*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.
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.
*Review based on Super Earth Defense Force’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch SNES Online service*
Originally developed by Jaleco for arcades in 1991, Earth Defense Force made its way to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System the very next year, with the appropriate “Super” added to the title. Super Earth Defense Force is a simple side scrolling rail-shooter that provides competent enough fun, but features some questionable creative decisions that hold it back.
The player takes control of a space fighter, which is accompanied by two satellite fighters. At the start of each stage, players can select which weapons the satellite fighters have, with eight possible options. But you should always pick the “homing” option.
This is the game’s first big creative misstep. The homing attack is so overpowered and so much more useful than the other seven options that it makes them close to pointless. I’m not talking about the good kind of overpowered which simply makes the character feel more powerful, like the cape in Super Mario World or the Crissaegrim from Symphony of the Night. This is the bad kind of overpowered, as in “did anyone test this to properly compare these weapons?” Though the game sees the player automatically traveling to the right side of the screen, enemies don’t just spawn ahead of, but behind, above, and below as well. As such, the homing attack is the only one that can reliably hit these enemies. And in some instances (even on the first level), there are numerous enemies descending from the top of the screen that are difficult to avoid unless you destroy some of them, but you can’t hit them unless you – as you might have guessed – picked the homing attack. There’s no reason for you not to pick it.
The player has three hit points, and four total lives. The only way to heal is by completing a stage, and there is no way to gain extra lives. Additionally, the stages feature no checkpoints, so every defeat will send you back to the start of the current stage. This all makes sense for an arcade game, where no doubt additional coins would allow for more continues. But it’s a shame that Earth Defense Force’s transition to the Super NES didn’t consider the differences in arcade and console gaming. With no way to heal or continue past your four initial lives, it makes the game an entirely trial and error approach. You’ll make more and more progress every time you play and figure out which enemies spawn at which point, but only after learning from being defeated by surprise attacks time and again. That might make sense for an arcade game, but on the SNES, the occasional healing item or extra life would be appreciated.
In the case of extra lives, Super Earth Defense Force even provides an apt opportunity for such things. As you defeat enemies, you’ll gain experience points. Once your experience bar fills up completely, you’ll gain a level, which will upgrade your weapons (preferably your homing weapons). On the plus side, you’ll keep your accumulated level and experience points even after you lose a life. On the downside, this would have been a primed opportunity to also give the player an extra life, giving them more time to utilize and appreciate their upgraded weapons.
As it is, the game’s trial and error approach will see you gradually gain a level, die, then make more progress through the current stage with your upgraded weapons. With only four chances to make it through the whole game, the experience becomes little more than a memorization game.
Super Earth Defense Force isn’t a bad game. The gameplay is simple and fun, the graphics are nice, and the music is catchy enough. But Super Earth Defense Force isn’t really special in any particular way, which means it can’t really make up for its increasingly tedious sense of trial and error. Playing on Nintendo Switch makes it a bit more tolerable, given the save states provided, but such things weren’t in Jaleco’s mind when developing Super Earth Defense Force back in the day. Even the game’s attempt at variety is undone, thanks to one weapon option being as objectively right as you can get in this kind of scenario.
I love its ever-increasing bestiary of cute and cool creatures, I have a nostalgic love for the TV series, I love the success the franchise has found, I love it as an IP and franchise. I just love the very concept of Pokemon. But recently, I’ve come to a realization…
I don’t like the Pokemon games themselves.
I know, that sounds contradictory, considering the Pokemon video games are the origins of the series and, as such, the actual heart and soul of the franchise. But no matter how hard I’ve tried, I find it difficult to get invested in the Pokemon games.
Okay, so I have many a fond memory of Pokemon Red and Blue, and Gold and Silver. I also fondly look back at the Diamond and Pearl generation. I even love some of the spinoffs, with Pokemon Snap in particular – while maybe not a finely aged game – being one I’ve long wished would receive a sequel. Of course, the Pokemon game I’ve easily invested the most time into is… Pokemon Go.
That might sum up my stance on the series, that my most played entry in all of Pokemon is the cellphone game that “isn’t a real Pokemon game.” But hey, Pokemon Go makes for a nice secondary activity when going on walks, so it’s found its way into my daily activity. It may not boast the complexity of the “real” Pokemon games, but it keeps finding ways for me to revisit it pretty regularly, if even just for a few minutes at a time.
The “core” Pokemon games, however, have consistently failed to grab me in the same way. I don’t think they’re bad games outright, but I do feel that – while the character designs of the Pokemon may continue to show inspiration – the games themselves are creatively lazy. That becomes all the more glaring when you remember this is a Nintendo franchise, and Nintendo is a label that usually indicates an inventive spirit (whether they sink or swim usually depends on execution).
Despite being a series that has an emphasis on the evolutions of its titular creatures, Pokemon is – quite ironically – Nintendo’s most un-evolving series. Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda have been around longer, and yet, they continue to create experiences that feel fresh and new to this day. There is a clear distinction between one Mario or Zelda game and the next. But with the exception of the graphical updates and additional creatures, Pokemon still feels like the same experience it was back in 1998 (or 1996 in Japan).
Some might highlight Pokemon’s status as a “second-party” series, and not one made by Nintendo themselves. But just because it isn’t literally made by Nintendo doesn’t mean its developers couldn’t learn a thing or two from Nintendo’s other prominent properties (after all, the Kirby series may not have reached the same heights as Mario or Zelda, but it still shows a similar creative spirit, even as a second-party franchise).
