Mega Man X4 Review

*Review based on Mega Man X4’s release as part of Mega Man X Legacy Collection*

1997 was a big year for Mega Man. Not only was the Blue Bomber turning ten-years old, but he celebrated a decade of gaming by properly transitioning into the 32-bit generation after ports of X3 dipped its toes in the waters, and did so with a multitude of titles. The original series received the underappreciated semi-classic Mega Man 8, and the year also saw the Japanese release of Mega Man Legends, the series’ jump to 3D. Of course, the Mega Man X series was also quick to jump in on the action, delivering its fourth installment in as many years. While Mega Man 8 tried to change up its series’ level structure, and Legends began a whole new side to Mega Man, X4 simply felt like more of the same. Mega Man X4 may not be a bad game per se, but if Mega Man X3 raised concerns that the X sub-series – which was originally created to revitalize the franchise – was quickly running out of steam, than X4 confirmed those very concerns.

“You can finally play as Zero! And it only took four entries!”

If there’s a notable change made to the Mega Man X gameplay with X4, it’s that Zero is finally a playable character! Sure, you could play as him in small doses in X3, but here, you can play through the entire game as Zero. In fact, if you want to see the whole story, you have to play through the game twice, once as Mega Man X (or simply ‘X’), and once as Zero.

The key difference between the two characters is that X retains the classic mega buster, making him long-range and easier to play as, while Zero uses a close-ranged laser sword, and is a little trickier to get used to. Additionally, while X once again gains a new power after defeating a Maverick, Zero instead gains a new move, meaning that he executes them with different button combinations, as opposed to switching into different modes like X.

On paper, that may sound like a pretty big deviation for the series, unfortunately, the level design is more basic and straightforward than the past three X titles. The hidden collectibles are fewer and, quite frankly, not nearly as well hidden (the past three games often required X to revisit completed stages with new powers to find one of his upgrades, there’s one here where you literally just have to walk to the right before you continue down a vertical path. It’s a telling example). There’s just so little newness to the stage concepts, that they end up feeling really forgettable. This is a pitfall that may have been avoided if they at least retained the depth of their predecessors.

“My heart still belongs to Overdrive Ostrich.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t any fun to be had. The core gameplay is still solid, and a couple of stages have their moments (particularly that of Cyber Peacock and Jet Stingray). And again, the ability to play through the game as Zero is a nice bonus. The problem is just how safe the game is. X4 retains enough of the polish in Mega Man’s gameplay to keep things fun, but as a whole the game feels incredibly phoned-in.

On the bright side of things, the visuals have held up decently well. Though the game was derided in its 1997 launch for being a side-scroller on the Playstation (90s video game criticism, ladies and gentlemen!), that simple factoid has made it more visually appealing in the long run than the more ‘ambitious’ 3D games of the time. Sure, the backgrounds lack the timeless charm of the SNES Mega Man X titles, but the character sprites are still detailed and fluid. And being Mega Man, the music can get pretty catchy (even if it’s far from the better soundtracks of the franchise).

Mega Man X4 was also notable for including some fully animated, anime-style cutscenes. This technique was also used in Mega Man 8, and just like that game, X4 is notorious for the quality (or lack thereof) of its voice acting. But whereas Mega Man 8’s voice acting is on the ‘so bad it’s good’ side of things, the voice acting here in X4 might simply constitute ‘bad.’ Still, the animation has that nice, rougher 90s anime look to it, so the cinematic have their appeal.

Of course, there wouldn’t be cinematic without much story, and unfortunately, this is another area where X4 displays early signs of the series’ fall from grace. This marked the beginning of the Mega Man X series’ heavier emphasis on plot. While the 32-bit era was when video games became more story-oriented, the fact that Mega Man X4 features so little new ideas in its gameplay does make you wish Capcom had focused less energy on the story and prioritized making a more original game.

The story here takes place sometime after the events of X3. The Reploids (sentient robots) now live in harmony with humans, after the Mavericks (evil Reploids) had been defeated not only by Maverick Hunters like X and Zero, but by a new army called the ‘Repliforce’ as well. After a flying fortress crashes down on a city and kills many humans and Reploids alike, Repliforce ends up being a prime suspect in the attack, and they themselves become dubbed Mavericks, and rebel against humans for the sake of their own freedom. X and Zero get caught up in it all, of course, and soon the threads of the plot begin to untangle, and it really shouldn’t be any surprise who’s behind it all.

“What am I fighting fooooorrrrr?!”

The plot just kind of drags things down, though it is a nice little touch how the eight Maverick bosses are given little descriptions when their stage is selected and introductions when you reach their boss room. Perhaps the worst aspect of the story, however, is how Zero’s mystique is stripped away. No longer the mysterious leader of the Maverick Hunters whose motivation is ensuring peace between humans and robots, Zero’s driving force is now love. Love for a female Reploid named Iris who, quite frankly, is a rather uninteresting character, more or less filling the quiet, dough-eyed, “cheering from the sidelines with hands clenched together” anime archetype. How cliched can this all get?

