Super Mario World and Super Nintendo Turn 30!

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the original release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in Japan, and along with it, Super Mario World.

With all the hullaballoo Nintendo is (understandably) making for the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., they’ve been strangely quiet about this moments anniversary. As far as I’m concerned, the Super NES is the most timeless console of all time. While the original NES has earned its place in video game history, playing it today, it does feel like a product of its time, save for a few exceptions (Mario, Mega Man, Kirby). Similarly, the Nintendo 64 pioneered and revolutionized 3D gaming. But testing new waters meant that not everything about the N64 has held up swimmingly, and again, with a few exceptions (Mario, Zelda, Banjo, Starfox and Kirby), the Nintendo 64 can also feel a bit like a relic.

The Super NES, on the other hand, hit that sweet spot. The culmination of everything game design had learned up to that point, polished and refined. The SNES continued classic gameplay and franchises, while introducing hosts of new ones, and made them all better than ever. And beyond all expectations, the classics of the SNES haven’t aged a day. It really did earn the monicker of “Super.”

More specifically, let’s talk about Super Mario World. The best video game launch title of all time, Super Mario World is at once synonymous with the Super Nintendo, and also one of the rare games whose reputation might just transcend its console (certainly no small feat, given the console in question). I mean, Super Mario World is just the definition of a classic. You don’t really think of the year of release or the era in question when it comes to Super Mario World. It’s simply a perennial classic that stands on its own.

Super Mario Bros. 3 may have perfected what Super Mario Bros. started, but Super Mario World somehow perfected that perfection. Brilliant level design, repayable levels, secret exits and hidden worlds, Super Mario World effectively created the difference between simply getting to the end of a game, and completing it 100%. You could also speedrun it and try to best it in as few levels as possible if you wanted. Basically, while NES titles and prior video games were all about high scores and finding the fastest way to get to the end, Super Mario World created the broader options of how you could complete a game. Both speed runners and completionists owe Super Mario World more than a little thanks.

And, of course, who could forget the introduction of Yoshi! Mario’s cute little dinosaur sidekick quickly became Nintendo’s second most popular character (sorry Luigi). Yoshi even starred in Super Mario World’s 1995 prequel, Yoshi’s Island, and went on to star in franchises of his own.

Like the Super Nintendo itself, Super Mario World felt like a refinement of of its predecessors, with Nintendo adding new and creative ideas around every corner. A classic in every sense of the word.

As an added bonus, November 21st also serves as the anniversaries of the original releases of Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 2 (DKC3 misses the mark by one day). So you could rightfully call November 21st “Super Nintendo Day” (which I very much do). DKC was released on this day twenty-six years ago, while DKC2 celebrates its big twenty-fifth anniversary today. As an added bonus to said added bonus, Donkey Kong Country Returns was released on the Wii ten years ago today, to commemorate the sixteenth anniversary of the original DKC… How the hell is Donkey Kong Country Returns a decade old already?

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. Happy Super Nintendo Day, everybody! And a very happy 30th to Super Mario World! Wahoo!

Puyo Puyo 2 Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7

Brawl Brothers Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

4

Super Earth Defense Force Review

*Review based on Super Earth Defense Force’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch SNES Online service*

Originally developed by Jaleco for arcades in 1991, Earth Defense Force made its way to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System the very next year, with the appropriate “Super” added to the title. Super Earth Defense Force is a simple side scrolling rail-shooter that provides competent enough fun, but features some questionable creative decisions that hold it back.

The player takes control of a space fighter, which is accompanied by two satellite fighters. At the start of each stage, players can select which weapons the satellite fighters have, with eight possible options. But you should always pick the “homing” option.

This is the game’s first big creative misstep. The homing attack is so overpowered and so much more useful than the other seven options that it makes them close to pointless. I’m not talking about the good kind of overpowered which simply makes the character feel more powerful, like the cape in Super Mario World or the Crissaegrim from Symphony of the Night. This is the bad kind of overpowered, as in “did anyone test this to properly compare these weapons?” Though the game sees the player automatically traveling to the right side of the screen, enemies don’t just spawn ahead of, but behind, above, and below as well. As such, the homing attack is the only one that can reliably hit these enemies. And in some instances (even on the first level), there are numerous enemies descending from the top of the screen that are difficult to avoid unless you destroy some of them, but you can’t hit them unless you – as you might have guessed – picked the homing attack. There’s no reason for you not to pick it.

The player has three hit points, and four total lives. The only way to heal is by completing a stage, and there is no way to gain extra lives. Additionally, the stages feature no checkpoints, so every defeat will send you back to the start of the current stage. This all makes sense for an arcade game, where no doubt additional coins would allow for more continues. But it’s a shame that Earth Defense Force’s transition to the Super NES didn’t consider the differences in arcade and console gaming. With no way to heal or continue past your four initial lives, it makes the game an entirely trial and error approach. You’ll make more and more progress every time you play and figure out which enemies spawn at which point, but only after learning from being defeated by surprise attacks time and again. That might make sense for an arcade game, but on the SNES, the occasional healing item or extra life would be appreciated.

In the case of extra lives, Super Earth Defense Force even provides an apt opportunity for such things. As you defeat enemies, you’ll gain experience points. Once your experience bar fills up completely, you’ll gain a level, which will upgrade your weapons (preferably your homing weapons). On the plus side, you’ll keep your accumulated level and experience points even after you lose a life. On the downside, this would have been a primed opportunity to also give the player an extra life, giving them more time to utilize and appreciate their upgraded weapons.

As it is, the game’s trial and error approach will see you gradually gain a level, die, then make more progress through the current stage with your upgraded weapons. With only four chances to make it through the whole game, the experience becomes little more than a memorization game.

Super Earth Defense Force isn’t a bad game. The gameplay is simple and fun, the graphics are nice, and the music is catchy enough. But Super Earth Defense Force isn’t really special in any particular way, which means it can’t really make up for its increasingly tedious sense of trial and error. Playing on Nintendo Switch makes it a bit more tolerable, given the save states provided, but such things weren’t in Jaleco’s mind when developing Super Earth Defense Force back in the day. Even the game’s attempt at variety is undone, thanks to one weapon option being as objectively right as you can get in this kind of scenario.

 

5

Demon’s Crest Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Meow!”

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

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

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

“What a looker…”

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

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

 

7

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.

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

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.

 

7

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?

 

8