Yes, there have been marginal tweaks to the Pokemon games here and there, and the hardcore Pokemon enthusiast would no doubt point out some obscure difference in the game’s “meta scene” from past installments. But there’s nothing that actually makes the games feel or play differently than they always did.
It happens every time a new generation of “proper” Pokemon games are announced. I always tell myself “This is it. This is going to be the Pokemon generation that draws me back into the series in the same way it did in its booming early years.” And every time, without fail, the games end up trying my patience with their outdated structure and repetitive gameplay. I want to love these Pokemon games. I really do. But they feel so complacent. So sure of their success (guess I can’t argue there) that they don’t feel the need to invent or reinvent anything about themselves. Every time I play a new Pokemon entry, there’s a huge sense of “been there, done that” about the whole thing.
Sure, Pokemon games may be “bigger” than they were back in the day, given all the advancements to hardware that have occurred over the years. But every new Pokemon game feels bigger than the last for all the wrong reasons. It’s the same exact experience, but bloated and dragged out.
For example, Pokemon Sword and Shield, the most recent installments of the main series, looked so promising from a distance: A mainline Pokemon game that can take advantage of being on a home console? Hot dog! Think of the possibilities!
In execution, however, Pokemon Sword (the version I purchased) feels like it simply redrew the same old Pokemon blueprint, but just drew it on a much bigger sheet. It feels ridiculously padded. I’m talking Uncharted 3 cruise ship chapters/Red Dead Redemption 2’s unnecessary trip to Guarma levels of padded!
It’s one thing if, in an RPG, I willingly sidetrack myself with secondary objectives or farming enemies (even in Pokemon Diamond, I took the time to level up a Machamp to the max). But every new Pokemon game feels like it forces me to do more and more things in between going from point A to point B. Most of which feel needless.
Going back to my point in Pokemon Sword, the entire introduction segment felt like I had to do two dozen objectives before I was even allowed to begin heading towards the first gym (although I admit it wasn’t as ungodly long as the introduction of Pokemon Sun and Moon). Not to mention that every last character has to rant on and on about the mechanics of the series which everyone and their grandmother is familiar with by this point (okay, I get it. New fans are going to be introduced with each new entry. But for a series this popular, can they at least have an option for veteran players to ignore the never-ending walls of text that explain the basics of the series? At the very least, can they give the ability to shorten the dialogue?)
When I eventually managed to slog my way through the first gym (with my starting Pokemon already feeling ridiculously overpowered), the path to the second gym was actually pretty short. With a sigh of relief, I thought “okay, so it just had a slow beginning, but now I can just zoom through the story if I want.” Seeing as most Pokemon fans seem to insist the real fun begins after the “story” aspect of the game is complete, I didn’t feel the need to drag the story out. But then what happens as soon as I approach the door to the second gym? I read a sign telling me that I can’t go inside the second gym until I go do some other pointless task first! That’s some Skyward Sword levels of tedium!
It was in that moment when I turned the game off and, as of this writing, I haven’t played Pokemon Sword since. I feel a little bad saying that. Again, I don’t think the Pokemon formula is bad, just one that needs to add some actual change and depth to it, instead of just dragging out the same old same old and calling it new.
I want to go back to Pokemon Sword. I would like to beat the story and review it here on this site. But every time I think about going back to play it, I remember how bland and tedious the experience was, and I feel like I just don’t want to bother and put in that kind of time.
Think about that for a second. This is a series with hundreds of charming creatures throwing lightning and water at each other. In concept, that is so much fun! But in execution, it feels like an absolute chore to get through. It would be one thing if Pokemon Sword were the first experience I had like this with the series, but the truth is it’s happened with pretty much every entry post-Gold and Silver, and it has been happening earlier and earlier within each subsequent entry (again, I at least took the time to max out a Pokemon in Diamond and Pearl, but now I just feel like throwing my hands in the air after the first gym).
So many people are still so obsessed and engrossed with all things Pokemon. I so desperately would like to be among them, and to get the same joy out of the Pokemon games that they do. I may love the concept of the series itself and its creatures. The old episodes of the TV series – and especially the original theme song – give me a uniquely strong sense of nostalgia (as in, it doesn’t just remind me of my childhood, but emotionally takes me back to it, even if the series isn’t what I would call great television). I still play Pokemon Go and long for a Pokemon Snap sequel. And yet, I just can’t bring myself to enjoy the mainline Pokemon video games.
I want to like them. I try to like them. But time and time again, the Pokemon games leave me feeling disappointed with their padded, outdated structures, and their ironic refusal to evolve.
It’s weird, because the video games are the origin and the core of the Pokemon franchise. But it’s the one aspect of the series that continuously leaves me cold. Imagine if someone liked the Star Wars TV shows and video games, but didn’t like any of the Star Wars movies (even the good ones). That’s what my relationship with Pokemon is like.
Maybe one day I’ll work up the patience to finish Pokemon Sword, but I’ve said that about other Pokemon titles in the past, and a new entry would be released before I ever got around to revisiting the previous one.
