Retro Review: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

Castlevania II is one of several direct sequels for the NES that dramatically changes the formula compared to its predecessor. However, unlike most of those sequels, the basic gameplay hasn’t actually changed much. Instead, the genre has shifted, from an action game to a slower-paced adventure.

You once again play as Simon Belmont, armed with a whip, some sub-weapons, and the inability to change your trajectory mid-jump. However, this time around, Simon can level up to dramatically increase his survivability, and most of your upgrades are permanent. Several sub-weapons are now free to use, as well, which changes the dynamic of the game. Rather than being tools to defeat tough enemies, your sub-weapons now have varied uses. In particular, the holy water is a staple weapon for its ability to open passages and identify false floors.

The world of Simon’s Quest is laid out mostly horizontally. You adventure across a wilderness dotted with a number of towns. There are several alternate paths, but the world layout is pretty straightforward. Not that it’s simple to find everything. The game focuses heavily on puzzle elements, and the primary challenge is locating all the secret nooks and crannies you’ll need to collect Dracula’s parts and finish the game. The clues to these puzzle elements can be a bit obtuse, and the game even offers a number of false hints to throw you off the scent.

While there are five mansions to explore, and each is superficially similar to a typical level from the original Castlevania, action is not the focus here. If you die, you re-appear in the same spot you died in. Even continuing doesn’t set you back in terms of location, though it does reset your current experience and money. But as a result, you can power through basically anything, given time.

While Castlevania II features many interesting gameplay concepts, they don’t mesh together as well as they might have. Trying to figure out where some of the mansions are is more frustrating than interesting, and the lack of real action-oriented challenge result in limited replay value. (Though the game does offer three different endings, depending on how long it takes you to complete.) It’s interesting to note that the game actually plays like a more forgiving, and less complicated, Metroid.

Castlevania II is worth playing, though it helps to have a guide handy for when you get stuck. It adds a lot to the Castlevania mythos, and is an interesting examination of how to apply the same gameplay to a different genre. And of course, it has great music.

Review Score: B

My Gaming Philosophy

I’ve been playing Stormblood, the new FFXIV expansion (and before anyone asks, no, I will not be making a guide for it; sorry), and there has been a lot of consternation among the player base based on combat and job action changes. I main a White Mage, the job most commonly referred to as broken or useless based on the early released changes, but so far my experience (through level 66) has been nothing but positive. Indeed, the more I read, the less I understand where these complaints are coming from. It’s important to note that I’m not a raider: I have no interest in playing on a schedule, nor am I the sort of competitive that would make me care about things like world firsts or even completing the most difficult challenges. I just want to see all the content, so I’m content (for example) to have completed Alexander (normal) in Heavensward and never set foot in Alexander (savage).

The more I read about these complaints, the more I think they have a much more fundamental basis than I originally assumed. I don’t think the core problem here is people’s jobs being nerfed (or not made good enough to keep up), particularly since there is no Stormblood raid to actually test jobs against yet anyway. I think the problem is that Square Enix’s intent with the combat system redesign was to pull players back towards playing the game they way the creators intended. (Most obviously in making massive pulls harder to pull off.)

That brings my to my gaming philosophy, which has a heavy influence on the guides I’ve made. I’m not looking to find the best exploit, or determine the absolute best path towards a goal. Rather, I like to gather all the information I can on a game and use it to answer a different question: how did the creators mean for this game to be played? That’s also how I tend to play games, especially single-player games. But I’m starting to realize it even affects how I play FFXIV. I seem to be much less inconvenienced by these changes than the most vocal complainers simply because I already played the game the way Square Enix seems to want people to now.

None of this is to say that my way is any better than another, of course. But it is to say that my guides are generally not focused on exploits. They won’t be much use to the guys doing AGDQ, for instance. But I’d like to think they’ll be useful to anyone trying to understand the design of these games at a fundamental level.

