Friday, February 7, 2014

Finding Quality Games in a World without Internet

As a kid in the early 90's discovering great games was not easy, prior to the internet you had to trust magazines, recommendations on the playground (or lunch room as I got into middle school and jr high), maybe rent something from the video store and hope for the best, or roll the dice and purchase something in store and hope for the best without prior knowledge of the game.

I didn't really join the ranks of console gaming until the SNES came out and because my close family and relatives were not keen on giving video games as gifts, I usually purchased or rented games at my personal expense with what little allowance and money I could scrap together.  As a result I'd say I did pretty well keeping the quality of my early game collection on the high end of my personal tastes.

My second copy, my first copy vanished, I didn't miss after picking up the GBA version, but the collector in me caved and picked it up again.

I had a strange method to my madness.  Although buying games was not something my parents were keen on, buying the occasional video game magazine wasn't unreasonable especially for long road trips or the occasional good deed (i.e. chores completed around the house and things of that nature).  This didn't happen too frequently so when I did get a game magazine I would scour the pages for information on upcoming games, reviews, or what-have-you to get caught up on the times.  Usually I would find a game that caught my eye and I would know that I needed to own it.  For the following months I saved up and usually after getting money from my birthday or a holiday I could afford to pick it up.  I picked up some pretty decent stuff this way.  Breath of Fire 2, Mario RPG, Killer Instinct, and Street Fighter Alpha 2 being the most notable.

I knew a bunch of people with this thing.  I don't remember what it came with but it was a pretty awesome showcase of NES games out at that time.  It was not in fact helpful at all for beating any of those games.

They had some pretty awesome games... well as some stinkers.

 This was all I that survived to this day, my mom probably threw away most of my old magazines.

I did buy a few games on impulse without prior knowledge of what to expect, but they were probably on sale for crazy cheap so the risk to reward ratio was acceptable even with my extremely limited budget, and even there I did quite well.  Some of those games were: Mega Man X, F-Zero, Super Metroid, and Link to the Past.  The only one of those that didn't really "pay off" for me was F-Zero because I found out pretty quickly that I sucked horribly at racing games, however, the music and fairly forgiving controls probably salvaged this buy for me and I think most people would agree at 10 bucks in 1995 for a brand new game, this was a pretty decent pick up even if I wasn't 100% thrilled with the game over time.

So much win, best 10 bucks I ever spent.

Most of the really disappointing stuff I ended up playing was rented from the video store.  I lived in a pretty small town, we had 2 mom and pop video stores that had a pretty awful selection of games and since it was just down the street I rented just about everything they had over time.  This was good and bad, good because if I bought any of those games I would have been very resentful of the purchase and would have been stuck with it, but bad because I probably train wrecked a weekend of video gaming by renting a dud.  VERY rarely we would drive half an hour to the nearest city and rent something from a Blockbuster (RIP), and even there finding something good was difficult, all the better titles were usually rented out before I could get my grubby mitts on them.  Some of the notable duds I rented were: Batman Forever, Rise of the Robots, Mario is Missing, Super Pittfall, and True Lies (ouch).  On the upside I did rent a few gems: Mega Man X3, Aladdin, Lion King, Metal Warriors, and Axelay, so it wasn't all bad.  I rented a lot of games, probably some bad enough that they were blocked from my memory never to be mentioned again, but I knew I could usually let my guard down and be a little more adventurous when renting since it was a buck or two to rent instead of 30-70 bucks to buy it new.  The worst case scenario was that I would just have to go play outside or something. 


By the time I got to high school the SNES had pretty much run its course making way for the PSX and N64, and although my sister eventually got a PSX late in that cycle, that was something she coveted and I rarely got a chance to play.  When I got my first job the PS2 had come out so I finally got a chance to delve into that game catalog (thank you backwards compatibility).  The ironic part is although I did embrace the PS2 (and eventually the Gamecube), I would typically find myself going back and picking up SNES and NES games as frequently as I would any newer title (actually probably a lot more frequently).

I had buddies with some decent resources like Nintendo Power subscriptions and parents with looser purse strings than my own, and thus I was introduced to some pretty great games.  Since I had a somewhat unusual taste in games (compared to most people I knew), we frequently borrowed back and forth and every once in a while might trade games, it was this way that I fell in love with games like Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 3 (6), Shadowrun, Zombies Ate My Neighbors, and Contra 3.  Later when I was old enough to buy games on my own, these games were the first to get added to my collection.

I guess it hit me somewhat recently how lucky I was to have the kind of control over what games I bought.  A buddy of mine gave me his entire NES collection a few years back, something along the lines of almost 20 games, and although I wasn't going to turn down free games, most of them were dreadful.  Think anything you would see in an AVGN episode, and then some.  From a collection standpoint, neat to own, but also glad I didn't pay for them.  When I discussed what the deal was with this morbid collection he said they were games he got as gifts, he never bought his own games and his relatives just bought what they assumed a kid would want for their birthday or christmas: Ghostbusters, Top Gun, Predator, Jaws, great movies that due to reckless licensing spawned awful games, and so his experience was just tainted by frustration and misery, so much so that giving them away was a liberating experience as an adult.

With the internet and a game industry that has been refined over a few decades, there's a much safer consumer climate for making informed game purchases.  Being informed prior to that age was a chore, and I'm glad I had a pretty good eye for decent stuff otherwise this would be a very different blog.  Recently I started collecting again after a pretty significant hiatus (I spent a number of years moving around, finishing college, finding work after college, and most recently getting married), and so I'll wrap this up for now and transition this to the next blog where I will discuss some of the differences I noticed collecting 10 years ago compared to now.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

How I Spent My Brother's Summer Vacation

Ok, so my brother and I are about 12 years apart in age, I'm a child of the 80's and he's a child of the late 90's.  He's in high school and he comes to visit me in the summer time since we live on opposite ends of the country.  Before the summer began he and I had a serious conversation about what "old school" games we were going to fire up while he was here.  Here's some of the stuff we played while he was here (in mostly chronological order).

