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−

Retro Review: Operation C

A lot of early Gameboy action games didn’t seem to be made with the limitations of the Gameboy’s screen in mind. Operation C is a rare exception, with detailed graphics that don’t just make everything hard to make out. It’s a solid, though often ignored, entry into the Contra series.

Operation C’s most important legacy has to be the Homing (or is it Hunter?) gun. I imagine it was added to give players a fighting chance on the crappy Gameboy screen, but it would be brought over to Contra III and serve as a useful weapon in many cases. Here, it’s mostly just overpowered. It fires three shots like the Spread gun (though in Operation C you can get a second Spread gun for a normal 5-shot arc), and as the name implies, homes in on enemies. A lot of the challenge of Operation C is just trying to survive with the Homing gun long enough to get it to places it doesn’t normally show up. There isn’t a single opportunity to get a Homing gun in the last two stages, which is a pretty large chunk of a five-stage game!

More so even than Contra and Super C, Operation C is about memorization and figuring out patterns. Any given battle will generally go through your lives very quickly until you figure it out, at which point it becomes a breeze. It can take a while to get there, but it offers a good amount of challenge for such a short game. It may be a little too frustrating in places, with some truly unfair hit boxes on gun emplacements and the like, and unnecessarily difficult horizontal jumps.

The difficulty spikes are my only real issue with Operation C, but they did make me want to throw my Gameboy a few times. It’s easier than Contra but took me longer to be able to get through, if that makes any sense. Otherwise, this is a shockingly solid action game for the Gameboy, which I encourage any Contra series fan to check out if they haven’t already.

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: DuckTales (NES)

DuckTales is a fondly-remembered classic Capcom game, and for good reason. It has fun and unique play control, great graphics for the NES, and is based on a property that was quite popular at the time. The only real issue DuckTales has is that it’s a very abbreviated experience.

You control Scrooge McDuck, armed only with a cane that doubles as a pogo stick. Much of the game centers around using this effect to bounce to high places or defeat enemies. As you might imagine if you know DuckTales, Scrooge is aiming mostly to earn money. Indeed a lot of the diamonds and health restoration items you’ll find simply appear when you walk or (more often) jump to a particular part of a stage. The game rewards a whole lot of jumping around in this way.

DuckTales consists of only five stages, which is perhaps its biggest weakness. However, these stages are atypical for the NES era in that they are generally non-linear, with branching paths and many secrets. This can be frustrating when you don’t know where to go, but generally makes this a very exploration-focused game, particularly when combined with the item appearing mechanic. The downside to this is that once you’ve found everything, the game does lose a little bit of its luster.

Capcom compensated for the game’s brevity by giving you limited lives and no continues. This seems a fairly odd choice considering the game is based on a children’s cartoon, but it works relatively well at keeping tension up. You can visit the five stages in any order (though you can’t return to completed stages), so the “one chance and you’re out” design doesn’t restrict you from reaching any part of the game except the final boss. Still, it feels a bit cheap, even by NES standards, to have so few chances before you need to start over.

DuckTales is undeniably fun, but its limited chances can be quite frustrating. It’s a game that essentially demands you find all its secrets and learn the levels, which is fine for the era, but can be a bit shocking by modern standards. Still, if you have any DuckTales nostalgia, the graphics and music of this game will be a treat, and its unique gameplay mechanics still hold up to this day.

Review Score: B+

Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2

The original Dragon Ball Xenoverse was a surprisingly fun game, but suffered from a limited variety of gameplay options and a lot of content padding. The sequel, DBXV2, addresses all of those concerns, though it does introduce a few new ones. If you liked the original, or like simplified 3D mass Dragon Ball combat, this is the game for you.

As in the first game, there are a number of distinct play types when progressing through the game. In addition to the plot, master quests, and parallel quests, DBXV2 introduces five subplots and new 6-on-1 “Expert Missions.” Not only that, but master quests have been completely redone. No longer do you need to wait for your master of choice to randomly appear, or grind between each mission. Now all unlocked masters are immediately available, there are more of them, and progression is immediate (though sometimes capped by advancement test missions). Each fight also acts as a tutorial for the ability you earn from it. Parallel quests have also been revised slightly, in that a lot of the randomness has been removed. In my experience, if you fulfill the requirements for an ultimate finish, it always happens. Drops are still random, but they’re more spaced out so it’s a bit less grindy.