Retro Review: Mega Man II (Gameboy)

Mega Man II uses the same structure as its Gameboy predecessor, using four bosses each from Mega Man 2 and 3 on the NES. A few significant changes to the formula result in a much smoother experience, though not one without some significant flaws.

Once again, you find yourself choosing from among four bosses to start with, in relatively classic Mega Man style. None of these stages is particularly difficult, in contrast to the previous game. However, the balance is somehow very off. Many enemies take way more firepower than you would expect to defeat: for example, bats take multiple shots. The stages also have several areas where the enemy placement results in a pretty unfair situation no matter what you do. However, you have energy tanks this time around, and with the exception of some obstacles, nothing seems to do all that much damage to Mega Man. The result is stages that don’t feel unfair, but don’t entirely feel like Mega Man, either.

The bosses are well translated to the smaller screen, using similar patterns to their NES predecessors but scaled appropriately. There are several valid starting points in the rotation, and no stage acts as a major barrier without a given weapon. The weapons are strangely limited, often using a lot of power per shot, but you don’t really need them in most cases. If anything, it’s a bit too easy.

After a short cutscene following the initial bosses, you’ll be introduced to the next four. Here is where the game kind of loses its way. Compared to Dr. Wily’s Revenge, these bosses at least have their own stages now. However, the game considers all four one single stage, so your weapons don’t get refilled between them. Worst of all, the game again gives no indication of which boss is which. As a result, these second four stages are necessarily pretty easy.

The new elements added to the game are generally well done, though the special boss and his unique weapon are decidedly odd this time around. The game is longer than its predecessor, but much easier, to the point where you’re likely to complete it much faster. Still, it has a respectable number of stages for a Gameboy game of the time.

How you feel about Mega Man II will rest heavily on why you like Mega Man games. If you’re in it for the tight play control and high challenge, this will not be the game for you. It’s a bit sloppy and easy to power your way though. But if you just enjoy the general Mega Man gameplay and collecting weapons, this isn’t a bad game at all.

Review Score: C+

Blaster Master Zero

Blaster Master Zero is a re-imagining of the original Blaster Master for the NES. It follows the same basic structure of the original, and keeps many of its gameplay themes, while changing the core gameplay loop considerably, and for the better. While it features retro graphics, this isn’t the kind of game designed to mimic what people think the original game was like through nostalgia-tinted memories. This is something new, an expansion of a good game idea into something much more modern and interesting.

The core idea of Blaster Master was that you adventured through eight areas, earning an upgrade for your jumping tank vehicle in each of the first seven. These upgrades opened new paths in a semblance of what would come to be known as the Metroidvania style. Even though the areas are not connected in direct order, the game still plays out in a linear fashion. Blaster Master Zero does not change this, but it does expand on it by giving you a variety of new upgrades. Further embracing the genre it foresaw, many upgrades take the form of selectable weapons or powers, giving the game a touch of a Super Metroid feel.

In addition to expanding on Blaster Master’s basic ideas, Blaster Master Zero refines a number of the issues that game had. Instead of having three sub-weapons with limited and independent ammo, your vehicle now has one auto-regenerating power meter that powers all sub-weapons as well as its flight powers. This mechanic works wonderfully well, and the weapons are well-tuned and will find a lot of use. Hovering (and the alternative multi-jumping) are easier than ever, and gone are the days of scouring the map for a powerup if you run out of energy at the wrong time.

Perhaps more importantly in terms of correcting its predecessor’s flaws, the gun power system has been reworked. There are still eight levels of gun power, and you still lose a level each time you are hit in one of the overhead sections, but now each level corresponds to a different weapon, and you can find a device early on that lets you ignore one hit to your gun power every few seconds. The result is that the top-down combat is much more tactical, rather than being frustrating. In addition, grenades have been expanded to a set of sub-weapons. Each is limited in use, though refills are quite common, and they all have their own purpose. Combined with save points in these areas, the top-down sections are no longer the part of the game the player will learn to dread.