1.  Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)

This one we had discussed playing months before he ever got here.  This for me is like the last great Zelda game.  I liked the original, the second one was awful, this one was incredible, and then the franchise went 3D and completely left my realm of interest.  My brother was born after this game came out so his desire to check it out was somewhat impromptu.  We got about halfway through the game, got bored, and stopped probably at about the 3rd of 4th Dungeon in the Dark World.  This was one of the big seven when I grew up so I played this game to death in my youth.  We probably could have finished it, we took turns when one of us got tired of playing or died and eventually it got to the point where we both wanted to hand off the controller and the other didn't want to pick it up, so we set this one back on the shelf.


2. Smash TV (SNES)

This one we played very briefly.  I loved this game in the arcade back in the day and if I'd known it was on SNES back when I was a kid I probably would have jumped at the opportunity to pick it up.  This game has a good balance of twisted humor and good gaming fundamentals.  To me it felt like the video game version of "The Running Man" which is one of my favorite "Ah-nold" movies.  Arcade action, a cool isometric overhead view of the game with great controls and epic boss fights, can't ask for much more than that.  The game suffers slightly in that you essentially have infinite lives and can keep playing until the end so there's no real challenge, I also was disappointed because the game always felt like there could have been more.  That aside, it's a really good port of the original game and I nice go-to game for some raw shoot-em-up arcade style gaming.  We both had played this a lot beforehand and this time played long enough to beat the first boss and then moved on to the next game.


3. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round (SNES)

I'm a big Final Fight fan and this was a spitting image of that game set in Arthurian mythology.  Now I find that most people tend to favor the bruiser (Percival) who is this game's version of Mike Haggar from Final Fight, but we stuck to the more familiar characters.   Other factors in this decision were that Arthur and Lancelot looked cooler, but also because Percival looked like a lumber jack, he was shirtless with jeans and a giant axe. 

We had a lot of fun with this one, it was challenging but some of the boss fights were confusing and found ourselves having conversations along the lines of:

"You remember the part where King Arthur fought the Samurai?"  "No, must have ran out of time before we could read that part in my classical lit class".

The features were cool, you could "level up" which would give you stronger weapons and armor (which scaled with the bad guys you fought so the game doesn't get easier, you just look cooler in the long run.
Anyway, really fun game, great brawler, and pretty challenging since you have limited lives and continues.  We managed to get to the last boss once or twice before we'd run out of continues and hit a "game over" screen.  What trumped this game however was another Capcom brawler....


4.  The King of Dragons (SNES)

We had a blast playing this game.  Another Final Fight style brawler by Capcom but this one required a little bit more finesse than the ordinary brawler.  Controls seemed a tad on the stiff side but I think that added to the finesse required as opposed to typical button mashing (unless you're the elf, button mashing is a plus for this guy).  Melee guys have sword and shield which took some time striking a nice balance on how to use them because the timing with the controls is a little awkward.  The Wizard and Elf had decent ranged weapons and no way to defend themselves (no shield or block button).  This one you could also level up which gave you more life and periodically you would get upgraded weapons or shields/bow/ring for the fighting guys/elf/wizard respectively.  Also the bad guys you fought didn't scale quite as quickly so there are parts of the game after an upgrade where you definitely notice things being a bit easier, and then right before an upgrade having to struggle with an improved version of a bad guy that appears for the first time and so forth.  Boss fights are really fun, lots of variety, different strategies for fighting each guy, the game keeps you on your toes for sure.  This game is really long for a brawler (like 15 full levels or more with boss fights and mini boss fights thrown in randomly for good measure).  We were most successful and got to the last stage (I think) with the Wizard and Elf, but we played this over and over and tried different characters and had a lot of fun with this.  Probably dumped a good 20 hours into this game by the time everything was all said and done, to compare, Zelda, an RPG type game that you can save your progress didn't get as much play as this game.  This was the shining star among the other games we played.  Also to my delight, I discovered there is an Arcade version of the game which I'm very curious to try out (3 player simultaneous play instead of the 2 so I'll have to drag a few friends over to try it out).  On that note on to our last and final game for the summer.


5. Hit the Ice (SNES)

This one we discovered at random because the name was kind of funny.  Turns out it's a hilarious hockey game!  Don't get me wrong it was just OK.  Think NBA Jam, only hockey and not licensed by any official professional sports organization.  The teams were basically just colors (Greens vs. Yellows in the above picture) and I guess they were from random cities but we couldn't determine if the team you chose was the home or visitng team, not that it really mattered, after a mode 7 graphics extravaganza of you zooming in on the arena from an overhead map view, you end up in the same hockey rink you play in every game.  It took us a while to figure out how to actually score goals consistently, but once we got it down we actually won a few games.  The game wasn't as good as maybe Blades of Steel on the NES, but it was fun for what it was, a silly unlicensed hockey game with pretend teams and players.  My brother was hoping the Reds were from the Soviet Union, that did not appear to be the case.  There are fights, and each character has a unique animation where they pretty much maul the opposing team while you're playing defense.  It was fun enough to give it a fair amount of replay value and we only played exhibition games (there was a tournament mode as well).  If you're easily frustrated by somewhat primitive play mechanics and control, or have high standards when it comes to hockey video games, maybe take a pass on this one, but if you have a little patience the game rewards you with a pretty rich and challenging gaming experience.  We had a serious pretend rivalry that we pumped ourselves up over against the "Yellows", and did eventually triumph against them after about 3 or 4 games.  At some point I may do a sports game list, this would make my top 10, top 5 if I do a SNES only list.  Good show Taito, wish I'd known about this game when I was a kid.


