Retro Review: Ultima VI: The False Prophet

Ultima VI is a crossroads in the Ultima series. It is the first game to include a mouse-driven interface, as well as the first to do away with differing scales between the world map and towns and dungeons. It tries very hard to be something new and unique, and it succeeds – but it takes a long time in getting there.

More than any other game in the series, Ultima VI allows you to abuse foreknowledge of the game. The main culprit in this regard is the Orb of the Moons, an item you get at the start of the game which lets you instantly teleport to the majority of important locations in the game. It’s not hard to start relying on the Orb, even without a guide, and this has the effect of making the world seem very small. In a way this is a good thing, as the single-scale world actually is quite small, but the Orb’s ability to replace travel can make it seem physically larger even though getting around quickly is no problem.

The first half of the game works like previous Ultimas: you go from town to town, talking to the people and solving their problems. Your main quest is to free the eight shrines, and the process for each is basically the same. Though it’s a familiar process, it feels tired and old, and you just want to get to the point after a while.

Of course, Ultima VI does get to the point (eventually), and that’s when it begins to shine. Suddenly the world-shrinking Orb of the Moons is enabling quests spanning the world like they do in no Ultima before or since. Several times you are asked to create something and will require the help of craftsmen and scholars from many towns, based on the information gathered talking to them previously.

The plot also comes together at this point. The game begins with your abduction at the hands of a group of gargoyles intent on ritually sacrificing you, and your primary goal is to defeat their race. As time wears on, though, it becomes clear that the gargoyles are not evil, and perhaps not even wrong, and you’re caught between obeying your liege and doing what is right. Your climactic journey to the gargoyle city is enabled by one of the more interestingly heroic acts I’ve seen in a video game.

While Ultima VI has its touches of brilliance, it has its flaws, and it most definitely shows its age. The game introduced NPC portraits, but they are low-res and often quite ugly. The mouse interface barely works (though thankfully it is optional), and some simple actions are a chore. Combat ranges from simple to extremely difficult with little ground in the middle, and its strange turn structure can be confusing.

These flaws hold Ultima VI back and make it the weakest link of the Age of Enlightenment trilogy (4-6), but U6 is a game worth playing if only because it nicely bridges the storyline of the series between the superlative games, Ultima V and Ultima VII. Ultima V started the series off towards a more narrative story, and Ultima VII is well-constructed but linear, but Ultima VI strikes a perfect balance between the two. Sadly it only strikes this balance after quite a bit of flailing around seeking its own identity.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Metroid

Metroid is an NES classic, one of the first games to feature truly nonlinear exploration. It’s a game that manages to feel much larger than the sum of its parts (at least until you start planning out speed runs). The concept of needing to collect certain abilities to progress, rather than just defeat bosses or collect arbitrary keys, is a core innovation of this game.

One of the technical novelties of Metroid was its combination of vertical and horizontal scrolling. While the game couldn’t do both at the same time, its mixture of horizontal hallways and vertical shafts allowed for a sprawling map that you would be well advised to put to graph paper. It’s a game with many paths, some of which are littered with upgrades and secrets, and others are just a waste of time. The secrets of Metroid are one of its greatest strengths, but can also be a glaring weakness. This is a game where shooting or bombing random squares will not just reward you with upgrades, but in several cases is required to progress at all, which can be frustrating.

The difficulty curve of Metroid is another source of frustration. You have two main resources to manage, health and missiles, and dying will leave you with very little health (only 30% of your initial maximum, even if you’ve gotten energy tank upgrades). There is no fast way to regain health or missiles, so dying at the wrong time can lead to large time sinks, either dedicated to getting health drops or repeatedly trying to fight on and dying due to a lack of survivability.

Fortunately, the various upgrades you’ll find will make your life considerably easier. Missiles are very powerful, and you get quite a few of them. The hidden Varia and Screw Attack also massively increase your survivability, cutting your damage in half and turning most of your jumps into invincible death spins. Both are quite hard to find, of course, but that’s what Metroid is all about. It’s one of those odd games where it actually gets much easier as you progress, assuming you find everything.

Metroid is a great game in concept, and in the long run it lives up to its potential. However, a typical playthrough can be a mess. Enemy placements are cruel and often blatantly unfair, the game suffers from massive slowdown in crowded areas, and one bad jump can be very costly in many areas. The ending you get is based on the time it takes you to complete the game, and you probably won’t earn a very good one the first time through. However, Metroid offers a sort of New Game+, allowing you to restart the game with all of your abilities (minus collected missiles and energy tanks), letting you power through the whole thing quite quickly. After the frustration of a first play through, this can be pretty therapeutic.

The existence of Metroid: Zero Mission, a remake/addendum to this game, means you can have the full Metroid experience even without the original. This game is not as finely tuned as its sequels, particularly in the realm of difficulty. But it’s still a lot of fun, and a very impressive game for its time, early even by NES standards. I recommend giving it a shot, but don’t be afraid to check a map or guide if (when) you get hopelessly stuck.

Review Score: B

Digging Into Your Name. (Massive Spoilers!)

