Mario Kart: Super Circuit Review

Mario Kart: Super Circuit

Though every Nintendo console and handheld since the SNES has had its own iteration of Mario Kart, the Game Boy Advance’s Mario Kart: Super Circuit is the only entry that plays like a direct sequel to the SNES’ Super Mario Kart. If you’re a fan of the original, then Super Circuit may be worth a revisit. Just know that it hasn’t aged quite as well as Super Mario Kart, and its transition to the Wii U Virtual Console has removed some key features.

Super Circuit retains the play style of Super Mario Kart, where courses are mostly flat and straightforward when compared to the other sequels in the series (though they retain the fun Mario themes). Much like the original game, it feels more like the tracks are moving instead of the character, which can take some getting used to, especially when one realizes the turns are much sharper and the vehicles more slippery than in Super Mario Kart. It doesn’t feel as immediately fun as the SNES game, but for those with the patience for it, Super Circuit ends up being a similarly entertaining experience.

There’s also a good sense of balance with computer AI and the items. Playing on 150cc will still prove incredibly difficult, but playing on lesser difficulties make things feel more fair and less random than in some entries of the series. The items consist of all the basics like bananas and shells, and lack the more overpowered weapons of later Mario Karts.

Mario Kart: Super CircuitThe character selection is identical to that of Mario Kart 64: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, Bowser, Toad, Donkey Kong and Wario are all playable, with no secret or surprise characters making the roster. Even back in 2001 when the game was first released on GBA there was no shortage of Mario characters to work with, so the recycled selection is a minor bummer.

The visuals are the aspect of the game that have been most affected by age. Though the game is colorful and the game’s merging of Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64’s art styles is interesting, it looks neither as lively as the former or even as visually pleasing as the latter (normally you’d expect an early 3D game like MK64 to have aged worse visually than a 2D game like Super Circuit, but somehow the exact opposite is true). The game’s Virtual Console release is also better suited for off-TV play on the Gamepad, since playing on the TV stretches the visuals and exposes its datedness all the more. Some of Super Circuit’s rotation effects might even prove bothersome to those with sensitive eyes.

The single biggest drawback to the Virtual Console release, however, is that it no longer has a multiplayer option. That’s right, it’s Mario Kart without multiplayer now. If you can track down an original GBA copy of the game and a couple of link cables, you can still have some multiplayer fun. But without a means to replicate the link cables, or a split-screen option to make up for it, the Virtual Console version of the game lacks the series’ defining feature.

Still, there’s fun to be had with the core gameplay. And additional single player modes like Time Trial and Quick Run (a more customizable VS. mode) ensure that there’s more to do than the Grand Prix mode. You can even unlock all twenty tracks from Super Mario Kart on top of the twenty tracks introduced here, giving Super Circuit more courses than any entry in the series up until Mario Kart 8 introduced DLC into the mix. So despite the limitations, there’s still plenty to do for solo players.

If you cherish the gameplay of the original Super Mario Kart, then Super Circuit is still worth a spin, though preferably in its original GBA incarnation. For those who feel the series has improved for deviating from the SNES game’s blueprints, you may want to hit the brakes before downloading Super Circuit.

 

6

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow Review

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

The ‘Metroidvania’ subgenre of platformer was birthed by Super Metroid and turned into a full-fledged genre with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Strangely, most of the subsequent entries in the Castlevania series that follow in Symphony’s footsteps have more or less been exclusive to handhelds. But that only really means that handhelds have been seeing quality Castlevania releases. This was especially the case with the Gameboy Advance, which saw the release of three such Castlevania titles. The third of those GBA games, Aria of Sorrow, is widely acknowledged as one of the best game’s in the system’s library, and one of the best entries in the entire series. It’s well-deserved praise. In the twelve years since its 2003 release, Aria of Sorrow hasn’t lost a step.

In a change of pace, Aria of Sorrow’s story doesn’t take place in the past, but in the future of 2035. Dracula, as it turns out, had been soundly defeated by the Belmonts and Alucard in the year 1999, with his soul and castle being banished in an alternate realm within an eclipse.

Castlevania: Aria of SorrowSoma Cruz is an exchange student in Japan, and as he and his friend Mina are about to visit a shrine, it suddenly becomes a gateway into the eclipse, and the two find themselves in Dracula’s castle. A prophecy that tells of Dracula’s reincarnation inheriting the vampire lord’s powers has a number of characters – both good and evil – searching the castle’s chambers to either prevent or fulfill the prophecy.

Players take control of Soma, who has gained newfound power in this other world. Much like in Symphony of the Night, the player starts off with very little to their arsenal, but they progressively gain new powers and abilities that both make Soma stronger in battle and open up new areas of the castle.

The gameplay is incredibly smooth, with combat and platforming feeling simple and fluid. New weapons, armor and accessories can be found in secret rooms, by defeating enemies, or bought by a man named Hammer, who sets up shop in the castle early in the adventure.

Additionally, Soma gains experience points every time he defeats enemies, and can level up after gaining a set amount of experience points. This gives the game an RPG sense of depth, similar to Symphony of the Night.

Aria of Sorrow admittedly plays really close to Symphony’s playbook (though that’s certainly no sin), with many of the castle’s locations almost feeling carried over from the Playstation classic, albeit with a different layout. What sets Aria of Sorrow apart and gives it its own identity, however, is its introduction of the Tactical Soul system.

The Tactical Soul system allows Soma to steal the souls of defeated monsters, which grant Soma new abilities. Enemies often have to be farmed before you can claim a soul, but the fact that every enemy gives you a new power gives the game an insane amount of depth and variety.

