Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (SNES) Review

In the late 80s and well into the 90s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ruled the world. Although it started as a comic book by the recently defunct Mirage Studios, it became a pop culture phenomenon with the 1987 cartoon series. TMNT would go on to become one of those rare franchises that hasn’t really lost its popularity in the years since that early booming period, with several movies and subsequent comic books and cartoons that continue to this day. And of course, we can’t forget the many video games to star the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Although the Turtles are most associated with the beat-em-up genre in the world of gaming, they’ve appeared in a number of other genres as well. Strangely, even though the peak years of Turtlemania coincided with the fighting game boom of the early 90s, the Turtles only starred in one such fighting game during that timeframe: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters by Konami.

I suppose you could say the Turtles starred in three fighting games of the time, seeing as Tournament Fighters saw releases on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis in 1993, and weirdly made its way to the NES afterwards in 1994, with each version having notable differences from one another (with most praising the SNES version as the best of the lot, because of course it was). Although the pairing of TMNT and fighting games seems like such an obvious success, Tournament Fighters doesn’t seem nearly as remembered as some of the other Turtles games of the time.

Perhaps that’s due in part to the game’s selection of playable characters, many of whom would still be considered deep cuts to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aficionados even today. The SNES version contains ten playable characters, but only half of them would be very familiar to Turtles fans. Four of those are obviously the Ninja Turtles themselves: Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo. The other familiar face is their archnemesis, the Shredder (though he is bizarrely labeled as “Cyber Shredder” in the game).

The remaining characters are varying degrees of niche. There’s Armaggon, a shark-like mutant; Wingnut is a humanoid bat; and the oddly-named War is a purple triceratops-like creature who is not in fact a member of the Triceratons (triceratops-like aliens from the franchise). These three characters all originated from the Archie Comics TMNT series, which I emphasize is separate from the original Mirage Studios comics. Of the lot, only Wingnut appeared in the 1987 cartoon, though Armaggon would eventually show up in the 2012 series. And then we have Chrome Dome, a robot character who appeared in a few episodes of the original series. But the last character is the real odd-duck of the lot.

The final playable character is Aska (which really should be spelled “Asuka”), a ninja woman who made her first and only appearance in the TMNT franchise in this game (meaning we have at least one more deep cut character the newer cartoons can resurrect). Apparently, Aska was intended to be the character Mitsu from the film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, to which she bears a strong resemblance (though the video game character is a little ‘bouncier’ in certain areas). But due to that film’s poor reception from fans, the character was hastily tweaked to the Aska seen here.

So if you were hoping for fan favorites like Master Splinter, Casey Jones, Bebop and Rocksteady, Krang, or frequent crossover character Miyamoto Usagi, you’re out of luck. Splinter is kidnapped in the game’s story mode, and Bebop and Rocksteady are background characters on one of the stages. So the character selections may have been off-putting to fans at the time. Seeing as this was around the height of Turtlemania, fans were probably hoping to see more of their favorites in the game. Though perhaps the more obscure selections make the game more interesting in retrospect.

Anyway, aside from the lack of fan favorites, Tournament Fighters has a lot to offer TMNT fans, and is a solid fighter in its own right.

The game features three different modes: Tournament, Versus and Story. Tournament is your expected arcade-style mode, where you pick any of the ten characters, and go through a series of fights. You have unlimited continues, and can switch characters if you lose. Versus allows players to fight matches at their own leisure, and can be played with two players (making it the game’s real main event, and what will keep you coming back if you have other players available). Story is similar to the Tournament mode, but fittingly features more cutscenes and dialogue boxes. You can only play as the Ninja Turtles themselves in this mode, with the order of opponents differing depending on which turtle you select, and you only get three continues here.

The story is that the Shredder has been defeated and is no longer in New York City (though he’s still an opponent, so maybe “Cyber Shredder” is like a robot or something?). But the Foot Clan returns under the leadership of Karai (marking the character’s first appearance outside of the Mirage comics, further playing into the game’s love of lesser-known TMNT characters). Seeking revenge for Shredder’s defeat, the Foot Clan kidnaps Splinter and April O’Neil to goad the turtles into combat. It’s a fighting game plot.

