Retro Review: Final Fantasy V (Super Famicom)

The early Final Fantasy series varies back and forth between gameplay- and plot-focused entries, and Final Fantasy V is no exception. While the game does have an entertaining story, the focus is squarely on the revised and improved Job system that was last seen in Final Fantasy III.

The plot of Final Fantasy V exists largely to serve its gameplay structure. The game is divided into three distinct acts. You spend the first gathering up the various Jobs, and the third collecting levels, gear, and abilities, while the middle third does the heavy lifting for the story. Your core group of four members are adventuring across worlds to fight an ancient evil, as is typical for the series to this point. The specifics of FFV’s story can get a bit silly as the game bends over backwards to justify the next hunt for whatever item or power you need. This isn’t high drama, but it serves its purpose and keeps things moving.

The job system is similar to its previous incarnation with one major upgrade: instead of your character being entirely defined by their current job, they can now assign an ability from another job they’ve leveled in addition to their primary skills. This gives the system much-needed room to breathe, and allows for every job to remain relevant throughout the game. Gone are the upgraded versions of earlier jobs. Instead of having two different black or white mage jobs, FFV introduces new ideas like the Time Mage and Blue Mage. There are a variety of effective support jobs, but if you prefer a more straightforward style of combat, you can largely do without them. You’re free to go wild with customization, because there are no restrictions on changing your job setup.

One particular system of note introduced here is Blue Magic, which consists of “spells” cast by enemies that you can learn by being hit with them. Many of these spells are a bit underwhelming, but going out of your way to learn the best ones is well worth it. Indeed, the existence of the Blue Mage results in a sort of meta-element to the game. Do you keep a Blue Mage (or someone with their Learning ability assigned) in the party to try to learn as many spells as possible, or go out and hunt for spells periodically? The system does essentially require a guide to be used to its fullest, but there’s a lot of potential enjoyment to be had regardless.

As fantastic as the Job system is, what really makes Final Fantasy V shine is the combat that puts those jobs to use. It’s almost hard to describe why combat in this game is so much fun. It’s fast, impeccably balanced, and you have a near-limitless array of options to attack any problem with. The game mixes up tough enemies with low offensive potential, easily killed enemies that are dangerous if left alone, the occasional random encounter that plays like a miniboss encounter, and everything in between. Taking advantage of elemental weaknesses is, as always, an important part of Final Fantasy combat, but the tuning in FFV is such that every aspect of combat becomes important. Enemy mix, turn order, physical vs. magical, and buffs all need to be considered.

For a long time I thought FFV was a bit overrated due to its status as an unreleased game in the west. I’ve come around, though. If you love games like FFIV and FFVI for the story, you probably won’t feel that same love for FFV. But when it comes to Final Fantasy gameplay, this is as good as it gets. It’s the game that truly introduced min-maxing to the series, and possibly the best implementation of it so far.

Review Score: A−

Review: Mega Man 10

Mega Man 10 continued the precedent Mega Man 9 set of creating new NES-style Mega Man games. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well as it did in that game. Much of the charm of Mega Man 9 was lost in its sequel.

The foremost issue Mega Man 10 has, particularly when compared to its predecessor, is that the boss weapons are pretty terrible, even by mid-series Mega Man standards. Of the 8, only one is likely to see regular use against non-bosses. The core issue isn’t the boring weapons, but rather their general inability to hit enemies you otherwise couldn’t. Mega Man 10 has some nasty enemy placements, and there’s really nothing you can do about most of them except to learn the correct timing and strategies to get past them. To make matters worse, most weapons go through energy quite rapidly. Combined with the difficulty of certain bosses, this often means that dying while fighting a boss can result in several more deaths and a game over.

It should be said that Mega Man 10 has an easy mode that changes the game considerably. This review focuses on the normal difficulty (to say nothing of hard mode). This is a good thing, because the stages can be just as tough as some of those in Mega Man 9, though somehow in a less fun way. The game has the most diverse visual design among the levels in the series, even including the non-NES games, but the stage gimmicks all seem to be just a bit too in your face. Sandstorms that last longer than is necessary, ice blocks that invite you to your death, and similar mechanics stop being fun rather quickly.

In terms of basic Mega Man platforming action, Mega Man 10 delivers. The enemies are often placed in slightly unfair configurations, but learning the stages is as rewarding as ever. Instant death traps aren’t much fun, but running the enemy gauntlet can be. The game is generous with bolts and other powerups, so if you need to stockpile Energy Tanks to make it through rough fights, that’s an option. The stages also feature a number of branching paths, giving you options and keeping things fresh in a way rarely seen in Mega Man games.

