Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Nemesis (1990)

Box art shamelessly stolen from GameFAQS.
Shoot-em-up box art was always pretty "metal" during the 1980's
and early 90's, but even this cool art pales in comparison to the
Japanese box, which parallels the original Gradius arcade flyers.

Scrolling shoot-em-up games are one of my favorite classic game genres.  I already established this, in my review of Solar Striker, but because it's been a while since I posted that review, I wanted to make it abundantly clear.  I'm not always very good at them, but I have fun trying.  Though I occasionally go into fits of gamer rage because I die at the exact same spot 12 times in a row, it's the idea of inching your way through a furious gauntlet of incoming enemy waves, laser fire, and shrapnel, that fascinates me to this day.  One of the shmups that defined the genre was Konami's arcade classic, Gradius, referred to as Nemesis, outside of Japan.

I'm not entirely sure what's happening here.  Is the Moia head looking at
the dinosaur bones, satisfied from a meal, or wishing they still had meat
on them, so it could partake? Either way, it looks quite menacing in pixels.

Gradius was a break-through in a number of ways.  It took the basic, side-scrolling shooter formula that Konami had previously pioneered with Scramble, and instead of the constant struggle for fuel, replaced that with an intricate upgrade system.  If also made things far more detailed and interesting, with markedly improved graphics, catchy and memorable music, and an interesting concept of "shoot the core" with the bosses.  This helped solidify the idea of end bosses having weak points, so that you couldn't just shoot them anywhere to deal damage.  All of these elements were instrumental to the genre as it developed, and became mainstays, not only in the later Gradius games, but in shooter games on the whole.

The ACTUAL title screen looks far less menacing. But it still has the
awesome logo design, which remains a staple throughout the series.

Nemesis, Konami's first shmup entry into the Game Boy library, by way of their Ultra games imprint, is a fine shooter that, while borrowing its namesake from the worldwide arcade and Japanese MSX releases, doesn't quite match the arcade game in terms of design.  Nemesis on the Game Boy takes elements of the original arcade game's design, and implements them here, but there's original content as well, making for a bit of a mashup, of sorts.  Rather than a straight arcade conversion, you get something that feels familiar, but with enough original material added so it also feels fresh and new.  And compared to the previously mentioned Game Boy shmup outing, Nemesis is the Cadillac to Solar Striker's family station wagon.

Like Konami's other early Game Boy entries, they wisely choose to
include a level select, as well as  giving players the option to change
the button config, toggle auto-fire, choose the difficulty level, and
grant themselves extra lives.  This makes the game much more
suited for quick sessions on the handheld Game Boy hardware.

For the uninitiated, the major draw of the series is the power-up system.  As you shoot down enemies, some of them will drop special icons that you pick up.  The first one you obtain will light up the first entry on a small bar at the bottom of the screen, allowing you to increase the speed of your ship.  If you elect to wait until you've collected more icons, each subsequent pickup will shift the selection on the bar over by 1 space, until you've reached the end, then it wraps back around.  In slot 2, you can add missiles to your ship's arsenal.  Slot 3 yields the "Double Shot", which upgrades your ship to not only shoot forward, but also a 2nd shot will fire upwards at a 45 degree angle.  Slot 5 gives you a power laser shot that fires directly ahead.  In slot 6, there's what's called an "Option" - this creates a small entity that follows your ship around and doubles your firepower.  In most Gradius games, you can add up to 3 or 4 of them.  Due to the obvious limitations of the Game Boy hardware, you can only add 2 in this game.  In the 7th and final slot, you can add a force field to the front of your ship, which is capable of absorbing some damage so your craft doesn't explode from contact with a single volley.  You can power up your speed multiple times, and your missiles twice, and in any order you like, so it's obvious to see that the way you approach the game can be entirely your own, and you can really experiment with the weapon load-out.

If you can get good enough to survive the initial onslaught of enemies,
it's pretty easy to get fully powered up during the first level of the game.

All this weaponry, and all these options (pun intended) available to you, don't necessarily mean you're going to walk through this game, however.  Nemesis is quite the challenge, for a handheld title, and if you're going to beat the 5 main stages, you'll need to hone your skills, sharpen your reflexes, and memorize some enemy patterns, placements, and attack vectors, in order to survive.  You'll also need to make sure you power up your ship as quickly as possible, as the waves of enemies are generally more than your tiny craft can handle with its default pea shooter and slow speed.  Thankfully, in addition to the power-up icons, you'll occasionally be granted a smart bomb icon instead, which will destroy all low-level enemies on screen at once, along with any bullets.  Be careful not to run into any scenery, however; the ground and other obstacles aren't just backgrounds - some of them are in the foreground with your ship and will destroy you in a single hit, even when you're equipped with the shield.

Like me, you'll probably be seeing this screen a lot at first.

A common strategy that I like to use for powering up goes as follows.  First, increase the speed of your ship by 1, so you can more easily dodge enemies and incoming fire, as well as more quickly grab additional power-up icons.  Second, activate your missiles, so you have additional fire to help ward off enemies.  Third, get yourself an Option, so you can double that firepower.  Fourth, grab the second option available to you.  Fifth is a toss-up between powering up your forward fire with the laser, activating the double shot, or adding the force field.  I usually opt for the laser or double shot, to more easily mow down enemies, then go for the shield later.  Lastly, once you're fully powered up, keep collecting power-up icons for points, but keep track of where your power-up bar is at.  If you can stop collecting after cycling through them once or twice, and leave it on the sixth entry, you can easily activate the force field again if you take too many hits and are left defenseless.

This is one of the more formidable enemies. It takes a lot of damage,
and the 3 pods it shoots out are impervious, so you have to dodge them.