I love Pokemon. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t bring myself to love the Pokemon games. If I could somehow bottle up the feeling the franchise itself gives me, and sprinkle it onto the games, I would. Sadly, the nature of Pokemon itself may speak to my inner child, but the games have continued to bring out the curmudgeonly old man in me.
*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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Like everyone else in 2020, I’ve been spending a lot of time at home this year. And while I’m trying to use this time to be creatively productive, it should go without saying that much of my time indoors has gone to video games.
Going into 2020, I was already planning on cutting back on my new gaming purchases. As I’ve stated in the past ad nauseam, gaming is both expensive and time consuming these days. So while I would like to play through and review every big game released, that’s simply unrealistic…unless you’re Richie Rich (specifically the Macaulay Culkin version).
Well, it turns out that current global situations would emphatically reinforce my limited buying in 2020. So far, I have purchased four fully priced retail games this year (including one that’s a pre-order and not out yet). Heading into the year I was only planning on about four or five full-priced purchases, so it looks like I’m almost there (though I will of course make exceptions if a really notable game catches my attention). So far in 2020, I’ve purchased…
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Final Fantasy VII Remake
and Paper Mario: The Origami King (pre-ordered)
I know, I seemed pretty critical of The Origami King in my initial impressions, and while I stand by the claims I made, I still think the game is worth my checking out. More importantly, I want the game to be good. It seems like so much of the gaming community is so ready to write anything and everything off, and actively wants things to be bad so they can complain more whilst talking obnoxiously loudly in their YouTube videos (“Like, share and subscribe!”). But that seems like a pretty miserable way to be. As much as I’m skeptical of Origami King, I don’t want it to be bad. Even if fans’ requests for a proper Mario RPG continue to fall on deaf ears, there’s still a chance Origami King could be a good game in its own right, and I hope it is (I still hope we get a proper Mario RPG again one day though).
Plus – as is probably abundantly clear if you’ve read anything of mine in the past – the Mario RPGs are quite synonymous with my gaming life. So even if they may continue to deviate away from the things that made me love them in the first place, it’s one of those things where I have some weird sense of obligation to continue diving into them.
Dreams and Animal Crossing: New Horizons are easily where most of my gaming time this year has gone. And yes, I am overdue in reviewing them, I’m sorry. Hopefully soon.
Perhaps my purchase with a big question mark attached is Final Fantasy VII Remake. I’m not the biggest Final Fantasy fan, and as I’ve said before, I think the PSOne RPGs in many ways undid a lot of the progress the late SNES RPGs made for the genre. But I admit curiosity got the best of me with this particular remake, seeing as it seems to be a remake that completely overhauls the original. I figured what the heck? And considering my “on the fence” purchase this year was between either FFVIIR and The Last of Us: Part 2, I think I went with the better option.
I admit, I haven’t gotten around to playing FFVIIR yet (Animal Crossing is very addicting), but I will hopefully get to it soon and review it once I’m able. I will get around to reviewing all four of my current purchases at some point in the (hopefully) near future.
In addition, I’ve also made some cheaper purchases this year, two of which I already reviewed (Frog Detective 2 and SuperMash), as well as the Switch bundle of Planescape Torment/Icewind Dale. I’ve been meaning to play/review Planescape for a while, and when I randomly found a Switch version bundled with another game at a reasonable price, that seemed like the ideal way for me to get it.
Otherwise, my gaming time this year has gone to revisiting Super Mario Maker 2 (given the massive recent update), and I started the year revisiting classics Super Mario World and Dark Souls, the latter of which bleed into me playing and reviewing Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls 2.
Yeah, I feel kind of bad I haven’t reviewed any of the actual 2020 releases I’ve purchased yet, hopefully soon (Animal Crossing and Dreams for sure). And I still have 2019 releases I either need to catch up on (such as Sekiro and Astral Chain, two critical darlings that admittedly failed to grab me when I played them), and a couple of games I really have no excuse why I haven’t reviewed them yet (Luigi’s Mansion 3…I’ll get to it).
Naturally, with the world in the state it’s currently in, developers and publishers have been pretty quiet with further 2020 releases, with E3 getting cancelled, and then later getting even more cancelled (no online presentations even). As such, there’s nothing currently on the horizon after Paper Mario: The Origami King that really catches my eye. That may be for the best, since it A) gives me more time to brush up on my own creative endeavors, and B) gives me ample time to play and review the games I have and need to catch up on.
Will there be any other games released in 2020 that I will end up purchasing? Of course that’s always a possibility. Especially if those rumors of a 3D Mario HD remaster compilation are true, I’d buy that in a heartbeat. But so far, it looks like I’m doing pretty well in regards to staying true to my limited gaming purchases this year… even if that may be more due to the world being on pause than my own wisdom in purchases (I’ll take what I can get).
Here’s hoping 2020 will at least deliver another game or two that tickles my fancy. And here’s hoping going forward that I use this quarantine time to actually get to reviewing these games instead of writing posts like this…
May 23rd of 2020 marks the ten year anniversary of the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2 on the Wii in the US (which is where it was released first, so I guess I could have just said Galaxy 2 is ten years old, without having to specify which region it was released…).
That’s right, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a decade old now.
Wow, the anniversaries of both Super Mario RPG and Galaxy 2 are separated by a mere ten days? May is a hell of a month for our man Mario. We should rename the month “May-rio” in honor of this. We should totally do that.