By correcting the flaws of a game with such a great core concept, Blaster Master Zero emerges as a great little game. It’s fairly short, and the save system makes it far easier than the NES game was, but there are several modes to tackle once you’re done. Whether you want an extra challenge or just want to blow by everything, you can do that. There is even DLC for alternate characters to change things up.

If you were a fan of Blaster Master, I highly recommend picking up Blaster Master Zero. This goes double if you could never actually finish the original. This is basically the perfect modern version of that game. It even added much more story, notable because it somehow managed to combine the mythologies of several totally distinct versions of the original game. (Which is to say, it’s not an amazing story, but its existence is worthy of praise.) If you’ve never played Blaster Master, you should still give this a shot. Playing as a rolling, jumping tank is just fun.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Ultima VII: Forge of Virtue

Ultima VII’s expansion is great in many ways, but it has an unfortunate tendency to ruin the challenge of the main game. It is an old-school expansion, with its content accessible almost immediately, and the rewards are far too powerful to be available so early in the game. Complete Forge of Virtue, and your Avatar will be an unstoppable wrecking machine even if he’s still level 3.

On the upside, Forge of Virtue does fix one problem with the leveling system of Ultima VII – since the Avatar is the only party member who can use magic, he is the only party member who needs Intelligence and Magic training, thus splitting his limited training points among five stats instead of everyone else’s 3. As a result, you are either going to be generally underpowered, or very bad at certain things. Forge of Virtue, however, makes training irrelevant by giving you max stats. For this reason, and the balance issues I mentioned earlier, the whole expansion works a lot better if you do it at the end of the game rather than the beginning.

As for the content itself, this is very much an expansion you’ll only fully enjoy the first time. There are major puzzle aspects to all three of the Tests of Principles which make up the bulk of the expansion, as well as the final quest, and figuring out what to do is most of the fun. One test is a simple puzzle involving conversation, a bit of reading, and a tiny bit of exploration. Another involves a huge and complicated maze with many false finishes. The only puzzle that involves much beyond simple reasoning skills is the aptly named Test of Courage.

The only reason you may not be able to complete the expansion early in the game is because of the Test of Courage, a dungeon whose denizens are only rivaled by a handful of dungeons in the main game. You’ll have quite a bit of fighting to do, along with a little simple puzzle solving (find the switch, find the key, etc.), but the main appeal of this test is the real prize of the Forge of Virtue: the Black Sword.

I won’t spoil what the Black Sword is if you haven’t played the game (well, it’s a sword, duh), but suffice it to say, it’s a fun weapon. In addition to being quite powerful, it has special powers, and you even get to forge it yourself (to a degree) using the instructions available in the main game, which don’t actually work anywhere but here.

As far as the story of the Forge of Virtue goes, there isn’t much plot, but what’s there is kind of interesting, especially if you’ve played Ultima III. The only human NPC in the expansion is quite amusing, and has a lot to say about all of the interesting (albeit evil) artifact you’ve destroyed in your career as the Avatar. And the daemon in the mirror is quite fun as well. But this is a story wholly detached from the main plot of Ultima VII – you come to power yourself up, not to expand the story, which is a bit disappointing.

All in all, the Forge of Virtue is a pretty good expansion, which is a good thing since it’s almost impossible to find a version of the game without it these days. The only downside is that the Isle of Fire it adds to the world map takes up quite a bit of space on the open seas, and can be a pain to sail around. If you’re looking to play the game in “easy mode,” this is a good way to do it, and if you’re not, it’s simple enough to put off your adventures here until later. Just don’t expect much of an RPG experience.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Ultima VII: The Black Gate

The Ultima series began as nonlinear, almost open world RPGs. It ended with a series of linear, story-driven games. In the happy middle, a few games in the series – starting with Warriors of Destiny and ending with The Black Gate – managed to really nail both the open-world and story aspects of this evolution. But Ultima VII is special because not only was the design in nearly perfect balance, for the first time the technology was advanced enough to offer really immersive gameplay – and not yet so advanced that the illusion of the truly open world was shattered.

