Super Mario Galaxy 2 Turns 10!

“Behold, my (new) Super Mario Galaxy 2 poster! I’m building up quite the video game poster wall.”

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).

Happy anniversary, Super Mario Galaxy 2!

Super Mario RPG Turns 24!

“Behold, my Super Mario RPG poster! Fittingly next to the poster of my other favorite SNES game, DKC2, and one of my other favorite Mario games, Galaxy 2. I need to squeeze Super Mario World and Odyssey in there somehow…”

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.

Final Fantasy Adventure Review

*Review based on Final Fantasy Adventure’s release on Nintendo Switch as part of the Collection of Mana*

Originally released on the GameBoy in 1991 as Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden in Japan, and later released in the west as Final Fantasy Adventure (US) and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest (Europe), this Final Fantasy spinoff would eventually spawn the Mana series of games, dropping the Final Fantasy name entirely.

It was with the second entry in the series, Seiken Densetsu 2 – more widely known as Secret of Mana – that the series would really come into its own (and, in my opinion, established itself as Final Fantasy’s better). But the seeds of greatness were planted here in Final Fantasy Adventure on the GameBoy. Though the GameBoy’s limitations do mean that this original entry in the Mana series hasn’t aged particularly well, its ambitions for the time and hardware are nothing short of commendable.

Some fans bemoan the Mana series for its lighter emphasis on story in comparison to Final Fantasy, but seeing as these are video games, I feel that gameplay is the far more important feature. And in that regard, the Mana games stand tall over Final Fantasy with ease. Take the story out of the old Final Fantasy titles, and they are, admittedly, the ‘vanilla’ of RPGs. But by implementing Final Fantasy’s RPG mechanics into gameplay inspired by the Legend of Zelda series, the Mana series feels more distinct and refined as a game. Though, as stated, that mostly applies to the second and third entries of the series, the fact that Final Fantasy Adventure attempted such a feat on the original GameBoy as early as 1991 is an impressive feat in and of itself.

Unlike later entries in the series, the player only directly controls one hero character, though a second, non-playable character will join them from time to time. The layout of the world and control is reminiscent of the original Zelda on NES. With the top down perspective, similar gameplay, world and dungeons. But your character also gains experience points, levels up, gains new weapons, and can improve different stats as the player sees fit, as in Final Fantasy.

In concept, Final Fantasy Adventure had a lot going for it. Remember, this was five years before Pokemon was released in Japan, and two years before Link’s Awakening. To have an adventure of this scale on the GameBoy was unheard of. At the time, it’s easy to see why Final Fantasy Adventure would have been considered a classic. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy Adventure aims higher than the GameBoy would ultimately allow, and its lofty ambitions feel restrained by the limitations of its hardware.

For example, it’s often difficult to tell when you’re being hit by an enemy. Your hit points are displayed on-screen via a number, but it’s easy to lose track of it during gameplay. Your character doesn’t react to getting hit by an enemy, like in Zelda, so amidst all the chaos of combat you may not realize when you’re low of health until its too late. At least it’s clear when you’re hitting enemies, so it’s not abhorrent in the same vein as Hydlide, but it definitely doesn’t help the game stand the test of time.

“Okay, I can see where I am. But where am I supposed to be going?!”

Then there’s the simple matter of the game being way too cryptic. The map screen itself is confusing, with the world map being presented as a squared grid, with the player’s current location being represent by a blinking square, and the towns being represented by houses. Other than those markers, you have no clue where anything is. And with how vague the NPCs are with their advice, you’re often left scratching your head as to where to go next. Even if someone gives you something of an idea of a location, you have no idea where it is because the map is just non-specific squares.

Unfortunately, this grows to become a pretty big issue. There are just too many segments in the game where you’re left wondering what the hell you’re supposed to do. And while the core gameplay is decently fun, it goes without saying that Secret of Man – being a Super Nintendo title – more than perfected the formula.

That’s not to say all is bad in Final Fantasy Adventure, however. As a huge bonus, you can save your game at any point during gameplay. How a GameBoy title achieved this while RPGs on the PS2 still demanded players to find specific save points is both a testament to how the Mana series tended to look towards the future, and indicative of how the RPG genre on the whole took a while to move forward. And the soundtrack to Final Fantasy Adventure is one of the few GameBoy soundtracks that still sounds great even by modern standards (that main theme is just lovely).