Still, ignoring the overly familiar elements and over-emphasis on a bland storyline, Mega Man X4 isn’t dead on arrival. It may, however, be the X series’ last breath. There’s still enough left in the tank for Mega Man X4 to provide some solid fun for fans of the series – even if it isn’t half the game X3 was, let alone X and X2 – but it’s those same fans who will probably be able to pinpoint all the things X4’s predecessors did better. If you’ve played any of the previous Mega Man X games, you know exactly what to expect out of Mega Man X4. Actually, you might need to expect a little bit less.

 

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Mega Man X3 Review

*Review based on Mega Man X3’s release as part of Mega Man X Legacy Collection*

There is more than a little bit of irony in Mega Man X3’s very existence. Six Mega Man games were released on the NES, with only small windows of time between releases. Mega Mans 2 and 3 were stellar sequels that easily surpassed the original, but 4 through 6 – while undeniably fun games – presented very little in the realms of newness, leaving the series feeling wrung dry by the time the SNES rolled around. Enter Mega Man X.

The Blue Bomber’s 1994 foray into the 16-bit age was created to be a breath of fresh air for the franchise, with a new Mega Man, a new setting, and just enough new elements to make the series’ gameplay feel fresh again. The very next year saw the release of Mega Man X2, which was a worthy successor, if a bit familiar. Then we had Mega Man X3, the third entry in the sub-series in as many years. While X2 had the benefit of being merely second in line – thus making its familiarity easier to forgive – and added its own twist in the forms of three optional side-bosses who altered the story, Mega Man X3 is where things might start to feel like they’re entering ‘conveyor belt’ territory.

The original Mega Man series found new heights with its second and third entries, only becoming formulaic with its second trilogy’s worth of installments. But Mega Man X – the series created for the purpose of revitalizing Mega Man – started to cool off a lot faster. That’s not to say that Mega Man X3 is a bad game by any stretch of the imagination (Mega Man’s gameplay was always more refined than any platformer of its day not directly created by Nintendo), but it does feel like a copy-and-paste sequel of Mega Man X2.

Strangely enough for a platformer, it’s the story of Mega Man X3 that seems to differentiate itself most from its predecessors. After the events of X2, the Reploids – humanoid robots capable of thought and emotion – live in peace with humans, as the Reploid scientist Dr. Doppler has begun reprogramming Mavericks (Reploids who seek war with humanity). It turns out to be a rouse, however, as soon enough Dr. Doppler himself goes rogue, and all the Mavericks he reprogrammed now obey his every command. Of course, it’s up to Mega Man X – as well as Zero – to put an end to Dr. Doppler’s plot.

“Even the Mavericks feel like a step down from the past two lineups. Except my man Volt Catfish here, but even he’s no Overdrive Ostrich.”

The game follows the usual setup: There’s an introductory stage, followed by the eight selectable main stages that end with a boss fight against a Maverick, Mega Man gets a power from every defeated boss to use against other Mavericks, and a final series of stages are unlocked after the eight bosses are felled.

On the plus side, the level design remains challenging and fun. X’s wall-jumping abilities really get put to the test, with platforming challenges that really work in favor of the mechanic. Perhaps the biggest introduction to the gameplay is the ability to actually play as Zero, who comes equipped with a laser sword! Though as enticing as that sounds, it ultimately comes across as a tease, as Zero’s playable role is pretty limited. You can switch to him in the pause menu, but if you switch back to X or die while playing as Zero, you can’t select him again until you get a game over or move on to the next stage. That would already be pretty limited, but the game will find seemingly every opportunity to force the player to switch back to X. Don’t expect to face off against any sub-bosses as Zero, as X will automatically come back into the picture, which once again prevents you from re-selecting Zero.

X3 may have the biggest emphasis on secret collectibles in the series up to this point. The usual Mega Man X secrets return: Heart Tanks increase X’s maximum health, while sub-tanks store health items for later use, and X can find hidden upgrades for his arm canon, armor, helmet and legs. There are two new secret collectibles added to the mix in X3, though one is definitely better utilized than the other.

“Using Ride Armors in previously completed stages can often lead to hidden goodies.”

The first new item are the “Ride Armors,” the same mecha suits found in the previous games, but with a new twist. After finding one of the four Ride Armors, they can be summoned in certain sections of every stage once you find a special platform. Each of the Ride Armors has their own strengths and weaknesses, and being able to find their uses on different stages does add a little something different to the proceedings.

The other secret item introduced in X3 are four special chips which, like the upgrades, grant X new abilities and passive bonuses. The caveat with these chips is that you can only get 1 in any given playthrough. That would be a unique twist if you had the option to replace the one you chose, but when they say you can only have one chip they really mean it. So you pretty much have to look up a guide ahead of time to know which one you want. There is an even bigger issue with the chips, however, in that there is an additional fifth chip in one of the Dr. Doppler stages that grants all of the abilities of the four other chips. Like the other four, the fifth chip cannot be obtained if you’ve claimed another one. But this just leaves the other four feeling completely pointless. Just go for the fifth one. Why even have the others in the game?

