Saturday, September 2, 2017

Championship Pool (1993)

Box art shamelessly stolen from GameFAQS.
I'm not sure what the Billiard Congress of America is, exactly, but it seems
like it's important. Or maybe it just thinks it's important. Who knows.

I know very little about the sport of Billiards, known to mere mortals simply as "Pool" - a sport that is less agility, dexterity, and athleticism, and more a game of mathematics.  Simply put, pool is all about geometry, knowing how hard or soft to hit the ball, and understanding the playing field, with all the various configurations and iterations thereof.  It's a game with a strict set of rules to adhere to, and near-infinite complexity.  There are a large number of different styles of play, each with its own set of specific rules, quirks, and strategies.  Also, it's a game I'm pretty terrible at.

Nothing screams "Excitement!" quite like this title screen.

My wife's late grandmother had a pool table in her basement that the grandkids would always play during family get-togethers, while waiting for the meal, or after the meal, when the adults were upstairs chatting.  Outside of that, and a handful of experiences with it at various arcades or bowling alleys, and at the local youth center, I have almost no experience playing pool in real life.  I understand geometry from an on-paper, mathematical level, but the practical application of it as pool strategy always eluded me.  I could line up my shot, but unless I was gunning for the pocket nearly dead-on, I always had a tendency to over or undershoot, bouncing off the pocket's angled edges, and sending the cue ball rolling off in a random direction.  Needless to say, I've never developed a love for the game.

With 4 main game modes, and multiple variations per mode, there's
an awful lot of game here, despite most pool variations being similar.

That being said, pool video games are a common sight on most every platform.  They're not quite as common in North America as, say, Mahjong games are in Japan, but one genre that was always present on any console during the 8 and 16-bit eras was that of video billiards.  I think the Side Pocket series showed up on nearly everything during that time, and while it gained a certain degree of name recognition, I can't speak to the game's playability or quality as of yet, because I haven't played any of the games, save, perhaps, for a few minutes of the NES version as a kid.  This isn't a genre I would normally dabble in, but given my desire to play every single Game Boy game, it was bound to happen at some point.  Enter Championship Pool by Mindscape.

Not to be cliche, but Party mode is where the party's at.  Quite literally.

When I initially chose this game from my ever-growing pile of Game Boy cartridges, I assumed it would be another throw-away sports title, as is usually the case with most of these games on a handheld system.  Sure, loads of people STILL play Tecmo Super Bowl on the NES, and even mod it each year to add current teams, stats, etc., but a pool game?  I had no hesitation in thinking this would likely be little more than a reasonably pleasant time-waster.  I had no expectations going in, other than this preconception.  What I found was a surprisingly deep experience that, while still imperfect, offers a lot of content for enthusiasts of the sport, and plenty to do for those of us still figuring out how to chalk up our cue.

"Well the game never ends when your whole world depends,
on the flip of a friendly coin."

The intricacies of billiards are best explained elsewhere, but here's the 10,000-foot version: you have a table where you put together a large grouping of balls, and you use a long wooden stick to hit an equally-sized ball into that grouping of balls to split them up, then systematically use that methodology to hit successive numbered balls into various "pockets" around the table.  There's 1 pocket at each of the 4 corners, and 1 on each long side, for a total of 6.  If you hit the wrong ball into a pocket, that's bad.  If you hit the right ball into the wrong pocket, that's bad.  If you hit the cue ball, used to hit the numbered balls, into a pocket, that's also bad.  And in most sets of rules, unless you're playing what's referred to as "scratch pool" in common parlance, you cannot hit the 8-ball into any pocket until all other balls designated to you have been sunk into other pockets.

This is one of the few rules in pool I distinctly remember learning as a
kid, and when playing with others, actually following.

Keeping all this in mind, the essential elements to success in pool are understanding the basics of geometry, so you can hit the cue ball with your cue (the aforementioned long, wooden stick), so it can strike the numbered balls and send them careening into the pocket.  If the ball you want or need to hit is halfway down the table, and there's another ball in the way, you can hit the cue ball toward a wall to bank it off that surface, and back toward the destination ball, in hopes that you'll hit it with enough force, at the proper angle, so as to direct it to the pocket in question.  It sounds simple enough, but there are a lot of elements at work.  How hard do you hit the ball?  Do you hit it straight on, high up on the ball to create "topspin" or down low to create "backspin" instead, to slow it down?  Do you hit toward the right or left side of the ball to give it a bit of curvature in a given direction?  Can you bank more than once, if the other balls are in the way, or clustered too far together?  All of these elements  at work make pool a far more complex sport than one would imagine.