Anyway, this is a big anniversary in gaming, as Super Mario Galaxy 2 puts up a major case to being the best video game of all time! Yes, it’s that good. The first Super Mario Galaxy already felt like a perfect game, but Galaxy 2 was somehow even better than perfect. It’s advanced perfect!
How good is Super Mario Galaxy 2? Well, back in 2015, on the game’s fifth anniversary, I gave it a 10/10 review! The first 10/10 I ever dished out to anything on this site! You can read my review of Super Mario Galaxy 2 here (and boy, do I feel old now).
Yesterday, we celebrated the twenty-fourth anniversary of Super Mario RPG (in the US). A mere day later, Nintendo announced a title that further sullies Super Mario RPG’s legacy!
Okay, that’s a bit harsh. But the first trailer of the newest installment of Paper Mario, The Origami King, raises more concerns than it does build hype for the game.
Here is Nintendo’s announcement trailer.
Okay, so the game doesn’t look terrible: Bowser being folded into a square and Peach being brainwashed and joining a cult by means of origami look like they can make for a fun plot, there’s actually variety with the NPC characters (not everyone is the basic, red-spotted, blue-vested Toad this time! Yay!), and the paper aesthetic looks as charming as ever.
But that last one is also kind of the problem… Why does Nintendo insist on making the Paper Mario series about the paper aesthetics instead of using it as a backdrop for unique RPG adventures?
Granted, we only get an ever-so brief glimpse of the battle system here, and from what I can tell, they’ve exorcised the demons of stickers and cards from the proceedings. But it still looks like it’s following a similar path as Sticker Star and Color Splash. Which is something that no one wanted.
I hate to sound like an entitled fan, but when we’re talking about Paper Mario, you always hear the same thing from everyone: “can we get a new Paper Mario that’s an RPG like the first two?” And every time a new one is announced, Nintendo seems completely ignorant to what people want.
While I don’t mind Nintendo putting more emphasis on the paper aesthetics of the series, the problem is that’s what the series has become all about. No one fell in love with the original Paper Mario or its sequel because Mario was made out of paper, they loved it because it was a damn good RPG that – while maybe not quite Super Mario RPG – did a great job at keeping its predecessor’s spirit alive.
After the first two acclaimed Paper Mario titles, the third entry, Super Paper Mario, was a steep departure. It abandoned turn-based battles and partner characters for a platformer with RPG elements. It was different and not as good, but at least it was – at the time – a one-off thing. We could understand and appreciate that it was experimental and trying something different for the series. It may not have always worked, but hey, Nintendo learned their lessons from Zelda II and Super Mario Sunshine, so maybe that meant the series would get back to the RPG style gameplay we were all craving.
And that was the plan… at first. Early screenshots and materials of a 3DS Paper Mario title gave fans glimpses of partner characters, and a return to the turn-based battle system. But then, somewhere in development, Nintendo decided to change course, and instead we got the stinker that was Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Sure, turn-based battles were back, but with the glaring caveat that every last one of Mario’s abilities used consumable “sticker” items, and your only rewards for battles were either A) more stickers, or B) coins… for buying more stickers… This made this new battle system not only a tedious chore, but also inexcusably pointless.
Fast forward to the Wii U, and when Paper Mario: Color Splash was announced, and served as a direct follow-up to Sticker Star’s gameplay, it was close to insulting. Although Color Splash was an improvement over Sticker Star, it was still a pretty shallow experience that suffered many of its predecessor’s drawbacks (namely the aforementioned pointlessness of its battle system). By this point, it was pretty clear that Nintendo had no intention on giving people the Paper Mario they actually want.
But times have changed in the Switch generation for the Big N. Breath of the Wild did what Zelda should have done a long time ago and said “screw you” to Ocarina of Time’s shackling influence on the series. Super Mario Odyssey brought back the more open style of Super Mario 64 back into the 3D Mario canon (not that there was any problem with the more linear Super Mario 3D World, but hey, they still listened to what people wanted). Perhaps most notably, the Switch finally brought back the third-party support Nintendo had been lacking ever since the Nintendo 64.
Point being, Nintendo seemed to be listening in recent years. And earlier this year, amid reports that Nintendo wanted to celebrate Super Mario Bros’ 35th anniversary in a big way in 2020 that supposedly includes an HD compilation of the previous 3D Mario titles, rumors also circulated about a Paper Mario title that would return to the style of the N64 original and The Thousand-Year Door.
Admittedly, while I could imagine the compilation being a reality, I took the rumor of a new, traditional Paper Mario as a “I’ll believe it when I see it” kind of thing. I would have loved if my skepticisms were proven wrong. Sadly, this trailer for Paper Mario: The Origami King has only made me let out those skepticisms in a sigh of disappointment.
I mean, I just don’t get it. It’s not like Nintendo’s fanbase keeps quiet about these things. And while fans can of course go overboard at times, I don’t think wanting a beloved series to go back to its roots, which we haven’t seen in sixteen years now – especially when general consensus points that said series has only gone downhill ever since it changed things up – is asking too much.
People want a new Mario RPG. An actual RPG. With a proper battle system, level-progression, teammates with different abilities, a story, the whole Mario RPG shebang. Why does Nintendo seem incapable of grasping this concept? Because it’s not just Paper Mario, but the Mario & Luigi series, the “other half” of Super Mario RPG’s branching legacy, has also stripped away the depth of its mechanics and battle system with its 3DS entries.
