Top 10 Video Game Launch Titles

With my recent overhaul of Wizard Dojo (with a new overall look and new scoring system), I figured I’d ring in this new era of Wizard Dojo-ing with a revised version of the very first ‘top list’ I ever posted here at the Dojo; Top Video Game Launch Titles!

The first time around, I listed five games, plus some runners-up. This time around, I’m upping things to a top 10!

Video game consoles are defined by their best games. Sometimes, a console doesn’t have to wait very long to receive its first masterpiece, with a number of consoles getting one of their definitive games right out the gate. Although it used to be more commonplace for a console to receive a launch title that would go down as one of its best games, the idea of a killer launch title is becoming a rarer occurrence in gaming.

Still, launch games have more than left their mark on the industry. Here are, in my opinion, the 10 most significant video games to have launched their console.

Continue reading “Top 10 Video Game Launch Titles”

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Mole Mania Review

Shigeru Miyamoto is the world’s most prolific video game designer. It’s not hard to see why, since he has served as creator and/or producer of many of the world’s most popular games: Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, Star Fox, Mole Mania…

Wait, what was that last one?

Yes, even Shigeru Miyamoto has made a few games that have gone under the radar, perhaps none more so than Mole Mania. That’s a crying shame, because this 1997 puzzler remains one of the Game Boy’s best titles.

In many ways, Mole Mania works like a simplified Legend of Zelda. If you were to remove Zelda’s overworld, and just stick with the dungeons, doubling down on their puzzle elements, you have a pretty good idea at what Mole Mania is.

Player’s take control of Muddy Mole, who is out to rescue his family after they’ve been kidnapped by a wicked farmer named Jimbe, who’s angry at the moles for eating his cabbages. Each of Muddy’s seven children are being held hostage by Jinbe’s henchmen (the game’s bosses), while Jimbe himself is holding Muddy’s wife.

The game is spread out between eight worlds, though after the first world is completed, levels 2 through 7 can be completed in any order the player chooses (they can even leave a stage for a while and work on another, if they get too stumped). This allows players to go through most of the game at their own pace, which seemed like an idea ahead of Mole Mania’s time.

Each level is comprised of multiple rooms which, like Zelda’s dungeons, need to have their puzzles solved in order to move on. The goal is to get an iron ball to break the wall blocking the exit of each room. Muddy can push and pull the giant marble, as well as throw it forward and back. This may sound simple enough, but Mole Mania finds various ways to turn this simple setup into a complex series of puzzles.

The biggest twist is that Muddy Mole has to navigate each room both above and under ground. Muddy can dig his own holes in the ground, and most rooms also contain holes of their own. Things get tricky though, because if the marble falls into a hole, it goes back to its starting position. You can’t fill in holes, but exiting a room and going back restores it to its default state. Additionally, 20 cabbages can be found on each stage, which must be thrown (or pushed, or pulled) into a hole to be collected, adding a little extra challenge for completionists.

The ways in which Mole Mania continues to change up its simple setup throughout the game is as impressive as it is fun, seemingly never running out of ideas with its concept. There are pipes that the iron marble can travel through to change paths, enemies that may stop the ball in its tracks, blocks that Muddy can push but are too heavy to pull. Mole Mania is always changing up its formula, making for a consistently fun experience.

This creativity even extends to the boss fights, albeit not to the same degree. The boss fights are all pretty simple, but find creative twists on the gameplay as Muddy finds new ways to smack them with the iron marble, or use the environment to their disadvantage.

There are a few technical issues with the game, due to the limitations of the Game Boy. Namely, having to hold the same button to throw a marble as you do to pull it can get a bit cumbersome in later stages (if you hold still for even a second when gripping the marble, Muddy prepares to throw it). You may find yourself doing one action when trying to do the other, since both of the actions are mapped to the same button.