Mega Man 10 does offer a few very cool novelties, including the ability to once again play as Proto Man (with much of Mega Man’s old skill set restored) as well as Bass this time. You can even fight the special bosses from the Mega Man games and earn their weapons for use during normal play. Actually doing this is quite difficult, but the rewards are worth it.

The flaw in Mega Man 10 is that it just doesn’t often feel that fun. The difficulty spikes are typical for a Mega Man game, but there isn’t a whole lot to look forward to when you get through them. The game combines the difficulty of Mega Man 2 with the boring weapon selection of Mega Man 4 and the meaner death traps of Mega Man 9. It’s not a very appetizing cocktail, but it’s unmistakably Mega Man and it’s pretty fun once you get good at it.

Review Score: B−

Review: Mega Man 9

When Mega Man 9 was first revealed to have NES-style graphics, it came as a huge surprise to almost everyone. Retro-style games are popular now, but that wasn’t the case in 2008. Capcom decided to go back to basics, dialing Mega Man’s abilities back to what they were in Mega Man 2, and in so doing succeeded in recapturing the magic that made the early NES Mega Man games so great.

In some respects, Mega Man 9 is the perfect Mega Man game. It has easily the best set of eight weapons in the series. Every one of them is useful during normal play, and they even managed to make the latest version of the ground-following weapon (a la the Search Snake) really good. By removing the ability to charge the Mega Buster, the game ensures that boss weapons are always the best option, assuming you can spare the energy. Mega Man 9’s learning curve is all about using these weapons efficiently, and it is exceptionally rewarding.

The bosses are not quite as special as their weapons, but they’re pretty good in their own right. While certain recurring themes in the series appear here yet again (how many variants of Fire Man do you really need?), every boss is unique enough to avoid feeling stale. They do have pretty simple patterns by Mega Man standards, and careful observation can make all of these fights doable even without the appropriate weapon. The endgame bosses are particularly inspired, combining some new ideas with a few cool throwbacks.

I only have two significant criticisms of Mega Man 9, and the first is that the weapon cycle is boring and predictable when it comes to bosses. Every boss has one weakness, and every other weapon does minimal damage. While it’s possible to beat the bosses without the correct weapon, the lack of any nuance or secondary weaknesses makes the kill order essentially set in stone. The games after Mega Man 2 and 3 all had a similar boring kill order, and it’s too bad Mega Man 9 didn’t try to recreate that aspect of those games.

The other problem Mega Man 9 has is that its stage design is brutally hard. Every boss’s stage feels like a late-game Wily stage from previous entries in the series. Some of these challenges can be overcome with the right weapons, but others are straight up nasty platforming challenges that you simply need to master. The game is filled with the kind of pixel-perfect jump requirements you see in Mario Maker levels, as well as death traps that are essentially unavoidable the first time you encounter them. The stage design brings to mind early NES games where memorizing the levels was essential to finishing the game. Mastering Mega Man 9’s stages is very satisfying, but the difficulty cliff will turn off all but the hardcore before they get to that point.

All in all, Mega Man 9 does a good job recreating the magic of early Mega Man games, and if you’re a fan and like a challenge, it is a must-play. In addition to the basic game, you can play as Protoman, there are two higher difficulty modes, and a ton of challenges that range from hard to nigh impossible. This is a game made for hardcore Mega Man nuts, and if you are one (as I am), you will absolutely love it. If you’re not, well, I hope you don’t get frustrated easily.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Final Fantasy Mystic Quest

Though it was much maligned at release for being an insulting “Baby’s First RPG,” Final Fantasy Mystic Quest has proven to be way ahead of its time. It now stands as one of the most modern-playing RPGs on the SNES.

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest made an effort to simplify a variety of traditional RPG systems in an effort to attract players who wouldn’t otherwise try the genre. Many of these innovations would be revisited later by Final Fantasy or other games, or even become industry standards. A lack of random encounters was a weird idea in 1992, but it’s the norm now.

The beauty of Mystic Quest is that the game takes full advantage of its innovations. For instance, the lack of random encounters allows the dungeons to be puzzle-based and require a lot of backtracking without being frustrating. The combat is simple and occasionally brutal out of nowhere, but the ability to retry any battle (which would pop up again in Final Fantasy XIII) means that bad luck won’t ruin the game.