Graphically, Nemesis is an impressive game.  Konami had excellent command of the Game Boy hardware early on, and after several years of programming for Nintendo's Famicom and NES hardware, were naturally adept at bringing this kind of 8-bit action to the small screen.  Some developers had a hard time adjusting for the scale of the small screen, but Konami's early efforts always seemed to strike that nice balance between good graphics, and proper scale and playability.  Your ship is large enough to see some detail, and look nice, but small enough so that it doesn't feel claustrophobic amongst the enemies, incoming fire, and stage layout and obstacles.  The enemies are mostly recognizable from other Gradius games, outside of a handful of original creations for this title, and are all well rendered.  Backgrounds are minimal, which works well, because it cuts down on the motion blur on the hardware.  Instead, most of the areas are given excellent graphics to show off the terrain and obstacles, and they all look really nice.  Animation is limited, but there are a couple spots that have what appears to be parallax scrolling, which was quite a feat on the system.

When you destroy a boss, it disappears in this really cool, satisfying "warp"
effect, where the sprite splits off into different lines, and the images diverge
in different directions. It's hard to explain, but it looks great on the hardware.

In the audio department, Nemesis is the usual Konami par excellence.  Konami really knew how to get the most from 4 channels of sound, and they do a great job here, not only providing music that sounds good, and is fitting to the game, but is also catchy and interesting.  The first stage music recalls the original Gradius theme, and you also get some music later that is lifted from this game's forbear, but the other tunes on offer here are original compositions from 4 different composers: Shinya Sakamoto, Yuji Takenouchi, Tomoya Tomita, and the incomparable Michiru Yamane, who is much more well known for her work on the Castlevania series of games, most notably, the excellent soundtrack for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.  Sound effects are also generally good, with some interesting use of the Game Boy's noise channel for certain effects, which also utilizing one of the dedicated sound channels for a lot of the weapon and enemy explosion noises, without interrupting the music from the other 2 channels.  Overall, this is prime sound design, and a soundtrack that stands as one of the best on the system.

This bad boy starts off as 4 smaller balls, then merges into a single giant
ball of destruction, then splits off again into 4 smaller balls. If you're fast
enough, you can destroy all 4 smaller balls before it has a chance to
reform into the larger ball a second time, saving yourself some headache.

Nemesis, like its arcade forefather, also doesn't stop after the 5 levels you see in the initial configuration screen.  Instead, while completing those 5 levels will get you a credit roll and congratulatory screen, that's not technically the end of the game.  As soon as the credits are done, you're thrust back to the first stage again, with all your current arsenal intact, to face off with the enemy again, but this time, the stages are harder, enemies are faster and shoot more bullets at you, and the whole thing is more frantic.  Stages 1-5 are now labeled as 6-10, and as is the Gradius tradition, in order to say you've truly beaten the game, you need to complete it on the second loop.  However, after the second time through, the game doesn't end, you just get another credit roll, and then it's back to Stage 1 again to keep going.  For savvy players and score chasers, this will be a welcome feature, though one has to wonder if Konami considered this as necessary, given the pick-up-and-play nature of the Game Boy, which lent itself to shorter play sessions.

The stage 4 boss has a simple pattern, but don't let that fool you. It can
dish out a large number of bullets, and it's easy to get caught in the crossfire.

With all the good here, is there anything that brings this game down?  Not much.  As with many Game Boy titles, motion blur is a factor, but that's a hardware limitation.  Konami does their best to mitigate this with limited animation in the sprites, and it helps keep the flicker to a minimum, but it's still there in spots.  One of the later stages uses an awful lot of the darker shade for its foreground obstacle graphics, and while it looks nice and detailed, it could have used a touch more variety in the shading.  Occasionally the sound effects get to be slightly cacophonous, due to the sheer amount of enemies you'll be taking out, and while it doesn't drown out the music, it detracts from the overall presentation, if only slightly.  These gripes, however noticeable, are all relatively minor.

Congratulations! An end sequence with no Engrish!

At the end of the day, this is one of the finest examples of the horizontal scrolling shoot-em-up to be released for a handheld game system.  Only this game's sequel, Gradius: Interstellar Assault, the Japan-only Sagaia entry in the Darius series, and perhaps the colorful Gates of Zendocon on the Atari Lynx can possibly rival this title's sheer excellence and presentation.  It has the looks, it has the sound, and it has the tight gameplay that fans had come to expect from Konami by this point, and they delivered the goods.  It may seem inexplicable that such an action-oriented, twitch shoot-em-up could be released on Nintendo's monochrome handheld, but Konami did it, and this game stands as one of the best examples of the genre from 1990, and quite possibly, one of the best on the console itself.  Thankfully, because the game sold well, it's also very common, and inexpensive to pick up.  You should be able to score a copy for $6 - $8 or less.  It's worth every penny, especially if you're a fan of the genre.  Highly recommended.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Jordan vs Bird One On One (1992)

Box art scan shamelessly stolen from GameFAQS.
Larry and Michael better watch out, lest they fall into the red abyss below!

I've mentioned before in other reviews, but I'm not really a sports fan.  I don't hate sports, but I'm just not invested in them.  I fancied myself more of a sports nut when I was a kid, and even had a few favorite athletes, including one basketball legend, Larry Bird.  I suspect it was because he was a less than movie star looks average dude who just brought skill to the table, and I'm sure my dad had a bit of influence in terms of probably commenting to me here or there that he was a talented player.  I never geeked out about stats or anything, just enjoyed the game as it was being played.  My fascination with basketball was relatively short-lived, unlike my enjoyment of baseball, and my still-burning love of college football (Go Huskers!).

Box art shamelessly stolen from MobyGames.
This was the edition my parents bought me. I still have the 5 1/4"
floppy disk, though sadly, the packaging and manual are long gone.

