Review: Dragon Quest (Switch)

A remake of the original Dragon Quest, based on the mobile phone port, has come to the Nintendo Switch. This serves essentially as a graphically enhanced version of the existing Dragon Quest remakes (such as that for Gameboy Color), which means the game’s grindiness has been toned down considerably from its NES iteration (Dragon Warrior). And that’s a good thing!

One nice touch in this remake is a return to the ye olde English-style dialogue of the original NES version, after the Gameboy version played things totally straight. The ancient hero may be Loto in Japan, but to me he’ll always be Erdrick. If you have an aversion to thees and thous, this game will frustrate you a lot. The graphical style can also be offputting, as it is a combination of low-resolution backgrounds, standard definition map sprites, and HD monster sprites.

The structure of the game is mostly intact from the original. The biggest change is that the enemies yield more experience and gold, allowing you to progress through the game much more quickly. The game system has also been updated to feature more stats like Resilience, as well as items that give you permanent upgrades to those stats. Some of the items have been rebalanced, but all work in essentially the same way they always have.

The big change here is that the dungeons have been redesigned to varying extents. The game doubles the size of its grid system in line with later series entries (though still keeps the need for torches or the Glow spell), and treasure chests no longer respawn. The treasures contained in those chests have been upgraded substantially to compensate, leading to a situation where delving dungeons can be very rewarding early on. Specific dungeon layouts have changed, though most follow a similar pattern to their originals.

The problem with the remake is that the reduction in grinding reveals how sparse the content in the original Dragon Quest actually is. Even with leveling speed increased dramatically, you’ll spend most of your time trying to gain experience or gold to prepare you for the next challenge. The entire game’s plot would fit into two or three towns worth of quests in any game later in the series.

The bottom line is, you can live without playing the first Dragon Quest, but if you want to experience it, the Switch is the best place to do so. It’s not a big time or money investment, and it ties directly into Dragon Quest 2 and 3, both of which are also available (and are far better games).

Review Score: B−

Review: Link’s Awakening (Switch)

The original Gameboy version of Link’s Awakening is considered by many to be among the best Zelda games, though this is not an opinion I generally share. It has a number of gameplay flaws that I found frustrating. The Nintendo Switch remake addresses all those and more, bringing Link’s Awakening into its full potential.

Generally speaking, “remake” is the correct term here. While plenty of specifics have changed to fit the much more powerful console, some of which (such as being able to attack at 45 degree angles) have significant gameplay implications, this very much feels like the original Link’s Awakening. This is most apparent by the enormous size of the tiles the overworld and particularly dungeons are made of, since each room is still restricted to the amount of visible area as the original. These giant, detailed tiles enhance the game in an odd way, trimming the fat of dungeon design and leaving only the essentials.

While staying true to the source material, the game makes graphical improvements where it can. The overworld is no longer divided into distinct screens, and some large dungeon rooms are also treated as a single whole. This does have the effect of making it obvious just how small the world map is, but the charm in the transitions between areas and the generally stellar look make up for it. The graphical style of the game may look a bit boring and plasticky in still shots, but in motion the game looks great.

One major new feature has been added to the game in the form of a dungeon creator. This is most definitely not “Zelda Maker,” though we can hope it is a precursor to it. Dungeons are made up of rooms adapted from the in-game dungeons you’ve beaten, and any given room has a set number of chests, doors, stairs, and so on. The mini-game is divided into two parts. First you need to create the dungeon, and to unlock more options you’ll need to do so in the form of “challenges” where you need to fit your available pieces under specific conditions. Then you’ll actually play through the dungeon. The gameplay is necessarily simplistic (for instance, aside from locked doors there is no way to make a specific room impassable until some condition is met) but putting your Zelda skills to use can still be a lot of fun. This is an enjoyable mode, but one that can easily be brought down by high (or even middling) expectations.

Whether you like Link’s Awakening or just never played it, the Switch version is well worth a look. (If you dislike the original, you’re probably safe to skip this one.) It’s a beautiful and well-executed game with notably charming sound design and writing. The dungeons remain well-built and challenging. There are even more Pieces of Heart and Secret Seashells to collect, but the game tracks them and offers a Seashell Detector to make the process much smoother. This is a fine original game polished and enhanced into a must-play for Zelda fans.

Review Score: A−

Shadowbringers

Very few video games have affected me like Shadowbringers, the third expansion for Final Fantasy XIV, has. I finished the main plot weeks ago, and just seeing people¬†talk about the end scenes still makes me emotional. This is absolutely the best story in the Final Fantasy series, and maybe the best story I’ve experienced in a video game.

I want to talk about Shadowbringers, but I do not want to spoil it. This is an emotionally resonant story, and hearing about it in dribs and drabs would not do it justice. If you’ve played it, you already know what it’s about. If you haven’t, consider it. Granted, there are literally hundreds of hours of FFXIV between a new player and this story (and skipping the previous story, while an option, would undermine it to a large degree), but still.

What sets Shadowbringers apart for me is that it’s about your character, the Warrior of Light. Many people loved the story of FFXIV’s first expansion, Heavensward, but you really played a bit part in it. The big moments mostly involve other characters, though one scene in particular (before a battle on a certain bridge) shows how awesome your character is. Shadowbringers even tops this scene, though.

Prior to Shadowbringers, you spent much of your time killing pseudo-gods known as Primals. You have a rare special ability to resist their mental influence, an ability your main companions (the leaders of a group known as the Scions of the Seventh Dawn) lack, so these battles fall to you. Shadowbringers deconstructs this somewhat by putting you in a position of unique ability to save another world, but at great personal cost. (Not to imply this is a purely selfless act due to it being another world; the fates of that world and your own are intimately connected.)

