Retro Review: Little Nemo: The Dream Master

In the NES era, Capcom was well-known for its fine side-scrolling action games, particularly Mega Man games and those with the Disney license. Little Nemo continues this tradition as an eight-level platformer complete with various transformations. However, the game isn’t quite as finely designed as some of Capcom’s other NES entries.

The basic gameplay premise of Little Nemo is that you play as a child whose only defense is to throw candy at enemies (which will briefly stun them). Nemo is pretty fragile, and even stunned enemies can be difficult to avoid. However, a variety of friendly animals can be recruited with candy, resulting in Nemo being able to ride or turn into them. This is the core gameplay mechanic, and it is somewhat reminiscent of Mega Man’s various weapons. Each animal has its own movement and abilities, and some of them are equipped with a method of attack. However, you’ll spend far more time avoiding enemies than fighting them directly.

Little Nemo’s avoidance-focused gameplay can get frustrating due to enemies that respawn or have tricky attack patterns (or both). You’ll only be able to take 3 hits as Nemo, though many of the animals will increase your maximum health somewhat. You’ll find that you need to memorize spawn points and attack patterns to get by, especially in later levels. In essence, your goal is to master each stage so you can get through it with your meager health.

The first seven stages are highly exploratory, with your mission consisting of finding a series of keys. If you reach the exit without all of the keys, you’ll have to continue searching for more. The game doesn’t feature any dramatic secrets, but many keys are in what would be considered “secret areas” in most games. You’ll have to explore thoroughly, and this is the most enjoyable part of the game, provided you’re not exploring an area with cruel enemy placement. Often you’ll need to find one animal companion to get to another and so on, which gives each stage a puzzle feel. However, lose a life and you usually have to start from scratch, leading to a lot of wasted time.

The final stage is another story. Consisting of a series of short but very difficult areas interspersed with the game’s only three boss fights, it’s like another game entirely. Fortunately, Nemo is also given some more offensive prowess for this final gauntlet. While any given area can be completed with some practice, stringing together all of them in a single set of lives is quite a challenge.

Little Nemo is a fun game, but due to the difficulty and design, you’ll spend a lot of time re-doing things you’ve already done, which can really make the game drag. The premise is fun, and transforming into animals works well in many cases, but it’s a bit too limited in scope. If you can deal with a bit of frustration, this is a fun game to play through, but even with unlimited continues, it can get tiresome.

Review Score: C+

Retro Review: Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny

Ultima V’s subtitle has always bothered me. Each other game in the series has an obvious and meaningful title: “Quest of the Avatar” is self-explanatory, “the Black Gate” is an actual object, and so on. ”Warriors of Destiny” never seemed to mean anything, even after finishing the game, until I gave it a good deal of thought. The heroes of the previous Ultima games were not connected (until later revisions in continuity), and Ultima V marked the first time you were returning to Britannia as the Avatar. The plot couldn’t be simpler: Lord British has gone missing during an expedition to the underworld, one of his trusted associates has become a corrupt king in his absence, and you need to find and save him. To do this, you will form a band composed largely of your companions from Ultima IV, plus a few newcomers, and adventure across the land and back again searching for clues and then finally your liege lord. It is from this that the name “Warriors of Destiny” comes. In Ultima IV you became the Avatar, but in Ultima V you save the world and fulfill your role as a champion not only of virtue, but of Britannia (a theme which is central to all of the games that follow).

The story of Ultima V harkens back to a very different time in RPG design. Even western RPGs tend to be very linear these days, with the concept of choice often coming in the form of moral decisions. Ultima V eschews choice entirely – you must be virtuous, and you have a singular mission – but instead leaves the story itself up to you. There is a short list of things you must do, but in what order you do them and even how you find out that you need to will differ depending on what you do. Your primary method of advancing the plot is by speaking to townsfolk, and most of the major towns are open to you at the start of the game. Indeed, you can beat the game very quickly using a walkthrough, but more so than any modern RPG, doing so entirely defeats the purpose of playing the game.