Some players may also find the fluctuating difficulty somewhat off-putting. Although the first few stages do a good job at becoming progressively more difficult, some of the later stages seem to crank the challenge up and down on a whim, with some of them going from a notably easy room directly into an exceptionally hard one.

These aren’t major complaints, mind you. On the whole, Mole Mania remains a delightful game, one whose puzzles can be genuinely head-scratching at times. And on top of the engaging gameplay, Mole Mania features fun musical tracks that – as is expected of a Nintendo score – end up being wildly infectious. Although Mole Mania never received a Game Boy Color update like many other Game Boy titles, the sprites are detailed enough that it still holds up decently well from a visual standpoint.

Who knows why Mole Mania didn’t join the pantheon of beloved Miyamoto franchises. Maybe it had to do with the timing of its release (after the Game Boy’s initial boom but before Pokemon gave the handheld a second life)? Maybe gamers weren’t enamored with the simple prospect of a Mole fighting a farmer when compared to Miyamoto’s usual fantasy fare? Whatever the case, Mole Mania deserved better. It boasts the same ‘pure gaming’ pleasures as Miyamoto’s more well-known titles, and had all the makings of another Nintendo mainstay. Even if it didn’t become a long-standing Nintendo franchise, Mole Mania remains an enduring cult classic, and one of the few titles to come out of the original Game Boy that holds up incredibly well today.

Now, how about Muddy Mole for Super Smash Bros?

 

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Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 Review

With his introduction as the antagonist of Super Mario Land 2, Wario became an immediate Nintendo mainstay. Who knows if it was the original intent when the character was created, but Wario ended up hijacking the Super Mario Land series, being the star of its third entry in 1994 before it full-on transformed into the Wario Land series. Though the Wario Land sequels would add a bit more originality to the proceedings, Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 remains a fun and surprisingly deep platformer.

Wario Land played a bit closer to the Mario Land rulebook than its sequels would, with floating blocks containing items being scattered about, and Wario running, jumping and collecting power-ups to clear stages. But this isn’t merely Super Mario Land with a change of main character, as Wario has a few tricks of his own to justify his promotion to starring role.

The dastardly villain is – fittingly – a lot more brutish than Mario, coming equipped with a shoulder charge attack, and after jumping on enemies, he can pick them up and throw them at others. In place of Mario’s power-ups are three different helmets: The bull helmet makes Wario’s charge attack more powerful, in addition to giving him a butt stomping attack. The dragon helmet shoots a stream of fire from its nostrils. And the jet helmet grants Wario a higher jump, in addition to allowing him to use his charge attack in midair and under water.

On top of differing his core gameplay from Mario’s, Wario’s level design makes some notable changes as well. Wario isn’t out to save the day, but to scour the land for all the loot he can find (in another fun twist from the norm, while Mario often ventures to rescue Princess Peach, Wario is simply trying to steal a giant, golden statue of her). This means that simply making it to the end of a stage isn’t your main goal. Taking a page from Super Mario World, some of the stages contain alternate, secret exits, which lead to more stages and, in one instance, an entire optional world. Additionally, there are fifteen secret treasures to be found in the game, which will result in Wario becoming substantially richer at the end of the game if collected.

These alternate exits, optional levels, and hidden treasures make Wario Land a much deeper game than the Super Mario Land duology, adding to the game’s length and replay value. There are a few unfortunate downsides to how these elements are implemented, however.

While the levels with secret exits are distinctly marked on the world map, the levels that contain the secret treasures are not. That may not seem like a huge problem, but a few of these treasures must be collected by replaying earlier levels after a later stage or world is completed. So you’re basically just left guessing what stages you need to revisit.

The levels containing secret exits also disappear from the game entirely about midway through, leaving the first half of the game to feel more inspired than the second. The boss fights also lack creativity, and the music is a surprising step down from the Super Mario Land titles (thankfully, the graphics are on par with those of Super Mario Land 2).