I seriously, honestly, sincerely just don’t get it. Super Mario RPG remains one of the most acclaimed and beloved Mario games of all time, and the first two Paper Mario titles have had a similar appeal. None of the Paper Mario games since Thousand-Year Door have received the same level of reception and devotion than the earlier Mario RPGs (the ones that actually were RPGs) had. So what the hell is possessing Nintendo to go down the “hey! Look at all the papery stuff!” well at the expense of making a deep Mario RPG? It’s a “creative” decision that outright boggles the mind.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the only time Nintendo completely ignored what people actually wanted and instead delivered something absolutely no one asked for.
At the very least, if this is the direction Nintendo is going to insist on traveling in regards to Paper Mario (and Mario & Luigi), can we get a brand-new Mario RPG game as well? Just…something!
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars remains one of Nintendo’s best games. It has been starved of a direct sequel for twenty-four years now. But at least in years past, we had Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi to play a similar role. Now, we don’t even have that.
Nintendo has acknowledged Super Mario RPG’s beloved status by giving it notable re-releases on the Wii Virtual Console (where they made a point of it being the 250th game added to the service), the Wii U Virtual Console (where it was the last SNES game added), and including it as one of the games on the SNES Classic Edition. But when it comes to continuing that great game’s legacy, Nintendo seems to have a bizarre aversion to it. And don’t tell me that it’s Square-Enix’s fault, because while they may be holding Mallow and Geno hostage, Nintendo used to make great Mario RPGs of their own as proven with Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi.
But now, those days seem like a distant memory. It’s all the stranger when you think of where Nintendo is right now. Not just commercially, but creatively. The Mario series, in particular, has been in something of a second (and extended) golden age ever since Galaxy was released in 2007. Between Galaxy, its sequel, 3D World, the Super Mario Maker titles, Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario Odyssey, the overall Super Mario series has arguably never been more consistent, or more acclaimed.
Yet it’s the Mario RPGs that have been left out of this renaissance. The last truly great Mario RPG was Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story in 2009. Since then, the sub-genre of Marios has become increasingly more shallow, has removed most of their identity (no more original characters allowed! Only basic Toads!), and have even become obnoxiously wordy (the Mario RPGs of old were genuinely hilarious. The newer Paper Mario titles desperately want us to think they’re hilarious).
Again, I’m not trying to write off Paper Mario: The Origami King completely as a game itself. It could end up being really good when taken by its own merits (and we don’t have to wait very long to find out, as the game is being released quite suddenly on July 17th of this year). But why does it seem like Nintendo is incapable of hearing what fans want from this series? No one loved Paper Mario “because Paper,” but that seems to be what Nintendo believes, despite the never-ending requests and criticisms that claim otherwise.
Why does Paper Mario always have to be a sacrificial lamb for experimentations? Why isn’t Mario & Luigi allowed to have its own identity anymore? Why can’t Super Mario RPG’s legacy be allowed to continue?
Today, May 13th of 2020, marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of Super Mario RPG’s release in the US (it was released in Japan two months prior, in March of 1996, and wouldn’t be released in Europe until its 2008 release on the Wii’s Virtual Console, which at the time was a record for longest delay between region releases for a single title).
As far as I’m concerned, Super Mario RPG is one of Nintendo’s finest achievements, and has steadily remained an all-time favorite of mine for these twenty-four years. If you ask me, it’s still the best damn RPG ever.
Sadly, despite being one of the most acclaimed and beloved Mario games of all time, it’s one of the very few that never received a direct sequel (it did inspire the wonderful Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series, but none of them quite recaptured the same magic as the originator). And it’s basically the only Mario game to not have its characters or world elements carry over to subsequent games (save for a cameo or two). But that hasn’t stopped fans (myself most assuredly included) from hoping and begging Nintendo and Square to bring back this beloved game either through a sequel or simply resurrecting its characters for new titles.
Seriously Nintendo, just put Geno in Super Smash Bros. already. We’ve only been asking for it for twenty years! I don’t mean an insulting, slap-to-the-face Mii costume. The actual character as a playable fighter. You can’t stop adding those Fire Emblem swordsmen that no one asked for. Why not add another character people have actually wanted and asked for for years?
Anyway, happy anniversary to Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars! A Legend indeed.
I reviewed Super Mario RPG as my special 300th video game review. You can read my 10/10 review here.
SuperMash is a perfect example of a game that has a good concept, but squanders that concept in execution. The idea is simple: take two classic video game genres, and put them together with random results. A simple concept, but one that has promise. Combining a platformer with an RPG? Hot dog!
Sadly, the results SuperMash leaves the player with don’t even begin to realize the potential of any of the genres they represent. And the initial delight you might have with your first game or two rapidly dissipates as you realize how shallow and clunky these combinations become.
Now, to be fair, SuperMash does inform the player from the get-go that the “fun” of the game is seeing the randomized results of these combinations more than the actual gameplay of them, and emphasizes that the results are intended to feel like “something that was programmed by a computer, and not people.” That might fly if the games produced were ironic and funny, like Goat Simulator or Octodad. But they just end up feeling like half-assed attempts at representing classic game genres. They’re not enjoyable in either the genuine or ironic senses of the word.