Another interesting aspect of Ultima V that sets it apart from other games, even within the Ultima series, is that of consequences, both good and bad. If you are captured by the corrupt Lord Blackthorn, he will put you to the question, and both giving in and resisting will have serious consequences (in the latter case, the permanent death of a party member). But also, one of your primary goals in the game is to defeat the three evil Shadowlords that corrupted Blackthorn in the first place, and your incentive to do so is more than just plot. On any given day, each Shadowlord will be in one of the eight main towns, influencing the people and making quests difficult or impossible to complete, and threatening you with nigh-unwinnable combat. This can be extremely frustrating, but it makes the defeat of each Shadowlord that much more satisfying.

As far as gameplay, Ultima V takes the Ultima IV engine and tweaks it, adding a lot of detail to the world and giving you more power to interact with it. The party size is reduced from 8 to a more manageable six, and there are a number of potential recruits across the world in three different classes (fighter, bard, and mage). The game adds a number of mechanics that would become Ultima staples, chief among them the Words of Power for spells. Because you actually cast spells in combat using these words, you actually find yourself referring to them as An Nox or Vas Flam instead of Cure Poison or Fireball, which is pretty cool.

The game, while amazing, is not without flaws. While combat in Ultima IV was not terribly difficult, you will learn to hate daemons and dragons in Ultima V. Nearly impossible to defeat without the use of a certain plot item (an item, I might add, that there’s no guarantee you’ll get before meeting any in combat), even with their nastiest powers negated they are still brutal foes. I found myself using An Xen Ex (Charm) on dragons in the last few dungeons not only to thin their numbers, but because a single dragon can dish out more damage than the rest of my party. And while the power of Magic Axes is much-heralded by U5 fans, I found that ranged weapons in general (including two-square weapons like halberds) were often more trouble than they were worth because they frequently target the wrong square, sometimes even hitting allies.

The largest failing of Ultima V is in its early game, which will quickly turn off many modern gamers even if the ancient graphics do not. In an old Ultima tradition, you will spend the early game broke and starving, except this time you will often run into Shadowlords in town who make it impossible to achieve anything. If you’re familiar with the game mechanics, you’ll know that the best solution is to simply spend all day resting (which oddly does not consume food), but if you’re like me you may just give up on the whole thing. To do so would be a mistake, though, as playing this game is a fantastic experience you don’t want to miss out on.

Brutal combat and early game woes aside, Ultima V is a masterpiece. I’ve always loved Ultima IV despite its regimented and repetitive structure, but Ultima V takes everything good about that game and applies it to a worthwhile story. For the first time in the series, Britannia feels like a real living world rather than a contrived set of towns that exist only to educate you about the Eight Virtues. And it’s a world you can easily lose yourself in, looking for just one more clue in your quest to save Britannia.

Review Score: A+

Retro Review: Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge

Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge is a game with a good core concept, but very uneven execution. Rather than create all new bosses, the Gameboy Mega Man games re-use bosses from the NES series, but with a catch: there are four bosses each pulled from two games. Dr. Wily’s Revenge sets this model, but the way it does it is pretty odd.

By necessity, given the formula above, two of the six bosses from the original Mega Man are left out of this game. Guts Man and Bomb Man were good choices to do away with. The four remaining bosses all have completely new, and very difficult, stages. While the bosses are re-used from the NES game, the stage design definitely is not. The much smaller Gameboy screen leads to cramped screens, and the game is designed with this in mind. They actually do an admirable job of making the size of the screen a non-factor.

The problem isn’t in porting Mega Man to the Gameboy, but rather it’s in trying to make a six-level game hard enough that people wouldn’t beat it in one sitting. And this game is very hard, especially at the start. All four opening stages basically require one or more weapons for easy traversal, so you’re going to have a tough time getting started no matter what you do. There are few death traps early on, but you have a smaller life meter than in the NES games and tend to take damage pretty frequently. The early game is a war of attrition, and in Mega Man 1 fashion, there are no Energy Tanks to help offset that fact.

It’s the latter half of the game where Dr. Wily’s Revenge falls apart, though. Instead of giving the four bosses from Mega Man 2 their own stages, you simply fight them all in a row, getting their weapons as you beat each. Even worse, there’s no indication which boss is which until you start fighting them, and you need to beat them all in a single set of lives. A new boss with a new weapon follows the four of them, leading to a very long fifth stage that can be extremely frustrating. The stage design also takes a turn for the worse at this point, with a number of traps that will just kill you if you happen to guess wrong when entering the next screen.