Even with these complaints, Wario Land is still entertaining even today, which is quite the feat for a Game Boy title. It’s fun just to find more coins and treasure, and seeing if you can hold onto them by a level’s end, a concept which the game has even more fun with. Complete a stage, and you can play a mini-game where you get three 50/50 chances of doubling your coins or reducing them by half. Meanwhile, checkpoints require a small fee (10 coins) to access, but the coins you got up to that point aren’t saved if you die, giving a nice twist on checkpoints where you have the choice of using their security or keep more gold at a greater risk.

Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 may not be one of Nintendo’s finer platformers, but it did serve as a fitting introduction for Wario as a video game star. Though it is a bit strange that Wario got his own game after just two years, while the world is still grossly absent of a game starring Bowser after over three decades…

 

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Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins Review

Despite Mario and friends being the most recognizable characters in gaming, the franchise has very rarely received new mainstay additions to its character roster after Super Mario Bros. Super Mario World brought the biggest addition in the form of Yoshi, while Super Mario Sunshine introduced Bowser Jr., and Galaxy brought fan favorite Rosalina into the mix (we still have yet to see if the parade of oddities introduced in Odyssey will frequently reemerge). But in between Yoshi and Bowser Jr. the series received perhaps its strangest character in the form of Wario, who was introduced as the villain of Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins.

When Super Mario Land became a massive success on the Game Boy, it only made sense that a sequel would follow up eventually. And in 1992 – the same year the Game Boy introduced the world to Kirby – Super Mario Land not only got a sequel, but Nintendo received another iconic character in its bizarre, anti-Mario villain, who has gone on to star in a number of his own series.

Along with the introduction of Wario, Super Mario Land 2 is notable for feeling more like a Mario game than its predecessor. The Fire Flower is back, Goombas return, Koopa shells no longer explode, and the game as a whole just feels more inspired. If Super Mario Land’s goal was simply to bring Mario to a handheld console, than Super Mario Land 2 sought to make a handheld entry that could live up to its home console brethren. And although Mario Land 2 may not have aged quite as well as those aforementioned home console Mario adventures of yesteryear, it’s still a good deal of fun while it lasts.

The story here is a rare instance of a Mario game actually tying into the plot of its predecessor. While Mario was busy rescuing Princess Daisy from Tatanga the spaceman in Super Mario Land, Wario took control of Mario’s castle (damn, I knew plumbers charged a lot, but a whole castle?). Wario has placed a magic spell on the castle, and Mario cannot enter unless he’s received the Six Golden Coins, which are in the hands of Wario’s minions. Mario must venture to six different lands to wrest the coins away from the bosses so that he might take back his castle from Wario. It’s an interesting change of pace from the usual princess kidnapping, though the idea of Mario having a castle still seems pretty weird (and apparently Nintendo thought so as well, as any and all other Mario games ignore this and depict Mario living in a more appropriately humble home).

The level design is solid and fun. It may not be up to the platforming perfection of Super Mario Bros. 3 or World, but for a Game Boy title it’s pretty impressive that it holds up as well as it does. There are two key ingredients that set Mario Land 2’s worlds apart from other entries in the series, however.

The first is that the themes of each world differ from the usual “grass, fire, ice, etc.” motifs usually found in platformers. Instead, the worlds here range from being based around toys, Halloween, outer space, a tree, a turtle, and – in a fun twist on Super Mario Bros. 3’s Giant Land – a world where Mario shrinks, with everyday creatures like ants and grasshoppers serving as enemies. The second, and bigger twist, is that these worlds can be completed in any order. Seemingly taking inspiration from Mega Man, Mario can traverse the game’s world map and enter any of these six worlds in any order the player chooses. This gives Super Mario Land 2 a unique sense of openness that the series strangely hasn’t revisited in subsequent 2D entries.

Along with the usual Super Mushroom and the aforementioned Fire Flower, a power-up exclusive to this game shows up in the form of the Super Carrot, which grants Mario rabbit ears that allow him to hover for a prolonged period of time.