Alright so that's the breakdown of our classic gaming summer.  Not a bad spread if I do say so myself.  We did stick primarily to SNES because the games were the most readily available, also made sure to play games I hadn't played in a long time or ever before so my brother and I would be on equal footing, and we were not disappointed.  Looking forward to what next summer has in store.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Great or Greatest?

So if you're an 80's kid like me, it was an exciting time to get into video games, I remember vividly my first foray into console video games.  Most people probably won't be surprised to hear that my first console game ever was Super Mario Bros.  This game probably single-handedly plunged me into a well of interactive video gaming delight that I have yet to emerge from.  I was 5 years old, I was at a babysitter's (or maybe just at a friend's house around the corner) and there were a bunch of people there, kids my age, some older kids, and even a few adults all sitting around the tv.  What could captivate such a vast diverse audience?  The answer was Super Mario Bros on the NES.  Everybody sat around in this big circle taking turns playing this game for hours, and from that day forward I knew this was it, this was the coolest thing ever and I wanted to be a part of it.

 There are very few people around my age who wouldn't recognize this.

Unfortunately, my attempts at convincing my parents that this was a device our household could not live without was thwarted by ceaseless logic and in retrospect, good parenting.  This didn't stop me from making friends with as many people in the neighborhood that owned a Nintendo that would invite me over.  I got a chance to play a pretty good variety of games, but not all games were that great and a lot of people I know found themselves going back to SMB time and time again.  It was an incredible game and at the time I don't think anybody realized HOW good it really was, maybe because most people were forced to play it so much that they took it for granted as the "go to" game when others lost their flair or were too difficult to continue any further.  Let's face it, even those lucky turds who had a game genie or a Nintendo Power subscription still couldn't beat some of the tougher games out there.  Also there are secrets in SMB (some of them bugs), that I still find to this day that I never knew about (level -1 anyone?).

Some of these glitches I JUST found out about.

So the inevitable "sequel" Super Mario 2 was a welcome addition to the flowering franchise, even though it was a repackaged version of a Japanese game called Doki Doki Panic (which resembled a cartoony Prince of Persia or sorts).  They basically replaced a few sprites, added some familiar SMB controls (holding B to run for instance) and swapped in a crab boss in place of a second fight against Mouser (mouse guy who threw bombs).  At this point the franchise really seemed to kick off especially with the successful cartoon/live action show, Super Mario Brothers Super Show.  I loved the hell out of this show and you better believe that I own the dvds now.  I don't know if anybody remembers "The Family Channel" which was on basic channels for some odd reason, but I watched it on there on like Sunday morning or some weird day that you wouldn't expect to watch cartoons (probably smart considering nobody would have even heard of the show if they put it on Saturday morning against the big boys of cartoons back then).  So I still don't have a Nintendo and it's the early 90's and what does Nintendo dangle in front of my already tortured soul?

Wait a minute...

So Terrible, Yet Sooo Good. Pardon the terrible sound quality.

Super Mario Bros 3!  Introduced for the first time during the movie The Wizard, which my mom let me rent one time and I loved it and never saw it again until I was in high school where I realized it was terrible and wondered how brain dead and retarded I had to be when I was a kid to actually enjoy it.  I know the reason, a combination of hype and a little movie magic, which would later be crushed years later by a more sophisticated taste for entertainment.  Anyway, Mario 3, probably the best game of all time, you could play it for an entire afternoon, or skip ahead and save yourself some time if you felt like it.  Immense re-playability,  lots of solid challenging gameplay, good controls, fantastic landscapes, new enemies, new bosses, a simple yet engaging storyline, it was a complete package, and I don't think anybody could pick that game up, play it for a while and tell me without lying their ass off that it was anything other than spectacular.  I honestly could not comprehend how they could improve on the monster they created, and honestly I don't think they really have, even after the franchise went 3D they still came back to the Mario 3 for inspiration (world maps, walk around stage selection, varying level environments).  I will give Nintendo credit, when they were looking for a good launching point for the Super Nintendo, I think they picked the right franchise for the job.

This had everything a 5-10 year old boy could ever want in a movie at that time.

 Delish, like a fine wine.

Super Mario World.  I always felt that although this game is clearly and upgrade from it's NES predecessor, there were aspects that felt like side grades.  Improved flying mechanics were fun, but getting rid of some of the cooler stuff like the Frog/Bear/Hammer Bro suit made me kinda sad.  Also repackaging the koopa kids and shuffling them around wasn't quite as fun either, they were also much less difficult.  The game looks amazing, and I still played it TO DEATH, it didn't lose any re-playability, and they added tons of fun secrets and surprises for the hardcore completionist, but to me it was a fresh coat of paint, some polished controls, a new story, with some neat ideas.  It is more than a lot of sequels have been known to deliver, but I guess my love for SMB3 was that deep that I could still look down on an amazing game like SMW with some contempt.

 Bigger, better, everything you could ever want.

I didn't think the SNES was as good to Mario as the NES was, and Super Mario World 2 I think was a stinker.  Weird controls, baby mario was the most annoying thing ever (the crying will drive you mad), and I just never got into it, I played it at Toy's R Us for like 5 minutes and went "yeah, I'm going to pass on this one".  However, before I get too far ahead of myself, Super Mario RPG was a gem, probably one of the best games on the SNES and it was a treat late in the life of the SNES to get such a quality game so soon before the release of the N64.  I'm not going to go into detail about it because if you haven't played it, you're missing out, and if you have, I don't need to tell you why it's amazing.