Also odd are the boss choices here. Fire Man and Heat Man both appear, though their weapons don’t work on the same foes, and Flash Man’s Time Stopper seems somewhat redundant with Ice Man’s Ice Slasher in terms of stopping enemies. The Mega Man 2 bosses don’t have the vulnerabilities to the Mega Man 1 weapons you’d expect, either, leading to a lot of trial and error on a limited number of lives.

There are some cool ideas in the Game Boy Mega Man games, but the negatives outweigh the positives in this first entry. The game’s difficulty is frustrating and requires more memorization than skill, and you barely get to use half of your weapons since you earn them at the end of the penultimate stage. The only real upside is that it is an original Mega Man game, which can whet your appetite if you’ve run out of NES entries to play. But this is a game that can be safely ignored.

Review Score: C

Retro Review: Dragon Quest V (Super Famicom)

It’s unfortunate that Dragon Quest didn’t become the phenomenon in the U.S. that it was in Japan, because as a result, we never got the 16-bit masterpiece that is Dragon Quest V. Like its predecessor, DQ5 changes up the story formula from the first few games in the series, while retaining the core gameplay. Indeed, despite being on a 16-bit system, the game plays almost identically to the NES versions, albeit with more colorful graphics.

The most fundamental gameplay change in DQ5 is that you can now recruit monsters into your party. Monsters join randomly and rarely, so unless you’re willing to do a whole lot of grinding to get the ones you want, you’re likely going to end up with a different party makeup each time you play the game. Not even your human characters exactly follow the traditional Dragon Quest classes, so you’ll find yourself mixing and matching party members and making a lot of tactical use of the wagon, returning from the previous game. For some reason, the party size has been reduced to three again, but if anything it makes combat tactics a bit more compelling.

I suspect the reason monsters were added to the party in this game is because the plot is far more linear than in previous Dragon Quest games, and you often have one or even no human companions. The monsters therefore guarantee that you have a full party available regardless of where you are story-wise. And the story greatly benefits from this decision, as well as the move to streamline the quest. There is no section in the middle where you have to explore the world and collect a half-dozen doodads or widgets this time. The fat has been trimmed from the story, and that’s a good thing.

The game is arranged into three distinct parts, taking place over multiple generations. You’ll adventure with your father as a young child, all the way until you bring your own children on an adventure. The way the narrative plays out is touching and extremely well done, resulting in one of my favorite RPG stories of all time. Any more than that would venture into spoiler territory, so suffice it to say this game will hit you emotionally.

Other than the great story and fun monster recruiting mechanic, this is very much a Dragon Quest game (and that’s a good thing!). The usual assortment of awesome items and traditional monsters are all here, with plenty of new stuff thrown in as well. The game even has some direct ties to Dragon Quest IV, though not to nearly the degree the first three games were related. Due to the linear nature of the game, there are a few less dungeons than usual, though they are no less fun. The game’s difficulty starts off higher than you’d expect, but for most of the game it’s actually quite easy by Dragon Quest standards. (The monsters you end up with can, of course, affect the difficulty as well.) The traditional end-game difficulty spike is done quite well, resulting in a final set of dungeons that are no pushover but never feel unfair, either.

The problem with games like Dragon Quest V is that explaining why they are good would undermine that very quality. If you like Dragon Quest gameplay and have a heart, though, you will probably love this game. That said, don’t feel obligated to play the original. While the DS/mobile version doesn’t feel as much like the NES games, it retains the great story and adds a bunch of extracurricular activities, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Review Score: A

Retro Review: Castlevania

The original Castlevania is a surprisingly simple game. Perhaps more surprising is how good it is despite that. It’s a game where the quality comes from the level and gameplay design rather than any particular big ideas.

You play as one of the many Belmonts (Simon in this case), armed with only a whip. The whip has two levels of upgrade, but you will receive both very quickly each time you start a new life, to the point where the upgrades are almost superfluous. You have limited mobility compared to the action games of the time, with a jump that can’t be adjusted in mid-air and no way to do things you might expect to be simple, like jumping onto a staircase. Your range of attack is limited to a forward whip and a crouching forward whip, and it’s a fairly slow animation, so you’ll need to fight tactically to have a chance.