The new modes are also a lot of fun. There are five side stories and five races, and each race gets an extended version of their own. Between this and the new racial transformations, the game clearly wants you to try out every race to see everything. There is a surprising amount of variety in the side stories, from repeated combat in defense of Namek to collecting food to feed Buu. They tend to be very generous with experience, which is actually somewhat problematic–but I’ll get to that. Finally, there are the expert missions, which introduce a lot of interesting mechanics and function as huge boss fights. Unfortunately, your computer-controlled allies don’t play well with the mechanics, and these missions get super hard. They would likely be a lot more fun with human allies, but I played the game late and haven’t had luck making that happen.

In addition to all the modes, DBXV2 introduces a huge number of new abilities. The biggest change is how transformations work. Rather than taking up a super or ultimate ability slot, there is now a dedicated transformation slot, and multi-tiered transformations like Kaioken and Super Saiyan are now a single ability. The level of transformation depends on your ki at the time of using the ability, which is generally a great idea, but can be annoying with something like Kaioken x20 that drains your stamina so fast that you might prefer a lesser version. The four non-Saiyan races also get their own exclusive transformations, three of which are fun but gimmicky. I’m glad they did something, but it leaves a bit to be desired. This is especially true since there are three versions of Super Saiyan (and I don’t mean 1, 2, and 3, but rather three different sets of stat boosts and restrictions).

All of this new content is great, but the game does suffer a bit from having too much of it. Specifically, if you do all the side missions as they come up, you’re probably going to outlevel the plot very quickly. If you do the plot, you’ll outlevel parallel quests, and so on. About 1/3 of the game will be trivially easy when you do it just because of how fast you advance. This problem is compounded by the fact that if you want to try out all five races, you need to repeat all of this for all of them. While your item and skill lists are shared (and thus you can at least skip the master missions), your plot and even parallel quest progression is not. A thorough player will spend a lot of time doing low-level missions at a trivial difficulty level.

The bottom line is that DBXV2 took the template of the original and made it way better and meatier. If you liked that game, you’ll love this one. There are some new basic combat options, and even trivial stuff like the hub world has been improved dramatically. The roster is enormous, and the DLC is getting into the new Dragon Ball Super. At least in terms of fan service, this game is everything a Dragon Ball fan could want.

Review Score: A−

Dragon Ball Xenoverse

Dragon Ball Xenoverse is a very fun Dragon Ball experience that has unfortunately been stretched out almost to a breaking point. It’s not the most technically in-depth Dragon Ball fighting game by any means, but its core gameplay remains interesting for quite a while. Just, perhaps not as long a while as the developers hoped.

3D arena-based fighting is the core gameplay mechanic of DBXV, but the game is structured much like an RPG (perhaps even an MMO) in general. You start by making a custom character of one of five races (human, Saiyan, Namekian, or the Buu or Frieza races), including a choice of gender for the two humanoid races as well as Buu’s. You’ll gain experience, money, and in some cases randomly dropped gear and abilities from your fights, and levels and upgrades are key to continuing through the game. While every battle yields experience, in the form of points, the game has three types of quest advancement that are designed to work in tandem.

The core story is contained in Time Patrol quests, which proceed in a linear fashion and roughly follow the events of Dragon Ball Z and the Battle of Gods movie. Typically your character will be inserted into a classic fight to correct some change (usually a power-up given to the opponent, but there are some surprises) and have to make things right. The story isn’t bad, but it’s nothing special. While you’ll run into many familiar characters, the major players are mostly new (with the exception of future Trunks, who acts largely as an advisor). You’ll gain levels but not abilities from doing Time Patrols, meaning you’ll very likely have to delve into other areas of advancement to get through the full story. The main benefit of advancing in the main plot is that you’ll unlock more of those other quests.

The game has a mentor system where you can learn abilities from various characters such as Goku, Vegeta, or Piccolo. There are 10 of these to start with, with more added via DLC. Conceptually, this works very well: you learn abilities associated with each mentor, and they will comment on your performance on all quests while you’re under them. Unfortunately, new mentors appear at random, so it can be frustrating to find the one you want. The process of learning their abilities is also needlessly drawn out, and subject to some vague rules that may or may not actually speed things up.

Finally, there are parallel quests, which are the real meat of the game. These appear as offshoots of the main Time Patrol quests, often with much crazier premises. For instance, instead of fighting super-powered Frieza, you may fight with Frieza against every good guy character that was on Namek. Parallel quests differ from other quests in a few key ways: first, you can bring two characters with you (including other actual players if playing online), which allows for more-or-less fair fights against large numbers of opponents. It also triggers banter between various sets of characters, which is super fun. Second, you can earn gear and abilities as random drops, either from specific foes or as a benefit of completing the quest. And finally, each parallel quest has special conditions to trigger an ‘ultimate finish’ which adds a more difficult second objective. The game is merciful in that you still get credit for the quest even if you lose at this point, but most of the best drops are earned with these finishes.