Final Fantasy Adventure is simply too grand of a journey for the GameBoy to handle. For its day, Final Fantasy Adventure was quite an impressive feat. Unfortunately, like so many titles released on the original GameBoy, timeless appeal ultimately wasn’t one of its strong suits. Still, I suppose when most GameBoy games felt like they compromised so much quality for the sake of accessibility, the fact that Final Fantasy Adventure’s biggest drawback is being too ambitious to be properly realized on the GameBoy is a testament to what it did manage to achieve.

 

5

Demon’s Souls Review

The Dark Souls series – and its sister title Bloodborne – have become so influential and acclaimed in the video game world that it often seems like people forget that the Souls series didn’t start with 2011’s Dark Souls, but with Demon’s Souls, released two years prior. Before Dark Souls became the all-encompassing influence on video game design in the 2010s, Demon’s Souls helped cap off the 2000s, opening the door for its spiritual successor to take charge in the new decade.

The video game world is no stranger to spiritual sequels to beloved titles, but its rare that a spiritual sequel completely eclipses its predecessor. Unfortunately for Demon’s Souls, that seems to be the case. Though Demon’s Souls remains a uniquely engaging experience, some of its more aged elements make it apparent why, whenever a game is dubbed “Souls-like,” people are comparing things to its spiritual successor, more so than Demon’s Souls itself.

Now, that’s not to say that Demon’s Souls didn’t have an impact. When it was released in 2009, it received widespread acclaim, and even won its share of Game of the Year awards. Some fans still hail it as the best (or second best) entry in the franchise (although I think that’s a stretch). But comparing Demon’s Souls to its successors is like comparing Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario World. The former may have laid the foundation, proved influential and still holds up in its own right, but it would be incredibly difficult to argue its merits over those of its sequel.

Granted, some might say my current perception of the game is slightly tainted by the fact that Demon’s Souls’ servers shut down in 2018, so there’s no interaction with other players. But during my most recent playthrough of the Switch version of Dark Souls Remastered, I barely summoned anyone to help me (and when I did, it was more out of the sheer surprise of actually seeing a summon sign – which seemed sadly rare in the Switch version – as opposed to requiring the help), and I enjoyed it every bit as much as I ever did. So I don’t think the lack of online features has clouded my judgement too much.

The difficulty of the series is something I’ve come to expect and embrace. But it has to be said that Demon’s Souls – perhaps as a result of being the first entry in the series and thus lacking the hindsight of its successors – lacks polish in a number of areas. While Dark Souls and Bloodborne could get excruciatingly difficult at times, I never felt cheated by them. But there are a couple of instances in Demon’s Souls where it feels like director Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware simply stacked challenge after challenge on top of each other, without researching whether or not it was fair to the player. No matter how difficult they got, I never felt like the Dark Souls games or Bloodborne were unfair. But I have to admit there were a few instances in Demon’s Souls where I felt my failures were the result of questionable game design, as opposed to my own error.

For a good example of what I mean, the game’s fourth stage – The Shrine of Storms – features flying manta ray enemies that shoot their stingers at you, which hone in on your character, no less. That’s not so bad in and of itself, but many of these manta ray enemies are far enough in the distance that they won’t be in your focus and will be off-screen. When things start tracking players from off-screen is when I start to lose my patience. Still, I could live with it. When this scenario went from difficult to aggravating, however, is when I’m expected to fight skeleton phantoms who can kill me in one hit, all while on a narrow ledge, while dozens of these manta rays are shooting their homing stingers at me from off-screen!

There’s a difference between a steep challenge, and just stacking one obstacle after another over each other to the point that it becomes unreasonable to the player. Dark Souls and Bloodborne would learn this lesson, so I suppose Demon’s Souls was a necessary test run for its follow-ups to improve on those elements. But it doesn’t change the fact that, when replaying Demon’s Souls, moments like this can sometimes kill the fun of the experience.

If I’m starting to sound a bit negative, it’s not because Demon’s Souls is a bad game. It’s just that, relative to its spiritual successors, it does show its age a bit. Again, I compare it to Super Mario Bros. in relation to Super Mario World. That’s hardly the kind of company to be ashamed of being in.

While the core gameplay remains largely the same as it would in future Souls titles (equipable weapons in both hands, light and heavy attack variants, a stamina meter to prevent you from constantly spamming attacks, lots of rolling, etc.), there are some key differences.

