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

Retro Review: Super C (NES)

Super C is basically just Contra again, but a bit lesser. This is even reflected in its lives code, which gives you 1/3 as many lives to play with. Super C is graphically superior in many ways, but doesn’t really offer a whole lot more than that. Though unlike Contra, it is available on the Virtual Console, which is something.

Konami seemed to have a philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” when making Super C. The biggest innovation in the game is the mix of horizontal and vertical scrolling, with some diagonal scrolling tossed in for good measure. It also changed the Fire gun from an afterthought into a pretty cool explosive weapon, suggestive of the Crusher from Contra III (which is one of my favorites). It was all very technologically impressive in the NES era, but only really noticeable in a side-by-side comparison with Contra now.

The best part of Super C is the collection of bosses, which are on par if not beyond those of its predecessor. Starting the game off with a battle against a gunship was an inspired choice, and this is also the game that gave us the concept of the “Contra button,” the glowing red orb that screams “weak point” to the player.

One controversial change in the game was switching out the base stages to top-down stages where you can move and fire in 8 directions. I rather enjoy these stages, though they are far less unique than the Contra bases. To me, Contra games feel their best when you’re running and gunning.

On the whole, Super C is a pretty game but doesn’t offer much beyond the original Contra aside from looks. It’s a totally serviceable game, not quite as hard but certainly no cakewalk, but a lot of what made Contra really special was its unique style, which just isn’t as unique in Super C.

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Dragon Warrior III (NES)

Dragon Warrior suffered from a lack of content, and Dragon Warrior II suffered from a lack of balance. Dragon Warrior III suffers from no such issues, and really doesn’t have any major issues at all. This is a very solid, very long, and very satisfying RPG experience. The game is positively huge, yet well-conceived from end to end. The only complaint I can really come up with is that it is perhaps a bit too much – by the end I found myself thinking some earlier plot points had been in previous games because I had gone through them so long ago.

This is the game where the Dragon Warrior formula, at least as far as gameplay, was first perfected. You have the introduction of a class system that is simple yet satisfying and pretty well nuanced. For example, they added an openly useless class and actually gave a solid reason to play it. Indeed this is indicative of what’s so good about DW3: there’s a ton of stuff here, and all of it has a purpose.

Plot-wise, this is pretty basic stuff. The game actually teases a rehash of DW2’s endgame sequence before taking a very cool sharp left turn (And, unfortunately, something Nintendo Power spoiled for me more than 25 years ago.) But in the end, you’re still just tracking down some big bad by venturing through countless dungeons and collecting cool items. That’s kind of what this series is about, at least up until this point.

The first two Dragon Warrior games felt somewhat like the early Ultimas, and that feeling is even stronger in this game. The party system is reminiscent of Ultima III, and in many ways it’s a similar game except that DW3 is many, many times more dense. It’s mostly linear, though it does feature the requisite midgame “gather up all the mcguffins” quest line to mix things up a bit.

Unfortunately, saying more than that would probably venture into spoiler territory. But if you’re looking for an old-school, combat heavy, endurance RPG, you can certainly do worse than Dragon Warrior III. As I understand it, this is the point in the series where all the rumors about Japan making it illegal to release Dragon Quest games on weekdays (sadly not true) started, and I can see why. Maybe with some different timing and better marketing, Dragon Warrior/Quest could have been a thing in the US. Or perhaps the ‘gameplay RPG’ genre was just too well-covered by PCs here. In any case, I really enjoyed this game and would recommend it to any fans of the formula.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Snake’s Revenge

Snake’s Revenge is the U.S./Europe-only NES sequel to Metal Gear, which famously not only was not created by series creator Hideo Kojima, but is reportedly is the reason he decided to make a sequel (Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake for the MSX2, which we didn’t get here until much later). As such, it occupies a strange place in the Metal Gear series, where it’s officially non-canonical. But then, so is the NES version of Metal Gear, so it kind of works out.

Snake’s Revenge is very much a case of two steps forward, two steps back from its predecessor. The game actually has much better stealth mechanics than Metal Gear. You are rewarded for hand-to-hand stealth kills with rare but invaluable ammo or ration drops, it’s much easier to determine when guards will see you, and with a few noteworthy exceptions the guard placements are generally quite fair. The consequences for being seen are also much greater, as you’ll have to fight off a squad of enemies rather than just running to the next screen. Like Metal Gear, “stealth” here means undetected kills far more often than sneaking past the guards entirely. This isn’t a modern stealth game, but your stealth skills will nonetheless be put to good use.