Souls come in four forms: Bullet, Guardian, Enchant and Ability. Bullet souls work as a replacement for the series’ secondary weapons, and are mostly ranged attacks like throwing knives or shooting lightning from your hands. Each use of a Bullet Soul uses magic points, which are replenished with collectible hearts (or potions). Guardian Souls are continuous moves that eat up magic points until deactivated, like transforming into different forms or summoning minions. Enchant souls are always in effect when equipped, and thus don’t require magic points. Abilities granted from Enchant souls can range from mere stat boosting to walking on water. Finally, Ability souls are usually found after boss fights, and give Soma abilities that are necessary to delve deeper into the castle. Unlike the other types, they are always active and never need to be equipped (though the player can turn their effects off if they choose).

Castlevania: Aria of SorrowIt really is a simple addition to the series, but one that has a powerful effect on the game’s content and longevity. It’s as addictive as collecting Pokemon. And much like Pokemon, the game’s original GBA release gave players the ability to link up to trade souls, because chances are you won’t be able to grab them all in a single playthrough. Unfortunately, like so many linking features before it, the trading aspect of the game is absent in the Wii U Virtual Console release.

The game also looks great, and somehow seems to have made the transition from GBA to Wii U better than most, visually speaking. Sure, Soma’s character model lacks defining features, but that’s forgivable when taking into account the screen the game was originally made for. The game’s art direction and animations also hold up really well. As is a recurring element of the series, Aria of Sorrow features a stellar soundtrack, though it might not quite stack up to the series’ finest scores.

Castlevania: Aria of SorrowIf you enjoy Metroidvania titles even the slightest bit, you owe it to yourself to play Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. It may have been compacted for a handheld, but it exudes as much depth and content as its console counterparts. The gameplay is great, and the Tactical Soul system pretty much means you can change things up in nearly countless ways. The graphics and sound have aged nicely, and several unlockable modes, multiple endings and even the ability to play as a secret character means that the game will outlast the ten or so hours you’ll put into the standard quest.

Does Aria of Sorrow match the brilliance of Symphony of the Night? Not quite. But it comes a lot closer than it has any right to. That it should be compared so frequently with such an esteemed predecessor is quite a statement in itself.

9

Castlevania: Dracula X Review

Castlevania: Dracula X

Castlevania: Dracula X is an interesting entry in the Castlevania canon. This Super Nintendo installment was originally to be the western release of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, which was released exclusively in Japan on the PC Engine. Though Dracula X shares similar graphics and an identical plot to Rondo of Blood, it boasts drastic differences in its level design, structure and even some gameplay elements. This has lead the game to have a somewhat divisive effect on the Castlevania fanbase, though on its own merits it stands as a great entry in the acclaimed series.

Dracula X falls under the traditional Castlevania gameplay (this game being the direct precursor to Symphony of the Night and the introduction of “Metroidvania”). You take control of Richter Belmont, a descendant of Simon Belmont who (as is family tradition) is on a quest to slay the evil Count Dracula, and in the process rescue his love interest Annette and her sister Maria.

Castlevania: Dracula XRichter uses a whip like Simon and Trevor before him. Though it initially might seem disappointing that Richter cannot swing his whip in every direction like Simon could in Super Castlevania IV (the more popular SNES entry), he makes up for it with an overall better sense of control. Richter’s jumps are less stiff and more controllable, he doesn’t get knocked back nearly as far as his predecessors when hit, and (mercifully) he has a much better sense of control when going up and down stairs.

Along with the whip, Richter can also find the usual secondary items: the throwing knife, holy water, crucifix, the axe, and the stopwatch, which all require collectible hearts to be used. This time, however, each secondary weapon also comes with a screen-wide special attack, which can come in handy in areas chock-full of enemies, but require a whopping fifteen hearts for every use.

Castlevania: Dracula XThe levels are progressed linearly, with Richter moving to the next stage whenever a boss is defeated or when other requirements are met. You’ll play through a total of seven levels on any given playthrough, but there are nine levels total, with alternate fourth and fifth stages available. The number of alternate stages is reduced from the original Rondo of Blood, but they still add a sense of variety to the game. And given that Annette and Maria are held captive in different levels, you’ll have to know how to find them if you want the best ending.

The paths to some of the alternate levels can be a bit tricky, which might be off-putting to some, since you’ll have to either input a password or start the game over to get back to that point if you missed your opportunity to go down a certain path (you can end up in the fourth level that doesn’t house a damsel in distress simply by falling into a pit in one of the rooms in the third level, which is incredibly easy to do as you’re bombarded by floating medusa heads and dragon skulls). But if you can put up with the trial-and-error approach, it’s rewarding to find the different ways to play through the game.

At only seven levels in a playthrough, Dracula X is admittedly short, but the game’s high difficulty makes it feel a lot bigger. The enemies can get tough, with some of them being able to take Richter out in a few quick hits. The platforming  can also be challenging, but thankfully due to the levels themselves and not Richter’s movements. And you may throw your hands in the air when you can finally make it to a boss without dying, only for the boss to send you to a game over in a very short amount of time.

As difficult as the game is, it never gets particularly frustrating. The healing items are still a bit too infrequent, but checkpoints appear more often than in previous games in the series. And while the levels can be a little lengthy, they aren’t so large as to make it a chore every time you get a game over and have to start them over.