The first, and most obvious, would be the lack of an Estus Flask. In Dark Souls, the Estus Flask would serve as your permanent means of healing (starting with only five uses, but you can refill it by resting at a bonfire, and increase the total number of uses by boosting said bonfires). But here in Demon’s Souls, you have more traditional, consumable healing items (grass). This alone feels outdated by comparison. The Estus Flask – one of gaming’s greatest items – tells you exactly how many slip-ups you’re allowed to make before you reach the next bonfire. Its presence makes you able to strategize every section of the game accordingly. It’s the perfect item for the gameplay provided by the series. By comparison, the grass in Demon’s Souls can be a bit of a pain to build up. Sure, enemies will drop it pretty often, but until you make it to New Game+ or have improved your stats enough, they won’t drop it nearly enough to keep up with what most players will need. Yes, there are vendors in the game that can sell you these (and other) items – charging the player’s acquired souls in return (souls work as both experience points and currency, per the norm) – but again, until New Game + hits, these items often cost more souls than you can keep up with. So you’re often caught farming enemies for souls to buy items, only to be killed (often in one hit) while farming, thus losing the souls you’ve gathered thus far. Yes, as would become a staple of the series, you can reclaim your lost souls if you make it back to the spot you died, but if you get killed again on the way, they’re gone for good.

Again, this is a feature in Dark Souls and Bloodborne as well. But here in its initial incarnation, the concept isn’t nearly as well executed. Part of that is because the Estus Flask was the perfect companion piece to the way the series is set up. By relying on more traditional consumables, you often get caught in a cycle of farming to try to claim souls for more items, only to get killed before you can get enough souls because you don’t have any items to heal you. It’s true that Bloodborne also featured more traditional healing items, but Bloodborne also learned from Dark Souls’ bonfires (with lanterns being its equivalent), which means there were checkpoints to stop and heal.

That brings us to Demon’s Souls other big gameplay difference: there are no bonfires in Demon’s Souls as there would be in later games. Now, there is something of a predecessor in the form of swords in stones, called “Archestones,” but there are some key differences here that make these stones considerably less useful than Dark Souls’ bonfires or Bloodborne’s lanterns.

For one, the Archestones only appear after boss fights, making them far less frequent than their successors. Second, they don’t automatically heal you when touched, instead merely asking if you want to go back to the game’s hub world (dubbed “The Nexus”). Third, touching the stones does not respawn enemies like the later bonfires would. That may sound like it makes things easier, but it just makes it all more tedious. If you’re trying to get specific items from enemies, or just trying to farm souls, you have to touch an Archestone to go back to the Nexus, wait for the loading screen, then re-select the stage and Archestone of your choice, and sit through the loading screen again, in order to respawn enemies. So if you’re trying to gather specific items to craft a better weapon, you’re going to be at it for a while. Compare that to Dark Souls: You touch a bonfire, and bam, the enemies are back. It sounds like simple stuff, but it’s changes like this that make all the difference in the world.

It’s true, there are items that return you to the Nexus that you can use at any time. But the item you constantly have on you that does this takes you back at the expense of losing all your acquired souls, while the items that send you back without penalty are in short supply. It’s demanding, to say the least.

“Another problem is that, in order to make room in your inventory, you have to manually take your excess items to an NPC in the Nexus. Otherwise, if you find an item you can’t carry, you risk losing that item for good if you die or leave the stage. Compare that to Bloodborne, where your excess items automatically transfer to a storage when you’re overburdened. That’s a godsend!”

There are other, smaller differences between Demon’s Souls and its successors that showcase the former’s rough edges. Example: As would become tradition for the series, Demon’s Souls includes a poisonous swamp stage, where trudging through its waters is necessary, but will inevitably poison the player. However, in the later games in the series, a status bar will pop up on screen to show the poison building up until it takes effect. In Demon’s Souls, there is no visual cue. You won’t know when the poison will take effect until you’re poisoned. Similarly, Dark Souls informs the player when their weapon is close to breaking and needing repairs. But again, in Demon’s Souls, you won’t know until it happens. These are small issues, sure, but it does show how small visual and audio cues in games can really go a long way.

The biggest difference between Demon’s Souls and its successors, however, is in the structure of the game world itself. While Dark Souls onward would feature one connected world a la Metroidvania, Demon’s Souls instead has the Nexus serve as a hub, where the player can then access the game’s five proper stages, with each stage being separated into different segments, and each segment being capped off with a boss fight. Stages 2 through 5 have two proper segments, with a third that is mainly just the world boss, while stage 1 has four segments. Thankfully, you don’t have to completely finish a stage before moving onto the next (once the first boss is defeated, the other four stages become available), so there’s still some leeway for player’s to tackle the game at their own pace.