Additionally, players can go to the option menu to alter the difficulty of the game, and even choose a setting that speeds up the gameplay. The Tournament and Story modes end earlier on easier settings (Tournament ends against the non-playable Rat King, and Story against Cyber Shredder, with players only facing Karai herself on more difficult settings). But the easier settings will probably be more enjoyable for most players, since it seems like Tournament Fighters is one of those retro fighting games where the AI opponents can seemingly break the rules of the game on harder settings.

This is the game’s most annoying drawback. I admit I’m not the best player of fighting games, particularly against other people. But I usually enjoy trying out the more difficult settings in the single-player modes. Though some of the older fighting games can get ridiculous on higher difficulty settings. They don’t simply get harder, but the computer AI seems to be able to do things the human player can’t, and unfortunately Tournament Fighters is one of those games. The AI opponents spam moves faster than you can react to them, and on several occasion when I knocked my opponent down and approached them to follow up, they somehow managed to grapple me before they even stood back up! It’s cheap little things like that that make this one of the fighting games where I just don’t want to bother with the harder settings.

I suppose the higher difficulties are only there for those who want them, however. The easier settings will provide some good fun while they last. Though the game’s lasting appeal will of course be its two-player versus mode.

The gameplay itself is tight and intricate, and actually feels on par with Street Fighter II. Each character has two punch/weapon attacks and two kicks (a weak and strong variation) mapped out to the four buttons on the SNES controller. There are familiar button combos and a good variety of moves for each character. Additionally, continuously attacking an opponent will fill up a green meter under your health bar. If you can fill up the bar completely, you can unleash a powerful special move by pressing both of the stronger attack buttons. Sure, by today’s standards, Tournament Fighters may feel a little slow. But for its time, this is as good and fleshed-out as fighting mechanics got. It’s still a fun game to play.

To top it all off, the game looks great. Although maybe not as colorful as the more famous Turtles in Time, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters features the kind of detailed, fluidly animated character sprites you would expect from the SNES. The sound is maybe a bit less consistent (Rat King sounds kind of like Sylvester Stallone), but it does what it needs to.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighter may not be the most remembered Turtles game, but it has perhaps held up the best out of those released during the early days of Turtlemania. It clearly took more than a little inspiration from Street Fighter II, and I’m actually surprised how well it compares to the influential fighter.

If you still have a Super Nintendo at the ready, Tournament Fighter is a fun time. And if you have a friend over, it should be a great time.

7

Super Nintendo Turns 30 (in North America)!

Yeah, I know. I already wrote a thing about the Super Nintendo’s 30th anniversary based on its original Japanese release. But we’re talking about a video game console so good, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write about it again.

Today, August 23rd 2021, marks the 30th anniversary of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s release in North America. This also means it’s the 30th anniversary of Super Mario World’s release in North America, which I’ll happily say is still the best launch game ever made.

There are a few classic video game consoles from yesteryear: the original NES had perhaps a bigger impact than any other, and was the video game console of the 80s. The Nintendo 64 pioneered 3D gaming. The Sony Playstation, as well as the Sega Genesis, Saturn and Dreamcast, also opened new doors to gaming. But it’s the Super Nintendo Entertainment System that’s the timeless masterpiece of a video game console.

With all due respect to the aforementioned consoles, they have aged in one way or another (well, maybe not the Genesis, but its library wasn’t as deep as the SNES’). That’s not to say that they don’t have their share of timeless games, because they do. But when revisiting those consoles, it is apparent that they came from specific points in the past (as much as I love the N64, and perhaps sometimes I’m too harsh on it, it can sometimes be painfully obvious that it was experimenting with 3D gaming). But the SNES is the one that still stands tall even when compared to today’s consoles. It was that perfect moment in gaming history when developers had mastered the craft of everything that came before. And while it is a good thing that gaming entered new territories afterwards, suffice to say that entering the third-dimension kind of started things over. And in some ways, games still have yet to catch up to where they were (the SNES never had things like microtransactions get in the way of more honest game design, after all).

Just think of the library of classics the SNES had: Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the Donkey Kong Country trilogy, Yoshi’s Island, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Super Mario Kart, Kirby Super Star, Kirby’s Dream Land 3, EarthBound, the first three Mega Man X games, Mega Man 7, Tetris Attack, the Street Fighter 2 ports, Secret of Mana, and more still!

There were just so many classics on the console, and they remain every bit as fun today as they were then (exception being Star Fox. In a bit of role reversal, it’s the N64 installment in that series that has proven timeless). You also had your lesser known gems (Demon’s Crest), and stronger third-party support than any Nintendo console until the Switch (although the Wii actually had stronger third-party support than it gets credit for).