However, I did enjoy a basketball game as a kid, on our trusty IBM PCjr.  That game was One on One: Dr J vs Larry Bird.  It was a simple, arcade-style, half-court basketball game.  It was simple, no-frills, and I loved it.  Sure, the PCjr joysticks left a bit to be desired in terms of precise control, but the simple, two-button scheme worked for me, and I had a lot of fun with it.  I can't say I put nearly as many hours into it as, say, Paperboy, King's Quest, or even the helicopter shooter/rescue game Striker, but as the saying goes, beggars can't be choosers.  Despite my meager interest in the sport, it felt like I was playing the same type of basketball I would play with kids in the neighborhood around one person's driveway hoop, and that was enough to keep me occupied.

As much as I appreciate that EA tried to replicate the box art on the
title screen, it's hard to make low-res pixel art look like these superstars.

I haven't shot hoops in years, and until I drop a few pounds, I probably won't be very eager to do so any time soon.  But the appeal of this kind of game is obvious, since the rules are less stringent than your typical full-blown basketball game.  It's far more casual, you can shoot a few hoops, and just have some fun.  Thus, the appeal of a simple one-on-one contest is there to draw in both dedicated basketball fans, as well as those looking for a lighter experience.  This is the kind of game that would have appealed somewhat to me as a kid, back when I first had my Game Boy, because of the quick, pick up and play nature of it.

Seems like a fair bit of content. "Seems" being the operative word...

Jordan vs Bird One On One is a relatively simple game.  There are 3 main game modes to choose from: One On One, Slam Dunk Contest, and 3-Point Contest.  For the One On One mode, you can play a full, 4-period game, a short match to either 11 or 15 points, or play a warm-up game.  For the Slam Dunk Contest, you have the main contest mode itself, a Slam Dunk Warmup mode, and then Follow The Leader, which involves watching Michael Jordan dunk the ball, and trying to mimic the same pattern.  Finally, with the 3-Point Contest, you have the actual contest mode itself, and like the other modes, a warm-up mode to go alongside that.

"Winner's Outs" is something I wouldn't enable unless I
became an absolute wizard grand-master of this game.

In the main One On One mode, there are a number of options.  You can choose to play as either Larry Bird or Michael Jordan, of course, and you can also choose the computer's skill-level.  Level 4 is the default, and is the lowest skill level, with level 1 being the highest.  You can choose whether or not to enable "Winner's Outs" ("No" means you alternate turns after each basket, "Yes" means the winner of the last basket gets the ball again.), and whether or not you want to enable fouls.  You can also choose the length of the periods, from 2, 5, 8, or up to 12 minutes.  With that, you can knock out a very fast game, or play for an extended period of time, and potentially have a very high score game going.  The "15 Or 11" mode is just what it sounds like - you play against the CPU until one of you reaches either 15, or 11 points, whichever you choose from the options screen.  Oddly, the One On One Warmup mode allows you to set all the options, but the only one that makes a difference is which player you choose to practice with.  It's simply your character on screen, allowing you to practice the game.

Larry struggles to catch Michael, on the next
episode of "Keeping Up With The Jordans".

The Slam Dunk Contest is a relatively simple affair, with you pitted against the CPU for a 2-round contest where you can choose from a list of 10 different signature dunks.  The CPU plays first, and you watch it pick, then perform, a dunk of choice.  At the end, you see the dunk rated on a scale from 1-10 from 5 virtual judges.  After that, you get to choose your dunk, and then execute it, and are judged/scored in similar fashion.  Repeat that process again, and if you can dunk flawlessly, you'll beat the CPU.  If not, it's back to the locker room with your sorry, sweaty self.  Also, because dunking is Michael Jordan's thing, both you and the CPU play as Jordan for this contest.

At least I'm not dragging Walton and Lanier
up and down the court for 48 minutes.

In the 3-Point Contest, you play as Larry Bird, since 3-point shots are kind of his signature.  You're pitted against the CPU in up to 4 rounds of 3-point shooting, from 5 different spots on the court, with 25 total balls available to you to shoot, 5 in each spot.  Each possible round is only 60 seconds long, so you really have to hustle to get to each grouping of basketballs, and fire them off pretty quickly.  I said "up to 4 rounds" before, because, if you don't keep up with the CPU and don't match them ball for ball, you automatically lose.  So if the CPU has a perfect round, you have to be able to match that level of skill before you can advance, and try to take them all the way through 4 rounds.

Watch in amazement, as Larry stands helpless against the
incredible dunking onslaught of Michael Jordan!

Controls are simple.  You use the D-Pad to run around the court, which you see in a sort of 1/3-overhead perspective.  When you have the ball, the A button jumps, and the B button shoots.  When you're on defense, A still jumps to block the ball, and the B button can be used to steal the ball.  In 3-Point Contest mode, you'll need to use B to pick up the ball from the basket, A to jump, and B again to shoot.  As usual, the start button pauses the game.  In the initial menu screen, you press the D-pad up and down to select which mode you want to play, and in the modes where you can set options, you use the B button to change the option itself, and press up and down on the D-pad to move between the different options.  The Start button then begins the selected contest mode.

Hey, guys! This is me, Larry Bird, jumping helplessly toward the
screen, because I forgot to stop before pressing the A button!

Graphics are reasonably good for the handheld, and though a touch sparse, make good use of the handheld's monochromatic shades.  There's a nice crowd in the background with tiny animation, and both main character sprites move and animate reasonably well.  The scoreboard is clean, and easy to read, if you're on either side of the court, and the shot clock ticks down clearly in the bottom-right corner.  There's also the nice touch of the old-school EA logo shown along the stands.  The game's graphics won't blow you away, and are fairly utilitarian, but for this game, they work, and are clean and pleasant.