While I love the Metroidvania style adopted by Dark Souls and its kin, I also find myself enjoying Demon’s Souls more Mario 64-esque approach of having a hub world and stages. I honestly would not mind if FromSoftware adopted Demon’s Souls structure for another game, albeit with some of adjustments learned from the later games in the series (again, gotta love those bonfires).

One thing that’s surprising about Demon’s Souls is that, despite being the predecessor of Dark Souls featuring many of the same gameplay elements and a similar dark fantasy world, said fantasy world of Demon’s Souls still manages to feel so distinct from what came later.

The mythology here is that the kingdom of Boletaria has – under the king’s instruction – reawakened an ancient entity known simply as the ‘Old One’ in order to resurrect the “Soul Arts” the creature’s existence provides. The Soul Arts are a great power once known to Boletaria, but they came at a great price. Though the Old One’s presence grants mankind this power, it also unleashes a deep fog that encompasses the world, with soul-hungry demons existing within that fog. As the fog spreads, so too do the demons, who in turn transform humans into mindless monsters upon taking their souls. As you may have guessed, the king’s lust for the Soul Arts and awakening of the Old One has brought the fog back into the world, plunging it into chaos. Thus it’s up to the hero character to slay demons, and acquire ‘Demon Souls’ powerful enough to lull the Old One back into its slumber.

As always, further details of the game’s mythology are sprinkled throughout the level design and descriptions of characters and items. In some ways I may even like this mythology more than that of Dark Souls, but it’s a testament to Hidetaka Miyazaki and company’s world-building abilities that Dark Souls became its own entity simply due to publishing issues preventing a direct sequel to Demon’s Souls, and yet both games feature such deep, unique worlds of their own.

It’s in its world where Demon’s Souls truly shines. Not just in that world building, but also in level and enemy design. While, as stated, the levels do feature some sections that don’t know the difference between a tough-but-fair challenge and mindlessly stacking obstacles on top of each other, the level and enemy designs on their own right remain as strong as any in the Souls games.

Despite my previously stated grievances, the fourth stage, Shrine of Storms, is probably my favorite. A dilapidated temple that looks like it was pulled out of a Team Ico title, filled with ghosts and surrounded by storms, capped off with those intriguing (if infuriating) flying manta rays. It’s an absolute beauty to look at. The other levels are similarly interesting. Stage 1 takes place entirely in Boletaria’s castle, stage 2 is a fiery mine filled with exploding beetles, and stage 3 is a dreary asylum run by Lovecraftian monsters (a concept that would be revisited and bettered in Dark Souls 3). Admittedly, the fifth stage is a little more of a mixed bag. I love the look of the first segment, which reminds me of Davy Jones’s ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but once that part is done and we move into the poisonous swamp, its a lot less appealing both in look and gameplay.

There is, unfortunately, one other weakness to Demon’s Souls that was removed from its successors: World Tendency.

Back in its day, Demon’s Souls featured both an online and offline mode to the World Tendency feature. Seeing as the online servers are no more, there’s not much point to address them here, but the offline equivalent – at any rate – is a convoluted mess. I just don’t understand it.

World Tendency describes the status of each stage. The different phases are pure white, white, black and pure black. From what I can gather (the game largely leaves the details unexplained), if the world tendency of a stage is in the white, your character is more durable to enemy attacks, making things slightly easier on you. But when a stage goes into the black, more enemies show up – including painfully difficult “black phantom” versions of enemies – but with the benefit of more frequent item drops and more souls granted from each foe.

Like in the later Souls games, once your character dies, you come back in ‘soul form,’ only here, that comes with reduced hit points. Once again, Dark Souls made the process of reclaiming your physical form a much more tolerable ordeal by means of the “humanity” item, which you give to bonfires to reclaim your body. In Demon’s Souls, you reclaim your ‘living’ state either by defeating a boss, or by using an item called “stones of ephemeral eyes.” The problem is there are only so many bosses per each level, and once defeated they won’t show up again in the same playthrough, and the stones of ephemeral eyes are – yet again – quite infrequent to find, with the sole enemy that drops them being found in the last section of stage 5. So unless you want to brave stage 5 early on and farm the heck out of its final section, you likely won’t have too many ephemeral eyes at any given time. Naturally, with how difficult the game is, this means you’ll likely be in your weakened soul state for most of your playthrough.