The game does offer a wide variety of sub-weapons that are varying degrees of useful. They range from a simple knife that grants a basic ranged attack to the stopwatch that freezes time for all enemies for a few seconds. While these weapons are powerful when used correctly and can greatly enhance your survivability, they see their most use during boss fights.

The boss fights in Castlevania are memorable and get progressively harder. The game is divided into six distinct levels, each with its own boss. You have unlimited continues, but each sets you at the start of the level, and even simply dying sends you to the beginning of the third of the current level you’re on. As a result, with the exception of the final boss, you’ll always need to play through at least part of a level before fighting any boss. As a result, you really need to learn not only boss patterns, but the stages themselves.

If you’ve played future Castlevania games, a few things stand out in the original. The castle design is actually pretty consistent in many other games, so veterans of Symphony of the Night for example will recognize most of this game and its enemies. The U.S. manual even hints at some aspects of the actual storyline, unlike other Konami games like Metal Gear. This really feels like the start of a series.

Castlevania is a classic game because it’s so well-tuned. It’s short, but hard enough that it will take some time to beat. There are difficulty spikes, but they can be overcome. For instance, the final boss can be quite hard at first, but you continue indefinitely at the point just before the fight, so you have time to learn it. There’s even a more difficult second quest for those seeking a greater challenge. This is a game well worth revisiting.

 

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

Ultima IV is in every way the defining game of the series. It introduces the concept (and if you ignore the revisionist history, the character) of the Avatar, along with the eight virtues, Britannia, and a host of other concepts that do not change for the remainder of the Ultima saga. And best of all, it’s been released as freeware, so you should go play it right now!

On the gameplay front, Ultima IV is fairly similar to Ultima III, with a few major revisions. The stats and leveling are finally codified, as is Ultima’s propensity for giving you most of your xp through quests. But most importantly, Ultima IV introduces conversation trees.

The conversation trees are actually quite limited in implementation, but despite that they provide for one of the deeper storylines of the era. You can only ask any given NPC their name, job, or health status, or one of only two other concepts per NPC. (To the point where you can actually use an NPC that has limited conversation options as a hint that you will need to go back to them later.)

The plot of Ultima IV revolves around the eight virtues: Compassion, Honesty, Honor, Humility, Justice, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Valor. You spend most of your conversation time learning about the virtues, and upholding them is vital to your success in the game. The systems in place to determine your virtue range from interesting to incredibly silly (honesty is judged entirely by whether you rip off blind shopkeepers, for instance). The result is that you can cheat, but doing so will only make it harder to win – especially since combat is not particularly difficult.

The problem is that, beyond the differences in the virtues, the actual tasks you are assigned get a bit repetitive. You visit eight towns to find the eight mantras to use the eight shrines, and delve the eight dungeons to find the eight virtue stones, and so on. The details differ, but the information gathered in each town starts seeming familiar after a while.

Perhaps the aspect that most sets Ultima IV apart from other RPG’s is the final “boss.” After delving the longest dungeon in the game (and the only one you can’t avoid most of, even if you’re clever), you’re faced with a test of sorts. Not only on the virtues, but on the three principles they are derived from, and other concepts that are hinted at throughout the game but not explicitly made important. Pass, and you are anointed as the Avatar, embodiment of the eight virtues. Fail, and… well, shit, I don’t know, I wasn’t going to fail at the bottom of the freakin’ stygian abyss just to find out what happens!

Ultima IV set the series apart as more than just your typical hack-‘n’-slash series, a trend that would continue through Ultima VIII. (The less said about Ultima IX, the better.) The lack of RPG staples, like bosses of any kind, can be disconcerting to those unfamiliar with the series, but for reasons that can’t be fully explained, these games are even more satisfying to play and complete. It’s not a coincidence that the ability to make choices in RPG’s has become a big deal lately, but Ultima was doing it in the 80’s (and let’s face it, being evil may not let you see the ending, but it can still be fun).

Review Score: A

Retro Review: Mega Man 4 (NES)

It’s hard not to point at Mega Man 4 as the game where Mega Man started to go off the rails. The game has its ups and downs, but the largest factor in its downturn in quality is the addition of the charged Mega Buster shot. There is a good game hidden beneath the surface, but it’s dragged down by some dreary design, the constant charging noise limiting the music, and a design that plays it incredibly safe. I do want to give them some credit for finally putting all the special weapons and items on a single-page inventory screen, though.