The problem with parallel quests is that the drop rates are abysmal. You’ll find yourself playing the same quest a dozen or more times trying to get everything, and when the drop is something crucial like the Super Saiyan powerup, this gets old very fast. Not only that, even if you trigger the correct Ultimate Finish conditions, there’s a random chance you will get the normal finish anyway. Some of these quests are very long and have complicated conditions, and fulfilling them without even getting a chance at the drop you’re looking for just feels unfair.

The other major problem with the game is that combat gets much cheaper in the harder quests. In combat you have three bars: health, ki, and stamina. Ki powers your attacks, while Stamina is mostly used for defense. You go through Stamina incredibly quickly, and losing all of it will put you in a defenseless state enemies will take full advantage of. Computer opponents, on the other hand, spam stamina abilities at impossible rates. Completing some later parallel quests legitimately is beyond me, though anything can be powered through with the patently unfair Super Saiyan power up. (I hope you’re playing as a Saiyan! If not, good luck.)

While there’s not much to the game beyond the quests, it does make some very interesting choices that are extremely cool. If you make another character, you’ll have access to all the abilities and items you unlocked with your first character, including those you can’t normally get until very high levels. The only downside is that there’s really no compelling reason to keep playing except leveling up.

All in all, Dragon Ball Xenoverse is a great game trapped within a lot of bad design choices. The fighting isn’t the best in the world, but the new abilities and even the banter keep it interesting. If they fixed the drop rates, master system, and generally tried to get less mileage out of making everything a grind, this could be a truly great game.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Dragon Warrior IV (NES)

Dragon Warrior III basically perfected the gameplay of the series, so Enix wisely decided to try some new things with Dragon Warrior IV. As is often the case with new ideas, some were successful, and some less so.

First and foremost (the subtitle of the game is “Chapters of the Chosen”) is the chapter system the game uses. Story-wise, this is great. You spend four chapters introducing the characters that will eventually team up with the prophesized hero, establishing their character and motivations. Each has a strong connection to the plot and at least some justification to why they would join the hero. And the stories told in these chapters are quite good on their own: related to the overall story, but generally pretty self-contained.

The downside of the chapter system is that you need to level characters up from level 1 without help four times. RPGs are often fairly boring in the early going, since the numbers are small and you have few abilities. DW4 does as well as you can with the situation, with a wide variety of low-level monsters between the chapters, but it still turns into a bit of a slog in the long run.

This is the first game in the series to have actually named characters, and they do a good job of filling in the roles of DW3’s classes. The basic melee classes are each covered, but the wizard and pilgrim classes each have their abilities largely split between a pair of characters. Once you have the full party, and the ability to (in some locations) switch between party members during battles, this design really starts to shine.

As cool as the wagon and character switching are, they come with the AI system, another cool idea that doesn’t work so well in practice. Unlike later versions, you don’t have the option to directly control every character, meaning that in chapter 5 you only control the actions of the hero. The party AI isn’t bad for random fights, and it speeds up the game considerably when exploring or leveling, but your characters waste a lot of actions and MP trying to kill bosses with death spells or use other tactics that are doomed to fail. It’s even a problem in certain normal encounters where you need to focus on particular monsters first and your party just isn’t interested in doing so.

The story is one part of the game I have no significant criticism of. The chapter stories are cool, and in the final chapter you learn that the bad guys are just as aware of the prophesized hero as the good people of the world, and are acting against him or her. It’s a nice take on the hero legend which will carry forward into at least DQ5. They subvert the hero trope in a few non-obvious ways that I enjoyed, but I don’t want to get into spoilers.

The villain in particular is quite good. Unlike previous series villains, this one actually has motivations and they even build some sympathy for his point of view. Rather than the usual big bad priest who wants to destroy everything, we get a bad guy out for revenge and gathering his power similarly to how the hero is. The story leads to a satisfying conclusion that plays off your expectations based on the previous games’ tropes.

Finally, there’s the gameplay. Largely unchanged from DW3, aside from the AI system, the gameplay is solid throughout. However, the game does offer up a few too many dungeons in the late going, and I found myself questioning what to do at several points. In particular, there is a tough boss that I figured I’d have to defeat later (which I did), but the game offered no actual advice that that’s what I ought to do. Considering how hard the AI system makes bosses, I really have no idea what the game was intending for me to do, even in hindsight.