Why do I bring this up now? Because apparently dying in your physical state on a given level is how that level falls into the black in World Tendency. I guess dying in your soul form doesn’t affect a stage, but the more times you die in your physical form, the darker the level gets, and you can only reclaim it by progressing through the level and defeating its bosses. But think about that for a second, there are only so many bosses, so if you’ve completed a stage but want to revisit it to farm some enemies, but you end up dying numerous times, the level will fall into the black and there’s nothing you can do about it for the remainder of the playthrough.

So basically, we have an incredibly difficult game, that gets more difficult upon defeat, and only gives you a few chances to set it back to normal. Demon’s Souls is essentially punishing the player for its own difficulty in this regard. It’s this convoluted World Tendency mechanic that sums up how far the series has come since Demon’s Souls. Hell, just going from Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls 1 feels like a night and day difference.

I know, I’m sounding incredibly negative, but I stress again that Demon’s Souls is a good game in its own right. And back in 2009, when there was nothing else like it, it’s easy to understand why it may have seemed so incredible. But now that we live in 2020 and have an entire trilogy of Dark Souls and the exceptional Bloodborne, it’s impossible to not see the rough edges of FromSoftware’s initial Souls outing.

Yes, the gameplay is still intricate and deep, the world and level design are still engrossing, and even when it pulls some cheap tricks, there’s some weird sensation to keep at it and push yourself ever further in Demon’s Souls. But just because Demon’s Souls laid down the blueprint doesn’t mean its successors didn’t perfect it. And boy, did they ever do just that.

While Demon’s Souls may have launched one of the greatest video game franchises out there, it has to be said that it now feels like the rough draft of the winning formula that was to come.

 

6

Katamari Damacy Reroll Review

*Review based on Katamari Damacy Reroll’s release on Nintendo Switch*

Coming out of the 1990s, which perfected gaming up to that point and then revolutionized it with the third-dimension, the 2000s had a lot to follow-up on. While some games from the early years of the 2000s did prove influential – such as Halo or Grand Theft Auto 3 – it didn’t take long for the decade to become complacent with where they were at. Games were determined to be “edgy” and “gritty” in the wake of GTA’s influence and the FPS boom of the time. Gaming seemed determined to rid itself of its so-called “kiddie” past by embracing violence, sex and adult themes (though in execution, gaming was arguably more juvenile at this point than ever). Color and creativity had no place in gaming anymore, all that mattered was being “cool” and “mature.”

Then along came Katamari Damacy.

Originally released in 2004 on the Playstation 2, Katamari Damacy injected some much-needed personality and humor – not to mention gameplay innovation – back into the medium.

The brainchild of Keita Takahashi, Katamari Damacy is delightfully silly. A bizarre, god-like entity called The King of All Cosmos has gone on a drunken stupor, and carelessly crashed into every star in the sky, destroying them. The King of All Cosmos then commands his son the Prince to replace the stars by creating “Katamaris.”

What are Katamaris? To put it simply, they’re sticky clumps that are made bigger with… stuff. The player, as the Prince, must roll a Katamari along the ground, collecting more and more stuff to make the Katamari bigger. The bigger the Katamari gets, the bigger the objects that can be attached to it.

The goal of each main level in the story is to make the Katamari a certain size by the time the timer runs out, while side levels (which see the Prince recreate the constellations) will have more specific goals, like collecting a certain amount of a particular object.

Earlier stages will have the Prince collecting office supplies and other such trinkets, while the later levels naturally keep upping the ante, with no person, thing or even place being safe from being clumped into the Katamari. It all culminates in a beautifully absurd finale which – in regards to bringing together every element a game has introduced up to that point in a fitting crescendo – should stand as one of the best final levels in video game history.

Katamari Damacy is as fun as it is nonsensical, with the game taunting players with any and every object around them. Players will likely try to discover their own paths through a stage, following a path of objects that gradually get bigger until they can best their high scores.

The graphics are nothing to write home about. Even with its HD gloss in its 2018 “Reroll” release, Katamari Damacy was clearly made with a budget. Thankfully, the humorous nature of the game gives it an art style that plays into its visual limitations, with the human characters looking like blocky Playmobil figures.