Castlevania: Dracula XAnother highlight of the game are the graphics. The game doesn’t utilize the same Mode 7 effects that Super Castlevania IV did (no rotating rooms this time), but it still looks gorgeous even today. The sprites are vivid and detailed, and the animations are surprisingly smooth, even for a SNES game. But even the great artwork is secondary to the absolutely incredible soundtrack. Hands down, this is one of the best soundtracks in both the Castlevania and SNES library, and that is saying a whole lot. I could go on and on about the soundtrack alone, but I digress.

There’s a whole lot to love about Castlevania: Dracula X, but there are some drawbacks to this version of Richter’s quest. As stated, there are less alternate levels than in Rondo of Blood, so you may feel you’re only getting a chunk of the adventure. Similarly, Maria was an unlockable character in the original game, and became playable after you rescued her, but that isn’t the case here. Finding the alternate routes, while understandably challenging, can sometimes be needlessly difficult (seriously, those pits). You also kind of wish Richter had some more unique moves and that the game used as many visual effects as Super Castlevania IV.

Still, even with these shortcomings and half-realized elements, Castlevania: Dracula X is still a great game for any fan of the series or 16-bit games. This may not be a popular opinion, but between this and Super Castlevania IV, I find Dracula X to be the better aged game. It has the same kind of fun, but with a vastly superior sense of control, a tighter, more challenging quest, and one amazing music track after another.

 

7

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest Review

Castlevania 2

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is the most polarizing of the NES Castlevania titles. Though it took the series in new directions that would later be adopted by the series’ best entries, it is, to put it lightly, a rough blueprint of what was to follow. The inventive ideas that Castlevania II brings to the table are countered with often muddled execution, making this a Castlevania that requires a great deal of patience.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest forgoes the more linear level progression of the original, and replaces it with something closer to an RPG.

Simon still controls from a sidescrolling perspective, his trusty whip is still his primary means of attack, and there’s still platforming to be had. But now the secondary weapons are permanent, with the collectible hearts working as currency. Simon can gain experience and upgrade his whip. And towns now separate the action-oriented segments, which take place in the monster-infested wild and are capped off with mansions and castles.

Castlevania 2In concept, it’s a brilliant setup, made even more interesting by the game’s day and night cycles, with the night filling the towns with zombies and doubling the strength of monsters. But the game’s overly cryptic nature can make the game outright dumbfounding, and a poor translation only adds to the confusion.

There are just too many elements that go unexplained throughout the game. For example, you may find that when traversing the haunted mansions Simon will randomly fall through certain platforms that bear no visual difference from any other platform. The only way to know which platforms are solid and which ones are traps is to continuously throw holy water at every platform. If the water falls through, you know it’s a trap. Not only is this process tedious, but there’s nothing in game that informs you of this.

The people in the towns often give you “hints” of what you need to do, but rarely are they any real help. It’s said that in the Japanese version, the townsfolk are all liars, so you can’t trust what they have to say. I don’t know how helpful that in itself would be, but combine that with the game’s lackluster translation, and it just becomes all the more cryptic.

Then there’s the mansions themselves, which don’t end with a boss fight, but by throwing an oak stake into an orb at the end of a mansion. You have to purchase the oak stakes within the mansions themselves, but you’re not told what you’re supposed to do with them. If you throw the stake at an enemy (which does nothing), you need to repurchase it, which is no small deal considering how long it takes to stock up on hearts.

The whole game feels like it’s tailor-made to be played alongside a strategy guide. There are so many unexplained features that today’s gamers will be looking up online guides almost out of the gate.

Castlevania 2Another problem arises with the game’s difficulty. Some of the less desirable mechanics from the first game return, like the stair climbing, stiff jumping, and the intense knock back Simon receives from a single hit. While combating monsters can provide some old school fun, the game can become frustrating with how easy it is to die. It might not even be so bad, except that every time you die you lose all of the hearts you gathered, and every item costs a good number of hearts, so every time you die it’s going to take that much longer to progress even just a little bit. You may find yourself farming the same batch of enemies over and over (it in itself a monotonous task) just to stack up on hearts, only to lose them all because you got knocked into a pool of water.

What’s worse is the only way to heal is by visiting one of the churches in the towns, which are only open in the day because at night the zombies come out. So you have a very limited window to heal up on top of everything else.

There is some fun to be had with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, but chances are you’ll need a strategy guide in order to enjoy it. The game does, however, boast an incredible 8-bit soundtrack that stands as one of the best in the NES library. But even that doesn’t quite lift the game out of the rut it creates with its overly cryptic nature, repetitive adventure, and taxing challenge.

 

5

Castlevania Review

Castlevania

There are few franchises in all of gaming as revered as Castlevania. Konami’s beloved action series has been one of peaks and plateaus over the years, but whether great, good or bad, the series has built on the initial blueprint created by the NES original. Going back to play the original Castlevania today, you’ll find that while many of its attributes still hold up, it is not a game for everyone.

Being the first entry in the storied series, Castlevania represents the very basics of the series’ gameplay. Simon Belmont can walk, jump, and uses a whip as his primary weapon. Additionally, secondary weapons can be found in the forms of throwing knives, holy water, throwing axes, boomerang-like crucifixes, and stop watches that temporarily freeze enemies and obstacles in place. You can only hold one secondary item at a time, and they are lost whenever Simon is defeated. Hearts can be found hidden all over the place, and every secondary item takes one heart for each use, with the exception of the stop watch, which uses five hearts.

There are a total of six levels, which are progressed through linearly. Each stage is separated into three segments, with each segment serving as a checkpoint, and a boss fight waits at the end of every level. Simon must make his way through these six stages in order to confront the evil Count Dracula in a final showdown.