I feel like there's a donut pun waiting for me here. I can't think of it
right now. That's okay, I'll circle back to it later on.

Sound, on the other hand, is incredibly minimalist in nature.  The title screen has a peppy tune that plays, and tries to get you pumped for the game, but it's rather repetitious, so you probably won't dwell there long.  The only other music on offer here is the short ditty that plays when he round or game is done, and you either win or lose.  Sadly, I never got to hear the winner's jingle, but the loser's jingle makes it pretty obvious as to what the outcome was.  Otherwise, it's basic sound effects for dribbling, shooting, the ball hitting the backboard or rim, the ball going into the next, bouncing on the floor post-basket, and so on.  The most annoying sound is in the beginning, when you hit the Start button to bypass the title screen, and again when you hit Start to choose your game mode.  I suppose it's meant to mimic a coach's whistle, but it's quite loud, high-pitched, and unpleasant.  Otherwise, the audio design is inoffensive, but ultimately nothing special.

I managed to get around Mike long enough to jump for a shot.
Notice the anatomically accurate shadow on the floor beneath.

I found a couple basic strategies worked well enough.  First, when you jump to shoot, you want to press the B button at either the top of the jump, or either just prior to that, or just after that, in order to have the best chance of the ball going through the hoop.  Also, rather obviously, if you can get around your opponent and start your jump before they catch up, chances are good you can score every time, if you master that first technique.  Also, though I wasn't overly successful with it, using B to steal the ball from your opponent can work if you get in close enough, and if they're facing you or you're coming at them from a 90 degree position from them.  Also, when I first started playing, I continually got a "Clear Ball Violation" penalty, when I would grab a rebound from my opponent's unsuccessful shot, and immediately try to score with that ball.  I wasn't able to find any official rules for half-court basketball that laid it out, but I did determine that if you grab a rebound, and run the ball down court past the free throw line, then you're golden to run back up and take a shot.

Good, one less point Michael Jordan will be spanking me by!

Another thing I learned quickly is that, when you're covering the other player, you have to be careful not to steal or jump too early.  Stealing stops you dead in your tracks, and if you're unsuccessful, the other guy can stop and shoot, often before you have a chance to recover.  Stealing is definitely a risk/reward strategy that I recommend using somewhat sparingly.  As for jumping to block, you have to make absolutely sure that your character has come to a complete stop when you hit the A button to jump.  If you don't, you'll be jumping in the last direction you were headed, and have enough hang time to ensure that your opponent will have no problem getting around you and taking their sweet time to score a basket.  The biggest obstacle to this is the relatively random patterns the CPU throws at you, in terms of how and where the character moves before they make an attempt.

As you can see, my dunk attempt was not rated very well. There
seems to be a disparity between the judges. One rated my dunk
at an 8, and two at a 5. I'm not sure who thought I did well...

While it seems like there are a number of game modes here, the amount of content is actually pretty light.  The full One On One game has the most potential, especially if you set 12-minute periods, because then you're getting a longer, more full-featured experience.  Of course, some of the other modes, and shorter periods in the full game, give you that nice bite-sized play style great for pick up and play sessions that you can burn out in a few minutes, and then put away when done.  Despite the slim amount of things to do in the game, that works in its favor, because it can become one of those titles that you just pick up for a few minutes, play, then put away and come back to when you only have a few minutes to spare.  Every other game mode outside the full mode is either a very short experience, or in the case of the 2 warmup modes or the slam dunk "follow the leader" mode, can be as long as you need or want them to be, since the practice modes are pretty much open-ended.  That said, unless you really enjoy moving a character around the screen shooting baskets with no competition or goal, those modes can become monotonous pretty quickly.  One thing I did note that is a bit of a downer is that both characters play essentially the same.  There are no real discernible differences I was able to determine between the two, which is disappointing, considering that they were both living legends around the time of this game's release.

Here's my scoreboard for a full contest with the CPU playing as
Michael Jordan. I stuck with the defaults, so only 2-minute
periods, and otherwise default settings.  I won't share what
the CPU's scores were. Suffice to say, I need more practice!

Ultimately, your mileage in the game will vary.  If you're a big basketball fan, or you enjoy retro sports video games, this might be the thing for you.  For me, I had some fun with it, but it didn't do much for me, since there's just not all that much to do in the game.  In terms of skill required, the game does take practice, because the CPU automatically sets itself at the lowest difficulty for each contest, and playing on the highest difficulty showed me how much I would have to play and practice the game to really reach that level.  In that sense, there's some value to be had, as long as you don't get bored with the limited number of game modes, options, and things to do.  I don't remember how much I paid for this game, though I think it was around $7 or $8.  That's reasonable, though these days it seems to be going for over $10 loose.  I'm not sure I'd spend that much, unless you're a die-hard fan of either player, or just can't get enough 8-bit b-ball action.  Having not played any other basketball games on the handheld yet, I'll reserve even a casual recommendation and just say that if you can "try before you buy" this game, spend a few minutes with it and see if it gels with you.  My initial reaction was kind of lukewarm, but after about an hour with it, I began to see how it could be a fun game for a fan.  If it can bring me around in that time, who knows?  Maybe it will score for you as well.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Legend of Zelda - Link's Awakening (1993)

Box art shamelessly stolen from MobyGames.
It doesn't get much more iconic than seeing The Legend of Zelda
in that stylized font, with the Triforce shield and Master Sword.