The music, however, is phenomenal. While there may have been some cut corners in terms of visuals, Namco (now Bandai Namco) clearly spared no expense when it came to the soundtrack. Almost every track in the game has  Japanese vocals, and while I may not be able to understand what they’re saying, each tune creates a distinct personality for each stage. Some of the songs are riotously funny, while others are cute and soothing. Aside from Katamari’s own sequels, you won’t find many other game soundtracks like it. It’s wonderful to listen to.

Not every element of Katamari Damacy has aged well, unfortunately. This is a PS2 game at heart, and boy does it play like one. You use both control sticks on your controller to push the Katamari, while only moving the left stick moves Prince around said Katamari, and turning the right stick on its own moves the camera (even if you do get the hang of it, the camera isn’t too reliable, as fitting into a crowded space or taking a rough bump can send the camera careening out of whack). You can also supposedly dash by moving both joysticks up and down opposite of each other, but as you can imagine given the primary control of the game, the dash only seems to work some of the time.

The awkward controls and clunky camera may be products of their time, and if memory serves correctly, I’m tempted to say that its immediately successor, We Love Katamari (the only other entry directed by Takahashi) was an improvement. But in terms of personality, humor and innovation, Katamari Damacy played a role in elevating gaming out of a creative dark age, and reminded us all that, deep down, games should be fun.

 

7

Joe & Mac 2: Lost in the Tropics Review

*Review based on Joe and Mac 2’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch Online Service*

Developed by Data East and released on the Super NES in 1994, Joe & Mac 2: Lost in the Tropics is the third game in its series (yeah, it’s one of those video game sequel situations), being the sequel to the original Joe & Mac, and Congo’s Caper, which was a sequel in world and gameplay but featured a different character.

Joe and Mac are two cavemen on a quest to reclaim a crown that was stolen from their village elder by a rival clan. Equipped with (what else?) clubs, Joe and Mac venture to various lands, fight rival cavemen and vicious dinosaurs, and in a strange, quasi-RPG twist, can find brides and build up their homes on the side.

The core game is an action side-scroller with a dash of platforming, where the aforementioned bashing of enemies with clubs takes place. But the game also features an old RPG-style world map where you travel between the stages, which is a nice touch that I wish more action and platformer games of the time would have adopted. Once the first stage is completed and you’ve visited the local village, you can basically choose the order in which you complete the other stages via the world map which, again, is a really nice change of pace for the genre.

On the downside, there are only six stages in total (not counting the final level, which is a boss rush), but at least they’re decently lengthy for a game of its time. While the stages follow usual platforming themes (there’s a snow level, a volcano, and a swamp), the level design is distinct enough to make each stage stand out. I especially like how different segments of each stage are given different titles, which pop up in a window in the middle of the screen.

As you might expect, each level comes with its own gimmicks. The snow level, for example, has a section that sees Joe and/or Mac cling to ropes to prevent getting knocked off the stage by an avalanche. Other stages have portions where the cavemen can ride on cute dinosaurs, who each have their own projectile.

“Shouldn’t I feel MORE powerful when riding a dinosaur?”

Although the core gameplay is decently fun, these gimmicks drag the game down somewhat. While Data East’s attempts at level and gameplay variety are commendable, the level gimmicks aren’t nearly as successfully realized here as those in more famous platformers like Super Mario World or Donkey Kong Country. It’s way too easy to let go of the ropes by accident in the avalanche segment, making it more difficult than intended. And as cool as the idea of riding dinosaurs is, they feel extremely underpowered. Remember how powerful Mario felt when riding Yoshi in Super Mario World? Well here, it’s the exact opposite. The dinosaurs Joe and Mac ride on die in one hit, while Joe and Mac themselves take six hits to take down. Worse still, each rideable dinosaur only appears in a single segment of the game. So chances are your experiences with each dinosaur will be insanely brief.

One cool aspect is how healing items also serve as power-ups. Eat a piece of meat to heal Joe or Mac, and then you can spit out a few bones as projectiles (although I wish using the club and spitting bones were used with different buttons, since it’s difficult to hit smaller enemies with the bones, but you have to use them up before you can use the club again). Eat chili peppers and of course you can spit fire, just like in real life. Joe and Mac can even gulp a handful of water to spit at enemies. It’s simple stuff, but I like the idea that these items both heal the characters and give them new abilities. Additionally, you can also get upgrades to your club, allowing them to shoot shockwaves in addition to simply bashing someone on the head.