The game is as simple as that, but its level design provides some challenging platforming and the enemies will put Simon Belmont’s weapons to good use.

CastlevaniaAt its core, Castlevania remains a fun game to play for the most part. Though it does include awkward “stair mechanics,” with Simon becoming glued to staircases when ascending and descending them, which leaves him vulnerable to enemies’ attacks. Aside from that mechanic the gameplay remains mostly fun. The graphics, while simple, still manage to evoke a sense of eeriness even with their 8-bit limitations, and Castlevania includes a killer NES soundtrack.

What will turn away a good number of today’s gamers, however, is Castlevania’s sharp difficulty. A lot of NES games were incredibly difficult (no Nintendo console library since has been so consistently challenging). But while Mega Man and the like are difficult because of smart level design and boss fights, Castlevania combines those traits with some unpredictable enemies and a few cumbersome elements.

Players may notice they make it through the first three levels without too much trouble. But once you enter the fourth level things pick up drastically, with enemies popping into the screen seemingly randomly, and others have patterns that seem to change on the fly. The fourth boss – a combination of Frankenstein’s monster and a tiny, bouncing Igor – will probably have anyone but the most diehard Castlevania fan swearing at their television screen.

It’s true that many of these enemies become much easier with the appropriate secondary weapon, but since you only have access to those so often, you frequently feel at a loss. And the sheer unpredictability of some enemies only adds fuel to the fire.

Take into account the aforementioned stair mechanics, which also remove Simon’s ability to jump. If you come across a skeleton throwing multiple bones at the top of a staircase and Simon has low health, you’re pretty much a sitting duck. Floating Medusa Heads continuously spawn is certain areas, but each will spawn with different patterns. Ravens will fly towards Simon, sometimes continuing to fly onward, other times swooping down for a strike. Then there’s the tiny Fleamen, who bounce around Simon uncontrollably, and are difficult enough to hit that they might deplete most of your health before you can take one of them down.

CastlevaniaThere’s also the strong knock back Simon receives with every hit. You can potentially make it through most of a level without taking a hit, then die after a single bump sends you down a pit, into a spike, or into a body of water (this is especially bothersome when Simon travels across water on small platforms, and Mermen will jump out of the water at random points, meaning they can knock Simon into the water without the player being able to do much about it). You can find meat hidden in some of the castle walls to replenish health, but they’re so infrequent they only help so much.

There just seems to be a few too many elements in the difficulty that are out of the player’s control. As such, Castlevania may be off-putting to many gamers today. But for those who welcome an old school challenge, and anyone with a strong love for the Castlevania series, then revisiting this inaugural chapter in the illustrious saga will ultimately prove worth it.

Castlevania may not stack up to many of its sequels, but knowing all the games that were inspired in its wake is enough to be grateful for in itself.

 

6

Mario Golf (N64) Review

Mario Golf

Though Mario had made appearance in sports titles beforehand, 1999’s Mario Golf on the Nintendo 64 is the game that made Mario sports games a thing. These days, Mario sports titles are a common recurrence, but Mario Golf was testing new waters in its time. Playing Mario Golf today on the Wii U Virtual Console, you may find that some of its aspects hold up, but in a lot of ways, it feels like a limited experience, especially when compared to more recent Mario sports games.

As the game’s title suggests, Mario Golf is a golf simulation game that stars Mario and his friends (and enemies). In the case of being a golf title it works fine, but you may find the Mario characters are strangely misused.

Mario GolfGameplay is simple enough for even those with little knowledge (or interest) in golf to get into it, but deep enough to make it a competitive and replayable package. The mechanics of the sport are streamlined, but you’ll still need to choose your shots carefully, and pay attention to the weather, the land, your swing and even the wind (represented by a Boo, being one of the only uses of a Mario element outside of the playable characters) in order to get the best score.

You can choose the strength in which to swing the club, and your shot’s power and distance is determined by pressing the A button at the right times as a bar moves through a gauge at the bottom of the screen. It’s easy enough to understand, but you’ll quickly find it’s difficult to master once you take your positioning and other conditions into account.

The core gameplay is still a solid golfer, but you’ll soon realize that there’s not a whole lot of “Mario” to it. The courses are all straight forward golf courses, with no Mushroom Kingdom locales or wacky gimmicks, and the game’s alternate modes, such as Ring Shot (similar to that from Mario Tennis), don’t reflect the franchise much either, fun as they may be. Even the mini-golf mode, which seems like a prime opportunity to bring out many of the series’ elements, feels rather bland, with shapes from the alphabet and numerical system being used in favor of any Mario-themed courses.

But seeing as those modes work just fine if all you’re looking for is a golfing game, you could potentially look past that. What’s less forgivable is the game’s character selection.

PlumFive new characters were introduced here in Plum, Charlie, Harry, Sonny and Maple, with Plum being the only one anyone seems to remember (perhaps due to the fact that she’s the only one who actually looks like a Mario character). It shouldn’t come as a surprise that none of these newcomers have returned since, though it is something of a shame that Plum never became a recurring character. If anything, it may have spared us from seeing Daisy become a staying character in these spinoffs.

What really adds a big question mark to the character selection, however, is how the majority of characters, including Mario himself, need to be unlocked. That’s right, you don’t start out with Mario as a playable character in a game called Mario Golf. 