Truth be told, taken as a story compared with your typical novel, Ultima VII isn’t all that special. It is 200 Britannian years after the events of Ultima VI, and the world has for the most part moved on the Eight Virtues. A new organization called the Fellowship hopes to unite the people of the world, but it quickly becomes clear that they are not so benevolent as they would have you believe. But the story works not because of its originality or narrative strength, but because it really involves you (as the Avatar) in the world. Sure it’s obvious the Fellowship is up to no good, but even within the context of the game, there isn’t much you can do about it aside from figuring out what they’re up to and putting a stop to it. You do it because you care, not because someone tells you to.

And therein lies Ultima VII’s single greatest flaw. If you don’t care, either about the story or about your role as the Avatar, the game loses focus quickly. The immersion of this game is built on a house of cards. If you’re not particularly interested in tracking down those responsible for the gruesome murder that starts the game, and aren’t very good at The Game, it may be quite some time before you stumble on to the actual plot. It’s all there, and it’s spelled out quite explicitly if you look for it, but you do have to look for it. This is a game where very nearly the entire world is open to you from the start (and you’re only an easily accessed flying carpet from opening the rest), and aside from the starting plotline, there is no handholding here. The game requires you to buy in, but pays off in spades if you do so.

So far all I’ve really done is criticize the game, which may make my score seem surprising. Flaws aside, Ultima VII is the best western RPG I’ve ever played. I enjoyed it when it came out and had no contextual background in the series, I loved it in college when I played through with a better understanding, and loved it even more when I played it again, for the first time having played every previous game in the series. The game just keeps getting better.

So what’s so great? Well, I’ve mentioned how immersive the game is. The engine, despite being old enough to vote, is still great at what it does. For the first time in the series, the game is entirely mouse-driven, with no static on-screen UI at all. You can poke and prod things, and most behave as you would expect. Hell, you can even bake bread. (Just don’t try to forge a sword…) People react to what you say and do, and if you kill someone, they stay dead. Of course, the game is not great at reacting if you do something unexpected. Aside from calling the guards if they are a witness, NPCs won’t react if you kill a random townsperson. (Though they usually react if you kill someone for plot reasons.) Not that you should be killing random townspeople. That’s not very virtuous!

Combat is a relatively weak point of the game, but it’s also not really the point. You’re only forced into one dungeon with especially tough enemies, and all you need to do while there is walk in and walk out. You’ll gain the majority of your experience points through (non-violent) quests. But the combat isn’t actually bad per se, it just has a number of annoying flaws. The biggest of these is that ranged weapons are terribly inaccurate and if you give a party member a powerful weapon like a juggernaut hammer, they will likely kill you more often than the monsters. This is greatly alleviated by using the “flank” attack mode, but that encourages your party to stray far afield and possibly get themselves killed without you noticing. They will also drop items when fleeing from combat, which is annoying at best, and game-breaking at worst. The general rule of thumbs is never to give your companions plot items. And the game is stingy with information on how combat actually works, which isn’t helpful if you, like me, are used to the twinked out character customization that makes JRPG’s so enjoyable.

That said, if you’re prepared to deal with its flaws, combat can be a lot of fun. There are numerous dungeons and treasure caves across the world which have no plot relevance, but are great places to earn experience and treasure. There is a wide variety of spells which are quite a lot of fun to play with. Many dungeons feature devious traps and puzzles (though I’m not sure if “infinitely respawning dragons” counts as a trap per se). Areas off the beaten path are filled with interesting tidbits about the world, and there’s more Ultima fan service than you can shake an ankh at.

But all in all, Ultima VII is just good. It’s not easy to put the exact reasons into words, but this game has everything I want from a western RPG. You can as easily follow the plot with gusto as spend an afternoon reading books in the Lycaeum. Sure, the game is dated, and modern RPGs handle many aspects of it with more technical proficiency, but as games have grown more complex, worlds have become less interactive. Ultima VII predates the times of generic townspeople you can’t speak to – everyone in U7 not only has a place of work, they also have individual homes, eat dinner at the local pub, and so on. The world exists without you, but you can still interact with it, and that’s a feeling I haven’t had in a game since. Well, since Ultima VII Part 2, at least.