I was never a "Zelda kid" at all.  I played a lot of NES games, because most of my friends had a NES console in their house, and as an introverted, geeky, chubby guy in the early 90's, gaming was the common escape I could share with my friends after school and on weekends.  But since we played games together, we usually opted for games that either included 2-player cooperative modes, 2-player competitive modes, or some form of 2-player mode where you would take turns, such as Double Dragon or Super Mario Bros. 3.  I occasionally dabbled in other genres when my friends fell asleep at 2 AM during a sleepover, but I usually just stuck with platformers, shooters, and action or puzzle games, because they were the kind of "pick up and play" games that I gravitated toward.  For me, the very idea of The Legend of Zelda seemed foreign to me, because my idea of an adventure game was King's Quest, which I played obsessively on my family's home computer.

The couple times I did get to play the classic action/adventure title, it didn't click with me.  I didn't really have enough time to sink my teeth into it, really understand the exploration aspects of it, or have the wherewithal to draw maps of the areas in the game I explored, because I knew I was only just messing around with it, and not playing seriously.  But for some reason, I just didn't "get" the game.  I recognized, at some basic level, what it was, and was trying to accomplish, I didn't think it was for me.  Despite that, it was universally praised as a great game.  Years later, when I picked up a Game Boy Color, one of the first titles I got was The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX, because I was hoping that my broadened gaming horizons would mean that I would finally understand the appeal of the series.  Sadly, it was not to be.  I put a few hours into the game, had no idea what I was doing, got frustrated quickly, and put it away, relegating it to the "pile of shame" of games that I just never finished.

Fast-forward 3 years, and I got a chance to play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on my brother-in-law's N64.  I still didn't quite have the love for the series yet, but I was beginning to understand the appeal, and I quite liked the game, though I didn't put much time into it.  I acquired Marjora's Mask a few years later when I bought a used N64, but again, I played it a little and didn't know what I was doing, so I quickly abandoned it for games I could more easily pick up and play.  It seemed that the series would never grab me.  In February 2015, the fine folks at RFGeneration.com were hosting a play-through of A Link To The Past, and I decided it was high time for me to get on the bandwagon, so I dutifully bought it on the Wii U Virtual Console, and spent a fair bit of time on the game, mostly enjoying my experience, but never truly getting sucked in.  It seemed as thought the "Zelda bug" would never bite me.

In August of 2016, however, I would finally get the bug, when the RFGeneration.com site again hosted a play-through, this time of the original NES classic.  I joined the play-through, and as I began to play the game and explore the original layout of Hyrule, something struck me.  I was taken aback by how simple the game was, and yet, how deep it was at the same time.  As an adventure game, you explore screens and seek out items and things so you can get further and further in the game, but unlike role-playing games, there's no experience to gain, no weapon and armor stats to fuss with, and no managing of magic points.  You could get a more powerful sword, and a couple other useful weapons, as well as an upgraded shield, and more heart containers so Link can take more damage before expiring, but otherwise, it was a fairly barebones experience, and the player's imagination was engaged, as much of the design was fairly limited, with only a few varied types of landscape were available, and the dungeons, while having differing layouts, were relatively simple affairs.  For the first time, I felt like I "got" the appeal behind the original opus, and was finally on board as a fan.  I live-tweeted much of my experience playing it, and really enjoyed myself.

With all of the average, uninspired, and downright lousy games I played and reviewed in 2016 (with a couple exceptions), I wanted to start 2017 off with a bang, and decided that I should return to Link's Awakening, because in my heart, I knew it was a great game that I had just unfairly abandoned some 15+ years ago.  I knew that I had unfinished business with the game, and that I would have to play through it at some point for this review project.  I decided to play through the original Game Boy release, as opposed to the later DX version, because I wanted to make sure I was experiencing the game in its original form, so I could see what I had missed out on in 1993, when I was happily playing Strider and Sonic the Hedgehog instead of my Game Boy.

Upon starting the game up, I remembered a few key things about the first portion of the game, so I went in already having some vague idea of what I needed to do.  I remember going to the beach to find the sword, struggling to figure out where to go, and generally killing enemies, but kind of wandering around aimlessly without much idea as to what I was doing.  I started this play-through in similar fashion, but with the idea that I wasn't going to let myself go without using a walkthrough, if I got stuck.  That was a wise decision; while I appreciate the exploration, adventure, and experimentation that the development team baked into the game, I just don't have the kind of time to dedicate to this sort of game that I did as a child.  Still, that didn't dull my enjoyment of the game, or the experience.

I'm sure there have been volumes written on this game over the nearly 25 years since its release, so there's little I can probably add to the conversation.  Having said that, it needs to be reiterated that this is an amazing game, and quite a feat that Nintendo crammed as much content into this game as they did, with a world as large as it is (the map of Koholint Island feels nearly as large as the original game's world of Hyrule).  It's also impressive that Nintendo took the ideas of the first game and upped the ante with more items, more weapons, more enemies, and a much more varied landscape, all within the 4 shades of pea green offered by the venerable handheld.  Despite being vastly inferior to the Super NES, the Game Boy held its own, in terms of the experience it got in Link's Awakening, and how favorably it compares to its predecessor, A Link To The Past.  Some consider the Game Boy outing to be their favorite of the series, and hold it above its SNES counterpart as the better title between the two.  There's an argument to be made in favor of that viewpoint, though as I'm still somewhat of a newbie to the series, I wouldn't be qualified to make that determination.  That said, this game is excellent in most every respect.

In terms of story, I won't go into incredible detail, but here's the gist: Link awakens on an island, in a strange house, and a strange bed, and has been watched over by Marin and Tarin, two inhabitants of Koholint Island.  Link's first mission is to go find his sword, as he's told it washed up on the beach, and then from there, figure out what he's supposed to do.  So, aside from the new locale and the nudge in the right direction to find a weapon, versus just the obvious door on the first screen of the original, things are pretty much business as usual for Link.  Once you get your sword, you encounter an owl that can talk to you.  He informs you that the only way off the island is to awaken the Wind Fish.  The only way to do that, however, is to locate the 8 musical instruments you have to play in order to accomplish that.  Thus, Link must set out to find each of those instruments, handily located in 8 different dungeons spread throughout the island.