The only starting characters are two of the aforementioned newcomers, Plum and Charlie, as well as Princess Peach and Baby Mario (this game also started the paradox-creating trend of having Mario play sports against his infant self). Everyone else must be unlocked in “Character Match” mode, with a couple of them unlocked via other means.

In Character Match, you are pitted against an AI-controlled character, and you must beat them in order to unlock that character. This process works one at a time, with every character showing up in a fixed order, with Mario himself not showing up until the sixth time around. And if you think this doesn’t sound like too big of a deal, it should be noted that the AI is not only pretty difficult, but you can’t even change its difficulty. Unlocking every character becomes a time-consuming, arduous process that only diehards will care to accomplish. It’s baffling to think that you have to go through so much trouble just to play as Mario in Mario Golf.

The worst part of it all is that Camelot, though proven to be a capable developer with these Mario sports titles, failed to work on the character balance. You’ll find that once you unlock later characters like Mario, Bowser and Metal Mario, you’ll probably never play as the starters again, unless you want to be stacked against all odds.

Also of note is that there were originally four unique characters that could be unlocked via connection to the Gameboy Color version of Mario Golf, but this feature is once again absent in the Virtual Console release, meaning that no matter what you’ll always have four shadowed out squares on the character select screen.

Mario GolfOn the plus side, the core gameplay of Mario Golf holds up pretty well, so those who simply want to play a simplified golf game may really enjoy it (and it’s still up to four players, which makes for a lot more fun). But that same lot may wonder why there are Mario characters in this game to begin with. Mario fans will probably wonder the same thing.

That’s the thing, unfortunately. While Mario Golf still works well as a golf game, it’s not a very good Mario Golf game. And despite featuring the colorful characters from the Mushroom Kingdom, the game’s demanding nature will probably mean kids won’t have the patience for it. It’s hard to figure out what audience Nintendo and Camelot made this game for.

Later entries would better merge the game of golf into the world of Super Mario with fun level designs, gimmicks, and a stronger emphasis on the characters, while retaining the core golfing experience. But this first proper foray into Mario sports feels like a clash of unconnected elements. It’s not so much Mario Golf so much as golf that just so happens to have Mario characters in it.

It’s still a decent enough game for those enthusiastic for golf itself. But the fact that you have to jump through so many hoops just to play as Mario really says it all.

 

6

Super Mario World Review

Super Mario World

The dawn of the 1990s saw some major shifts in the gaming world. The popularity of the NES was winding down, and Sega had an early jump into the 16-bit generation. With Sega’s head start into this new era of gaming – complete with a certain blue hedgehog who threatened Mario’s crown – Nintendo needed a killer launch title if its own 16-bit console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, was ever to compete with Sega. Super Mario World was that killer launch title, and so much more.

If Super Mario Bros. 3 perfected the formula laid down by the original Super Mario Bros., then Super Mario World may have transcended it. Everything that Shigeru Miyamoto and his teams at Nintendo had learned in developing the NES Mario trilogy culminated in Mario’s SNES debut. It wasn’t merely a graphical overhaul for the series (though it was that too), but a game that took the series’ blueprints and was ready and willing to rewrite them in the most playful ways imaginable at every turn.

Mario seemingly learned a thing or two from Nintendo’s own Metroid by this point, as Super Mario World placed a much greater emphasis on exploration than the series’ previous titles. Super Mario Bros. 3’s world map concept was greatly expanded on by two simple yet profound innovations: Replayable levels, and secret, alternate goals within the game’s stages.

Super Mario WorldNo longer was Mario’s mission to simply make it to the end of the stages by heading right. Now Mario was frequently heading upward, downward, and even inward to find secret exits that would create new pathways on the world map. Simply completing a stage was only half the battle. Mario’s ultimate goal was to scourge every last level for alternate paths to discover all the secrets of Dinosaur Land, which served as a replacement to the Mushroom Kingdom for the game’s setting. Super Mario World’s playful insistence on secrets went to such lengths that it hid a secret world within a secret world.

It’s the way Mario uncovers Dinosaur Land’s hidden levels that truly showcase Super Mario World’s sheer inventiveness. Finding many of the game’s secret exits often requires Mario to break the very rules he himself established in his NES adventures. And the levels themselves, though not as difficult as those of Mario 3, are somehow greater than their predecessors. The sheer creativity presented in each level showcases Nintendo at their best. Rarely has a game been so consistently imaginative with its every last concept before or since.

Super Mario WorldSome lament the fact that Mario’s list of power-ups was lessened from his Super Mario Bros. 3 arsenal, with only the power-ups from the original Super Mario Bros. (Mushroom, Fire Flower, Starman) returning along with one major new power-up. But this new power-up was the Super Feather, which granted Mario with a magic cape that worked like a super powered version of the Tanooki Suit of Mario 3. The Super Cape granted Mario with the ability to take to the clouds, but it controlled more smoothly than his raccoon tail, and with enough skill Mario could fly indefinitely. He could perform an earth-shaking dive bomb attack that defeated every onscreen enemy, as well as a spin attack to take out stronger bad guys. The simple fact is Mario didn’t need any more power-ups, the Super Cape alone made Mario feel – most appropriately – super.

But Super Mario World somehow outdid even its best new power-up with an even greater addition to the series: Yoshi.

Yoshi was Mario’s new dinosaur pal. Mario would hop on his back, and Yoshi could gobble up enemies, walk on dangerous surfaces that Mario could not, and gained special powers based on the color of Koopa shell he held in his mouth (red shells allowed him to spit fire, blue shells gave him wings, and rare yellow shells gave him a stomp attack). Additionally, secret red, blue, and yellow Yoshis could be found, and gained the shell power that reflected their own color no matter the type of shell they ate, while also gaining the individual benefits as well (meaning a blue Yoshi could fly and spit fire with a red shell, and so on).