All in all, DW4 is a very good entry in a very good series. Enix could have rested on their laurels and just made another DW3, but they changed enough to make DW4 its own game. Not every change worked, but advancement is rarely strictly positive. I still prefer DW3 in general because it has less flaws, but DW4’s story is certainly the best in the series to this point.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Super Mario Land

Super Mario Land is an interesting entry in the Game Boy library. Like many early Game Boy games, it has relatively simple graphics. But unlike many games that came after it, including the rest of the Mario Land series, it uses very tiny sprites. Other games used NES-sized sprites, resulting in a smaller play area, but Super Mario Land’s play area is essentially the same size as the home console Mario games.

The result of using such tiny sprites is that this game just feels weird. In many cases you’re better off avoiding enemies if you can, due to the precision needed to jump on top of them. The play control Mario is so known for is not nearly as crisp here as on the NES, causing the game to feel almost like a cheap knock-off. Even the B-button run is dangerous to use very often since your normal speed is already so fast. And the super balls, which replace fire balls, are just strange.

Controls and graphics aside, Super Mario Land is a pretty decent platformer. It’s short, but its 12 levels are actually a lot by Game Boy standards of the time. It even features two shoot ’em up-style levels and a few stage themes we rarely see in Mario games. The levels do suffer a bit from obviously repeated sections, no doubt implemented to save on memory.

Super Mario Land may be the least Mario-feeling game in the series, with everything feeling just a little bit off. The tiny sprites make it unattractive and somewhat difficult to play, but it’s still enjoyable enough after you get used to the controls. And it did introduce us to Mario sports mainstay Daisy, so it has historical significance. So there’s that!

Review Score: C+

Retro Review: Final Fantasy IV (PS1)

Note: This review covers the original version of Final Fantasy IV, first released in the U.S. as part of Final Fantasy Chronicles, and not the SNES version that was released as Final Fantasy II.

In many ways, especially mechanically, Final Fantasy IV is the black sheep of the Final Fantasy series. Not only does it give you the least party customization, it really gives no customization at all in a series where complicated leveling systems have always been a touchstone. Yet the game indisputably feels like a Final Fantasy game. This may be largely due to the fact that, since we missed FFII and FFIII in the US, FFIV is to some extent the first “real” game in the series. The strict linearity didn’t feel weird at the time, only in hindsight. Yet including the second and third chapters, it is actually out of place – it makes me wonder how it is viewed in Japan.

Regardless, FFIV is a good game for reasons I’m not sure I can put into words. This is a review, though, so I’ll give it my best shot. I am personally quite partial to the party customization that is so lacking in this game, yet its absence doesn’t really bother me. It’s worth noting that gear selection does offer some level of control (though this is mitigated by the game’s terrible lack of clarity about the bonuses granted by gear), as does the exact timing of when you tackle certain late-game side quests.

What FFIV has going for it is the first truly memorable cast of characters in the series. FFI and FIII both had anonymous parties, but FFII was somewhat similar in that it had predefined characters that drove the plot. FFIV, however, has a larger cast, and manages to integrate each characters’ abilities into the overall storyline, a big change for a series where every previous party member was a blank slate. But who can forget the summoner Rydia, or Cecil becoming a paladin? Despite betraying the party on more than one occasion, the dragoon Kain has long been a fan favorite (I chalk this up to a combination of Jump being a cool ability and his awesome combat sprite).

While the characters are solid, the actual plot of FFIV is pretty weak. The melodrama of characters sacrificing themselves is overdone, especially considering how rarely those sacrifices end up meaning anything. The big plot revelation was already done in Star Wars (not to mention FFII), and going to the moon seems more ridiculous the more you think about it. Add all this together with the fact that your party generally fails at every task they attempt up until the climactic battle, and the story isn’t actually that memorable.

FFIV may lack the game mechanics pedigree of the rest of the series, and the plot is on par with most JRPG drivel, but what FFIV really establishes – and what makes it feel like a Final Fantasy game – is the drama. The plot may not be memorable, but a large number of scenes are. Being rescued from inevitable party death by a character long-since thought lost will always be awesome, and is certainly in the running for most memorable scenes in the entire series. The game does a great job with automated plot battles, the best of which involve Tellah (“You spoony bard!”). And somehow Edge pining for Rydia never gets old.

The riddle of FFIV, though, is how they managed to make the game fun to replay despite it playing almost identically every time through. Here I’m guessing the answer really is just straight-up nostalgia. But maybe something about FFIV makes it like a book or movie you just want to keep reading or watching despite its faults. Certainly the polish on the game has a lot to do with my continued enjoyment of it. The sound track is legendary, and I’m still a big fan of the combat graphics (though the less said about the tile-based non-combat graphics, the better).