 This game will amuse and delight even the most skeptical.

So I guess it doesn't come to much surprise that about the time I started to lose interest in this franchise was when Nintendo started to struggle.  As far as 3D games go, Mario 64 is probably one of the most successful early entries into the format.  However, for me, it lacked a lot of what made the previous Mario games special for me and Mario Sunshine on the Gamecube held zero interest for me whatsoever.  I played some Mario Galaxy, and I really enjoyed what I have played so far, but I haven't even gotten halfway through it, and I'm not sure I'll pick it up again.  With the emergence of the New Super Mario Bros games I have managed to rekindle the glory days of mario and have enjoyed them quite a bit, especially NSMB Wii, which captures everything I've loved about the old games, and adds in co-op play which is chaotic, frenzied, and SO MUCH FUN!  Also the Mario and Luigi Superstar Saga games (GBA and DS) have been very entertaining for me as well, a nice blend of hilarious comedy, RPG elements, platforming and puzzle solving that give it a rare quality that other games lack, just a fun experience.

 This guy quickly became my new favorite character ever.

 An uncontrollable grin came over my face when I first heard about this game.

I know I'm missing stuff, but I'm writing about the games I remember growing up and enjoy and the ones that stick out in my mind and in my experience.  This was about why this is personally one of the best franchises in gaming for me.  Mario games truly defined quality gaming for me.  I'll always give a Mario game a fair chance because I know I won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Oh Crap, we forgot to give our main character a name, I KNOW! How about....

     Ok, so it occurred to me that video games back in the day didn't always have the best production values, and in this case I'm going to highlight where an otherwise lack of creative character naming can sometimes elevate a game even higher than you originally intended.  Sometimes I wish they would still do this, and rare cases you might on a small independently developed game, but I suppose when we're talking about millions to develop games now instead of much less back in the day, you can have some creative leeway with certain aspects of your game.  Now I don't just mean like funny cartoony characters with a funny cartoony names (Banjo Kazooie, Earthworm Jim), and also nothing Japanese because even if their name translates into "Clownshoes Asshat" most people stateside would never know the difference.  Also MGS and similar games gets left out because everyone in that game is obviously be referred to by intentional code names, so there is some leeway into how strange those names could be.  I mean people with names that clearly were not given by their parents and aren't nick names either, names that might make you scratch your head or wonder if maybe they got it in prison and had it legally changed much in the same way that Dennis Rodman considered having his name changed to "orgasm" at one point.

Here are a few of my favorite examples.

1. Commander Keen:  For those of us unfortunate enough to get stuck with pc games that were plagued with control problems and a number of other strange variables that can really mess up a gaming experience and not an amazing newfangled video game machine (I'm referring to the NES), Commander Keen was the Mario of the PC in the early 90's.  He was probably only likeable because of his name which would otherwise raise many questions (was his last name really "Keen", or did he change it?, or was that his military cosign or something, wait, isn't he like 12, how is he in the military?).  I don't remember the story behind him and I'm too lazy to pull up wikipedia right now so I'll go off of what I remember from roughly 20 years ago... Commander Keen typically gets marooned on alien worlds and has to fight his way through ridiculously hard platforming levels that would be playable if the PC back then wasn't a horrific example of how bad controls can turn a good game bad.  His name was probably the only thing that saved this thing, and it was a strange one to say the least.

Press F1 for Help, you're going to need it...

2.  Striker and Blade:  Bad Dudes, fighting ninjas to rescue the president.  This game with some pointers can be very satisfying once you get good at it, otherwise it's tough to play, and is redeemed only by it's colorful yet simple premise and it's simple yet somehow intriguing main characters.  I remember kids used to say one was better than the other or one was better at using weapons and the other punching (made sense, BLADE, and STRIKER), but I think most of that was just conjecture and what it really came down to was superstition or which name you thought was cooler.  Also, no last names, no military rank, if I had to guess, they pulled these guys out of prison for committing some despicable crime, and threw them back in the slammer after their post rescue celebration burgers with the president were finished.

 Decisions, Decisions....

3.  Duke Nukem:  This one is obvious and his name is so ridiculous they just had to make the whole thing silly because his name oozes masculinity, nuclear irresponsibility, and comedy.  This has only been further made ridiculous by the people who created him having so much trouble (well over a decade of trouble) to get a sequel released with his name on it.

 Fiscally and Militarily irresponsible, I'd say he's a shoe in.

4.  Vic Viper and Lord British (Gradius, Life Force): The fact that these guys even have names is kinda unnecessary.  I mean you're in a F-16 in space (try and figure that one out), and sure there could be a pilot but the game doesn't exactly have or really need much back story.  Also I'm pretty sure it's set a few thousand years in the future, would there even BE a Britain for someone to be a lord of that far in the future?  Anyhow, I suppose ridiculous names were in order when they decided to try and give this game some context and filler for the instruction manual that nobody was going to read.  Yeah, I guess they released some pretty cool anime movies based on the game series, but I don't recall seeing either of these two characters in them, so...yeah...

They have names..... and feelings...

5.  Super Joe and Rad Spenser (Bionic Commando):  Last guys on my list for now.  Clearly when screening candidates for sending a soldier on a top secret mission using highly experimental technology to go kill the clone of Adolf Hitler you need to select someone with experience, grit, and wicked cool names.  Obviously Super Joe wasn't quite good enough to get the job done, so they sent in Rad Spenser who's name was that much better and thus more qualified to finish the job.