Yoshi not only changed up the gameplay, but he went on to become one of Nintendo’s most popular characters, even rivaling Mario himself. Aside from Yoshi’s starring role in Mario World’s own prequel, Yoshi has arguably never been better utilized than in his debut outing here (though Super Mario Galaxy 2 might challenge that statement).

“Thanks to the upgrade in graphics and hardware, Mario could now climb fences and fight enemies from both sides.”

It goes without saying that Super Mario World’s visuals were improved over its predecessors. The new 16-bit technology allowed for more colors and effects, which Mario World used to such success that it remains one of the most visually timeless games ever made. It’s as colorful and vivid today as it ever was.

Complimenting the visuals is one of the best soundtracks in the illustrious series. With the possible exceptions of Super Mario RPG and the Galaxy duo, World’s soundtrack sits near the very top of the mountain of memorable Mario soundtracks for its energy and personality, not to mention its catchiness.

Though a technical improvement over its predecessors, what truly makes Super Mario World one of Nintendo’s finest achievements is that aforementioned creativity. There’s simply never a dull moment. Super Mario World is always introducing a new idea, or a twist on an old one, to keep things fresh.

Super Mario WorldYes, Bowser has still kidnapped the princess. But whereas the minimal plot is a retread of the previous Mario adventures, the journey itself is anything but: Ghost Houses, more unique boss encounters (including some non-Koopa bosses with Reznor and the Big Boo), the save feature, the secret exits, the branching paths, the secret worlds, the Super Cape and, of course, Yoshi. Super Mario World is both a refinement and a subtle but powerful reinvention of everything Mario learned up to that point. It remains not only one of the best Mario games ever, but one of the greatest video games. Period.

It’s Super Mario World. We’re just playing in it.

 

10

EarthBound Beginnings Review

EarthBound Beginnings

It’s been a long time coming. Mother – the predecessor of beloved cult classic Earthbound – was released on the NES in Japan back in 1989. It was intended to make its way to the rest of the gaming world, but due to the rise of the 16-bit generation, the game’s (finished) English translation went unreleased, as Mother wasn’t an immediate success even in Japan. Its Super NES sequel would create a cult following unlike any other in the world of video games, and for over two decades fans have waited (often hopelessly, or so it would seem) for Nintendo to give the original an official worldwide release. And now, after all this time, we finally have just that. Mother has been revived under the new English title of EarthBound Beginnings through the Wii U’s Virtual Console! But does it live up to its almost mythical reputation?

On the surface, EarthBound Beginnings is a tried and true, old school RPG. Players traverse an overworld where they encounter various locations and meet many characters as they progress through the plot, while a traditional, Dragon Quest-style battle system provides the action. What sets EarthBound Beginnings apart from other RPGs is its personality.

EarthBound BeginningsWhereas most RPGs of its day (and today, for that matter) boast traditional fantasy or sci-fi settings, EarthBound Beginnings is set in a contemporary American-esque backdrop. Swords give way to baseball bats, potions are replaced with hamburgers, and filling the roles usually reserved for orcs and goblins are hippies and bag ladies.

The world of EarthBound Beginnings is funny and charming, complimented by fun character designs (the main cast resemble Charlie Brown and company from Peanuts). Though some of the visuals show their age, the game’s personality shines through its technical limitations. Better still, the soundtrack is one of the most versatile in the NES library, with the overworld tracks ranging from upbeat and catchy  to melancholic and somber. The battle themes are similarly versatile, with riffs on rock and roll and more psychedelic inspirations accompanying appropriate enemy types. The music never quite reaches the heights of its successor, but it’s a standout NES track nonetheless.

But what of the gameplay? It’s here that EarthBound Beginnings, while mostly solid, can sometimes show the effects of both age and a lack of polish. The core gameplay itself is a fun enough RPG, and although it’s obviously retro, the simplistic battles grow on you the more you play it.

EarthBound BeginningsThe trouble is these battles occur in the form of the most poorly-aged of all RPG conventions: random encounters. These random battles happen at an annoyingly frequent rate, and often when you just want to get from one place to the next you find the trip takes considerably longer than it should because of the amount of random battles you’re bombarded with.

What’s worse is that you’ll still run into weaker enemies once you’re strong enough to make the rewards they give you not worth the time. You have the option to run away, but it only works so often, and when it doesn’t it just drags the battle on that much longer. EarthBound would later fix these problems by removing the random aspects from battles and having weaker enemies either run away or being instantly defeated upon contact.

Another problem arises in the game’s difficulty. There are various points in the game where the challenge takes a steep difficulty curve. Even in earlier portions you’ll find yourself running into enemies that are well beyond your level. This, of course, means that you are often required to level grind for large chunks of time before you can progress further. Grinding isn’t a problem in RPGs when it’s optional, but when the player feels forced to take extended periods of time to level up just so they can continue the story, it really breaks the flow of things.

If you’re used to the more refined EarthBound, then going back to EarthBound Beginnings can feel like a big step backwards in these regards.

EarthBound BeginningsThe narrative serves as another highlight overall, but it too is hampered by some underdeveloped aspects. The plot itself is simple, as an evil alien presence is creating a dark influence in the world. People and animals are acting strangely, robots are invading towns, and inanimate objects are coming to life and attacking people. It’s up to a young boy named Ninten (or whatever the player chooses to name him) to save the day. The plot is simple enough, but builds into something more profound, with the ending in particular being emotional in a way that’s rare to find even in today’s games, making it a piece of gaming narrative that was ahead of its time and then some.