Mystic Quest won’t wow you with its story or depth or (existence of) character customization, and while it’s quite a pretty game for its time, its graphics aren’t dazzling either. (Its music, on the other hand, is fantastic.) Instead, the game concentrates on an old-school combat loop that feels like a cross between Dragon Quest and old Final Fantasy. Each battle is another opportunity to learn how to efficiently dispatch your foes, but the Final Fantasy series focus on learning and exploiting weaknesses is the core of combat.

Equipment is handled in an streamlined way in Mystic Quest, with all armor upgrades being equipped automatically on your main character (your partners throughout the game neither level nor change gear). Weapons work in a similar way, but you can switch between the four available types at will, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Bombs are powerful but split their damage, claws are weak but cause nasty status ailments, and so on. The weapons are also used as parts of environmental puzzles. You also have a complement of elemental spells with uses divided by type that let you go to town on offense without worrying about losing your ability to heal up.

On the whole, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest holds up surprisingly well if you like old-school RPG combat but aren’t interested in old-school RPG unfairness. It’s a game that fills a very traditional niche in a modern way, which makes it somewhat unique. It’s not a game that stands out as a classic, but as a way to scratch the RPG exploration itch, you can do much worse.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Mega Man 8

Mega Man 8 veers further from the traditions of Mega Man than any other game in the series. While Mega Man 7 was a bit of a departure, Mega Man 8 throws much of the rulebook out entirely. The result can feel very odd if what you’re looking for is that old school Mega Man feel.

Taking a cue from the previous game, Mega Man 8 once again relies on two sets of four bosses rather than presenting all eight at once. The bosses are divided into two separate cycles of weapon weaknesses, and several are beatable with the basic Mega Buster and a bit of strategy, making for a well-balanced group. The weapons range from the useful to the completely redundant, but the game changes the way special weapons works in a fundamental way: the Mega Buster remains your default weapon even when you have another equipped. A separate button fires your special weapon. The effect of this is that weapons with odd firing patterns are much more usable than they have been in previous Mega Man games, but it also encourages use of the Mega Buster as your primary offense.

While the bosses are interesting and well-balanced, the stage design in Mega Man 8 is what sets it apart from the rest of the series. Mega Man stages are generally short, difficult platforming challenges that encourage practice and memorization. Here, the stages are very long and frequently contain gimmick sections that are not always enjoyable. (Veterans of Mega Man 8 will likely have painful flashbacks upon hearing “Jump jump! Slide slide!”) The stages are so long and involved that the midpoint is now the continue point when you get a game over, with per-life checkpoints interspersed throughout both halves of the level.

An interesting decision Mega Man 8 makes is to change up how the bolts introduced in Mega Man 7 are handled. Rather than being common drops with which to buy items, there are exactly 40 bolts in the game, most often found in secret areas. You can spend these bolts to get up to 8 of 16 upgrades, though there’s no way to change your choices later. These upgrades are pretty significant, often making significant changes to how the Mega Buster works or how Mega Man moves. Unfortunately, in addition to removing energy tanks and the like from the shop, they removed them from the entire game. The closest thing you can get to an Energy tank is a one-use-per-life Rush summon that will bombard the screen with powerups. With such long stages, the lack of energy tanks can be a real drag.

On the whole, Mega Man 8 is a pretty fun platformer, but it’s not very good at being a Mega Man game. You still get special weapons to use on other bosses, but the game design is so fundamentally different that it can seem like a disappointment to Mega Man fans. Still, the game offers some fun stages and some memorable anime cutscenes (albeit cutscenes mostly memorable for the hilariously terrible English dub). It does a better job of translating Mega Man to better-than-NES graphics than Mega Man 7 did, and the various secret bolts are fun to search for. It just would perhaps have been better served as an entry in a different series.

Review Score: C+

Retro Review: The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid is one in a long list of quality Disney games made by Capcom. With its sea-dwelling protagonist, it plays a bit differently than most NES platformers, and game offers a unique charm as a result.

You play as the mermaid Ariel, and gameplay takes place predominantly underwater. As a result, while this is a side-scrolling action game similar to many others on the NES, it is not really a “platformer” per se. Rather than jumping puzzles, The Little Mermaid focuses on item movement puzzles. This puzzle aspect is the backbone of the game’s play loop.

To start with, Ariel can turn most smaller enemies into bubbles with two swipes of her tail. Treasure chests around each stage might contain powerups for her attack, one of which increases its potency while the other increases its range. As the game progresses, there are more and more treasure chests that require powerups from previous areas or even stages to open. Many chests are also empty, and the magic shells you need to open them are limited, causing luck or memorization of what is found where to be an important part of the game.