Pool's just like football, right?  "Ready...break!"

Translating that to a video game could prove challenging, especially on a tiny handheld system with a direction pad, 2 action buttons, and 2 optional buttons, but Bitmasters pulled it off here.  Controls are deceptively simple at first: use the D-pad to move your targeting reticle around to point to where you're going to shoot the cue ball.  Press A to confirm targeting, and you see animations that help indicate the approximate proposed trajectory of the intended target ball.  Assuming you're targeting the right ball (more on that later), and can aim it toward a pocket, you can then press A again to shoot the cue ball and hope you not only hit the intended ball, but that it then reaches its intended pocket.  It's not quite that simple, however.

I feel like there's a joke here somewhere, but I can't quite find it...

As you're moving your target circle around, you can use the Select button to zoom in on the pool table, to get a much closer view of the action.  In either zoomed in/out view, you can hold down the B-button, then press a direction on the D-pad, to move the targeting circle far more slowly and precisely, to finely tune your shot.  In contrast, you can also hold a direction down on the D-pad, then press and hold the B button to move the cursor quickly, which is useful for faster navigation around the table.  Pressing the B button once will bring up the power meter, and then you can hold down left or right on the D-pad to increase or decrease the strength of your shot.  Press the Start button while lining up your shot, and you're treated with additional options: under the Game Control menu, choose the Set Spin option to get a "behind the cue" view of your ball, and move the stick around to determine where on the ball you plan to it it.  It's a surprisingly deep control scheme for a portable pool title, and was likely carried over from the NES version of the game's design.

I'm a master scratch player. The trouble is, that skill is only useful
when you're a DJ, not when you're trying to will at billiards.

There are other options as well, accessed via the Start button.  You can quickly switch between displaying the ball numbers or not, move the cue ball (if the rules dictate you can, via a break shot, or opponent scratch), choose your zoom (instead of just pressing Select), or access the "Jukebox" (to toggle music on or off).  In the Actions menu, you can choose a Special Action, such as calling a safety (where there's no clear shot), or viewing the scoreboard.  You can check out a replay of the last shot, deciding to Insta-Win, if you can't handle the pressure, or choose to end the party, if you're playing one of the party modes within the game.

When your opponent scratches, by sinking the cue ball, you get an
opportunity to place the cue ball anywhere on the table, which is a
huge help if you want a clean shot at your next numbered ball.

Speaking of modes, Championship Pool offers a large variety of game modes.  At the main screen that comes up, you can choose between 4 different modes: Tournament, Challenge, Party, and Freestyle.  In Tournament mode, you can select whether to auto-break the balls as they're racked on the table, or do that manually.  You can also choose between a standard 8-ball or 9-ball game setup.  It's a single-elimination tournament bracket, so you only get one shot to fail.  In Challenge mode, you can choose from one of six different billiards challenges: 14.1 Challenge (like "straight pool" but each shot must be properly called and achieved), Eight Ball, Nine Ball, Equal Offense (a series of 8 15-ball racks in a scoring contest), Three Ball (sink 3 balls in as few shots as possible), and Speed Pool (sink the balls as quickly as possible).  Freestyle allows you to essentially practice on a standard 15-ball rack, taking shots and being less concerned with the full rules, but getting a feel for the geometry, game mechanics, controls, and approach of the game.

The zoomed view is really helpful for precision in lining up a shot,
especially combined with the slow cursor method to near-pinpoint accuracy.

The most robust mode is the Party mode.  In this game mode, there are 11 different options: Eight Ball, Nine Ball, 14.1 Continuous, Ten Ball, Rotation (similar to straight pool, but balls must be sunk in numeric sequence), Straight Pool, Equal Offense, Fifteen Ball (similar to rotation, except balls can be sunk in any sequence, and scoring is based on the ball number), One Pocket (each player has a designated pocket that they must shoot any balls into, in order to score), Three Ball, and Speed Pool.  Each of these modes allows either 2 or 5 players, depending on the mode.  The handy part is, each player can use the same Game Boy handheld, and players just pass it back and forth, or in a round table fashion.  With so many options, one can conceivably get a lot of value out of this mode, either playing with other people, or playing every round oneself, as a means of getting more practice at each different set of game rules.