Graphically, Nintendo was really getting the most out of the Game Boy at this juncture.  4 years into the lifespan of the hardware, and Nintendo had mastery of the system's graphical capabilities.  It's a far cry to compare early titles like Alleyway or Super Mario Land with Link's Awakening, because the graphics are night and day.  where the early titles stressed clarity and minimalist design in favor of playability and making it easy for the player to see what's going on, this game proves that you can use the limited, 4-shade monochrome palette of the Game Boy to create lush landscapes with interesting design that are pleasing to look at.  Animation is often subtle, but used to great effect, such as the water along the shores of the island, the way bushes fly apart when Link slashes them with his sword, the way some enemies flail about when they're hit with a weapon, and more.  The more detailed sprite art style from A Link To The Past carries over nicely on the Game Boy as well, albeit smaller, and devoid of color.  Overall, the graphics are an excellent showcase for what can be done with limited hardware in the right hands.

In the audio department, the game is a delight.  I enjoyed the original NES game's limited soundtrack, with the foreboding dungeon music, and triumphant and iconic overworld theme, but Link's Awakening really takes things to the next level, by having not only a new arrangement of the original overworld music, but also several new themes for different areas of the map of Koholint Island.  One thing that I noticed and appreciated right away, is that a number of the other area songs start out sounding like they're going to be variations on the original overworld theme, but then take a completely different direction, using a couple bars of the original as a touchstone, but going way beyond making simple changes to the instrumentation or arrangement.  The music is well composed, and because music plays such a key role in the game, what with Link needing to collect and play 8 musical instruments to awaken the Wind Fish, it's a good thing that all the music here is first rate.  I especially like the "Ballad of the Wind Fish" song that Link learns from Marin.  For such a short chiptune composition, it's haunting, moving, and beautiful.  Were I 12 years old when playing this game, I probably would have been whistling that at school.  Sound effects are also generally excellent, with fun touches like a sound that echoes old cartoons when Link falls in a hole, or different metallic "clang" sounds when your sword hits different object types.  In fact, that is a device used within the game you can use to help determine where some walls can be bombed, much like knocking on a wall to determine where the wooden studs are.  The annoying sound that plays constantly when you're down to almost no life is still present, though thankfully less intrusive than in the NES original.

Game play is tight and well designed.  The thing that I really like about Link's Awakening and its controls scheme, is that you can designate ANY item to either the A or B button.  If you like swinging a sword with the B button, you can!  If you'd prefer to do so with the A button, you can!  Simply press the Start button to bring up the item screen, move the box to the item you need to use, and press either A or B to assign that item to that button.  It's simple, elegant, and allows players to customize the control to their liking.  Very few games allow for this kind of thing, but Nintendo really thought this through, and made an already good game better by giving players this option.  The Select button brings up the map screen, showing the areas of the island you've explored, and allowing you to move over an area and press the A or B button to identify that area, or sometimes identify a specific building or location.  When the sword is equipped, press the button once to swing the sword, hold the button down and move in that direction to slice through bushes or foes, or hold the button down and stand in place for a couple seconds, and you'll charge the sword up to do a 360 degree slash attack that can take out multiple enemies within range, as well as bushes or grass.  You'll spend a fair bit of time swapping between different items to get through different obstacles or areas, ranging from the shield to Roc's Feather, which allows Link to jump, or the Power Bracelet, which allows you to lift and throw certain objects, to the usual bombs, and the Pegasus Boots, for running fast.  At times, you'll even need to equip two of these items at once in order to overcome an obstacle.

As with A Link To The Past, Rupees and hearts can often be found by slashing through bushes, so it's wise to do so frequently.  Unlike the original adventure, however, many shrines must be unlocked with a key, so there are additional objectives you often need to complete to find the key to unlock each one.  For those that don't require a key, sometimes you have to obtain a certain item that will allow you to access a previously unexplored part of the map, which then allows you to reach that shrine.  Each shrine contains at least one main boss, and depending on the size of the dungeon, sometimes multiple mini-boss encounters.  Once you beat the end boss of a shrine, you receive a heart container, as well as the requisite musical instrument you need to bring the Wind Fish out of its deep slumber.

As strong as this game is, it's not without a few minor flaws.  As mentioned before, when you're down to almost no health, a grating sound plays that gets old pretty fast.  Each shrine contains small areas that change from the top-down perspective to a side-scrolling section, a la The Legend of Zelda II: Adventure of Link - however, the control here isn't as tight as it should be, the jumps feel a bit "floaty", and despite the cool motifs they employ (such as the abundance of Super Mario-themed enemies), they almost feel like a bit of an afterthought, because they're all painfully easy to traverse until the end of the game.  Some of the puzzles are a bit obtuse.  Granted, it's nothing resembling Castlevania II: Simon's Quest or anything, but obviously this was designed for people that have nothing but time on their hands, because some of the puzzles, were I not using a walk-through, would have taken me a while to figure out.  Also, up to the end, most of the main shrine bosses are super easy, and provide almost no challenge, despite their variety.