Snake’s Revenge improves upon Metal Gear in some other ways as well, with a much more usable interface, better graphics, and a less confusing though far more linear progression through the game. There are more interesting items and usable weapons, and all in all, Snake’s Revenge has all the pieces to be a great sequel.

Unfortunately, Snake’s Revenge is also trying to be an action game, and in that it fails spectacularly. The boss battles are largely unfair and extremely frustrating, including one in particular during a train sequence where every time you lose you’re forced to re-do the entire sequence. The similarities and differences between the tank bosses in this game and the original Metal Gear are a good example of the general differences between the games: both require land mines to defeat, but the tank in Snake’s Revenge has several ways to kill you instantly and cruelly and reset the fight.

The game also features terrible side-scrolling sections which are generally no fun at all. Even when you get a handle on the ridiculous sight mechanics (ducking is enough for guards to not notice you when looking in your direction), the guard placements in this section are often unfair and you’ll often find yourself venturing through water that is filled with unfun mechanics.

On balance, Snake’s Revenge is still a pretty fun game. It’s much more linear than its predecessor, which is good in that it allows for a very large game world without being utterly confusing, but bad in that you can miss things that will make your life much more difficult. Most of the early sections have one useful-but-not-vital item you can miss, and there’s no going back. Like Metal Gear, Snake’s Revenge gives you a password only upon a final game over, so if you do miss one of these items there’s a good chance it will cost you a good chunk of gameplay to go back to it.

Snake’s Revenge doesn’t play like the eventual Metal Gear Solid series, but it nonetheless feels like a logical progression from Metal Gear. The action sequences are poorly considered, but the game mostly works. If you want more old-school Metal Gear, well, you should probably pick up an MSX port of the original games. But after that, try Snake’s Revenge. It’s decent!

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Final Fantasy III (Famicom)

Though it is just as obscure as its predecessor in the U.S., Final Fantasy III seems to get less attention than Final Fantasy II despite being a much better game. FFIII is in many ways the progenitor of the 16-bit Final Fantasy games, despite being 8-bit itself. Systemically, the game is almost identical to Final Fantasy IV, and aside from the requisite clunky UI, this game plays much more like a modern RPG than its predecessors.

The big innovation that really sets FFIII apart is the introduction of the job system. This isn’t quite the refined system of Final Fantasy V or Tactics, as each set of jobs makes most of the previous ones completely obsolete, but many classic jobs such as Dragoon and Summoner got their start here. Rather than being a system to customize party members, FFIII’s job system is largely used as a puzzle of sorts. At most points in the game, there is a “correct” set of jobs to use, but that combination is not necessarily obvious. Things open up later when the less direct jobs like Bard and Evoker show up, but the game is fun even before this. The biggest flaw of the system is that, in the end, there are two semi-hidden jobs that completely outclass everything else, which takes a lot of the fun out of experimenting.

FFIII plays around with a lot of interesting ideas. Some, like having multiple world maps to explore, are really awesome. And some, like dividing monsters (which split whenever you hit them with most weapons), are not. This is a very uneven game, and a number of dungeons stand out as being especially frustrating. The aforementioned dividing monster dungeon is one, but the final dungeon is of special note. Unfortunately, save points were not among FFIII’s innovations, and the final dungeon is incredibly long and includes five nasty bosses after the point where you can’t even leave and heal up or save if you want to. The final boss is unimaginative and is virtually impossible to defeat if you’re underleveled (not that you’re likely to be, if you did the various sidequests).

In the grand scheme of things, perhaps FFIII gets less attention than FFII because there just isn’t as much to say about it. It’s a solid game, and obviously a huge influence on the games that followed it, but even the introduction of the job system isn’t really that interesting. Final Fantasy III is a rough draft – the core of a good game is there, but it’s not so refined that it’s truly great, or even particularly memorable. The plot is a throwaway, the gameplay is notable mainly for its few frustrating bits, and the game just lacks “it.” And it’s unfortunate that we’ve never gotten a port of the original version. This game is worth checking out if only because this is perhaps the most referenced game in the series.