Rad Spenser, look at all that non-threatening arsenal, he's clearly ready to take on an army and kill Hitler's Clone

That's all I have for now, any good ones I should have added to this list I would welcome in the comments section (consider the parameters I set in the opening statement).  I really hope that when some of these developers came up with the names that they were thinking that in the future people would be having crazy discussions about just this topic.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

HOT!!!! NES Intro Sequences

When I think back to the NES what always impressed me about it was the production quality in a lot of games despite a pretty serious technology handicap.  Even in the mid 80's when it took off it wasn't exactly on the cutting edge.  So what made it last clear into the 90's?  Exceptional creativity on the part of game developers trying to do whatever they could to delivery a quality product with limited means to do so.  In the case of some of the games I'm about to highlight, they came from arcade games that had NES ports that suffered because of the technology gap.  However what I noticed other than sometimes making completely different games more appropriate for the system, they would also spice it up a bit in other ways.  We're going to talk about one of those ways.  The hot 8-bit intro sequences that turned good or great games into awesome or outstanding games that we'll always remember.


In no particular order, first up, BAD DUDES!  I'll let it speak for itself.

 I was always raised to believe a ninja's only weakness is itself, and Bad Dudes.  Luckily there just so happen to be a couple Bad Dudes available at the time.

Born for "Bad Dudeness" Blade and Striker.  Twins, and when they were born, Blade performed his own sea section from the inside, and striker punched his way out of the womb, these men were screened very carefully for this task.

If you're not super pumped to play this game yet there's probably something wrong with you.  This game is a little stiff for a beat em up, once you get the hang of it, it's a lot of fun, but seriously half of the reason you end up playing this game is because the intro gets you super pumped to dive in and prove just how much of a BAD DUDE you can be.  This is further emphasized after every boss battle as your character in a super loud scratchy 8 bit tone declares "I'M BAD!".  My buddy George introduced me to this game after i got out of high school and kinda taught me how to play it (admittedly I was not a very bad dude at first until he showed me what I was doing wrong).  This is a prime example of how an otherwise mediocre game uses a little creativity to become one of the greats.


On to our next subject.  Dragon Warrior III.  Up until this point the Dragon Warrior (Quest) series was fast becoming a great success in the RPG games genre.  The third installment had something it's predecessors lacked, a super sweet intro sequence that would put any modern fantasy movie to shame.  Eat your heart out Peter Jackson.  This is the intro to Dragon Warrior III.

This gets me far more excited about level grinding than anything I've ever seen.

I'm ready to go slay Dragons and rid the world of tyranny, I don't know about you.  I was always a Dragon Warrior II fan primarily, something about that game always appealed to me more than 3 did, but when I saw this intro the first time, it blew me away, I thought it was pretty goddamn sweet.

Next is kind of a sleeper, I only stumbled upon it somewhat recently looking for a completely different game online, needless to say it came highly recommended, I picked it up and turned out to be a pretty sweet game.  As if that wasn't good enough, it has one of the shortest, awesome-est, straight to the point intro cut scenes, ever.  Since we don't know much about our hero the creators of this game decided a quick intro sequence would help give us a little insight as to what this gentleman is capable of.  This is Shatterhand, and yes, he does in fact shatter things with his hands.

Sweet, despite facing armed opponents, I seem to be able to deflect their bullets with my arms and then punch them the fuck out even though they're heavily armored.

The cover like most NES games doesn't reveal a damn thing about this game, but this intro speaks volumes, and this is a pretty damn good game for any NES library.


Mega Man 2 is a great game, and improves just about every aspect of itself from the first Mega Man game.  Mega Man 2 and I go way back and it was one of those games that nobody seemed to own, but everybody I knew had to borrow from a friend or rent it.  Once I finally got my hands on this bad boy in high school, many good times were had.  Here's the sweet intro.

Slow start with some text to get us up to speed, dramatic build up, and an great finish revealing our hero, awesome even for its simplicity.

I don't need to add anything to this game that hasn't already been said, but it has a sweet intro, and it makes an amazing game even better.

To wrap this all up we have probably my favorite on the list, Ninja Gaiden II.  All three of the Ninja Gaiden games have amazing cinematic cut scenes throughout each of the games that tells the drama that is the life of the Ninja Ryu Hayabusa.  The second game has probably the best of these in it's intro cinematic.

Ninja Lives are complicated.

You are introduced to the bad guy who is apparently the boss or superior of our previous enemy Jaquio from the first game, and you get the feeling that although your search for your father and his killer is behind you, that's only the start of your Ninja destiny.  Great music, cool lightning and thunder effects, a compelling opening to a fantastic game.


Some runners up were probably Ninja Turtles, Double Dragon, and  Lolo 2.  These all give their respective titles some momentum, but the games themselves are either unbeatable sans game genie (Ninja Turtles 1, Double Dragon) or are just long, tedious, and frustrating without cheating (any of the Lolo games).  Anyway, if these intro sequences don't inspire you to play these games, I don't think anything can.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Secret of Mana...Too Good of a Secret It Would Seem

Before I became the proud owner of a Super Nintendo, I only had the opportunity to play whatever games my friends had, and since most of my friends didn't have a Super Nintendo either, I only had the opportunity to play a few good ones.  My first foray into the world of Roleplaying games came around this time in the form of Secret of Mana.

This was the box art, nothing fancy, and certainly understated just how awesome this game is.

This is probably without a doubt the BEST action Role-playing game ever made, and arguably one of the last good ones made either.  The sad thing about this game is it is so good I don't think the creators realized that they had a good thing and perhaps should have stuck to it.  Every sequel to this game seems to lack the charm, simplicity, and playability that made Secret of Mana such a grand success to begin with.  So what makes this game so great?