“Okay, I also like Gravity Beetle. Gravity is cool, and beetles are cool.”

X3 brings back the concept of mid-bosses entering the levels after two Mavericks have been defeated, but somehow misses what made the concept unique in X2. Two bosses – Bit and Byte – are located in mandatory mid-boss rooms, while a third boss – Vile, the suspiciously Boba Fett-esque secondary villain from the first X – is hidden in certain levels, but can only be fought before you fight Bit and Byte. While X2 had players uncover hidden bosses to alter the story, the only real point of fighting Bit, Byte and Vile is determining whether or not you fight them again in Doppler’s fortress (defeating them with particular Maverick weapons wipes these bosses out for good the first time around). And by making two of these bosses mandatory, it kind of takes away from the whole concept that X2 introduced.

Though Mega Man X3 retains the high quality visuals and audio of its predecessors, the graphics are more or less the same as those of X2, while the music is a relative step down in quality (relative in that even a step down for Mega Man music is still pretty darn good). Thankfully, the aesthetics have aged well, but that’s because it replicates two games that already achieved that timeless aspect. X3 doesn’t seem to try to surpass the visuals or sound of its two predecessors, instead simply making due.

Mega Man X3 is all too familiar of a sequel for it to match the greatness of either Mega Man X or X2, but it’s still replicating two exceptional games, and on its own merits has held up pretty well over the years. The Mega Man formula is timeless, so even a lesser entry that follows the series rulebook will still probably end up better than many of their contemporaries. Mega Man X3 may be the point where the series started to feel less special, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a whole lot of fun, even by today’s standards.

 

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Mega Man X2 Review

*Review based on Mega Man X2’s release as part of Mega Man X Legacy Collection*

When Mega Man X was released in 1994, it served as a unique take on the Mega Man series. It starred a newer, edgier Mega Man that fought evil robots called ‘Mavericks’ over a hundred years after Dr. Light and Dr. Wily of the original series had passed on. The more mature take on Mega Man proved to be a roaring success, so much so that it ended up launching its own sub-series. Mega Man X2 followed suit with its predecessor a mere year later, and while X2 may not add too much newness to the formula, it still provides a stellar sequel.

Set six months after the defeat of the evil Sigma, Mega Man X2 sees the titular Mega Man X (or simply ‘X‘) as the new leader of the Maverick Hunters, following the death of Zero in the first game. Three of Sigma’s most loyal followers – the oddly named trio of Serges, Agile and Violin – have rallied Sigma’s remaining forces in an attempt to destroy X and the Maverick Hunters and rebuild their empire. The evil trio – collectively known as the “X Hunters” – also hold Zero’s body part, which X seeks to retrieve in hopes of rebuilding the fallen hero to repay his sacrifice. The relatively personal plot (bad guys with a vendetta, Mega Man trying to save Zero) helps X2 not only stand out from its predecessor, but the franchise as a whole.

As you may expect, X2 follows the series’ trademark setup: an introductory stages teaches the basics, choose from eight different main stages and defeat the Maverick boss fight at the end of each one, get said Maverick’s power, use that power on a later boss who is weak against it. After all eight stages are completed, the final few levels can then be played in sequential order.

In that sense, Mega Man X2 is a very tried-and-true sequel, but one of the benefits of the platforming genre is that even with similar core gameplay, the level design can make for a very different experience. And in that sense, X2 does a great job in standing out from its predecessor, with new ideas and level gimmicks that keep things fresh and exciting. One stage has X riding on a motorcycle  in the desert, and another sees him avoiding searchlights to prevent traps from activating, Metal Gear style.

“Life goals.”

The eight Mavericks here are Bubble Crab, Morph Moth, Magna Centipede, Wire Sponge, Flame Stag, Wheel Gator, Crystal Snail and Overdrive Ostrich (which is possibly the best character name in video game history). Admittedly, they aren’t as memorable as the Mavericks from the first game on the whole (we’re only into the second entry and they’ve already resorted to a sea sponge?), but the stag, ostrich, snail and gator are pretty darn cool.

Each of these eight levels feel unique from one another. And like the first game, they hide a host of secrets. Each stage features a hidden Heart Tank to increase X’s maximum health, while four stages hide Sub-Tanks (collectibles which store health to be used at a later time), and four contain hidden upgrades for X’s helmet, armor, legs and blaster. While the blaster upgrade is more or less identical to that of the first game, the other upgrades provide different bonuses than they did the first time around.

X2 adds a nice twist to the formula, one that contributes to the game’s aforementioned story. After two Mavericks are defeated, Serges, Agile and Violin will then hide out within the six remaining levels, and can be fought if Mega Man X can find the optional boss room within the stage’s they’re currently hiding. If X defeats one of the X Hunters, he is rewarded with one of Zero’s pieces, and the game’s story is altered if X collects all three. But the X Hunters jump to different stages every time the player completes a level or gets a game over, and they don’t visit completed stages, which will further influence which order the player chooses to complete the levels.