Review Score: B

Review: I am Setsuna.

I am Setsuna’s combat system is unabashedly based on Chrono Trigger, but the game itself has little else in common with that classic. This is a very melancholy, very snowy RPG with distinctly retro mechanics but a fairly basic story. The story actually is similar in some ways to another Square Enix classic. The titular character is on a journey that will end in her sacrifice to save the world for some time until the next sacrifice. Sound familiar?

The combat system is certainly the highlight of the game, and it adds a lot to the basics of Chrono Trigger’s system. You have three characters with positional abilities, monsters you can see in the field without a separate battle screen, two- and three-character combos, and the usual active time wait bars. Combat goes well beyond this starting point, and in many cases it succeeds in improving on the formula. The best addition is momentum, a separate meter that fills up when you perform various actions, which lets you augment any of your attacks or techs. This system is a lot of fun, and adds a lot of tactical opportunity to the game, since many techs offer special effects separate from their main effect when you use momentum. It also solves one of my biggest issues with Chrono Trigger: when your ATB bar is full because you’re waiting on another character for a combo, your momentum meter fills instead, making it seem like less of a loss.

The drop system is also quite interesting. Monsters have the usual common and rare drops, but they also have 10 other drops that are guaranteed if you defeat them in various ways (with certain elements, with a combo, etc.). The in-game journal tracks which of these you have found, and there’s no randomness outside the rare drop, so it is quite possible to target certain drops. Combined with the non-random encounters, this is a pretty fun system for completionists. The downside is that you don’t know what the drops are until you get them, and drops are what allow you to get new techs, so if you really want some fancy new ability it’s going to take trial and error to earn it.

The combat is far from perfect, however. While your abilities are pretty fun, the enemy design can be quite annoying. There is a limited number of enemy types, and several of them basically exist to be frustrating to fight. For instance, there are tiny two-tailed squirrels that ride on snowballs and have extremely high evasion. They aren’t that dangerous, they just take a while to kill. The pacing of combat is also thrown off due to a few odd decisions. The active time bars go very slow, to the point where you’ll often wait several seconds with nothing happening for them to fill. And I never again want to see another one of those enemies that individually self destruct in a long animation when killed.

Boss fights can be very tough, often suggesting if not requiring the use of certain abilities to counter their moves. Your best defense is usually a good offense, but that can be risky. Recovering from even a single character death can be very difficult as the bosses and even some normal enemies relentlessly attack for high damage. And there are plenty of one-shot abilities in the game which can quickly turn a winning fight against you. You need to be on top of the latest techs and combos to even the score, which given the randomness involved in getting techs and some UI issues determining what combos you can use can be a headache.

The actual plot of the game is fairly straightforward for the most part, but filled with convoluted side stories. Pretty much everyone in your party has some secret identity or whatnot, and they’ll often be revealed so quickly you didn’t even have time to start caring. Things slow down by the end, where the revelations get a lot more interesting and the game comes to an appropriate and, in my opinion, satisfying end.

The real problem with the game is that it gets a bit monotonous. Every area is snowy, leading to a minimum of environments (to be fair there are also several ice caves!). There are few monsters per area, and if you don’t quickly determine a way to dispose of them quickly, fights can drag on. MP tends to be fairly limited until you get a lot of MP restoration abilities late in the game, so this may happen regardless. You can freely switch characters between fights to stretch your resources, though sadly you can’t do any such thing during an actual fight.

Fortunately (in my opinion anyway), the game isn’t especially long. They do try to artificially stretch your playtime in a few places, which is unfortunate. One idea they took from Chrono Trigger and made far worse was the concept of magically locked chests. Rather than a few of them scattered in unique places you can remember to come back to later in the game, there’s at least one chest in every area of the game. As a result, once you can open them you basically have to run through the entire game again (albeit at much higher level) to get all the loot.

The magically locked chests are a microcosm of why I am Setsuna is a good, but not great, game. It has a lot of cool ideas, but the execution is fairly lacking. I don’t doubt the Tokyo Game Factory team can come up with good to great JRPGs forever, but I hope they cut a few less corners on variety in the future. Still, if you have a lot of nostalgia for Chrono Trigger-style combat, or like slow-paced, melancholy JRPG stories, I am Setsuna is probably for you.

Review Score: B−