“The graphics are just a wee bit better than the first game. And by that I mean they look way better.”

Overall, the gameplay is fun, if maybe unambitious compared to other Mario titles (the open-world map being Land 2’s best innovation to the series). It should also be noted that, with the exception of Wario’s Castle, the levels are all pretty easy, with the boss fights even more so. And the whole game can be completed in a little under two hours. Given the time the game was originally released – when the convenience of gaming on the go meant sacrificing some of the depth and quality of the experience – these aspects make sense. Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins was an almost ideal handheld game back in the day. And when you consider the graphics and music are a marked improvement over those of its predecessor, it felt more like a proper Mario adventure.

The downside is that, though the game is still a lot of fun in its own right, handheld gaming has come so far since 1992 that the limitations of its placement as an early handheld classic stand out all the more. While it certainly holds up a lot better than the first Super Mario Land, it’s still hard to argue why you would play Six Golden Coins over one of Mario’s more iconic retro adventures (which are readily available on pretty much every Nintendo device these days).

Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins is still fun, and serves as an interesting piece of Mario’s history, but it falls considerably short of the plumber’s finest.

Still, we got Wario out of it. I guess for that alone we should all be grateful.

 

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Super Mario Land Review

It may seem a bit strange today, given that it seems to have left no long-lasting impact on the Super Mario series as a whole, but 1989’s Super Mario Land remains one of the best-selling titles in the entire series. In fact, up until the Wii re-popularized Nintendo games, Super Mario Land was the third best-selling Mario game, behind only Super Mario World and the original Super Mario Bros. Though the high sales become a bit more understandable when one remembers that this was not only Mario’s first handheld entry, but also a launch title for the Game Boy. Releasing a Mario game to launch the Game Boy was a no-brainer, and with the handheld’s seldom-approached success, it only makes sense that Super Mario Land would rack up sales numbers. And for the time, Super Mario Land was a nice introduction for the series into the handheld market, though time has revealed that Mario compromised a lot in the transition to the Game Boy’s launch.

Super Mario Land, at first glance, seems to have all the trappings of Mario titles of the time. Mario still runs and jumps across different kingdoms, collects power-ups, and rescues a princess from a villain. But it won’t take long into playing to realize that things are just a little…off.

While mushrooms still make Mario bigger (thus giving him an additional hit point), flowers grant Mario with a bouncing ball, as opposed to the more accurate fireballs of Mario norm. Perhaps more bizarrely, while stars still grant Mario temporary invincibility, the usual Mario invincibility theme (AKA the most hypnotic 18 notes in gaming history) is replaced with a rendition of the Can-Can. It turns out that the princess involved isn’t Peach (or Toadstool, as she was known in the west at the time), but Princess Daisy. And the baddie isn’t Bowser, but a much more generic spaceman villain called Tatanga.

Those are something of excusable changes, considering Super Mario Land was created by a different team than the rest of the Mario titles of the time (it was the first Mario game without direct involvement from series creator Shigeru Miyamoto). But there are other changes that are a little less forgivable.

“The scrolling-shooter segments are admittedly a cool change of pace that I wouldn’t mind see make a return.”

The most noticeable is Mario’s control, which feels far more slippery and chaotic than his NES and SNES adventures. It’s not outright bad to control, but considering Mario more or less wrote the book on making fluid platform jumping, anything less than the series’ standard really sticks out. Worse still, Super Mario Land plays some dirty tricks that work against the intuition this very series created! Notably, Koopa Troopa shells explode about a second after a Koopa has been defeated. Perhaps in a home console title, where there could be a visible distinction between your standard Koopa shell and an exploding one, this might not be so bad. But with the limitations of the Game Boy, it just looks like a Koopa Troopa. And with how the series has ingrained the idea of kicking Koopa Shells into our minds, it all just comes off as a cheap stunt.