Despite these few paltry quibbles, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening is a superb piece of video game art, and one of the finest examples of how you take a console experience and translate it to the handheld format.  Nintendo were masters of this kind of thing, and this game is a shining beacon of light proving why.  No one else could take an experience like the original series game, or its Super NES successor, and shrink it down to this monochrome format with such aplomb.  The development team behind this game should be congratulated, and likely have for the last 20+ years, for such a commendable job in taking the kind of lengthy, meaningful, fun experience and cramming it into the tiny plastic Game Boy cartridge.  If you even remotely like action adventure games, or have even a passing interest in the Legend of Zelda franchise, you absolutely need to play this game.  Downright essential, and I can't recommend it enough.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Gargoyle's Quest (1990)

Box art scan shamelessly stolen from GameFAQs.
Someone at Capcom USA should have been sacked for turning
Firebrand into a green gargoyle instead of his signature crimson.

From time to time, video game companies see fit to tinker with their intellectual properties.  This may be due to creative surges within the development teams, wanting to try something new.  Sometimes a dev team knows the formula within a given series has become stale or rote, and they feel the need to mix things up.  There are examples where changing the formula has had resounding success, such as Konami's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, as well as instances where this approach completely flopped, as was the case with Accolade's Bubsy 3D.  Whatever the reason, creative minds generally need to branch out to do different things on occasion, to keep things fresh and flex the creative muscle.

Even though the box doesn't specify the Ghosts 'n Goblins
subtitle, the title screen makes sure you know what's up.

Such is the case with Gargoyle's Quest from Capcom.  It's sort of an off-shoot of the Makai-Mura series, better known as Ghosts 'n Goblins, or Ghouls 'n Ghosts.  In Japan, the game is known as Reddo Arima: Makai-Mura Gaiden, which can be roughly translated as Red Arremer: Demon World Village Side-Story.  Rather than starring the main protagonist of the Ghosts/Ghouls series, Arthur, it actually stars the "red arremer" enemy from the original game, known as Firebrand.  Based on the game's plot, it could be seen as a prequel to the original game, which you find out at the end of the game.

Nothing like initial story exposition from a series of ghouls dying
right in front of the main character. And this was a children's game?

Gargoyle's Quest is a side-scrolling action title, like its source material, but where the previous games were content just being ultra difficult, quarter munching arcade action games, Capcom changes up the formula.  Alongside the action sequences, you also have an overhead world, much like a classic JRPG, including towns where you can converse with other ghouls from the ghoul realm, and perform other tasks.  Each town has someone who will exchange the game's currency (vials) for talismans that act as additional lives.  There's also someone who will give you a resurrection spell (aka, a password), that you can use to continue your game if you need to power off your Game Boy, or you lose all your lives and want to continue your progress near where you left off.

For a game within the first year of the Game Boy's life, this title is
absolutely gorgeous. The flames in the windows flicker and burn,
and the rest of the backdrop is lush and detailed. Also, fish bones.

The game begins with the requisite story told via scrolling text, then a short bit of exposition via a few conversations seen in the overhead view.  Once that sequence is done, you're thrust into the first action level, culminating in a boss fight at the end.  Once that first level is done, you're taken to the overhead view, and get a chance to walk around the world to find the next town, where you'll discover your next objective.  In the overworld sections, you can encounter random battles; unlike a traditional RPG, however, you're placed back into a side-scrolling action sequence again, with between 1 and 4 enemies you must dispatch, to complete that action sequence and go back to the overworld.  After each of these random encounters, you'll earn "vials", which you can use later to purchase extra lives.  When in the overhead view, you can press the A button to access a menu, and you can choose to TALK to a person, USE and item, check your LVL or level, to see what your stats are, what weapons, items and magic are at your disposal, and so forth, and finally, you can CHK to check, or examine an item you see laying on the ground, or look for a secret.

"Whatcha doin', Firebrand?"
"Just hangin' out, dude!"

The basic flow of the game is thus: explore the overhead world, fight random battles, earn vials, find the town, talk to the town's ghouls, buy extra lives, get your password, then talk to the town's ruler, who will usually task you with a quest (hence the name) to retrieve a magical item or beat a baddie who they can't defeat.  Prior to taking on that task, this ruler usually bestows some power or item upon you that will upgrade your attack, or your life/defense, to aid you in completing your mission.  Once you complete that mission, you return to that ruler to either get directions as to where to travel to next, or sometimes get upgraded further before venturing on.  Some areas of the map have bridges you have to cross, which are often devoid of enemies, but are still side-scrolling action sequences, though more focused on avoiding traps, pitfalls, and environmental hazards, rather than combat.  Each major action stage includes a boss, and as you power up Firebrand, you will often need to use different attacks to take on those bosses, as well as to help traverse the stages themselves.

Now that is one ugly flying fish. Turn him into sushi, Firebrand!

Firebrand has a number of abilities.  He can jump in the air with the A button, and because he has wings, by pressing the A button again when he's in the air, he can hover or fly for a brief moment, until the "W" meter at the bottom of the screen is empty.  If you jump or fly up to a wall of most any kind, Firebrand will cling to it with his claws.  This particular ability is a key component of the game, because it's required to traverse each action sequence.  It's also key because, each time you touch the ground or cling to a wall, the "W" or "Wings" meter refills, giving you another brief moment or two to fly or hover.  When you're clinging to walls, you can fire in the direction opposite of the wall you're on.  You can also cling to a wall, jump, and then cling to the same wall higher up, allowing you to climb to the top and access more of the stage.  If you press the Start button while in an action sequence, not only does that pause the game, but you can then select between any of the weapons you have.  Also, if you have collected the "Essence of the Soulstream" item, it gives you a one-time use ability to refill Firebrand's health during an action sequence.  This ability will recharge for subsequent action stages.

This is one of the random battle encounters you face. Unlike a
regular RPG, you get a small action sequence where you have
to kill all the enemies to get back to the world map.