Another area in which Mega Man X2 shines are the visuals. The original Mega Man X was already a visually timeless title that has held up beautifully, and X2 adds to the aesthetic appeal with more detailed environments and character animations (Overdrive Ostrich being a tiny silhouette in the distance before jumping to the foreground to confront Mega Man is a particular highlight). X2 even went the extra mile and added new visual effects into the mix, including some 3D boss enemies.

While Mega Man X2 equals its predecessor in most respects, there are a few areas which prevent this sequel from being an all-out improvement. The concept of levels being altered depending on which order yo play them in – which helped set the first Mega Man X apart from the original series – seems completely forgotten with this second go around. One could argue that the X Hunters traveling between stages is X2’s equivalent of the first game’s altering of levels, but simply replacing one element with another, when so much of the game is decently similar, may not seem like a fair trade-off to some players. Additionally, the music – while still great in its own right (this is Mega Man, after all) – doesn’t quite reach the same heights of its predecessor.

Mega Man X2 continues what its predecessor started, even if it doesn’t surpass it. While that obviously raised some eyebrows given the reason that Mega Man X existed in the first place was because the Mega Man franchise had grown a bit stagnant, X2 is still an exceptionally fun action-platformed even today. Mega Man X2 may feel like a tried-and-true sequel, as opposed to a series-redefining second installment like Mega Man 2 was for the original series, but if this is a case of ‘more of the same,’ then it’s more of the same of a very excellent experience. And that’s not so bad, right?

 

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Mega Man X Review

*Review based on Mega Man X’s release as part of Mega Man X Legacy Collection*

Perhaps it’s because video games were in their impressionable infancy during the time when movies began their franchise boom in the 1980s, but franchises have been vital to the development of the video games. Gaming has a better track record with sequel-heavy franchises than the world of cinema, largely due to gaming’s tendency to emphasize ideas over a direct plot.

A key difference between a good video game franchise and a great one is their ability to change and adapt. After Mega Man had grown a little weary from a series of similar sequels on the NES, it was in need of some change if it was to remain one of gaming’s greats. Mega Man X sought to breath new life into the Mega Man series and bring it up-to-date for the 16-bit era. If Mega Man’s status as a great video game franchise was ever in doubt, then Mega Man X silenced the skeptics and ensured Mega Man’s place among the timeless greats.

Mega Man X takes on a relatively more mature tone than the NES entries. Set a century after the original Mega Man series, follows the exploits of Dr. Light’s last creation, Mega Man X. This new model of Mega Man could reason, think and feel as a living individual. Realizing the potential danger of his creation, Dr. Light sealed X away in a diagnostic capsule for further research. But Dr. Light passed away before his work could be finished. 100 years later, was uncovered by Dr. Cain, whose fascination with X’s free will prompted him to create a series of robots of his own to follow in X’s design (dubbed “Reploids”), ignoring the warnings of Dr. Light’s research.

Dr. Light’s fears come to fruition, as many Reploids turned against humans. These renegade Reploids became known as Mavericks, who eventually came to be ruled by the evil Sigma, who plans all-out war on humanity. X takes it upon himself to stop the Mavericks, and joins the mysterious and powerful Zero in order to bring an end to Sigma’s reign.

It’s still a simple “save the world” plot, but it’s certainly more elaborate than what the original series provided story-wise.

You could say that ‘more elaborate’ nature finds its way into the gameplay. At first glance, Mega Man X looks a lot like its NES predecessors: You have eight stages to choose from, each of which ends with a boss fight against a Maverick.

“What exactly is a Kuwanger and how does it Boomer?”

The Mavericks are Chill Penguin, Spark Mandrill, Sting Chameleon, Storm Eagle, Flame Mammoth, Launch Octopus, Armored Armadillo and Boomer Kuwanger. Each Maverick grants Mega Man X their special power when defeated, and just like the Robot Masters of the original series, each Maverick’s power is particularly effective against another one in a complex game of rock-paper-scissors.

Things are taken to a whole new level in this department, however, as now certain levels will be altered if a specific Maverick is defeated before tackling it. Defeat Launch Octopus before Sting Chameleon, and the latter’s stage will be flooded in some areas. Take down Chill Penguin, and the lava of Flame Mammoth’s stage will be frozen solid, making for a much easier trek.

There are several other changes made to the classic formula that give Mega Man X an identity all its own. An introductory stage takes place before the eight proper levels that sets up the story (a feature that would be carried over to the original series in Mega Mans 7 and 8). Mega Man now possesses a wall jump to scale vertical surfaces, and then there are brilliant little touches that take place in individual stages, like piloting heavy mech suits and (true to SNES fashion) riding a cart in the mining level.