On his travels, Ninten is joined by a young girl named Ana who, like Ninten, can use psychic powers in battle. A geeky boy named Lloyd, who makes up for his lack of supernatural abilities with his knowledge of fire crackers and laser beams, is the first mainstay partner Ninten encounters. Finally there’s Teddy, the leader of a local gang who uses more traditional video game weapons.

The game doesn’t include extensive moments of character development, but the moments it does have can be genuinely touching. Ana, Lloyd and even silent protagonist Ninten all leave their mark. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Teddy, who ends up only joining the party temporarily, leaving you to wonder why he was added to the game to begin with.

As stated, the story itself was ahead of its time in some ways. Sadly, the progression of  that story isn’t always consistent, and sometimes it can be downright cryptic where you’re supposed to go next. I had to resort to online walkthroughs for much of the game, often because I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go.EarthBound Beginnings

Still, the game has enough novel ideas to keep players engaged even in its confusing moments. Having Ninten calling his largely-absent father in order to save is a nice touch, and the dialogue of just about every character you encounter further displays the game’s uniqueness, with NPCs saying things both trivial and contemplative. Rarely do they just point out the obvious goings-on with the plot.

When EarthBound Beginnings works, it’s a roaring success. The more dated elements do prevent it from reaching the same heights of its sequel that we’ve grown to cherish, but the simple fact remains that there are so few games that feel like this. Its personality, sense of humor and sentiment create a unique experience out of a tried and true foundation.

Mother was a unique oddity in its day, and its reputation has turned it into something of a legendary treasure. Today, EarthBound Beginnings feels like that treasure has been unearthed. It doesn’t always shine brightly, and may be a bit rusty. But in its own way, it’s a treasure nonetheless.

 

6

Super Castlevania IV Review

Super Castlevania IV

Castlevania is one of the most storied franchises in all of gaming. Renowned for its intricate action and grim atmosphere, the sidescrolling series would eventually reach new heights when it combined Metroid-style exploration and RPG elements into the mix with the classic, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. But before Symphony helped create the “Metroidvania” sub-genre, Castlevania’s most acclaimed entry was Super Castlevania IV on the Super NES, which many still hail as the best “traditional” Castlevania to date. In many ways, Super Castlevania IV lives up to the legacy its built in all these years since its original release. But in some areas, the game shows a bit of age.

 

Storywise, the game is a remake of the original Castlevania, with Simon Belmont venturing to defeat the evil count Dracula, after the vampire lord has resurrected from a previous defeat 100 years prior. But other then the simple plot, the game is entirely original from the previous games in the series, with new levels and gameplay mechanics that built on its predecessors and brought the series up to date for the 16-bit era.

The game takes place over eleven stages, and like any old school action game, the goal is to simply make it to the end of a stage and defeat its boss to progress further.

Super Castlevania IVSimon Belmont is equipped with a whip that can lash out in eight directions. The whip can also be used to swing across chasms in various points in the game. It can even be swung to shield Simon from projectiles. Additionally, secondary items such as throwing axes and boomerang-like crucifixes can be found throughout the stages, and require ‘hearts’ (think Magic Points with the collectibility of Mario’s coins) in order to be used.

The combat is undoubtedly the best aspect of the gameplay, as whipping down hordes of monsters becomes a thrilling experience.

Unfortunately, there are some areas in gameplay that haven’t aged particularly well. The most notable of which being the jumping, which feels both slow and stiff. Granted, Castlevania is based more on action than platforming, but theres enough jumping from one object to the next to make the clunky jumping become a major problem at some points in the game.

Super Castlevania IVAnother problem – strange as this may sound – comes from walking up and down stairs. When Simon sets one foot on the first step of a staircase, he becomes “glued” to the steps, unable to jump, which leaves him vulnerable to enemy attacks. The sense of control when Simon is walking on a staircase just feels awkward.

The extensive knockback that Simon receives from enemies also becomes a bit of a problem, and you may get more game overs from Simon being knocked back into a pit than from losing all your health. Notably, vertical-based segments become a particular pain, since previous platforms disappear once they fall out of the screen’s focus, so one hit from an enemy often sends Simon plummeting to his doom.

The game as a whole can get pretty difficult. At the best of times this is due to the game’s wonderful level design (with every level feeling distinct from one another), and at its worst due to the aforementioned stiff mechanics. There are some segments that should be reasonably difficult, but they are often made downright frustrating by the awkward control.

While the controls often damper the experience, the adventure as a whole is still memorable, and more than worth a look for fans of classic action games. The level designs are creative, sometimes even genius, as the game took advantage of the SNES’ capabilities of scaling and rotation in inventive ways.

Super Castlevania IVThe game still looks great, and sounds even better. The character designs are detailed, and the graphics are appropriately gloomy, with even the title screen setting up its dreary atmosphere. The soundtrack is a highlight in both the Castlevania series and the SNES library, which is no small feat, considering the hefty soundtracks to be found in both categories.

There’s certainly a lot to love about Super Castlevania IV: Its hard to imagine its presentation could get any better for its time, the combat is fun, the boss fights are memorable in a “difficult but fair” kind of way, and the level design is a constant delight. The downside is that as great as the overall game is, Simon’s slow and often awkward sense of control can hinder the fun. The overall package is something to behold, but Simon himself seems to have aged in the years since the game’s initial release.