It’s hard to believe that Mega Man 4 is the first game in the series with a strict 8-boss order, but along with everything else, it doesn’t help. It’s one of several annoying traditions this game would establish for the series, along with having a set of non-Dr. Wily stages in the same format as the subsequent Dr. Wily stages (spoiler alert!). Mega Man 4 doesn’t miss with everything, though. Several stages have side paths that exist only to offer extra Energy Tanks as extra items, which I like. It also introduces two utility items to supplement the three Rush forms. It does seem like ability bloat at times (especially considering that the Rush Marine is useful exactly once in the whole game), but the idea of hiding optional items in stages rather than having them be won from bosses is a good one the series would revisit.

The weapons in Mega Man 4 are actually pretty well-designed, but it doesn’t matter because the Mega Buster is usually just as good or better. The charged shot throws off much of the balance of the game, and several enemies seem to be designed around the timing of the shot charge. The game doesn’t offer enough challenge to incentivize weapon experimentation, and you’ll find yourself switching mostly just to hit enemies that you can’t otherwise line up for a direct shot.

Mega Man 4 isn’t a bad game, and outside of the context of its two predecessors it may even be remembered fondly. Instead, it’s indicative of the the growing problems in the series and takes a lot of blame for starting that trend. It’s fine if you want more Mega Man, but there are plenty of better options to play.

Review Score: C+

Retro Review: The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda brought with it a number of firsts: the first official gold cartridge, but more importantly, the first NES game with a battery save. While other games that were originally for the Famicom Disk System, such as Metroid and Kid Icarus, used a password system, thankfully Zelda was important (and complicated) enough to have something totally new. Many NES-era games that were large for their time feel small now, but Zelda is not small even by modern standards.

The original Zelda makes very efficient use of its design. You collect a large variety of items, but only 8 actually need to be selected and half of those aren’t used in combat situations. There are nearly as many passive items like the ladder and raft that work continuously or automatically. The 128-screen overworld map is divided into fairly distinct areas, but still flows more or less naturally. Nearly the entire thing can be explored from the start, with the various items you collect giving you access to secrets and shortcuts rather than opening up new areas. Survivability is the main impediment to exploration, and most of the tools to toughen Link up are found on the overworld.

The game’s 9 dungeons take up approximately the same amount of screens as the overworld, but feel entirely different. Though the grid-based nature of the dungeons certainly limits design in many ways, in others it actually opens things up. A glance at the map will tell you which walls you need to check for secrets when you’re stuck, for instance. The game relies on keys and locked doors to keep the player honest, but if you explore thoroughly this will rarely become an issue. And there’s a fine mix of exploratory puzzles and intense combat.

If the Legend of Zelda has any weakness, it’s that the combat can be extremely hard. Whenever you die or load your save, you’ll have only three hearts worth of health filled, which is annoying when you have a maximum of 16. It’s not much of an issue on the overworld map, but dying in a dungeon can lead to a loop of continuous death, and if you leave to find a fairy you can reset some of the tougher rooms. You don’t gain experience or anything of that sort, and defensive upgrades are pretty rare (and mostly found elsewhere). At times you just have to practice until you’re good enough to finish your quest, but this can be a time-consuming process.

If Zelda isn’t hard enough for you, the game offers a second quest that uses the same basic overworld, but with many details changed, and the dungeons both redesigned and relocated. The second quest introduces new mechanics like walking through walls, and is generally a whole lot harder than the original one. Still, the game is complete after one run through, so this really exists purely as a challenge, which is something still rare to this day.

The Legend of Zelda is a classic for a reason. It’s a generally well-balanced game with smart puzzles and lots of fun items to collect. Most of the hints you need are baked into the dungeon design, with the rest offered in broken English by various old men and women. While it’s easy to get stuck at times, the game is pretty fair–at least in the first quest! And unlike many original games from famous series, Zelda 1 still holds up, and doesn’t play exactly like any of its sequels. It’s definitely worth checking out!