Being a Game Boy launch title, suffice to say Super Mario Land isn’t a pretty game to look at (though at the very least, the ability to play it on a 3DS – with a backlight and whatnot – means that today you can experience the game in any lighting without having to strain your eyes). Thankfully, the music is actually pretty good. Certainly not among the best Mario soundtracks, but all things considered, it’s catchy and fun.

Of course, if there’s any great limitation to Super Mario Land, it’s that it is one short game. Okay, so it shouldn’t be assumed that a Game Boy launch title would be particularly long, but Super Mario Land can be beat in a half hour…if that. At the time, Super Mario Land had the benefit of being the Mario on the go. But now, with so many other options – whether one of the meatier, contemporary Mario handheld games, or a portable re-release of one of the console classics – you don’t exactly have a lot of incentive to play Super Mario Land in their stead.

Super Mario Land is not a bad game, but retrospective has exposed it as the weakest Mario platformer. For its time, Mario on the go was an accomplishment in its own right. But despite nothing being particularly bad about it, Super Mario Land doesn’t feature any elements that weren’t considerably bettered by Mario games before and since, leaving it feeling like Mario’s most mediocre moment to contemporary eyes.

Then again, the fact that Super Mario Land unleashed Princess Daisy onto the series may just constitute an unforgivable sin.

 

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Kirby’s Dream Land 2 Review

By 1995, Kirby had quickly established himself as one of Nintendo’s premiere franchises. Kirby’s Dreamland, though simplistic, found an audience due to the popularity of the Game Boy. It was with the 1993 NES sequel Kirby’s Adventure where the series really found its stride. Adventure gave Kirby his synonymous copy abilities, which in turn gave the series a stronger sense of depth in gameplay. Kirby had shown up in a few spinoff titles after his NES outing, but after three years it was time for the original Kirby’s Dream Land to get a proper follow-up. Kirby’s Dream Land 2 arrived on the Game Boy in 1995, and although it is a fittingly small game due to its hardware, its overall quality has held up almost shockingly well over the years.

Kirby’s Dream Land 2 adopted Adventure’s copy abilities, solidifying the mechanic as Kirby’s staple. Of course, the Game Boy had more limited capabilities than a home console, so the number of copy abilities were lowered to seven: burning, cutter, spike, ice, spark, stone and parasol. To compensate for the reduced number of powers, Kirby was given three animal friends for Kirby to ride (a la Mario and Yoshi), with each animal friend altering the copy abilities.

Rick the hamster, Coo the owl, and Kine the fish all join Kirby on his second Game Boy adventure. Rick travels faster on land than Kirby does on his own, while Coo takes to the air and Kine makes swimming sections a breeze. Best of all is that the game makes good and varied use of every animal friend. If you want you can stick with your preferred animal friend for most of the game, but certain secret areas will need the use of particular animals and/or powers to access. While most such areas provide hidden 1-Ups and similar items, certain levels contain an extra secret ‘Rainbow Drop,’ which are required to face the secret final boss.

Dream Land 2 is a much bigger game than the original. While the first Dream Land simply featured five short stages, Dream Land 2 contains seven worlds, each with multiple stages of their own. It still will only take players a couple of hours to finish, but things feel a lot more like a complete adventure this time around.

One stage in each world hides a Rainbow Drop, with the later drops being particularly difficult to find (often requiring you to have a particular animal friend and power just to find a clue, let alone the drop itself). If you find them all and defeat King Dedede, the true final showdown against Dark Matter takes place.

Some may wish that there were more hidden trinkets than simply one per world, but when you consider the limitations of the Game Boy, it’s actually quite impressive how much Kirby’s Dream Land 2 managed to pull off. Even Kirby’s Adventure had you go directly from Dedede to its big bad by default, so the fact that Dream Land 2 had you uncover secrets in order to obtain that final challenge was novel at the time.