There are 4 attack types you have access to throughout the game.  The first is a basic flame attack, which you have at the start.  The second is a sort of spinning, boomerang-like weapon that can also double as a means of breaking certain blocks, to clear a path.  The third is known as "Claw", and is a large ball that, when spit out against a wall of spikes, creates a temporary place for Firebrand to cling to, useful for scaling large walls of spiky terror.  The fourth and final weapon, obtained just prior to the final boss battle, is known as Darkfire, and is a large flame.  This weapon shoots slowly, and can only be fired one at a time, but it's required to take on the final boss, the King of Destruction.  As you progress through the game, using the most recently acquired weapon is good for most situations, though toward the end you'll find yourself switching between the boomerang and the claw from time to time, depending on the circumstances.

Something tells me this guy's not happy to see me...

Gargoyle's Quest is a gorgeous early Game Boy game, really flexing the graphical muscle of the handheld.  Sprites are large and detailed, and generally speaking, animations are fluid and well done.  Terrain and locales are all rendered interestingly, with nice touches, such as the spooky looking tree trunks in the opening stage, to the floors of flame or blowing grass in some of the later stages.  Backgrounds are sometimes a bit sparse, but paired with the excellent foreground graphics, it becomes a total package that really shines on the handheld, and shows just what it was capable of so early on.  The overhead areas are also detailed and interesting, though Firebrand's 2-frame walking animation seems pretty basic.  All in all, the game wastes no time impressing visually.  I also wanted to make special mention of the "explosions" in the game, or the interesting visual effect when some enemies die.  It's a neat effect where the enemy sprite sort of simultaneously explodes and implodes, but with a bit of a sideways motion.

Who would create such an idyllic little town in the middle of a scary
forest? Looks like the real estate agents in the ghoul realm forgot
the 3 cardinal rules or property: location, location, location!

In the audio department, Gargoyle's Quest also shines brightly.  A couple of the game's themes recall the original Ghosts 'n Goblins or Ghouls 'n Ghosts main themes, though in a more subtle fashion.  The rest of the original music in the game is excellent, with a varied mix of energetic tracks played during action stages, along with more somber, contemplative material for the overworld map and town sections.  The short ditty that plays when you activate a random battle in the overhead view is foreboding, and the jingles that play when you defeat enemies and earn vials will get stuck in your head.  As for sound effects, they're well done also.  Capcom used more than one sound set for creating the "voices" that you hear when townspeople are speaking to you, and the various other sound effects all fit the game's mood, aesthetic, and overall presentation.  Kudos to composers Harumi Fujita and Yoko Shimomura (better known for her work on Final FightStreet Fighter II, and later Parasite Eve) for such an expressive, emotive set of music to accompany this game.

This little sandpit can be tricky to get to. If you don't approach it
just right, you'll get flung back, as if you were in a windstorm.

The game has a few interesting design quirks.  First and foremost, while the overhead sections serve to function a bit like a proto-RPG, the random battles that ensue are treated as individual entities.  By this, I mean that, when you enter a random encounter, you have full health.  After each random battle on the map, your health refills.  This is by design, I'm sure, since you start with only 2 hits, and the game would require even more patience and persistence to clear, were it not for this small mercy.  The password system, while only 8 characters long, is full featured.  Each password takes into account the town you're in, the items and powers you've collected, the number of talismans (lives) you have, and the number of vials you have collected.  Because the game is reasonably linear, there are probably a relatively finite number of passwords, but it's still relatively robust for what it is.  Also, despite the fact that, in the overhead view, you have 4 menu choices, you only use the "USE" command a couple of times in the game, rendering that feature relatively pointless otherwise.  Oh, and you'll want to stock up on extra talismans early in the game.  Toward the end, each extra life costs 32 vials from the local merchant - ouch!

Capcom really used the potential of the Game Boy's hardware
when making the graphics for the game. Even today, they're
stunning, with intricate designs, and lots of fine detail.

Gargoyle's Quest is a difficult game, and at times, can be pretty punishing.  The ability to purchase extra lives helps, though I found myself forced to "grind" through dozens of random battles toward the end, to earn enough vials to purchase extra lives, so as much as I was making mistakes in the later action stages, I could foul up and still be able to muddle my way through.  This game moves at a bit of a slow pace, though it's still action packed, and because Firebrand sort of moseys through each level, sometimes the enemy or hazard placement can feel cheap, though, like with most any action platformer, level memorization helps alleviate some of that.  In general, slow and steady wins the race.

The pause menu has a handy-dandy heads-up display, showing
you the number of lives, how many vials you've collected,
which weapon you have selected, and more.

Incidentally, I played through most of the game on the original Game Boy DMG model, and switched over to playing on the Super Game Boy toward the end, just before the second to last boss encounter, when the difficulty started to ramp up.  Despite the motion blur on the DMG, the game's excellent graphical design and generally slower pace made for a pleasant experience on the monochrome handheld, even after all these years.  For a game to still be fun to play, and still play well, on the monochrome Game Boy, it has to be a good game.  It's easy to have fun with most any game from this era, played on a Super Game Boy, Game Boy Player, or later iterations of Game Boy hardware; but for a game to still excel and not feel like a chore to play on the original hardware, when there are so many better alternatives?  That's a sign of good game design, and Capcom delivers that in spades with this title.  Despite the fact that this game is very common, it has gone up in price in recent years, to around or above the $15 mark.  With most Game Boy games, I would recommend looking for something less expensive, or waiting for a good deal, Gargoyle's Quest is worth every penny, and is an essential cart for the discerning Game Boy fan or collector looking to get the best titles for the library.  If you haven't played this game, and you even remotely enjoy action platformer games, or action adventure games with light RPG elements, you owe it to yourself to check this game out.  Highly recommended, if not downright essential.