Review Score: A+

Switch Shopping

I’ve been looking for a Switch since launch, though I haven’t been looking that hard. I’ve actually seen the one with the gray joycons at least twice recently, but I was holding out for the neon red and blue one. And I got it today! It reminded me of my, let’s say diverse experiences with different retailers and asking about the Switch.

Toys”R”Us

After seeing no switches on shelves here several times, on one visit I see exactly two: one of each color. Suspicious, I ask the nearest employee, “Do you guys have Switches, or are those just display boxes?” He explains apologetically that they are display boxes, and immediately starts giving me advice on when they tend to come in to have a chance at one. Which I appreciate, but ignore, because I wasn’t looking that hard.

GameStop

The first time I peeked in at Game Stop (which I do rarely, I really am not a fan of their store), they had a hand-written sign saying “Sorry, we are sold out of Switches.” Going back one weekend, there is no such sign, and there are several boxes on the wall. Highly skeptical, I ask, “do you guys actually have Switches?” The cashier condescendingly tells me that no, of course not, and basically says good luck finding one. He tells me they get a handful every few weeks and they’re sold out within half an hour. Basically, he tells me not to come back. Which is what I wanted to do anyway! So I guess this was a win.

Target

“Are those Switches real?” “Yeah.” “Nice, a lot of stores have empty boxes on display.” “We don’t display empty boxes.” He said that last one with a hint of disgust at the idea. While it’s not my primary game shopping store (I need those 20% discounts!) I have to say, the employees at Target, at least where I live, tend to be the most personable, least condescending, and often the best-informed across all the gaming stores. I’ve had interesting gaming conversations with a diverse cast over the years. And it’s also where I found my Playstation VR back when that was still hard to locate.

Which is all just a long-winded way of saying, Target is pretty good, and GameStop sucks.

Retro Review: Enduro Racer

Enduro Racer is a top-down dirt bike racing game for the Sega Master System. The game has a diagonal perspective and is largely focused on keeping your momentum despite various obstacles. It’s a little like Excitebike in some ways, but significantly deeper in gameplay.

Enduro Racer is a short game, with only five courses. During the game each is repeated twice, the second time through with twice as many opponents to deal with. Opponents are essentially just obstacles, as you are racing the clock rather than them. The main mechanic that makes Enduro Racer interesting is that you earn points for each opponent passed during a race, and these points can be saved up to buy various single-race upgrades. These upgrades are quite significant, though they are lost if you crash (and don’t carry over to future races).

The racing is quite fun, but Enduro Racer does lack for much replay value. There’s just the one, ten-race mode, and nothing to do except try to beat your best time. It can be fun to experiment with which of the half-dozen available upgrades works the best on each race, planning out the best possible setup for the full set of 10. All the upgrades essentially let you go faster, which means you can pass more opponents and earn more points for more upgrades. The prices are such that you’re not likely to actually come out ahead, but you can certainly plan out efficient upgrades.

If Enduro Racer were more substantial, it may have been a classic. As it is, it’s a short game that likely won’t keep your attention for that long, but it’s nonetheless pretty fun for its era. I’d recommend tracking it down on the Virtual Console, for no other reason than because the original Master System controller is awful in any game that needs precise controls.

Review Score: C+

Retro Review: StarTropics

StarTropics is a top-down action game that is superficially similar to the Legend of Zelda. Its perspective sets it apart from games with similar gameplay, but at its core, this is a linear game focused on combat and puzzle solving.

StarTropics is surprisingly dedicated to its main movement mechanic. Your character, Mike, can only move on a grid, which feels odd at first and hints at the game’s nature as a puzzle game. There are also tiles scattered about most rooms, and you’ll need to jump on these, even when they are adjacent to one another. The most common puzzle involves stepping on a particular tile that is not called out in any way to spawn a switch or an item. While it’s not often obvious which tiles may hide secrets, it’s usually simple enough to try stepping on all of them.