The Little Mermaid’s biggest flaw is its brevity. The game has only five stages, none of which is particularly long. While some of the gameplay is fairly challenging, an experienced gamer can get through the whole thing quite quickly. The replay value largely lies in trying to get far without dying to maximize your powerups and find all the secrets. The game does have a score, giving high score runs some value.

The forgiving nature of the game plays well with its mechanics, though. You do lose your powerups when you die, but you also get a new chance to figure out which treasure chests have what and how to progress through each area of the stage. Mastering each section is satisfying and fun.

On the whole, The Little Mermaid is an innovative and rather fun game while it lasts. It doesn’t last long enough to fully explore its concepts, but its graphics and gameplay lift the experience.

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Super Mario 64

As Super Mario Bros. essentially defined the 2D platforming genre, so Super Mario 64 defined the 3D platforming genre. It remains one of the best examples of the form, though as part of a new genre, it is not without its growing pains.

The core of Super Mario 64, as in its predecessors, is its controls. Mario controls beautifully with the analog stick on the N64 controller, and you’ll spend most of your time using it and the jump button. The other main controls consist of an “attack” button and a crouch button, both of which are highly context sensitive and are quite intuitive once you get a basic handle on how the game works. Mario can pull off an array of jumps here, based both on button pushes and how he’s currently moving. Perfecting things like the triple jump, wall jump, and long jump are key to mastering Super Mario 64.

Unfortunately, as great as Mario’s controls are, the camera controls in SM64 are frankly not very good. Nintendo had  the right idea, offering four C buttons in an approximation of a modern camera stick, but as buttons, they don’t allow for very fine control. You can generally swing the camera only in 45-degree increments and in two useful zoom levels. You can approximate a first-person view to look around, but the camera is still quite limited. This might all work well enough, except the camera tends to rotate on its own as well, making simple straight-line runs into perilous treks.

Mario’s excellent controls and crappy camera combine for some interesting gameplay. Unlike modern games, fighting the controls almost seems to be the point of Super Mario 64 at times. Instead of making it easy to execute complicated moves, the game tests if you can manage them yourself. And that’s fine, it’s just a different mindset than current games tend to have.

Indeed, execution is the name of the game here. Each of the 15 courses has seven stars to collect, six of which require you to fulfill some specific criteria that can get quite challenging. The worlds are all relatively small, but densely packed with things to do and find, and many worlds contain a secondary area as well. The seventh star in each course requires you to find 100 coins, which generally means exploring every inch and exploiting all of your skills.

Super Mario 64 is not a perfect game, but it’s extremely fun, featuring several incredibly memorable worlds. Sure, it doubles down on ice and water worlds, but even those are pretty interesting. There are a lot of tiny issues with the game, particularly pertaining to being screwed over by camera movement, but it makes up for them by letting you perform some awesome moves. Bottom line: if you want to play a 3D platformer, you need to play Super Mario 64.

Review Score: A−

Adam Ruins Everything with Rachel Weil

The most recent edition of the Adam Ruins Everything podcast (Rachel Weil on Femicom and the Value of Preserving Classic ‘Girl’ Video Games) really struck a chord with me. The topic, preserving retro ‘girl’ games, is particularly appropriate for this blog on International Women’s Day. I’ve spent a lot of time retro game shopping, and have rarely (if ever) come across any games that were marketed towards girls. Given the clientele at these stores, this is not surprising, but it is disappointing. I know of a number of efforts to preserve old video games, but aside from Rachel’s Femicom Museum, I don’t recall any so much as mentioning ‘girl’ games.

Almost as upsetting as the way we’ve casually dismissed the history of these games is the way many, including myself, thought of them even when they were new. That is: barely games, a waste of time, simple pandering. Somehow I doubt many guys formed such opinions based on hands-on experience. I’ve heard there are a number of gems hidden among games most guys wouldn’t be caught dead playing, and I can vouch for at least one series (Style Savvy) myself.

I’m neither qualified nor inclined to get deep into gender politics, but this discussion really made me think about how we judge both games and each other. Rachel’s discussion about how, at one point in her life, she stopped playing ‘girly’ games because she felt she had to makes me wonder just how often this has happened. I know how many times I’ve avoided something I was interested in because it was ‘not for me,’ and how rarely that turned out to be a good decision.

I am running low on retro games to review, it might be pretty fun to pick up some of these lost games and give them a shot. That is, assuming they can be found anywhere outside of a museum.

Retro Review: Illusion of Gaia

Illusion of Gaia is a combat-focused action RPG that doesn’t get bogged down in mechanics and secrets. The gameplay is fun and breezy, though the story is not.