The highlights of the platforming stages are the large dinosaurs that serve as the boss fights. Though most of the bosses are pretty easy, I like the simple idea that each stage gets its own dinosaur as its boss. It’s kinds of ideas that give retro games a fun sense of personality that many modern games lack.

While the main stages feature action and platforming, Joe & Mac 2: Lost in the Tropics attempts something of an RPG element in its town. During the levels, you can pick up stone wheels (think Mario’s coins or Sonic’s rings), which can be spent in the village as currency. Unfortunately, it’s here where the game really drops the ball, as the RPG element feels pretty pointless and tacked on.

“Insert “I’ll only hear these words in a video game” joke here.”

Aside from purchasing the same healing items you can find in the stages themselves, you can also purchase melons which – as far as I can tell – don’t do anything of note (a window pops up to tell you that the melon tasted fresh, but I never noticed it had any utilitarian usage in gameplay). Additionally, you can purchase flowers, which you can then give to one of three cavewomen behind a curtain. If the girl likes the flowers, she’ll marry your character. If you can get her flowers she likes two additional times, she’ll produce a child (just like real life). Finally, you can also buy upgrades to your home, making it bigger and have more in it.

What’s the point of all this? Nothing, really. You can go back to your home village and enter your home, but all that gives you is some basic dialogue from your wife and then you automatically leave the house. You also get to see your house during the end of the game, but again, it’s no different from when you drop by any other time. It’s bizarre, you go through all the trouble of collecting the stone wheels, only to spend most of them on a pointless side quest with random elements (you’ll probably spend a good few wheels on flowers only for them to fail to impress the girl). It’s as if the developers wanted to add this whole other side to the game, but barely got started on it before they had to ship the final product.

Still, the core gameplay in the platforming stages is decently fun and fluid, though they aren’t immune to what can only be described as “old video game jank.” That is to say, certain clunky elements that feel like the product of their time. For example, there’s one instance in the swamp level where you climb down a rope, and an enemy spawns mid-jump as you’re heading down. Unless you know that’s going to happen, you can’t avoid it on the first try, so hopefully you have more than one hit point when you get there. Another such instance happens in the caves of the snow stage, when an absolute barrage of enemies just keep coming at you. Perhaps this section (and others) isn’t so bad when you have two players and both Joe and Mac can take on the enemies. But the developers clearly had the idea of a solo player as an afterthought, because so many sections feel overwhelming for a single player.

If there’s one area in which Joe & Mac 2 gets things consistently right, it’s in the aesthetics. Visually speaking, the game looks amazing! I have stood firm in my claims that the 16-bit generation of gaming remains its most timeless era, and Joe & Mac 2 is another example why that is. The background graphics are rich in detail, and the character sprites are vividly animated (I especially like the contrast of the boss dinosaurs with everything else in the game. The cavemen and friendly dinosaurs look cartoony, but the boss dinosaurs are highly detailed and more realistic, relatively speaking). And though the soundtrack isn’t one of the many all-time greats to come out of the SNES library, it’s still upbeat and pleasant.

Joe & Mac 2: Lost in the Tropics can be a fun game at times, and with two players, you’re probably going to get even more enjoyment out of it. Unfortunately, without a buddy by your side, its faults are more apparent. Some poorly-realized elements in the main stages hold the fun back a bit, but the utter pointlessness of the RPG stuff on the side is what really feels like a missed opportunity.

Still, in this day and age of nostalgic comebacks, I wouldn’t mind seeing Joe & Mac make their long-awaited return. Hey, if Bubsy can do it, anyone can.

 

5

Mario & Wario Review

Before Satoshi Tajiri created a little game called Pokemon, he worked on various other Nintendo games, including Mario spinoffs. Perhaps the strangest game Satoshi Tajiri worked on – and one of the strangest Mario games at that – is Mario & Wario, a puzzle title that was released on the Super Famicom in 1993, but never saw an international release.

Adding to the game’s obscurity is the fact that it is controlled with the SNES mouse, a peripheral so seldom used that many still believe Mario Paint was the only title to utilize it. Despite the game’s title, the player doesn’t control Mario directly in Mario & Wario. You see, the game revolves around the utterly bonkers premise of Wario blinding Mario by – and I kid you not – throwing a bucket on his head (from an airplane, no less). The player then controls a fairy named Wanda, moving her around like the cursor of a computer, and clicking on certain areas to create blocks and platforms for Mario to walk across, or to click on Mario himself to change his direction, with the goal of each stage being to avoid danger and reach Luigi within a time limit, with Luigi then removing the bucket from Mario’s head.

