily available on the western cartridge (and that’s still true for the Nintendo Switch release). Repeatedly pressing B, A, X and Y (in that order) on the ‘Jaleco’ screen will appear to glitch things up, indicating you can now enter codes. From the glitchy screen press start, hit down three times, and press start again, and you’ll be in the options menu for the Japanese version of the game. Simply continue from there and voila!

Look at me, giving away a cheat code in a review. But this is a rare exception, because the lack of the maze stages makes the Japanese version of the game so much better. Granted, the hit detection is still off, and the special moves still drain health, but at least it fixes one of Brawl Brothers’s most glaring issues. Plus, one of the characters can hit enemies in the groin in the Japanese version!

Other than that, there’s really not much difference between versions, but the removal of mazes alone makes the Japanese version the preferred method of play.

Still, even with the marginal improvements of the Japanese version of the game, Brawl Brothers still feels like one of the more dated beat-em-ups. The graphics are great (that’s Super Nintendo for you), and the music is catchy. And fans of the genre might still have a fun enough time. But no doubt there are plenty of other, better beat-em-up options out there.

 

4

Demon’s Crest Review

*Review based on Demon’s Crest’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch online service*

For my money, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System is, hands down, the best retro video game console. Sure, we all have consoles we have a nostalgic soft spot for, and there are certainly those that were significant to video game history. And sure, a number of retro consoles house a few titles that remain all-time greats. In most cases, however, such examples of standing the test of time so prominently are the exception, not the rule. But the SNES is the retro console which has an arsenal of classics so strong and timeless, that the console can go toe-to-toe with the games of today without batting an eye.

With that said, even the SNES had some gems that fell under the radar. Case in point: Demon’s Crest.

This 1994 spinoff of Capcom’s Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins series fell largely under the radar in its initial release. Even in the years since, it often seems left out (or placed on the lower end) of lists of SNES classics. That’s a real shame, because Demon’s Crest is a unique experience on the SNES. One that, in many ways, felt ahead of its time.

While the Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins series has a lightheartedness to it that counterbalances its gothic elements (such as the series’ hero, Arthur, being a cartoonish knight who loses his armor and winds up in his undies upon taking damage), Demon’s Crest leaves behind the more cartoonish elements and doubles down on the gothic horror aspect, which makes it feel more in line with Castlevania.

In Demon’s Crest, you play as the recurring Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins enemy Firebrand, a winged fire demon, on a quest to collect the six Demon Crests (Fire, Earth, Wind, Water, Time and Heaven), as all six will allow their holder to rule over all demons.

In the game’s intro, it’s revealed that Firebrand had just wrested the last crest in a hard fought battle against a demon dragon, but Firebrand was so weary after the battle, that he was easy prey for the evil demon named Phalanx. Phalanx attacks Firebrand in the sky, and manages to secure all but the fire crest, which ends up shattering into five pieces during the scuffle (Firebrand holds onto one shard, while the others fall to the earth below). Even without the fire crest, Phalanx manages to conquer the demon world, entrusting the crests to his minions (save the heaven crest, which Phalanx keeps for himself). Firebrand is banished to face the zombified remains of the demon dragon in a coliseum, with the game beginning right out of the gate against this boss fight, after which Firebrand escapes his imprisonment and sets out to find the remaining shards of the fire crest, and reclaim the other crests from Phalanx.

It is, of course, a simple “get the magical items” plot common to video games. But what I really like about Demon’s Crest’s story is how it’s presented in its early moments, with the plot segueing into the opening boss fight and Firebrand’s escape. The game as a whole has a nice, atmospheric, cinematic aspect to it, while never getting bogged down by profuse cutscenes.

“The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)”

Like the Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins series, the gameplay of Demon’s Crest is largely a run and gun style sidescroller, but with a bit of Castlevania, Mega Man and Metroid thrown into the mix, making for a more versatile experience. Firebrand is able to shoot fireballs, headbutt background objects (yeah, that’s a little weird), and even fly (though his maximum height is limited to how high he can jump in his normal state).

The simple goal of each stage is to get to the end and defeat a boss, but Demon’s Crest spices up the formula by giving stages multiple pathways that lead to different bosses, which oftentimes require backtracking with newfound abilities to find these new paths. So even though the game utilizes a more traditional series of stages, it has a hefty Metroidvania element to it, which is all the more impressive when you remember Demon’s Crest was released the very same year as Super Metroid, the “mother” of the genre.

“When you press start on the world map, you get an overview of the layout of the map. Seems like there’s room for another stage or two in the northeast section.”

You access the different stages via a world map in the same vein as Final Fantasy or Secret of Mana. It’s a nice touch that further adds to the game, though there may not be quite enough stages to justify this method of travel, with much of the map feeling bare (there are a few bonus areas hidden throughout the map, but still not quite enough to make the world map live up to its potential, I feel).