 One of many "Gigas" bosses that would spawn the myth of the "Gigas Gigas" (king of the gigases) among some of my friends.

A few things come to mind right off the bat.  A memorable soundtrack, original concepts, simple battle mechanics, drop in drop out co-op multiplayer, a great story, fun characters, great support characters, and that's just off the top of my head.  It's not too long that if you sink a full weekend into it, you should be able to finish it, but not so short that you'll feel short changed when it's all over.  I've played through this game quite a few times and have found quite a bit of enjoyment out of each play-through, either by trying different tactics, exploring alternatives that I hadn't considered, and I learn fun new things each time that inspire me to play it time and time again.

 These Ring Menus Were the Coolest!

The game was so good that when news of a sequel sprang up I was very excited, but that excitement faded over time as the game never made it stateside and it wasn't until I was in high school that I managed to track down a playable translation, and it definitely lacked the atmosphere, game mechanics, and charm that it's predecessor had used to great effect.  It begged the question "why couldn't it be more like Secret of Mana?" and has been the first of many far more disappointing titles that would come out since then.

Japanese box for Seiken Densetsu 2 (wait, what? this is a sequel!?)

Secret of Mana itself is a sequel to a Gameboy game called Seiken Densetsu which would be released as a Final Fantasy knockoff stateside so as far as people were concerned in the US, Secret of Mana was the first game in the series.  The Ill fated Seiken Densetsu 3 or Secret of Mana 2 would never make it stateside and when people like myself and other fans of the original Secret of Mana got a chance to play it, it did NOT deliver the goods.  This would be followed by an even bigger disappointment with Legend of Mana, a game so bad I quit playing about 15 minutes in and haven't looked back.  The game played like a poorly conceived children's picture book, not a compelling RPG that was instrumental in bringing about the golden age of Sqauresoft.  Sword of Mana on the Gameboy Advance was a step in the right direction, but it was intended as a prequel and played like one, less features, no new mechanics, overall unforgettable.  It too lacked elements that made SoM a great game, and although I gave it an honest play through, I would not take much satisfaction in doing so again.  Further disappointment would ensue with the release of Seiken Densetsu 4 which basically just ripped off the Kingdom Hearts short of including a cast of Disney characters, and failed to bring anything unique to the table.  It failed to provide any semblance of any of the games in the series, and was a huge failure for one simple reason, it was nothing like Secret of Mana and didn't even try to be anything other than a failed entry into what should have been a dead franchise.  Most recently they made Children of Mana on DS, another sequel/prequel like Sword of Mana, again adding nothing new to the series and leaving me a bit disappointed.  Finally, we have Heroes of Mana on the DS which resembles a real time strategy formula rather than an action RPG one, and once again fails to deliver the goods.  I thought there was some potential with the vibrant cast of characters and what was shaping up to be an interesting storyline, but minutes into the game I realized that the game mechanics were complicated, not fun, and confusing.  To complicate things, the characters became far too chatty and I found myself skipping huge chunks of dialogue in hopes of "getting on with it already" and just being disappointed at what I ended up getting to ultimately.  It ended up being a cycle of skipping cut scenes just to run into a shitty game that lacks everything I could ever hope for in a Secret of Mana sequel.

 Sadly it never made it to the States.

You'd think with all the Squresoft buzz that this would have made it stateside, it even got decent press coverage, I remember seeing articles about "Secret of Mana 2" all over the place.

 Slightly bumped graphics, slightly different interface, drop in drop out multiplayer same as before, just lacking a certain something, maybe it was the lack of personality that the characters had in this one since they reduced it to a "choose a class" character select format.  Amateur Japanese to English translation may not have helped much either.

Character select screen for Seiken Densetsu 3, I suppose limiting who you could bring with would encourage you to play the game again with those characters you excluded from your first go around, I did not experience that urge.

Legend of Mana *shudders*

 Why didn't they just add Micky Mouse and quit making further mockery of this poor dead beaten horse...

Hey blonde Sora where's Goofy and Donald at?  Fucking....Weak.....

So how do I really feel?  In a word, wanting.  I have been waiting for what will be going on almost 20 years for a decent title in the "Mana" franchise to step up, knock off the gimmicky reinvention cycle that has sent this series straight to the gaming gutter, and make a game that will once again captivate me, and give me the pure satisfaction that Secret of Mana gives me every time I play it.  I just want two things really, drop in drop out multiplayer action RPG action, and a compelling cast of characters caught up in a world of magic, fantasy, political intrigue, and saving the world.  I don't know why that's so hard to recreate, they could have made 10 successful widely popular sequels if they'd just followed that simple formula when they went ahead with any sequels to begin with.  What this tells me is that the people responsible for continuing this franchise fail to realize that the key to success lies in the fact that they made a brilliant game to begin with, and that they shouldn't try to fix what ain't broken.  It's a testament to a game's greatness that a franchise can stay alive for roughly two decades on the merit of one good game followed by several total stinkers that everybody only buys in the desperate hope that perhaps the next new one will finally be the one that we've been waiting for since 1993.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

They Don't Make Them This Hard Anymore

I have a ton of NES games.  Also a love and admiration of that generation of games that goes way back.  But didn't actually own one until my senior year of high school (two console generations later).  I was the kid who made friends with other kids who had a Nintendo. Eventually I worked out a trade with a buddy of mine at the time to trade my Magic the Gathering card collection for his NES with about 20something games and a very nice collection of accessories, we're talking the 4 score, the advantage, the powerpad, a couple zappers, an absurd number of controllers a few regular and a few turbo pads, game genie, and everything short of the power glove (which is a piece of shit anyway). 