The setup is simple enough, the game provides six genres to work with (which seems like fewer than there should be): Platformer, Adventure, RPG, Shoot-em-up, Stealth and Metroidvania (called “Metrovania” here, for obvious legal reasons). How in the world falling-block puzzlers, racing and beat-em-ups didn’t make the cut, I don’t know.
The first genre you pick makes up the brunt of the game, while the second will add elements of that genre to the first. And yes, you can even combine the same genre with itself, which you would at least hope would provide more structurally cohesive games, but sadly they don’t.
What immediately becomes apparent is the lack of substance with the merging of the two genres. The first one I attempted was a “Platformer + Shoot-em-up,” which resulted in a very basic platformer in which the character could also shoot. While combining those two genres should bring something like Gunstar Heroes to mind, literally all it was was a bare bones platformer where the character just so happened to be able to shoot things. Some of the enemies were things like fighter jets, I suppose, but all that accomplished was making the game feel like something out of Action 52 with random-ass enemies and sprites. What’s worse, the platforming wasn’t even any good, and featured several areas that required blind leaps of faith.
I gave it the benefit of a doubt, and thought maybe I just got a bad result. But then I tried the reverse combination (putting shoot-em-up in the primary slot and platformer in the secondary), and the result was even more nonsensical. Sure, it looked like a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up, and featured a cute, platformer-esque character (who was already very similar to the character from the first game, revealing SuperMash’s limited assets), and the character could potentially jump on enemies and higher areas (key word there being “potentially.” You try to jump on a bad guy that moves in an erratic pattern while the screen scrolls upward). But this game suffered an even worse fate because, despite the screen constantly moving upwards, and enemies spawning from the top of the screen, my character could only fire projectiles downward. As you can imagine, it wasn’t fun.
I tried several other combinations: Platformer and RPG (which resulted in another stale platformer that broke up the gameplay with random encounters. Because random encounters are certainly the aspect of old RPGs that needed to be revisited), Stealth and Adventure, Adventure and Shoot-em-up, “Metrovania” and Shoot-em-up, Metrovania and platformer (how do you mess that up?)… But no matter what I picked, the results were basically the same. Half-baked attempts at the primary selected genre that just so happened to feature an item or enemy that looks like it was vaguely inspired by something from the secondary genre.
There’s so much more to a Metro(id)vania or an RPG than the items that come with them. And simply adding a cute-looking character doesn’t give a game elements of a platformer. But that seems to be the extent at which SuperMash combines these genres together. These are as shallow of genre-crossovers as you can get.
What’s worse, the games you play will provide randomly-selected “glitches,” which come in the forms of random buffs and nerfs. For example, one of the “glitches” I experienced was random encounters becoming more frequent in a platformer if I took too long to collect any coins (and by “too long” I mean about ten seconds, if that. I’m not kidding). Another one saw certain enemies in my Stealth-Adventure become needlessly strong. I’d go through several enemies easily and then one enemy would show up – indistinguishable from the others – that took forever to kill. How are these “glitches” supposed to make the game more fun? They’re just cumbersome, and you can’t turn them off.
If you’re wondering what the goals of these randomly-generated games are, well, you’ll find out the full list of possible goals within minutes. Every game you produce is finished by either finding a particular NPC, defeating a certain number of a particular enemy, or collecting certain items within a time limit. That’s it. That’s all of them. Not exactly a deep pool of content.
To make matters even worse, in between games, there are entirely unnecessary segments where you play as some dude in a video game store. There’s some kind of plot line here with attempted emotion, but who cares? All I know is not only are these sections completely pointless, but the character you play as while you aimlessly walk around this incredibly limited space is just annoying. The developers could have done something clever and meta like having a platforming mascot character, an RPG heroine and a space marine from a shooter game team up for the characters, to play off the motif of genres clashing together. Instead, you play as some dude who looks manufactured to appeal to Millennials (but in a most ineffective way). He looks like one of those irritating animated avatars that YouTubers use to represent themselves in their video thumbnails (you know, the kind that are always standing with their arms crossed because it’s an easy pose to draw, and are always accompanying some annoying video explaining why some popular game or movie sucks because the YouTuber in question so desperately wants attention). He’s annoying in a way that reminds me of Lester the Unlikely, but this guy might be even worse, seeing as Lester was intentionally a dweeb, but I think SuperMash legitimately thinks its hero is cool.
Don’t believe me? Just check out his obnoxious walking animation.
Geez, I can’t remember the last time I just wanted to punch a video game character so badly.
Simply put, SuperMash is a game that has a neat concept, but one that could have, and should have been polished into something way better. The genres available are not only limited, but they seem to just barely have any semblance of an understanding of what these genres are. The combinations (or “Mashes” as the game so dearly wants us to call them) have no substance, and never feel like a proper coming together on any meaningful level. The glitches are a needless concept that make already tedious games all the more tedious. Combine that (or “Mash” that) with the fact that the games provided simply aren’t good – and not even in an ironic sense – and the utterly pointless in-between segments, and SuperMash is little more than a neat concept being butchered in execution.
*Caution! This review contains spoilers for not only The Empire Strikes Back., but the entire original Star Wars trilogy. But seriously, if you don’t know the plot of Star Wars, I don’t know what to tell you.*
Of all the Star Wars films, none is more acclaimed or beloved than The Empire Strikes Back. While the original Star Wars (retroactively christened “A New Hope”) may have had the biggest cultural impact, it’s the immediate follow-up that many consider to be the heart and soul of the series.