I loved Your Name to a degree I’ve rarely loved a movie. Though it’s probably on par with Episode VII, so maybe this is just me getting sentimental in my old age. In any case, my pleas to get anyone to watch this movie so I could discuss it largely failed, so I’ve decided to scream into the void of the internet with my thoughts instead. This will consist almost entirely of spoilers, so beware of reading on.

Continue reading “Digging Into Your Name. (Massive Spoilers!)”

Movie Review: Your Name.

Your Name (Kimi no Na wa in Japanese) is a animated film that was highly successful in Japan, and made it to the US in a limited release. The basic premise of the movie is that two teenagers, a girl in the Japanese countryside and a boy living in Tokyo, begin to swap bodies for days at a time. The two eventually realize what is going on and communicate with one another via their smart phones.

While on the surface Your Name looks like a typical body swap romantic comedy, it turns out to be much more than that. The movie features several unexpected turns and takes you on an emotional rollercoaster that I found immensely satisfying. Until I actually saw it, it seemed odd that a movie with this premise would become one of the most successful anime movies ever released in Japan.

Due to the nature of the narrative, there’s quite a bit I cannot say for fear of spoiling the movie. But where it shines is in its structure and design. The story itself is interesting, but nothing groundbreaking. Where the movie shines in how it tells it. The foreshadowing is handled amazingly well, and is almost brazen about how much it reveals with the viewer none the wiser.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that this is one of the most beautifully animated movies I’ve ever seen. While there is clearly some digital trickery, mostly used to rotate the backgrounds in 3D, the whole movie is in the traditional anime style, polished to a shine.

The narrative works extremely well, but I should note that there are a few clues that it’s rather unbelievable the characters themselves never picked up on. The premise does fray a bit if you analyze it too closely, but the story is so well told that it’s easy to let that go.

I should also note that I’ve seen this movie both dubbed and subbed, and there are a few jokes that quite literally do not translate into English (for instance, we don’t have gendered versions of “I”). I’d still recommend either version. The dub allows you to understand some speech that isn’t subtitled, such as funny background conversations during a montage, or the (surprisingly well-translated) lyrics to some of the soundtrack. But the sub does a better job explaining the jokes and references that are specific to the Japanese language.

I feel like this movie could appeal to just about anyone. It’s not about conflict, there’s no fighting, and there’s not even a villain. It’s a movie about how people connect and what that means. For a movie based on a supernatural premise, it feels pretty grounded.

Review Score: A

Retro Review: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

The NES was known for sequels that took a very different approach than the original game, and perhaps none were as different as Zelda II from its predecessor. Rather than a top-down, grid-based exloratory adventure, Zelda II is largely side-scrolling and action based. Bizarrely, it also has more RPG elements than the distinctly more RPG-like Zelda 1. It’s certainly the outlier of the Zelda series, but it’s a game that nonetheless has a lot to offer.

Zelda II eschews the screen-by-screen overworld map of its predecessor in favor of a huge, freely scrolling world covering two distinct landmasses. No real action takes place on this screen, though you will spend a lot of your exploration time dealing with randomly spawning enemies that wander around in your vicinity. If one touches you, though, you go to a side-scrolling action sequence. Indeed, the various caves, temples, and even towns of Zelda II take place in the same side-scrolling manner.

While you will find several items during your adventure, most of them are focused more on puzzle-solving than making you stronger. There are no upgraded swords or armor to find here. Instead, you level up your Life, Magic, and Attack with an experience system. These levels make you considerably more powerful, particularly when supplemented with the hidden heart containers and magic potions in the game, though the power curve will generally match the difficulty of the game. You will earn various combat upgrades in the form of magic and sword techniques which make combat a bit more interesting.

The core of Zelda II’s gameplay is in its seven main temples. Your goal in each of the first six is twofold: to find the special item hidden there, and defeat the boss. Indeed, you can’t even re-enter a temple once both of these objectives is achieved. The temple puzzles are based primarily on the collection of keys to open locked doors, though some of the larger ones are quite easy to get lost in. The main challenge is not the puzzles, but the enemies. Whereas in the original game, each enemy had an attack pattern and could withstand some number of hits, and weren’t otherwise all that different, in Zelda II you need to learn how to fight various types of enemies. Ironknuckles in particular appear a lot, and until you discover a good technique for fighting them, can cause a lot of problems. Even at maximum level, your life bar won’t last that long, so you need to be good at combat to finish the game.

Zelda II isn’t exactly plagued with gameplay problems, but it doesn’t rise to the heights of the original game, either. For one thing, it’s much shorter, largely because there is far less to discover in the world. If you’re good, you can beat the game in an afternoon. And until you master the combat, it’s easy to reach frustrating situations. This time, Link has a limited number of lives, and when these run out you start all the way back at the beginning of the game (unless you’re in the final dungeon, which is a mercy). Since a game over resets your experience, you don’t even really have the option of grinding your way past a problem.

Taken by itself, Zelda II is a pretty fun game, but in the context of the greater series it is very much the black sheep. None of the skills needed here tend to be very relevant in other Zelda games, and it doesn’t have any true sequels (chronologically this is actually the very last Zelda game), so it’s the kind of game Zelda fans often ignore altogether. I still think it’s worth a look because, baggage aside, it’s a pretty fun action game.

Review Score: B

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+