Now that I actually owned this fine machine and its various accessories and games, I set out to reconquer the past, games I struggled with, games I only got to play briefly, games that I loved and played a great deal, all finally within my grasp.  I grew up in a small town and game stores were not something I had access to until I got my driver's license and could drive "into town".  So I had access to a few game stores that sold NES games for like 5 bucks a pop or less.  Rarer games I could either find on Ebay (which was still relatively new) or get lucky at a few stores and find a deal on.  I played the shit out of that thing and enjoyed the hell out of it, beat all kinds of games, those were some of my best gaming years of my life, while other people were fucking around with what I thought (and still do think) were shitty N64, decent PSX, non-existant Dreamcast, and emerging crappy PS2 and Gamecube games, I was enjoying the classics, and even caught up on some good SNES games that had come and gone before I had a chance to play or even hear of them while they were in the mainstream retail market.  So that should give the rest of this some context.

I want to talk about a few games that stood out for two reasons.  One; they were super fucking hard.  Two; they were beatable and didn't have crippling flaws that accounted for their difficulty.  Very few people actually beat them, or I knew very few people who beat them (we'll say less than 5 people, that's probably accurate).  Anyway I'm going to highlight 5 particular titles, I was going to try for 10, but I only found 7 and the 5 I settled on were really easy to pick out of that 7.  So I'll do a count down of the 5 best hard games I ever played (and maybe even beat or know someone who beat them).  Also if the game is part of a series and maybe the sequels are more difficult I just went with the first game in that series (since difficult games with sequels tended to breed tough(er) sequels).

Number 5:  Ghosts and Goblins.  This game is super hard and not impossible.  Two hits and you're dead, but you have a variety of weapons, interesting game progression, good music and a lot of different stuff to keep you going.  Also infinite continues and you start off from either the beginning of the stage you died on, or the halfway point if you made it that far, so there was enough to keep you going so the difficulty factor didn't turn you away from the game.  The controls are good, there's not a lot to complain about, it's just hard.  Also in order to get the good ending you have to beat the whole game twice, and the second time around is noticeably harder.  I did manage to beat this game, but when I took a crack at it recently I found myself easily discouraged and giving up after about an hour.  I suppose when I beat it about 10 years ago I didn't have the distraction of a dozen easy newer games to play instead and a much lower overall difficulty expectation from my games, plus the bragging rights were enough drive to keep me going then, nowadays, it doesn't quite elevate my sense of worth the same as it used to, and the only person I have to brag to is my wife and she could probably case less.  *shrugs*  Onwards!

Strange cover art, typical of early Capcom games on the NES

 This may not seem like a big deal, but this is a serious "oh shit, oh shit, oh shit" moment.  This game is full of these, and most aren't even boss fights like this one.

Number 4:  Castlevania!  My buddy George introduced me to the Castlevania series and I was honestly disappointed that after all these years I had never touched a Castlevania game.  Now George and I had a lot more fun with Castlevania 3 at first because of the neat backup characters and the "choose your path" style that gave the game the illusion of being non-linear.  However, one magical weekend, my love for the first game was ignited.  Two good buddies of mine (Don and Brian) decided we needed to beat the original Castlevania because we didn't know anybody who had ever beat it and we needed that satisfaction.  After 2 days of playing about 8 hours each day, we emerged victorious.  Six grueling levels of some of the most difficult action/platforming you can imagine was all that stood between us and victory.  Don was the only one who could seem to kill the Grim Reaper (level 5 boss), and after the first day we literally gave up on beating Dracula after trying for several hours to beat him.  Day two we started again, fresh and determined.  Our familiarity with the game after day one gave us a profound edge on day two, Don of course beat the Grim Reaper again allowing us to get past that hurdle once more, and after almost SIX HOURS of fighting Count Dracula, I FINALLY BEAT HIM!  Which would have been more exciting for everyone had we not burned out pretty bad after playing it for so long.  So mission accomplished, we beat what was thought to be the unbeatable and moved on to our next conquest....

Konami kept their covers classy and relevant.

This may seem like a spoiler, but if you play this game with the intent of beating it, you will see this screen more than any other in the entire game.

Number 3:  Ninja Gaiden.  I remember playing this briefly as a kid and a friend and I never got past the second level, EVER.  So as far as I was concerned this game didn't exist past level 2.  After I got my NES in high school I think I got as far as level 4 before quitting that time, and that was with help.  So the weekend before or following Castlvania we decided that Ninja Gaiden was a game that needed to be beaten.  Don, Brian and myself went to work.  This one we spent 3 days on.  The first day we got to the last boss and quit, day two Brian beat the last boss, and day three Don beat the last boss.  I didn't beat the last boss but I think I got to the last phase once or twice and got close without actually beating him.  I was satisfied with my contribution up to that point where I didn't feel the need to really play through the game again so I could beat it myself, I got to see the end, which was totally sweet, and we all pretty much laid the ground work for playing through the game quite seamlessly each discovering new tricks how to get past certain areas, and figuring out which weapons and tactics worked against certain bosses and so-forth.  But as far as I know, Don, Brian, (and from his account) an old roommate were the only people I knew personally who had beaten the game.  I even watched a fairly reputable gaming reviewer give up on an attempt he had made to beat the game not too long ago, so I guess that just goes to show how significant the victory over this punishing game could be.  About the game itself, excellent controls, AWESOME music, sweet cut scenes that helped give the game some storyline substance, neat mood setting graphics for the time.  All this came together to make this a sweet game, it was just super fucking hard also.  This game was a huge tease too, the levels were split into sub-stages, if you died or even got a game over you only had to start at the beginning of whatever sub-stage you were on, when you got to the final boss, and died, you got sent ALL THE WAY BACK to the first sub-stage of the last level (out of three long ass sub-stages), so we got hella fucking good at blazing through those three stages after three days of playing that motherfucker.  So yeah, fuck, that was frustrating as all hell.