"11-ball, corner pocket!"  It's my signature move.

Tournament mode, because it's single-elimination, is quite difficult, because you really have to have a good handle on the game mechanics in order to avoid getting "snookered" by your opponent.  You also have to abide by the strict rules of either game, so that means hitting the numbered balls in sequence, and making sure to correctly pocket each one.  Foul too many times, or lose because your opponent just out-shoots you, and you'll see an avatar of your opponent on screen with a greasy smile, letting you know that you're not up to the task.  The real challenge comes in the form of the so-named Challenge mode, where a single mistake means game over - no scratch, no retries, you're just done.  You'll need to rack up some serious time in Freestyle or Party modes, and get incredibly good at the game before you have much hope to complete a challenge in this mode.  I found myself, with my limited skill and knowledge, only being able to get about 2 or 3 shots in on any of the challenges, often breaking the rack, and then not even remotely being able to reach the target ball for the rule set, and immediately failing the challenge.  Enter at your own risk.

Sometimes, these shots from across the table, even when the target
ball is close to the pocket, can be difficult to sink properly.

Graphically, the game doesn't do much, but it's hard to expect that from a simple billiards game.  What's here is competent, however.  The simple overhead view of the table is good, with a nice representation of the wood grain of the outer table, and an angled design on the carpet below, as well as the pockets, pool balls, cue, etc.  The initial menu has a nice graphical effect where, when you press up or down on the D-pad to move the arrow to select your game mode, a set of pipes above and below the arrow will blow out a puff of smoke, as if to move the arrow up or down.  It's an unnecessary flourish, but a nice touch, nonetheless.  The text on screen during the initial menus is a little harder to read, because it resembles a manual scoreboard, but that's a nice touch.  In-game menus are much easier to read, and the game's overall presentation is clean.

One step away from victory, as the 7 ball will be an easy one to pocket.

In the audio department, the game is pretty weak.  The game only has two or three music tracks in total.  One plays at the title screen, and during the game itself, and there's at least one more track that plays when you lose.  There's another short tune when you win.  I haven't got far enough into the Tournament mode to know whether or not there's additional music if you win the whole contest.  Sound effects are utilitarian, so they get the job done without being exciting.  The sound when you smack the rack of balls and break them is fine, as is the rest of the sound for hitting balls, bumping the pool table wall, or sinking a ball in the pocket.  Nothing here smacks of outstanding sound design, but it fits the bill.

Of all the rotten luck!  Oh well, maybe next time.

The real meat of this game is in the depth of the control scheme, coupled with the staggering number of game modes, but even then, it still boils down to hitting the cue ball to break a rack of numbered balls, and shoot them into various pockets.  A player's mileage is going to vary wildly, depending on how much effort one wants to put into learning the nuance of the controls, and digging into each of the game's modes.  True mastery of digital billiards will elude all but the most patient players, and based on how granular the controls can be, I suspect that the Challenge mode games will take a significant amount of practice before they'll be won.  If I'm going to play a game that's more on the slow side, such as this, my preference is either a turn-based RPG, or a puzzle game of some sort.  This kind of game, lining up shots, taking forever to determine how and where you're going to shoot, how much power to use, spin, backspin, topspin, etc. is not really for me.

When I started playing this game for review, I tweeted out a statement about this game being boring.  While I stand by my original assessment for how little I had played it, and how I was equally uninformed about the game's mechanics, I must amend that statement by saying that it's boring - at first.  Once you begin to get a feel for it, learn the nuance and complexity of the control scheme, and begin to see some real victory for your efforts, it becomes more rewarding.  Whether that's enough to justify a purchase will depend on your love, or lack thereof, for billiards, as well as whether or not this kind of slow, methodical gameplay is for you.  I don't see myself coming back to this game anytime soon, but I have a much greater appreciation for it now, after spending more time with it, than I did when I reluctantly inserted the cartridge into my Game Boy.  I would consider that high praise, because a game I fully expected to dislike, and ultimately lambaste in print, has become something that I found to be oddly thoughtful, well-designed, and a worthwhile experience.  It's certainly worth the $5 I paid for it, and if you're a pool enthusiast, I dare say, this might be the kind of experience you've been looking for in a video game.  I'll give this a casual recommendation to the enthusiast or sports fan looking for an old-school handheld fix.

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 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 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.