At the time of its 1980 release, Empire was to be the sequel to the biggest film in history. Expectations were understandably high, and many wondered whether Star Wars could deliver the same magic in a second go around. It probably didn’t help ease concerns that series creator George Lucas stepped down from the director’s chair for this sequel, handing the reigns over to Irvin Kershner, who initially turned down the offer, believing a sequel could only be a rehash of the original.
Thankfully, Kershner was ultimately persuaded and, along with the creative direction of George Lucas and a more confident cast, The Empire Strikes Back exceeded all expectations. Not only was Empire widely deemed one of the few sequels at that point to match or surpass the original (something that’s a bit more commonplace today), but it’s still largely embraced as the best Star Wars film. And with good reason. The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film.
Fittingly set three years after A New Hope, Empire sees the heroic Rebellion finding a new base on the ice world of Hoth. Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) – obsessed with finding the Rebel who destroyed the Death Star, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – has commanded the evil Galactic Empire to dispatch a series of probe droids to find the Rebels’ new base.
Luke is investigating one of these droids in the barren wastelands of Hoth, when he is attacked by a yeti-like creature called a Wampa ice beast. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is about to leave the Rebellion behind to pay off his debts to gangster Jabba the Hutt, but postpones those plans when he gets word that Luke hasn’t returned, and leaves on the back of a creature called a Tauntaun in search of his friend, risking death in the freezing cold.
Luke manages to escape the clutches of the Wampa, and before succumbing to hypothermia, sees the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness), who instructs Luke to go to the swamp planet of Degobah to seek out Yoda, the Jedi Master who “taught Obi-Wan” the ways of the Force (let’s forget that the prequels forgot this little detail), and with whom Luke can finish his training and become the last hope of the Jedi Knights.
Han finds Luke in the nick of time, and the two are rescued by a search party the next morning. Unfortunately, a probe droid has found the Rebel base, and the Empire unleashes a large-scale attack on the base. Though the Rebels put up a valiant effort (in one of the most famous sci-fi battle scenes in film history), the Empire gets the upper hand, and the Rebels are forced to evacuate the planet.
Han Solo, Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca the Wookie (Peter Mayhew) and C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) all escape aboard the Millennium Falcon, but when the ship’s hyperdrive malfunctions, the ragtag group are forced to make some detours to evade the Empire, which will eventually take them to the Cloud City on the planet Bespin, which is under the command of Han’s old friend, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker – with R2-D2 in tow – heads to Degobah in search of the mysterious Yoda.
It’s a simple story, but Empire greatly benefits from that simplicity in plot, because it allows the characters to take center stage. While the original Star Wars will always be delightful, it was (quite intentionally) a really simple hero’s journey. The characters were more archetypes than they were three-dimensional figures. The real joy of A New Hope was how the imagination of its created world presented that journey. By focusing its narrative on who the characters in this intergalactic fairy tale are, Empire gave this imaginative universe a newfound depth.
Luke Skywalker is no longer the whiny farm boy he was in A New Hope, and has matured into a renowned hero in the Rebellion. Princess Leia has similarly become more battle hardened. And most notably, Han Solo – while still the same roguish scoundrel in many ways – has become more selfless and heroic (take, for example, the aforementioned moment when Han could have wiped away his debt with Jabba the Hutt for good, but changes course to search for Luke without hesitation).
The returning heroes have grown more complex, and Empire does what any great sequel should by also changing up the character relationships. Luke is far removed from his companions (save R2-D2) for most of the film, which immediately changes the character interactions from those of the first film.
A romance begins to blossom between Han and Leia (which avoids falling into the cheesy realms of later Star Wars romances). Without his counterpart R2-D2 by his side, C-3P0 is left to annoy Han with his uptight paranoia, which leads to the funniest dynamic between characters in the entire Star Wars series (it’s a wonder why Han and C-3P0’s relationship doesn’t get more recognition). Even Chewbacca, who can only speak in roars, gets a bit more character to show, revealing more of his gentle giant nature as he cares for a damaged C-3P0.
Some new characters also add to the proceedings. Most notable of all is Yoda (performed and voiced by Frank Oz), the diminutive Jedi Master is probably the series’ most charming character, and most likely the best puppet character in movie history. Yoda’s wisdom gives the film much of its soul, and unlike subsequent appearances by the character, Yoda also provides some great comedy here.
Lando is another new character who adds more dimension to the world of Star Wars. Though many fans (unfairly) remember Lando for his eventual betrayal of Han Solo, they fail to remember his reasons for it. Lando is loyal to his friends, but given that his Cloud City has come under the occupation of the Empire, he isn’t left with much choice but to turn his friends in for fear of what would become of his people should he cross the Empire. In a series where good and evil are quite clearly defined, Lando provided a sense of gray morality to the proceedings.
Unfortunately, not every new character introduced in Empire adds depth to the Star Wars universe. This is probably one of my most unpopular opinions, but the villainous bounty hunter Boba Fett feels like an entirely throwaway addition. I don’t necessarily dislike Boba Fett, but I feel he’s a character who never begins to reach his potential, something that would become a kind of trend with Star Wars villains. Inspired by Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man With No Name’ character, Boba Fett really doesn’t live up to his inspiration. Sure, he looks the part of a badass – with battle-weary armor and a mask that creates even more mystery than Vader’s – but he’s never really given the chance to do anything of note. Sure, he may be the bounty hunter cunning enough to track down Han, but that’s as far as the character goes. When push comes to shove, Boba Fett is never allowed to do anything to justify the character’s bafflingly immense popularity. On the flip-side of the coin is Imperial Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley), a more understated villain who – despite his limited screen time – feels more like an integral foe.