Super Castlevania IV is an epic, eerie quest. But it lacks the timelessness and seemingly perfect execution of design that Symphony of the Night boasts. A classic for its time that’s deserving of a revisit, if maybe not a timeless classic in its own right.

 

6

Paper Mario Memories

Paper Mario

I recently began a playthrough of the original Paper Mario on the Wii U’s Virtual Console, and I’m loving every minute of my revisiting of it.

Paper Mario was, of course, the last great Nintendo 64 title, being released months before the GameCube’s launch. In many ways, Paper Mario remains the most timeless of N64 games. I know many would consider that statement an act of video game blasphemy, considering the N64 housed both Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. But with all due respect to those classics (which are two other members of the small club of N64 games that have aged well), they both still look like they were from the early days of 3D gaming, whereas Paper Mario’s unique art style and blending of 2D and 3D gameplay perspectives have ensured it a timeless quality unique unto itself.

It’s not just the visuals that stand out in Paper Mario though. The game’s true genius that continues to endure is how it takes the RPG genre and makes it far more accessible to those unfamiliar to RPGs, while not sacrificing any of the depth of the genre.

"The game was originally going to be an RPG with a Zelda-style health system. That's actually a really cool idea!"
“The game was originally going to be an RPG with a Zelda-style health system. That’s actually a really cool idea!”

As I played through the game’s first chapter, I was taken back to the days of the N64, when seemingly every Nintendo Power issue promised a N64 sequel to Super Mario RPG in its previews sections. I remember at first it was simply titled “Super Mario RPG 2” and featured characters who looked like they were SNES sprites in N64 environments, which I thought was cool, since I hadn’t really seen anything like that (only Parappa the Rapper came close). Some time later it was renamed “Mario RPG 64” and “Super Mario Adventure.” This game had a long production history, as I remember seeing some early screenshots here and there for years before the game finally saw release at the end of the N64’s lifecycle.

I remember I couldn’t wait for new information about this game, but for years I rarely ever seemed to get new info (I was young, and the internet was still pretty young itself, Nintendo Power was all I had).

I have a lot of history with the original Super Mario RPG, it was the first RPG I ever played (and despite my love of Paper Mario, Secret of Mana, and others, it remains my favorite). Although it became obvious at some point that this new Mario RPG wouldn’t have any direct connection to the original, I honestly didn’t mind. It was a different time for Nintendo. Most new entries in their series seemed to be starting fresh, as opposed to direct sequels. So this was the closest I was going to get to a Super Mario RPG 2. So any new information I could scrounge up was like finding buried treasure. It was awesome!

The officially-titled Paper Mario would finally get some new life around the time most Nintendo fans were gearing up for the GameCube. Perhaps not the best timing, but I didn’t care. I was excited for the GameCube, sure. But Luigi’s Mansion, Super Smash Bros. Melee and a little oddity called Pikmin were lucky they were released near the end of 2001. Because for me, the first half of that gaming year was all about Paper Mario.

"I truly do miss Nintendo Power..."
“I truly do miss Nintendo Power…”

I remember how excited I was when I received issue 141 of Nintendo Power, and it had Paper Mario on the cover! I poured over that issue (more accurately, the article on Paper Mario) countless times. I was eleven-years old at the time, and my brilliant little adolescent mind was completely absorbed with this Paper Mario. I would even end up ordering the soundtrack from Nintendo Power (it still sits proudly among my favorite CDs)!

To finally have my hands on so much information on this elusive game was a thing of beauty. I simply couldn’t get enough of it!

I remember when the game was finally released, it completely lived up to my expectations. I know you’re probably wondering how much expectations an eleven-year old could have, but I had a ton of them! Paper Mario was a blast and, at the time, I may have called it my favorite game ever (I can’t quite go that far now, since there are some classics that shine a little brighter and even a few modern titles that take some of that cake). It was wonderful.

Its sequel, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door would hit the GameCube three years later. I remember being really hyped for a sequel to Paper Mario, but somehow my hype just wasn’t quite the same (perhaps I was getting older and less enthused about things, or maybe it had something to do with the fact that each Mario RPG before it was unique unto themselves, so a direct sequel at that point wasn’t as surprising). Most seem to think The Thousand-Year Door is the better game, and I can understand such claims. The story is heftier, the writing has more personality, and there were even some fun tweaks to the battle system. But for one reason or another, the original Paper Mario always stuck with me more. I like that it was – more so than any other Mario RPG – a Mario RPG.

Paper Mario
“Swift justice!”

By that I mean it is the most literal translation of Mario into the RPG genre. Super Mario RPG is more akin to Mario meets Final Fantasy, the Mario & Luigi games are something of a self-parody, and the Paper Mario sequels would, understandably, take the series in new directions. But the original Paper Mario is Mario thrown into a role-playing game, pure and simple.

Bowser is the bad guy, the adventure spans across the Mushroom Kingdom and familiar environments (fire, ice, tropical island, etc.), Mario’s allies could be summed up as a Goomba, a Koopa Troopa, a Bob-omb, and so on. I adore its simplicity and directness.

A hefty fourteen years have passed since Paper Mario’s original release, and although I’ve replayed it on the N64 and Wii in the past, playing it again on the Wii U still takes me back to those early days. I may not quite see it as the “best game ever” anymore, but it’s still a landmark title in my gaming life, and it remains a personal favorite.

Once I finish my current playthrough I’ll write a full-on review for the game. But for now, I’m just relishing the memories, and enjoying how well Paper Mario holds up.