Even more notably, there’s a light sense of RPG added into the mix. Each Maverick stage contains a hidden Heart Tank, which will increase X’s maximum health once obtained. Four of the stages also hide “Sub-Tanks,” which add a great twist to the original series’ E Tanks. Whereas the E Tanks were single use items that fully healed Mega Man when used, if X is at full health, any health recovering items will be stored into X’s available Sub-Tanks to be used later, and can be refilled after each use. Finally, there are four capsules throughout the game, which contain holograms of Dr. Light, who upgrades X’s abilities when found. A mandatory capsule grants X with a speedy dash, while the other three are hidden, and upgrade X’s armor, helmet and arm canon.

“The more upgrades X receives, the more he begins to look like a separate character from the original Mega Man.”

Hunting down these items adds a stronger depth to the stages than what was found in the original series. You often have to replay certain levels after having obtained a particular Maverick power or upgrade in order to uncover them. Most of these items aren’t necessary to defeat Sigma and beat the game, but they definitely add to the experience. Uncovering secrets to improve X’s health and abilities can make Mega Man X feel like Capcom’s answer to The Legend of Zelda.

Mega Man X builds on the structure and level design of the NES Mega Man titles, with each stage introducing their own variety of gameplay twists, many of which rival Mega Mans 2 and 3 as the best in the series. Perhaps the only disappointment is Launch Octopus’s stage, which features more than one segment that teeters on tedious. But one out of eight is easy to forgive, especially considering how excellent the gameplay and level design are on the whole.

Complimenting this gameplay excellence are absolutely stunning aesthetics. Twenty-four years later, and Mega Man X’s visuals have not aged a day. The character sprites are colorful, their movements are fluid, and the background environments are intricately detailed. The Legacy Collection includes an HD filter, which makes things look smoother than ever, but you honestly don’t need it turned on for Mega Man X to look great. It’s timeless.

Since day one, the Mega Man series had always been highly regarded for its music, and Mega Man X is certainly no exception. The more mature tone is  complimented with an edgier take on the Mega Man-style score, making for one unforgettable track after another. The SNES is still acclaimed for its many great soundtracks, and Mega Man X should stand among the best of them.

Mega Man X remains a textbook example of how to revitalize a gaming franchise. It may not completely reinvent the wheel, but it adds a lot more depth to the tried-and-true formula, while also adding its own bag of tricks to the proceedings. If Mega Man was starting to get on a bit by 1994, Mega Man X showed that there was more than enough life left for the Blue Bomber. It’s one of the best games to ever grace the SNES, and one of Mega Man’s finest hours.

 

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PaRappa the Rapper Review

*Review based on PaRappa the Rapper’s release on PS4 as Parappa the Rapper Remastered*

First released on the Sony Playstation in 1997, PaRappa the Rapper is considered the first rhythm game, a genre that would later see success in the 2000s with series like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Although PaRappa the Rapper shows its rough edges as a genre’s starting point – with some frustratingly inconsistent mechanics – its charm and originality still stands out among many of the games it inspired.

PaRappa is a rapping dog trying to impress his crush, a sunflower girl named Sunny Funny. In trying to win Sunny’s affections, PaRappa goes through a series of misadventures like learning Kung Fu, getting his driver’s license, and learning to bake a cake. The catch? All of these endeavors are performed via rap, with PaRappa following the lead of his mentors in every task.

The game is played through six stages (only the first three on easy mode), with players repeating the instructed button presses at the right time with the melody of each stage’s song. Though players are given some leeway to “freestyle” when a star shows up in between button commands.

It’s very basic rhythm game material, but considering PaRappa pioneered the genre, that’s to be expected. There are a few key issues with the gameplay that expose the genre’s infancy in PaRappa the Rapper. Notably, the accuracy of your button presses with the commands seems to fluctuate without warning from one stage to the next. By definition, you’re supposed to press the corresponding button when your icon passes over its displayed command. But in some stages, you seem to lose points unless you press the button just before their cue. The aforementioned baking stage seems especially finicky with the timing of its song. Another downside is that the free styling mechanic seems poorly implemented, as you can get more points for simply spamming the last cued button, and often seem to get punished for getting creative with your button presses when you’re given the freedom to do so.

This lack of polish is relatively forgivable, given the title’s nature as a genre first, but it doesn’t exactly change the fact that it has quite the hurdle when it comes to standing the test of time. Though on the bright side of things, the songs themselves are very fun and catchy. And while the idea of a game about a rapping dog may sound like a desperate attempt to be hip with the kids in the vein of Poochy from the Simpsons, PaRappa the Rapper is genuinely cute and aims more for humor than it tries to be cool, which means the title has actually aged well in terms of personality.

That personality may just be PaRappa the Rapper’s biggest strength. Each song is given a distinct style and sense of humor (hold on, the driving instructor forgot to close the car door during a driving test?!). The game also utilized a unique art direction in which all the character models are paper thin amidst 3D backgrounds. So while the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band may boast a wide range of beloved songs, their stock ‘rock and roll’ character models can’t hold a candle to the charm of PaRappa’s rapping dogs, reggae frogs and onion-headed kung fu masters.