Awesome cover art, the ninja being the only thing you'll recognize in the actual game.  This would probably be more accurate for the second Ninja Turtles game on the NES because the first level actually takes place in a burning building, no burning buildings in Ninja Gaiden, not a single one. 

Fist level, you can stick to walls, jump back and forth between walls, and there is this fun trick where you can move up a wall by jumping out and back real quick, but I wasn't very good at it and Don and Brian made fun of me for that pretty much the whole time.

Awesome cut scenes, very cinematic, gave the game a lot of substance beneath an already excellent game, and the translations weren't that bad either.

 This is either the halfway point cut scene or the end cut scene, or maybe both, but cool nonetheless.

Number 2:  Kid Icarus.  This game is like Mario, Metroid, and Zelda all kind of had a baby and it was in the form of the hardest fucking platforming game of all time as far as I'm concerned.  I know one guy who has beaten this game, and he seriously told me that it was years in the making (as much as a decade or more of playing the fucking game before he beat it).  I think it has to do with a combination of slightly awkward (but not necessarily broken) controls and unpredictable game play changes that really make this game a toughie.  Sad part is IF you can make it to the final level, that level and the final boss are easy mode, but I personally don't have the patience to get past the second level (and that was after a solid 6 hours of play time in an afternoon at one point).  So maybe some people may have beaten this one, but I don't know anybody who could likely recreate that scenario today.  I do believe that it is a beatable game because I have credible accounts from folks that have cleared it (prior to YouTube or any number of ways to just see some crazed person or pre-programmed robot seamlessly cruise through the game), so it meets my criteria for this list for that reason.  My recent attempt at this game was brief and frustrating as expected.  By the time I reached (1-2) I was both mentally and emotionally exhausted and not tempted to move on in the least.

Nintendo brand Nintendo games actually gave you an idea of what your game was going to look like and what you're in for.  They fail to mention this game is super fucking hard though.

 Vertical platforming, this game teaches the lesson that perhaps it should be used in small doses, not half or more of your game :/

Number 1:  Burai Fighter.  So this is a shoot em up, and not very many people have heard of it or really give a crap about it, but it's number 1 on this list for a very good reason.  It's a good fucking game if you give it a chance, and it's hard as shit!  The controls in this game are awesome, solid music soundtrack, you have free range to move around the screen while it scrolls along either up down or sideways (pretty unique for a shoot em up at the time).  You're a guy in a spacesuit of some kind and you have one of 3 guns you can power up to try and fight off the swarms of crazy crap that's going to come at you from all directions, this is further complicated by the fact that you're dodging obstacles and maneuvering through increasingly complicated terrain.  The difficulty in this game comes from two factors, the first being that if you touch or get hit by anything you're dead, and the second is some of the most intense boss fights outside of Blaster Master that I've ever experienced.  Another thing that really ups the ante is that you can't experience the entire game unless you play on the highest difficulty.  Easy mode you play the first 6 stages, Normal is the first 8, and Hard mode allows you to actually play through all 10 stages.  Really gives you some incentive to try all three difficulties where most games wouldn't offer anything other than the added challenge.  I haven't had problems clearing easy mode on my own in the past, and I could probably beat Normal mode once in a great while if I had the patience, but Hard mode ups the ante and creates a pretty hectic shoot em up that I really can't seem to beat.  However, back in the day, my buddy's older brother who was like the gaming expert back then did in fact manage to beat the game on Hard and finally beat the game, but for him, it was literally countless hours and days spent over the course of years before he put this one to rest, and if I recall correctly it was the last game in his collection that he finally beat.  I gave this one a shot on easy mode and managed to get to stage 2 after quite a few attempts, however did not get past the stage two boss after about an hour of playing.

Sweet ass cover art, and of course like any gutsy difficult game, they dangle the last boss in front of you even though you'll never fucking get to him probably ever.  Surprisingly, everything pictured is actually in the game though, good show Taxan.

You can move anywhere on the screen and shoot in 8 directions, just don't touch or get hit by anything and you'll be cool, also the direction in which you scroll will shift at certain parts in every level.

 First boss, and the only boss picture I could find online... A testament to the difficulty of the game I suppose.  This guy moves around the screen pretty fast, those crazy arms swing around randomly, and he shoots little bullets at you, oh and you can only damage him by shooting out his three eyes which those arms block.  If your gun isn't powered up pretty good you're probably fucked.

For my generation, the NES came out when I was real young, and frankly NES games were typically much harder than my gaming abilities, luckily my buddy had an older brother in high school, and he was a gaming god as far as I was concerned.  He set the bar for what a good gamer should be for me for a long time.  He was the person that influenced a lot of my taste in old games, and who's gaming library and games I watched him play over the years had a strong influence over how my current NES and SNES collection shaped up over the years.  He even helped me beat some of my PC games that didn't have NES counterparts because he enjoyed the challenge and the change of pace from normal console games.  Our association was mutually beneficial because if I remember correctly he used the money saved up from babysitting my sister and I to buy his SNES on the day it was released to the public. 

So there you go, there's my top 5 really hard, but also really good, NES game list with some good old anecdotes thrown in for good measure.  I probably won't do many lists like this unless it will give me a chance to briefly cover several games all at once that have similar memories and experiences tied up in them.