Of course, being released on the original Game Boy, Kirby’s Dream Land 2 is not a particularly pretty game to look at. On the plus side, it was released late enough in the Game Boy’s life to take full advantage of the Super Game Boy (an SNES attachment that allowed you to play Game Boy titles on the console, with added color). This means that the added colors could later be found when playing the game on a Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, or in one of its later re-releases. It may not match the visual charm of Kirby’s Adventure, or the outright timeless graphics of the later Kirby Super Star or Dream Land 3 on the SNES. But if you manage to play Kirby’s Dream Land 2 on the proper hardware, it’s one of the few original Game Boy games that isn’t a total eyesore.

What Dream Land 2 lacks in visual fidelity, it makes up for in one of the Game Boy’s best soundtracks, with that distinct Kirby charm permeating through every tune. Each animal friend even gets their own theme (with Coo’s being the best).

Kirby’s Dream Land 2 may not match the “fire on all cylinders” feeling of Kirby’s Adventure, and it goes without saying that later entries topped it. But the core gameplay is fun and deep enough to make Kirby’s Dream Land 2 one of the few titles for the original Game Boy that has held up incredibly well. It’s still a lot of fun.

 

7

Kirby’s Dream Land Review

The Nintendo Game Boy became a video game phenomenon. Taking video games on the go was a revelation, and Nintendo took full advantage of it by giving their established series handheld iterations on the Game Boy. But the accessibility of the Game Boy also opened the door for Nintendo to create new franchises on the console, an opportunity that would lead to the creation of Pokemon and Wario. Among Nintendo’s franchises that began life on the Game Boy was Kirby, who has remained one of Nintendo’s most reliable names ever since. It all began with Kirby’s Dream Land in 1992. Though the original Dream Land may be incredibly simple when compared to later entries in the series, it still succeeds in what it initially set out to do: be an introduction to video games.

It’s true, while Kirby has become one of Nintendo’s most enduring series, it’s original title was created for the purpose of being a kid’s first video game. If young audiences found the later levels of Super Mario World too difficult, they could instead play Kirby’s Dream Land to get a better understanding of how games work. In this sense, Kirby’s Dream Land remains a roaring success. On the downside, that also means that Dream Land is an incredibly simple game that lacks depth, which is only more apparent today seeing as modern Kirby titles throw in as much extra content as possible.

Yes, Kirby’s original game is only five stages total in length. And more notably, while Kirby could still inhale enemies in his debut outing, he could not yet steal their abilities by doing so (that would be an innovation of the more substantial Kirby’s Adventure, released one year later on the NES). Kirby’s Dream Land can be completed in well under an hour, with an ever-so-slightly more challenging mode being unlocked upon completion.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Kirby’s Dream Land is as bare-bones as it gets. But at the same time, it still controls pretty well for a game originally released on the Game Boy. Perhaps more importantly, not only would it serve as a great introduction for young children to the world of video games, but if you’re interested in game design itself, Kirby’s Dream Land may also serve as a nice first-step in that regard as well. What Dream Land lacks in depth, it makes up for in its sense of education to how games work.

The layout of the stages and enemies serve as a study to the game’s mechanics (and by extension, the mechanics of platformers as a whole). And each subsequent stage introduces some new gameplay elements (including a space shooter segment, food that give Kirby new abilities, and a boss rush final stage). Yeah, it is a little cheap that Kirby can pretty much avoid any non-boss obstacle in the game by flying (later entries would provide enemies and hazards to prevent such an exploit of Kirby’s powers), but again, this was a title designed to introduce young children to the medium.

Kirby’s Dream Land may not be the most timeless of Kirby titles. If anything, it’s utter simplicity compared to its sequels and spinoffs may retroactively make it the weakest entry in the series. But it’s hard to be too critical on a game that’s simply trying to open the door for children to get into gaming, and the soundtrack holds up nicely (King Dedede has the longest-standing theme music of any video game character for good reason. His theme is awesome!). Kirby’s first adventure may not be a classic, yet it still has its charms.

 

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