Where StarTropics starts to have problems is when the puzzles get a bit more obtuse. Early on, you’ll find hidden paths called out by subtle shadows, but a later dungeon has no hints at all, requiring you to press on every wall any time you’re stuck. At other times you’ll need to use a limited item to search for secrets, and there are far more screens to search than items available. And there’s an entire dungeon based on the concept of false exits that make you start over. None of these are particularly fun, though they by no means ruin the game.

On the other hand, combat can actually be quite enjoyable, under the right circumstances. The nature of how Mike moves, especially in regards to the tiles, make combat a tactical affair that rewards good planning. Mike’s primary weapon is a short-range yo-yo, and most enemies are most dangerous up close, so you’ll have to be quick on your toes. You can pick up various alternate combat items, though unfortunately these tend to be used for gimmicks and are of limited use otherwise until quite late in the game.

The one major flaw in the combat StarTropics is that you always start with 3 hearts, even if you have the full 22. There’s usually no way to farm health, though most of the later dungeons give you quick boosts. And these boosts are absolutely vital, because as the game goes on, your yo-yo will get significant upgrades that only function when you have certain amounts of health. As a result, on your first life in a dungeon (which often starts at full health), things are significantly easier than any subsequent lives. This can be a frustrating mechanic.

In the end, though, StarTropics pulls together quite nicely. The last few areas are focused more on combat and exploration and less on obtuse puzzles, and can be quite a lot of fun. It’s not a bad game on the whole, just one with uneven difficulty and some unfortunate design decisions.

Review Score: C+

Retro Review: Mega Man 5 (NES)

By the time Mega Man 5 was released, the NES was getting old and so was the Mega Man series. The game has a lot of the same issues as Mega Man 4, though it was designed a bit better to compensate. In many ways, this is just an improved version of that game. This is also one of the easier entries in the series, resulting in a fun but ultimately forgettable game.

One thing I’ve always loved about Mega Man 5 is its boss design. There are some stinkers in here, but bosses like Gyro Man and Crystal Man just look very cool to me. The stage design was likewise cool, but not nearly as memorable as in some of the earlier games. There are some memorably obnoxious parts, like the falling crystals in Crystal Man’s stage that will inevitably kill you the first time you see them, but nothing so frustrating that you’d want to stop playing. The game is ludicrously generous with 1UPs and Energy Tanks as well, just in case you run into problems.

The weapons in Mega Man 5 are well-designed but once again pale in comparison to the Mega Buster in most situations. I appreciate how they conceptually improved the short-range dropping weapon with the Napalm Bomb, and the generally-useless non-shot weapon with the Charge Kick. It’s like instead of trying to make cool new weapons, they fixed a lot of boring old ones. That kind of seems like a theme for the game, in fact. Although that doesn’t explain the stupidly hard-to-aim Power Stone.

There are two things that stand out in Mega Man 5 as perhaps a bridge too far. First are Mega Tanks, which are not only hilariously overpowered, but appear repeatedly to make sure you always have one. (It’s easy to not notice since they don’t appear if you already have one, but if you make use of them frequently you’ll note they’re never far away, even in the final stages). Second is Beat, who at the very least is a legitimate challenge to earn. Each stage hides a letter, mostly in locations where you have one brief chance to get them and need to restart to try again, and collecting all 8 unlocks Beat. Beat just flies around killing everything, which is fine, but he also happens to be the weapon of choice against the otherwise quite challenging final boss. I mean, come on!

If you’re not put off by easy Mega Man games, Mega Man 5 is actually quite fun. I never get tired of Gravity Man’s stage and its gravity-reversing mechanic, and the game is a graphical treat by NES standards. It’s worth playing, though I wouldn’t recommend picking up a physical copy as they can get quite expensive. Fortunately, there are collections available on every modern platform (and some older ones, too!).

Review Score: B−