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Zillion

Zillion is an action game in the Metroidvania style with a very solid design. Unlike the original Metroid, Zillion is a largely room-based game, featuring many simple puzzles as part of its main gameplay. The result is a game that feels ahead of its time, though even its own sequel didn’t copy the formula. Your mission in Zillion is to rescue two of your compatriots, gather five hidden floppy disks, and then set the base you’re doing all of this in to self destruct and get out. To do this, you’ll have to map out the base while managing several resources to survive.

The primary gameplay mechanic is that any given room might have a locked door. To open it, you’ll need to find four symbols in that room and enter those into the computer. This isn’t really a “puzzle” per se (though having some kind of aid to remember the symbols is helpful), since the symbols are always found in item dispensing nodes that are in plain sight. The main difficulty is in various obstacles: damaging lasers or mines, sensors that call reinforcements, and wandering enemies. You’ll also find ID cards, a valuable resource that lets you disable some of these obstacles temporarily. You have to decide whether to disable or deal with any given obstacle in each room, which keeps things interesting.

The game really opens up once you rescue your first ally. Each of your characters gains levels (via found items) and upgrades independently, so you have some incentive to plan out your upgrades. If you’re thorough, this may never be an issue, but having multiple characters also means multiple health pools. Health restoration is not that easy to come by (though you can always return to the starting point to fully heal), so the challenge becomes balancing between your abilities and staying alive.

The game is superbly paced, with an opening area that introduces the basic mechanics, a middle section that is high on combat, and a final area that has a more focused puzzle aspect. Instead of simply opening the door and moving to the next room, you’ll find yourself opening a door that can be accessed from another room, significantly complicating your exploration. It’s very well done and keeps things fun and interesting.

Unfortunately, there is one major downside to Zillion’s design: the lack of a save or password system. The game takes several hours to complete, and has limited continues, which can make it extremely frustrating if you fail.  The play control on the Sega Master System controller leaves a lot to be desired, and you will often take extra damage as a result. In a game this potentially unforgiving, that’s a problem. Playing conservatively helps, but adds to the already significant time investment.

Zillion is an extremely fun game, in my opinion a largely forgotten gem. It doesn’t have a huge variety of gameplay mechanics, but it is well designed and well paced. A simple password save may have made it a masterpiece of its time, but as it is, it’s worth a playthrough if you like this style of game.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Ultima III: Exodus

Despite the name, Exodus has nothing to do with traveling (well, no more than any other Ultima anyway). Exodus is merely the game that put together the mechanics of Ultima, if not the plot, for the first time. And unlike its predecessors, it was a damn good game.

Among the concepts introduced in Exodus were a party system, separate-screen party combat, actual moongates, nonstandard villain, and even whirlpools as a means to reach secret locations. As a whole the game still resembles simplified D&D, with clerics and wizards and a series of random races, but the table has clearly been set for Ultima IV.

The gameplay itself is surprisingly satisfying, with the usual Ultima assortment of quest groups that can be completed at your leisure. The overall quest is to slay Exodus, the “child” of Mondain and Minax (villains of the first two Ultimas). Despite the huge demon on the box art, Exodus is… well, it’s hard to say exactly what he/it is (and it’s a spoiler anyway), so let’s just say Exodus is Ultima’s first non-standard final boss.

The flaws in Exodus stem mostly from its ancient play control (though it suffers from the early Ultima problem of exploitable money-gaining tricks as a primary source of income as well). Your four party members do not share an inventory, or even money, and must constantly trade items and gold between them. This can be very annoying, and is in fact the reason it took me so long to beat Exodus in the first place. Still, after a few hours you learn the key combinations for trading and can do it pretty quickly.

The game also still isn’t pretty, once again being presented in four-color mode, and once again with a fan patch that restores the game’s graphics and midi to their superior non-pc versions. The game world is nearly square, and loops across two corners, making it difficult (and boring) to navigate.

Put aside its interface and the fact that this game was published in 1983, and Exodus is the first good RPG in the excellent Ultima series. Sure, it’s a blatant hack-‘n’-slash, with no virtues or Avatars in sight, but both the gameplay and plot are surprisingly ahead of their time. A curious Ultima fan who’s willing to put up with Ultima IV’s graphics wouldn’t go wrong to try Ultima III (after a few patches, anyway).

Review Score: B−