An “RPG” only in the loosest sense, Illusion of Gaia relies largely on its top-down combat and exploration to drive gameplay. Killing creatures is a major focus, to the point where the primary method of increasing your stats is to kill every enemy in an area. The game provides a nice readout of the remaining enemy’s numbers and locations, as well as how many chests you are missing. That said, defeating the boss of a given area will net you the same bonuses whether you’ve killed all the enemies or not.

For most of the game, you have access to two different forms for your hero. In his base form, he has a number of special moves that you’ll have to make the most of to survive against the tougher monsters. Your primary alternate form is more combat-focused, though you will sometimes need to switch back to solve puzzles. Both forms have several special moves that are unlocked as the game progresses.

Illusion of Gaia is also heavy on story, with long sequences of exploration and talking to townspeople outside of combat. You will explore a number of ancient ruins from Earth’s history, all while trying to discover what dark force is descending upon the planet. The story pulls no punches, getting quite dark in a number of places despite starring mostly children. The story feels quite a bit different from the easily accessible gameplay.

This is not a game that’s trying to be more than it appears on the surface. There are 50 red jewels to collect in the game, and doing so will net you various powerups and a brief bonus dungeon, but other than that, it’s a very linear game without much to miss. You just need to make it through the adventure in one piece. That gets harder as the game progresses and throws nastier enemies at you while cutting back on the frequency of save points, but it never gets unfair.

If you’re looking for a fun time and an interesting but dark story, Illusion of Gaia is a good choice. Its bright, colorful sprites make it easy on the eyes, and it’s well-balanced and just tends to be a lot of fun. It doesn’t have the depth to be considered a classic, but it’s a good game to pick up.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Super Mario World

The fourth Super Mario game, Super Mario World, was not only Mario’s biggest adventure yet, it also served as an impressive tech demo for the SNES it launched beside. While not as flashy and faux-3D as F-Zero or Pilotwings, SMW showed off a number of new techniques that made it far more graphically impressive than anything on the NES.

While Super Mario World was a technical marvel, its quality as a game was uncompromised. Featuring solid design and tons of creative ideas, it was a worthy follow up to Super Mario Bros. 3, albeit one with a different core philosophy. While its predecessor relied on quick, unique stages, SMW was filled with longer stages hiding tons of secrets. A save system, combined with the ability to replay (most) previously beaten stages, slowed the pace considerably. It feels like a different game in many ways.

SMW toned down the wide variety of powerups of SMB3, exchanging Mario’s raccoon tail for a cape and eschewing his three suits entirely. Instead, the game introduced Yoshi, a dinosaur Mario could ride who had his own set of abilities. Yoshi could safely leap on top of dangerous obstacles, eat enemies, and essentially absorb a hit for Mario for starters. Riding Yoshi also resulted in the addition of extra instruments to the soundtrack, an interesting touch. Serving as kind of an alternate powerup path to the Fire Flower and Cape, Yoshi proved to be a very useful dinosaur.

The structure of Super Mario World differs slightly from previous games in the series. Gone are the warp zones, and while you can still skip to the end of the game very early (if you’re good enough), you can’t skip directly to any other areas. Instead, there are many secret level exits that can bypass large parts of entire segments of the game. There are also four “switch palaces” to find, secret levels that add helpful blocks to levels across the entire game.

One of the best aspects of Super Mario World is its difficulty curve. Assuming you find the switch palaces, the game never gets all that hard, and it’s generous with 1UPs. The save system means you’ll never get a meaningful “game over” anyway. The optional star worlds offer a greater challenge, and the best of players can reach the brutally difficult special world as well. The game even offers a choose-your-own-difficulty feature, in a sense: by forgoing the switch palaces, the game can be made quite a bit more challenging.

All the specific details aside, what makes Super Mario World shine is its level design. The levels aren’t quite as individually unique as those in SMB3, but when SMW revisits a concept it tends to expand upon it in exciting ways. The levels are fun, and the secrets are challenging and rewarding to find. The puzzles vary wildly, as do the platforming challenges. Even some of the most gimmicky ideas, such as fast-scrolling backgrounds to give the illusion of a breakneck pace, are a lot of fun.

The simple fact is, Super Mario World is a joy to play. The main game is not as technically demanding as its predecessors can sometimes be, but that challenge exists for those who want it. It’s a colorful, fun game with a ton to discover and dozens of charming levels. It was the first SNES game, but even over the system’s history it always remained one of the best.

Review Score: A