The remastered version of PaRappa the Rapper looks surprisingly sharp. Perhaps the art style made its transition easier, but the game looks incredibly clean and smooth, and looks right at home on the PS4. That is, it looks that way during the stages. The game’s cutscenes barely look touched up from their original PSOne appearance, and can be a little bit of an eyesore.

PaRappa the Rapper is a game that deserves a boatload of credit for how it properly launched the rhythm genre as we know it, and for its winning sense of charm. Unfortunately, its pioneering status is a little bit of a double-edged sword, as it can definitely feel like the first of its kind at times, with an unpolished nature that often leaves the controls feeling imprecise. When a game is all about the timing of button presses, that can be a frustrating detriment. And the fact that there are only six stages (each of which can be beaten in a few short minutes) and a lack of different modes means that there’s not a whole lot of replay value to be had.

Time may not have been overly kind to little PaRappa, but the game’s influence and charm are still strong enough to make it worth a look for fans of the rhythm genre. Here’s hoping PaRappa can make a comeback tour in the not-too-distant future.

 

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Dark Souls Review

*Review based on Dark Souls release as Dark Souls Remastered*

Dark Souls is a difficult game. Many enemies and bosses can kill you with one stroke, deadly traps will lead to instant death, and invading players always have it out for you. The challenge of Dark Souls has become the stuff of gaming legend. And yet, that difficulty is hardly the summation of Dark Souls. Rather, the steep challenge is justified by being part of one of the most tightly constructed, immersive and overall satisfying experiences in all of video games. Yes, Dark Souls is difficult, but it’s so much more than that.

Director Hidetaka Miyazaki followed the blueprint of his earlier title Demon’s Souls when crafting this spiritual sequel. Dark Souls transcended its predecessor by delving into deeper gameplay territories. The most prominent of which being its merging with the Metroidvania sub-genre, with each land to be discovered in the game connecting with another, and shortcuts between them to be found once you meet the right requirements.

The world in question is Lordran, one of the great settings in video games. The people of Lordran suffer the curse of being undead. Unlike most fantasy stories, the undead of Dark Souls look like human beings, but they are unable to die, instead losing more and more of their humanity upon death, eventually becoming a ‘Hollow’ (essentially a mindless zombie, and more akin to what is usually labeled as ‘undead’). Players take on the role of the ‘Chosen Undead,’ who escapes from the Undead Asylum and arrives in Lordran, where they begin a pilgrimage that is destined to bring them face to face with Lord Gwyn, an old god responsible for the undead curse.

As is the standard for the series, most story and world elements are intentionally vague, with snippets of character dialogue and flavorful descriptions of items giving insight into the world of Lordran. It proves to be one of the more effective means of video game storytelling, with players able to delve into the narrative should they choose, or simply bask in pure gameplay.

From the get-go, Dark Souls’ gameplay presents a staggering amount of variety: Players can customize their character to be more focused on heavy physical damage, magic attacks, healing, quick strikes, and more. And even when you do decide which direction to take your character, there are still several different routes you can take with each build. Even the core gameplay provides different styles, whether it’s a weapon in one hand and a shield in the other, two weapons, a weapon and a staff, there’s no shortage of options. You can even swap into holding a weapon with both hands at the press of a button.

The depth in gameplay just never lets up. There are new mechanics constantly being introduced, and some which are so subtle you may not realize they were there until late into the journey.

Two of the key mechanics players will need to know are souls and humanity. Souls are acquired from defeating enemies, and work as both experience points to level up your character and currency for buying items, weapons and armor. Humanity is a bit rarer, being an occasional drop from enemies and scattered about the world, as well as rewarded for helping other players fell bosses. When the player dies (and you will die), they become Hollow which – along with making their character look more deathly – prevents you from summoning other players for help. Adding to the game’s challenge, every time you die, you lose your souls and humanity (though you retain unused humanity in your inventory). You have a chance to reclaim your lost earnings if you can return to the spot you died, but if you die again before you make it, you lose everything.

The now-iconic Bonfires serve as checkpoints, but are also where you spend souls to level up, repair and upgrade equipment, and where you can spend a humanity to undo the effects of Hollowing. Resting at bonfires also refills your Estus Flask – your primary source of healing – and you can increase the usage of your Flask at any bonfire you’ve kindled, which also costs a humanity. Suffice to say, discovering a new bonfire after a series of rough patches is a godsend.

The sheer amount of detail that emits from every environment of Lordran is staggering. The level design is among the best of any Metroidvania title, with every destination being perfectly staged with enemy and item placements, not to mention secrets around every corner (a number of which rival Symphony of the Night’s inverted castle in how they change and expand upon the whole experience). Even in its most painfully difficult moments, it’s all too easy to get absorbed in Dark Souls’ structure and depth.