Basically, it’s like the Mario version of Lemmings, but even more bizarre given the setup. Of course, the object on Mario’s head isn’t always a bucket (the item changes depending on which world is currently being played), and in fact it isn’t always Mario that Wanda has to guide to safety (the player can also select Princess Peach and Yoshi, with the former moving slower than Mario and being easy for beginners, while the latter moves the fastest and is essentially hard mode). So the title of ‘Mario & Wario’ isn’t quite accurate.

The game provides eight worlds from the start, which can be selected in any order, Mega Man style, though it probably is still best if first-time players stick to doing them in order, as each subsequent world provides its own twists to the formula, and World 1 is essentially the tutorial (which is a bit disappointing. I feel a tutorial should be its own separate thing). World 9 is unlocked supposedly after completion of all eight others (though in my second playthrough, I played the later worlds first and World 9 became available early. I don’t know if that’s supposed to happen or my earlier playthrough unlocked that option). After World 9, the player will move on to the tenth and final World, which will throw everything at the player.

As stated, each world provides new challenges, like timed blocks (which will turn into solid platforms for only a limited time), ice which makes Mario & company slip and slide, slime that slows them down, and enemies that may throw projectiles at the Mushroom Kingdom heroes. The way in which each world changes up the gameplay and continuously adds new elements keeps the game fresh and is true to the spirit of the Mario franchise. Though there are some stages that get a tad cumbersome, like when they’ll place multiple vertical-moving enemies/obstacles close together, leaving the player to repeatedly click on Mario in between said objects to continuously change his direction since you can’t make him stop outright. Things like that feel more like a test of patience than puzzle-solving.

Each world consists of ten stages, and a final showdown with Wario. Unfortunately, these ‘showdowns’ are probably the biggest disappointments in the game. They aren’t actual boss fights, because Wario can’t damage you or anything. He just flies back and forth across the screen in his airplane, and the player simply has to keep clicking on him for Wanda to damage his plane and earn coins. And they’re all like this, there’s no variety in them. With all the varied elements that get thrown into the stages, it would have been nice if the developers had implemented an array of legitimate boss fights at the end of each world.

If you’re wondering what the coins are for, they actually play the same role as in most Mario games, with every 100 coins granting an additional life. Coins can also be found in Coin Blocks, which Wanda needs to click on this time around, since Mario’s obscured vision apparently also prevents him from jumping. The player can gain also gain more lives by guiding Mario (or Peach, or Yoshi) into collecting the four stars scattered across each stage, or by picking up the rare one-up mushroom. You can also add more time on the clock by collecting an equally infrequent super mushroom (this has to be the only instance in the history of the franchise in which stars are a far more common collectible than mushrooms).

This is unfortunately another letdown with the game. In the eight standard worlds, the player can restart from the same stage in the same world even after a game over, leaving you to wonder what importance the extra lives actually have. Well, it’s important to hold onto those extra lives until the endgame, because if you get a game over at any point in world 9 or 10, you have to start back from the beginning of world 9. 

Unfortunately, this can become pretty darn tedious. Mega Man does something similar, with the player needing to start over from the beginning of Dr. Wily’s castle should they get a game over after the eight standard stages have been completed. But there it’s more understandable because it’s an action game. It’s like, okay, you beat me this time, but now I’m going to pick myself up and dust myself off for the rematch. But here in a puzzle game, it’s kind of annoying. As if you were taking a quiz, got every answer correct except the last one, and then needed to go back and redo the questions you already got right just for another chance at the one you got wrong. I can’t help but feel that maybe this game didn’t need a lives system, and it would have been best had collecting the stars unlocked secret levels or something.

Still, even with the game’s simplicity and its drawbacks, it’s still a lot of fun. The puzzle designs are clever, the graphics are crips and colorful, the music is fun, the gameplay is always changing things up, and the sheer absurdity of the concept itself is charming. Despite all of the game’s text being in English, Mario & Wario was never officially released outside of Japan. But if you have a Super Famicom, Mario & Wario isn’t too pricey or hard to find, and probably worth a look. It may not be one of Mario’s finest adventures, but he’s certainly never had another one quite like it.

 

6