A classic lineup of games unlike any that has been seen before or since, the Super Nintendo is truly one of the greats. It’s hard to believe it’s been thirty years since the system made its way stateside (I was just a baby at the time!). But you wouldn’t know it by playing the many classics it produced.

Happy 30th anniversary (again), Super Nintendo!

Magical Drop 2 Review

Magical Drop is a series of falling block puzzle games originally developed by the now-defunct Data East. It was a popular series in arcades (particularly in Japan), but the series found a newfound popularity when the second and third entries were ported to home consoles. Though the series continues to take long absences between releases as it bounces around from one developer to another, the older titles continue to find their way onto modern gaming hardware. Such is the case with Magical Drop 2’s release on the Nintendo Switch’s Online service, a port of the Super Famicom version of the game. While fans may still be left wondering why Nintendo seems to refuse to add EarthBound and Super Mario RPG to the Switch’s retro lineup, Magical Drop 2 is a surprisingly welcome addition, providing the pure gaming fun that you expect from its genre.

Most falling block-style puzzle games see the blocks fall from the top of the screen to the bottom, with the player trying to prevent the blocks from rising back up to the top. The schtick with Magical Drop, however, is that the game is over as soon as the blocks (or “bubbles”) reach the bottom of the screen. So instead of blocks falling one at a time, the bubbles of Magical Drop slowly descend in rows, with the player trying to eliminate these rows before they reach the bottom of the screen.

How the player does this is pretty unique: the player can grab onto one color of bubble at a time (though they can grab as many of that color as they can), and then throw those bubbles back to the rows above. The player has to line up at least three of the same color bubble vertically in order to eliminate them, but the really cool thing is that if there are other bubbles of the same color coming into contact with what the player pieces together, every connected bubble of that color will be eliminated. So if you play things carefully enough, you can destroy many blocks in different rows with one fell swoop.

It’s a fun setup, and like many games of the genre, the simplicity the gameplay displays on face value hides a whole lot of depth and strategy. Certain modes will also introduce their own gimmicks, such as special bubbles that, should they touch a completed column, will subsequently destroy an entire row, column or surrounding area of bubbles. There are also ice blocks, which are basically neutral bubbles, with all adjacent ice blocks disappearing if a row of bubbles is completed next to them, no matter the color.

The game features several playable characters. They are all charming enough with their cute anime designs. Though one of the game’s more questionable elements is that each character supposedly has their own abilities, but unlike something like Tetris Battle Gaiden, where these abilities are obvious and manually performed by the player, the character abilities in Magical Drop 2 are a lot more vague. From what I understand, the character abilities here revolve around how the rows of bubbles fall, but the action is so fast paced I haven’t the eye to notice the differences between them. And there’s no in-game description of what their abilities do, other than a one-to-five star rating for a character’s strength, and a vague image under their “magic” category. So you’re guess is as good as mine.

Magical Drop 2 features four different modes of play: a single-player mode where the player simply tries to last as long as possible and beat their high score. Then there’s the two player battle mode, of course. There’s also a story mode, where the player selects their character and faces off against the others. Finally, there’s the oddly-named “puzzle” mode, which has the player trying to eliminate screens of all their bubbles in as little moves as possible in order to add more time to a constantly ticking clock. So there’s actually some good variety here, for a game of its time. And given how addictive the gameplay already is, there’s some really good replay value here.

The game features some fun visuals (the characters’ victory and defeat animations are surprisingly fluid), and the music is appropriately upbeat and catchy. Though the game’s audio takes a hit simply because the narrator can get pretty annoying. I’m someone who honestly doesn’t mind Baby Mario’s crying in Yoshi’s Island, and finds the garbled voices of Banjo-Kazooie to be charming, so it’s saying something when a soundbite in a game gets on my nerves. Magical Drop 2’s narrator’s shouts of “No!” whenever something doesn’t go right for either participants (computer player included) is so constant it becomes stressful. The narrator doesn’t even say anything else during a match. It’s not a major issue or anything, but it is a shame that the endless stream of “No!” drowns out the delightful music.

The falling block puzzler is one of gaming’s most purely enjoyable genres: instantly entertaining, addictingly engaging, unhindered by the bells and whistles that gaming has adopted over the years. Magical Drop 2 is another reminder of why the genre is so enduring.

7

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.

 

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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.

 

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