If things get too difficult, you can always call on other players to help you out by finding their summon signs across the land (with players usually leaving them around bonfires and boss doors). You can summon up to two other players to aide you in an area until you rid it of its boss, but you can’t summon players when hollowed. There is a caveat to staying human, however, as whenever you’re not hollow you are susceptible to invasion by enemy players. Of course, if you’re getting stuck on a particular segment, or simply want to help or hinder someone else, you can always leave a summon sign or invade another player for a change of pace.

On its own, the multiplayer of Dark Souls – both cooperative and combative – has rightfully proven influential over the years, as it remains a fun and refreshing change from multiplayer norms. But to add another layer to everything, players can join Covenants throughout their journey, which often have their own benefits and rewards for both friendly and fiendish multiplayer.

I suppose we do have to go back and talk about the notorious difficulty of Dark Souls. While the game can get brutally difficult – to the point of intimidating some players – it’s never unfair. Whether its equipping the proper armor to withstand poisoning or finding the right spot to best hide from a boss’ devastating attack, there are always methods to what seems like madness. More importantly, there is always a sense of strategy, with players able to survive any onslaught if they know when to dodge, block or attack. While a lesser designed game may simply leave you throwing your hands in the air and giving up under such difficulty, Dark Souls is so well designed that it will leave you wanting to push yourself to see things through. Dark Souls may have you feeling like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, going about the same situation in different ways until you get it right. And when you do get it right, there’s seldom an experience in gaming that even approaches its sense of reward.

Though it was originally released in 2011, Dark Souls’ visuals have held up nicely, with the remastered version making it look all the more at home on current hardware. Better still is its art direction, which should rank among the best of the medium. There’s not a location or creature that doesn’t stick with you. Combine that with the game’s incredible musical score and unparalleled sound work, and Dark Souls is quite the spectacle, and presents perhaps the most absorbing fantasy world in gaming.

There are a few minor issues with Dark Souls, but nothing that truly undermines its overall excellence. Later in the game you gain the ability to warp between specific bonfires, though you may wish you gained the ability a little sooner when you find yourself going back and forth in the earlier half of the game. Then there’s the backstabbing mechanic, which is just far too easy for players to perform on one another. While being invaded by opposing players may be par for the course, it kind of sullies a lot of player-versus-player encounters when everyone is simply trying to pull off a backstab on each other in place of using their full moveset. But again, these are little more than quibbles.

Yes, Dark Souls is a very difficult game, but it’s so much more than that. While most of the video game world became preoccupied with trying to replicate the spectacle of Hollywood once the medium made the jump to 3D, Dark Souls instead feels more akin to what would have happened if the older style of games from the 80s and early 90s had evolved into the present day. Like the best games from those early years, Dark Souls requires its players to gain an intimate knowledge of its every last location and trinket in order to see things through. It combines those older traditions with one idea after another that are entire its own, and continues to build on them throughout its entirety.

Dark Souls is a difficult video game. But it also happens to be one of the very best.

Praise the sun!

 

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Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars Review

*Review based on Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars release as part of the SNES Classic*

Since its inception in 1985, the Super Mario series has proven to be the avant garde of video games, prioritizing gameplay innovation and concepts unique to the video game medium over all else. This design philosophy has not only allowed the core platformers of the Super Mario series to consistently reinvent themselves, but has also turned its titular plumber into gaming’s renaissance man, able to adapt to seemingly any genre Nintendo decides to cast him in. Of the various “spinoff” Mario titles, Mario Kart gets the most widespread recognition, as it created the ‘kart racer’ sub-genre while simultaneously producing a series that rivals the core Mario titles in popularity. But while Mario Kart might be the most famous of Mario’s detours, the most outstanding might just be the 1996 SNES classic, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, the title that sent Mario into most unfamiliar territory.

Super Mario RPG was a bold venture. A joint effort between series’ publisher Nintendo and Final Fantasy developer Square-Enix (then Squaresoft), Super Mario RPG took the characters and world of Nintendo’s flagship franchise, and merged it with the RPG genre that Square was renowned for. Though a fan-favorite today, at the time many wondered if converting the Mario series into the narrative-heavy RPG genre could work. The fact that Super Mario RPG remains one of the most beloved Mario games should be a testament to just how successful the finished product was. Its hefty reputation is well deserved.

While Super Mario RPG is a joining together of the series and genre of its title, what makes it work so well is how it both pays homage and parody to both parties involved, and turns them on their heads.

“Where can I sign up to join the Koopa Troop?!”

The story here is that – just as Mario is about to defeat Bowser for another daring rescue of Princess Peach (here called Toadstool, as she was known in the west at the time) – a massive earthquake hits the scene, throwing Mario, Bowser and the Princess to different corners of the Mushroom Kingdom. The source of this quake is a giant, anthropomorphic sword that has fallen from the heavens and plunged into Bowser’s castle. The sword is called Exor, and declares Bowser’s Keep to be occupied by its master, Smithy, who plans to conquer the rest of Mario’s world.