Defeating major bosses will reward Firebrand with either a new Demon Crest, or a shard of the fire crest. The shards of the fire crest will give Firebrand a new attack, while the other shards will grant the demon a new transformation. The earth crest, for example, will allow Firebrand to break through heavy objects, and shoot a projectile that travels across the ground. The wind crest transforms Firebrand into a flying beast who can lift far higher into the air than his standard form. And the water crest, appropriately, turns Firebrand into an aquatic monster who can breath underwater.

The new moves and transformations are what give the game a nice Mega Man feel to it, and give Demon’s Crest a lot of variety in play styles. Some bosses will even be susceptible to particular abilities and transformations. Though on the downside, while Mega Man will give the player a basic idea of which Robot Master’s power would work well against another with its Rock, Paper, Scissors style layout of boss themes, Demon’s Crest requires a lot more guessing in that department.

With Mega Man, you see who the bosses are ahead of time, and can make an educated guess at their strengths and weaknesses. But unless you’ve played Demon’s Crest before, you’re not going to know who the boss is on any given path of a level, or what crest you’ll get for defeating them. So while in Mega Man you could figure out “okay, the water boss will give me a water power to take out the fire boss” Demon’s Crest is a bit more vague. You need the water crest just to get to the water bosses in Demon’s Crest, for example, but there’s nothing to tell you which stage houses the water crest. It’s not overly cryptic, but it’s vague enough that I admit I had to use a video walkthrough to know where to get what.

Another minor issue is that the only way to switch powers and transformations is to pause the game and select what you want/need. Granted, you have to do similar actions to switch items in Legend of Zelda or (once again) the powers in Mega Man. But here, there will be times when you have to repeatedly swap out between powers in quick succession for level progression or boss strategy, so it can feel a little tedious at times. Additionally, while all the transformations feel useful, I actually managed to beat the game without using some of the fire crest abilities, obviously making them feel less important (though perhaps they may have come in handy against a boss or two I had a tough time with, come to think of it).

In addition, the player can also find health-extending items throughout the game, as well as vials for potions and scrolls for spells hidden in certain stages. While finding an additional hitpoint always feels like a joy, I do have to admit the potions and spells could have been better implemented. The game’s first stage after the world map opens up features a small town in its beginning, where the player can purchase potions and spells (being able to carry as many potions as you have vials, and as many spells as you have scrolls). There are a few shops and mini-games tucked into the world map as well, but there are only a handful of spells and potions that are really worth going back to the town for, to be honest (stock up on the healing potions for the boss fights, and you’re basically good).

An additional collectible is hidden throughout the game in the form of five talismans, human artifacts that will give Firebrand passive abilities (like enemies dropping more money or health, or taking less damage), though only one can be equipped at a time. Seeking out these talismans is a fun endeavor, though I wish there were an in-game description of what each talisman does. The talismans come in the forms of a skull, a crown, armor, a fang and a hand. While gaining a new crest or shard informs the player precisely what that item does, there’s nothing in-game that tells you the affects of the talismans. The only one talisman that has a logical connection to its ability is the armor, which grants the aforementioned extra durability to damage. But I wouldn’t have known what the others did had I not looked it up online. Again, it’s nothing major, but how would I have figured out that the skull makes enemies drop health more frequently and the fang makes my magic attacks stronger?

“Meow!”

None of Demon’s Crest’s drawbacks are dealbreakers, but there are enough little issues that add up that I might not have known what I was supposed to do without a guide. But while the game’s somewhat cryptic elements may show their age, the core gameplay itself has held up exceedingly well, and many of Demon’s Crest’s creative decisions were ahead of their time.

To add to the game’s depth, Demon’s Crest even includes multiple endings depending on how many crests, shards and talismans you have when you face the final boss. And should you get the “best” ending, you can restart the game with a brand new transformation that allows you to face off against a secret boss for the true ending.

The combination of RPG-style progression, backtracking and alternate paths into a side scrolling action game may seem common nowadays, but Demon’s Crest was essentially a forerunner in the ‘Metroidvania’ sub-genre in the same vein as Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. And along with the forward-thinking gameplay, the utilization of finely detailed graphics and character designs, as well as a simply awesome soundtrack (that’s SNES for you), gives Demon’s Crest a unique sense of atmosphere and identity in the SNES library.

“What a looker…”

While Super Ghouls ‘N’ Ghosts may be the more well-known entry in the series on the Super Nintendo, Demon’s Crest is undoubtedly its better. Hell, it’s even a better SNES Castlevania titles than the actual SNES Castlevania titles!

While I appreciate that Demon’s Crest doesn’t hold the player’s hand, it is a little unfortunate that sometimes it’s a little too vague as to where the player should and shouldn’t be going. Still, Demon’s Crest is nonetheless an underrated gem in the SNES’s crown that deserves more attention than it received upon release. And with it readily available to play on the Nintendo Switch, there’s really no excuse not to play this tragically overlooked classic.

 

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