The bottom line is, FFIV is a good game even if I can’t explain precisely why. Not that you need to rush out and play it if you haven’t (and if so, er, sorry about the spoilers but it’s been several decades now), but any series fan can still appreciate the game. The fact that it manages to be in the discussion of “best Final Fantasy game ever” at all says quite a lot. (Like that fans are crazy, in my view, but still.)

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Mega Man 3 (NES)

Following up a classic like Mega Man 2 is not easy, but Mega Man 3 gives its all in trying to do so. Mechanically, little has changed aside from the addition of a slide that speeds up play and offers some interesting action. Despite that, Mega Man 3 feels a lot different than its predecessor. Its more vibrant, with weirder bosses (Top Man? Hard Man??) but more great level design.

Mega Man 3 is aesthetically fantastic, but the gameplay suffers from a few unfortunate design choices. The most problematic is the weapon selection. The Top Spin may be the most useless Mega Man weapon of all time, and half of your arsenal are basically just powered-up arm cannon shots. The Shadow Blade does a good job of being a much more balanced version of the Metal Blade, and no weapon overpowers the others as the de facto main weapon, which is good. It does mean that there’s not much excitement to be gained by earning any particular weapon.

Perhaps more exciting than the weapons are the powers of Mega Man’s new canine companion, Rush. These replace the utility powers of the previous games, but Rush is much more interesting and this is the most fun the Rush Jet would ever be, in my opinion. I never get tired of jumping off of Rush, collecting a powerup, then jumping back on him when he’s done flying under the platform I was on. Nothing else in the series makes me feel like as much of an action hero.

Mega Man 3 marks the first game in the series with no truly ridiculous difficulty spikes. The Yellow Devil returns without any cheats available to cheese past him, but energy tanks go a long way towards making that fight fair. Probably the toughest section of the game is the set of four revisited stages starring Doc Robot. This boss impersonates all 8 bosses from Mega Man 2, two per stage, a concept which sadly wouldn’t be revisited in the series. The difficulty here stems from a lack of continue points and the need to try out various weapons against each version of Doc Robot. This section also establishes the series tradition going forward of having two sets of endgame stages.

Overall, Mega Man 3 is a very solid game that can be among the most fun in the series. It doesn’t hold up as well as Mega Man 2, but it doesn’t have any major issues that drag it down. It’s just not as superlative as its predecessor, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress

Unlike its predecessors, Ultima II’s original version was released on PC, and thus doesn’t have a much-improved PC remake like Akalabeth and Ultima I. It is presented in glorious cyan, magenta, gray, and black, with no sound or frame limiter, and a number of crippling bugs. Fortunately all of this can be remedied with fan patches, bringing it up to snuff with the Apple II version of the game. However, this is still essentially the most technologically limited game in the Ultima series.

Unfortunately, the dated engine is not the problem here. The main problem with Ultima II is that progression relies on random inventory items, such as the Blue Tassle that lets you pilot stolen pirate ships. Any of these items may be dropped by thieves on the overworld, and thus spawning and killing overworld enemies in droves is the general method of play. Even worse, those same thieves can steal any item you’re holding, potentially putting you in a virtually unrecoverable position. The game features dungeons and towers, but they are entirely optional and generally too difficult to be worth exploring.

Ultima II is the only game in the series to take place on Earth, and not Sosaria/Britannia. You travel through different eras via time gates, predecessors to the moongates that appear in subsequent games. (The included map shows where the time gates go, but it is virtually indecipherable and not terribly useful even if you can read it.) How much you can accomplish depends on what thieves have dropped, and it’s quite possible to get stuck with nothing to do for a time.

Unfortunately there’s even less plot to this game than Ultima I. You take a space ship to the mysterious planet X (you can visit the rest of the solar system, but there’s no reason to do so) in order to find a magic ring, after which you can head to the final encounter. You can also undertake a sidequest the game barely hints at to find the ultimate weapon, a slight upgrade over the best one you can buy. The final boss is incredibly obnoxious, but no more so than the rest of the game.

In conclusion, there’s no really good reason to play Ultima II beyond a need to beat everything Ultima-related. It’s not good when the most interesting part of the game is that the Quicksword Enilno’s name is “online” spelled backwards. On the other hand, it does technically set up Ultima III’s plot, and Ultima III is a good game. But you’re better off reading the Ultima II synopsis in the Ultima III manual than actually playing this brutal game.

Review Score: F