As it turns out, Smithy is already closer to world conquest than he knows, as Exor slashed through the Star Road on its descent onto Mario’s world, shattering it into seven magical Star Pieces. The Star Road is what allows people’s wishes to come true. With its power scattered into seven fallen pieces, the wishes of the denizens of Mario’s world can no longer come to light. It then becomes a race between Mario and his companions to prevent the Smithy Gang from claiming the seven Stars, which would result in the evil Smithy’s dark desires coming to fruition.

What makes this story memorable is that it both adds a serious narrative to the Super Mario series (for the first time), while still maintaining the franchise’s whimsical lightheartedness. The premise feels like it could have been pulled out of a Disney movie, and the game takes advantage of the nature of the Mario series to add a good dose of humor into the serious RPG plot.

“Bowser reveals his artistic and sensitive side.”

Mario is joined on his adventure by four companions: The aforementioned Princess Toadstool is the obvious ally, but for the first time in the series, Bowser fights alongside Mario in a quest to reclaim his castle. The remaining two members of Mario’s party were original to Super Mario RPG; Mallow, the fluffy, cloud-like black mage of the group, and Geno, an otherworldly spirit occupying an action figure for its body.

It’s a memorable cast of characters. Mario is his usual, silent self, but the Princess becomes something of the ‘tough guy’ of the party after growing tired of being rescued, while Bowser steals the show as the insecure brute with a heart of gold. Meanwhile, Mallow is the kid of the group wanting to prove himself, while Geno has connections to the Star Road and is something of the Gandalf of the team (the wise, old badass). Mallow and Geno left such an impression that – although they have yet to properly appear in another game – fans still long for their return.

No matter how iconic or likable these characters are though, it wouldn’t mean much if the game they starred in weren’t great. Luckily for them, Super Mario RPG was one of the best games of the genre’s golden era, and remains one of Mario’s timeless classics.

The battle system here at first looks like the usual turn-based affair, but with some fresh changes, such as each action in battle being mapped to specific buttons (A for regular attacks, B for defense, Y for special moves, and X for items). The biggest addition Super Mario RPG makes to RPG battles is one that’s subtle, yet game-changing: Action Commands.

During battles, players have more involvement than in other RPGs of the time. During attacks, well-timed button presses can increase damage (and timing them just right during enemy attacks can reduce damage), while special moves have their own interactive elements (repeated button-presses or timing, holding a button and releasing it, etc.). It’s such a seemingly simple twist on RPG norms, but it adds so much more fun to the proceedings than simply selecting items from menus.

There are some small quibbles in that there’s a lack of on-screen directions to inform you of when to use button-presses during many actions (directions are briefly explained before certain special attacks, but others are trickier to figure out). Still, most of the Action Commands aren’t too hard to get the hang of, so nothing’s too cryptic. But if you do manage to master them, you may find that the overall adventure is a bit on the easy side, though I suppose turn-based RPGs aren’t known for brutal difficulty anyway. Still, these hardly qualify as complaints, as they never get in the way of the enjoyment of the gameplay, story, or overall fun.

Meanwhile, wandering through the overworlds is also improved over other games in the genre, with just a dash of platforming added into the mix for – you guessed it – more interactivity than you’d find in other RPGs. The game is given all the more personality when you talk to NPCs, who often put that aforementioned humor on full display. In case that weren’t enough, Super Mario RPG features a myriad of entertaining mini-games and side quests, some of which are exceptionally well hidden.

Being released at the tail-end of the Super Nintendo’s life cycle, Super Mario RPG pushed the console’s capabilities to their limits. Super Mario RPG features highly detailed environments and an isometric perspective to give the game something of a 3D quality, with character graphics that are comparable to the Donkey Kong Country sequels (one enemy monster even resembles good ol’ DK, perhaps to emphasize this).

However, the best aesthetic qualities of Super Mario RPG are in its sounds. Composed by Yoko Shinomura – famous for her soundtracks of Street Fighter II and the Kingdom Hearts series – Super Mario RPG’s score is her masterwork, encompassing a wide range of styles and emotions,  and captures that distinct Mario personality while also creating an identity unique to itself. The SNES is widely regarded for the stellar soundtracks of its games, and Super Mario RPG is second only to Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest for the title of best musical score on the platform. It’s an all-time great gaming soundtrack.

“How can you not love a game in which Bowser can fight a giant, evil wedding cake?”

Sadly, while Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars remains one of Mario’s most memorable adventures, it seems to be the only entry in the entire franchise that was to be a one-and-done deal. It may have influenced spiritual successors in the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series of RPGs – which improved on a few individual elements (Paper Mario introduced on-screen button cues during attacks) – but none of them have captured the same magic of the whole experience that Super Mario RPG did, nor have they left the same kind of unique impact on the overall Mario series.

If anything, Super Mario RPG’s isolation from the rest of the Mario series has only helped it endure as one of the most beloved entries in the franchise’s peerless history (it’s even helped inspire games such as Undertale). Here’s hoping that, someday, we might see Super Mario RPG’s legacy continue in some form. For now, however, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars can at least still claim to be among Mario’s greatest adventures, and one of the best RPGs of all time. A legend indeed.

 

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