Perhaps the most interesting “character” of all, however, is the Force itself. The Empire Strikes Back is the only Star Wars film to delve deeply into the philosophy of the Force and the Jedi (thanks in no small part to Yoda and Luke’s interactions). Because of this, there’s something more contemplative to the Star Wars universe presented in Empire. The Star Wars prequel and sequel trilogies would eventually turn the Force into little more than super powers, but in the original trilogy – and most especially Empire – the Force was something more meaningful. If A New Hope was the simple hero’s journey, and Return of the Jedi was the closure to the story, then The Empire Strikes Back is the entry that truly lets us know how the Star Wars universe works, what it’s all about, and what’s at stake.
This emphasis on the philosophy of the Force, as well as its added dimensions to the series’ key characters, is what makes The Empire Strikes Back the heart and soul of the Star Wars saga. What’s almost as impressive is how the film also distinguishes itself from its predecessor aesthetically.
I don’t know whether it was a conscious decision on the part of George Lucas and company, but setting the film’s first act in a frozen wasteland serves as an immediate contrast to the deserts of Tatooine from A New Hope. Then later we have the heavenly scenery of Cloud City and the murky swamps of Degobah, giving Empire the most varied locations of any Star Wars feature. Combine that with the amazing visual effects that still hold up forty years on, and the revolutionary puppetry of Yoda, and The Empire Strikes Back remains one of the most visually captivating films of all time.
Despite the original Star Wars picture having perhaps the most recognizable soundtrack in film history, this is another area in which Empire outshines its predecessor. John Williams outdid himself with his compositions here, with new tracks like Yoda’s Theme bringing new levels of emotion to the series. Perhaps most notably, it can be surprising to remember that The Imperial March was first heard here and not in the original film. It’s hard to imagine Star Wars without The Imperial March, because it’s become so strongly associated with not only Star Wars, the Empire and Darth Vader, but villainy in popular culture as a whole (remember when the classic episodes of The Simpsons used to segue into a Mr. Burns scene with the tune?). It might just be the most iconic musical addition a sequel has ever made.
The action scenes are as memorable as ever. The battle on Hoth – with those wonderfully impractical AT-ATs, is as iconic as the Death Star battle of the first film. And Luke Skywalker’s final confrontation with Darth Vader – which crescendos with that most famous of plot twists (so famous, in fact, that it’s hard to consider it a twist by this point) – sets an epic high for the swashbuckling of the series (even if I may be in the minority who thinks the rematch in Return of the Jedi is even better).
Miraculously, The Empire Strikes Back is also the Star Wars feature that has been the least affected by retroactive special effects. Whether this was due to George Lucas understanding the high regard Empire is held in, or by sheer happy coincidence, I can’t say, but The Empire Strikes Back has only seen minimal added effects throughout the years. There may be a few shots here and there that feature a tweak or two, but very few that stick out like a sore thumb.
The two notable changes didn’t even occur in the 1997 Special Editions (which began Lucas’s obsession with re-editing Han’s shootout with Greedo in A New Hope, and added that obnoxious musical number to Jedi), but in the 2004 DVD release.
The first of these alterations is somewhat understandable. When Empire was first released, Lucas was still unsure of who or what the Emperor was. So when Vader contacts his master in the film, the original version saw the Emperor’s holographic appearance as somewhat experimental and indecisive. So as time passed and Return of the Jedi had firmly established Ian McDiarmid’s interpretation of the character, the re-edits added McDiarmid to the scene. That’s fair and understandable, though I wish the newer version’s hologram of the Emperor weren’t so visually prominent (it’s pointlessly giant), as it kind of takes away the mystery surrounding the Emperor, which takes a little something away from his introduction in Return of the Jedi (similar to what happened to Jabba the Hutt with A New Hope’s re-edit, though this isn’t as bad, considering Vader’s interactions with the Emperor still give the character a sense of presence and mystique). I think keeping the Emperor’s hologram at a distance and slightly obscured (as it was in the original cut) would keep some of that mystery alive for new viewers.
The second such edit is less forgivable. Having Jango Fett’s actor from Attack of the Clones re-dub Boba Fett’s dialogue to keep continuity with how the prequels retconned Boba Fett to be a clone of his “father” just comes across as silly, and feels forced.
Still, none of the changes in Empire have the same kind of negative effect as those made to A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. It was the best Star Wars upon its original 1980 release, and it’s been the least tweaked and tainted since, essentially securing its sacrosanct status.
From its epic battles to its character-driven narrative, The Empire Strikes Back took Star Wars to all new heights. Heights which, sadly, the series never achieved again (Return of the Jedi is still an exceptional threequel, but has perhaps more content than it could juggle). Empire is Star Wars matured, while not losing its childlike sense of wonder. It’s darker without feeling edgy. And it’s deeper without losing the fun. As impactful and influential as A New Hope was (and is), it was but the learner. Now, The Empire Strikes Back is the master.