One of the aspects of good writing is its ability to force you to suspend your disbelief. Obviously the game isn’t going to kill off your character in an ongoing MMO, yet the fear that you could die (or worse) grows to a very real level during the story of Shadowbringers. You are given several opportunities to show vulnerability or a facade of strength, and your long-time companions grow more and more concerned for your well-being. You press on because you must, but at a certain point when a character offers you a way out… well, I considered it for a moment. Not that the game would let you actually choose to do that. But the gesture felt very real.

Another neat trick Shadowbringers pulls off is causing you to feel sympathy for the Ascians: a group of genocidal black-robed baddies that have been behind nearly every evil act in the game since the re-launch. Shadowbringers changes none of that, yet by the end you will understand their motives and maybe even agree with them to some degree. For the first time, I hope the Ascian threat is resolved in some way other than simply destroying them all.

There is one aspect of the Shadowbringers story that really enhanced the experience, but I’m not sure it was intentional. The game pulls no punches from the start, showing the horrific conditions on a world that was nearly destroyed a hundred years ago. Creatures of Light, an aspect you normally identify with, keep the remaining populace in the tyrannical grip of fear. After a strong start introducing this doomed world, things slow down a bit. You learn a lot of lore, but as you get closer and closer to taking out the Big Bad and saving the world, something seems to be missing. Indeed, as the main plot resolved, I felt some disappointment. Things didn’t end as dramatically as I had expected.

Obviously the “end” was not the end, but even so, the game continued to lower expectations a bit. It teases you the whole time by hiding the name of one of the new zones, but that reveal is shockingly anticlimactic. For a time you’ll find yourself wondering where exactly everything is going. And at that point, when I found myself questioning the wisdom of their storytelling, it all came together. I don’t know if they meant to lower expectations like that (and if so, I suppose writing this is undermining their effort!), but it left me in a state to be utterly awed by what followed.

The climactic events of Shadowbringers are amazing, full stop. The way the plot unfolds leading to the final encounters is second to none. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say the greatest sequence of cutscenes in Final Fantasy history happen here. And it’s because my character was at the center of them. Many hours of story culminated in a surprising but inevitable Moment of Awesome that I seriously considered using as my wallpaper.

Shadowbringers is inspiring. This is what video games can be. Playing a character puts you in a unique position to experience story in a different way than a book or a movie. When I was younger, I might consider it somehow crass to have a whole story basically build up to a raw emotional payoff. But what exactly are we looking for from our entertainment, if not that? I almost quit FFXIV before Shadowbringers, and while my reasons were (and remain!) solid, I’m very glad I didn’t. And I’m also glad I had fellow players and friends to share this experience with.

Retro Review: Mega Man: The Wily Wars (Genesis Mini)

Mega Man: The Wily Wars is a collection of Mega Man 1-3 released for the Genesis. Unfortunately, this game was only released on Sega Channel in North America, so it is quite rare. With its inclusion on the Genesis Mini, it’s readily available to all for the first time.

The Wily Wars is somewhat akin to Super Mario All-Stars in that it is a 16-bit remake of several 8-bit games. All three included games are quite faithful to the originals, but with upgraded graphics that use more colors, nicer backgrounds, parallax scrolling, and other new effects. The music is also arguably worse due to the Genesis’s sound hardware. The games have been modified in various minor ways, and do appear to be tuned slightly harder than the original versions. The easier difficulty for Mega Man 2 has been entirely removed as well.

While the first three Mega Man games are all good in their own right, The Wily Wars also features some new content. If you complete all three games (made somewhat easier by a battery save, which replaces the passwords in the latter two games), you unlock Wily Tower. This section consists of three Journey to the West-themed stages followed by a new set of Dr. Wily levels. While the new bosses offer no new powers for Mega Man, you are able to freely choose any 8 weapons and any 3 special items from among the three games when tackling these levels. This offers a huge amount of variety, and may be the most fun part of the game. None of the new stages or bosses are particularly inspired, but they do feature an interesting mix of enemies from multiple games and a variety of side paths that often require you to bring along the correct weapon to access. There’s a lot to play with here.

The one serious downside to the Wily Wars is that the games suffer from input lag. I assumed this was an artifact of the Genesis Mini, but I understand this was true of the original game as well. This can cause a lot of frustration when you need to perform difficult platforming feats. This issue is assuaged somewhat by the fact that the game smoothed out some of the unfair difficulty spikes of the original. The overall difficulty of the games remains similar to the originals as a result.

The Wily Wars may not be enough to justify a Genesis Mini purchase, but if you’re at all interested in that device, this is a nice incentive. I’m very glad Sega and Capcom worked to make this game available to us. I wouldn’t say it’s a must for any Mega Man fan, but it’s an enjoyable addition to the series.

 

Review Score: B+

Gas in New Jersey: A Three-Part Odyssey

New Jersey gas isn’t as cheap as it used to be, but I still plan trips around buying it there whenever possible. That’s how I found myself in the middle of New Jersey on Father’s Day night looking for gas. And also caffeine. I wasn’t on the turnpike with its oh-so-convenient rest stops, so I was relying on the blue GAS and FOOD signs that show up before each exit. I don’t like those signs, because I’m always convinced I’m going to get lost before I find the gas (or food). Not that that’s ever happened. Usually the gas station is within sight of the exit, and things proceed swimmingly.

The First Trial

The first sign I saw indicated that both Exxon and Shell were available at the next exit. A short time later, a second sign indicated four different restaurants. I didn’t recognize three of them, but the fourth was McDonald’s. A drive-thru would be optimal, and I just wanted a Coke, so I made the decision to take this exit. The exit ramp indicated McDonald’s was 3.0 miles to the right. Exxon was 0.1 miles to the left, while Shell was 2.7 miles to the right. With vague thoughts of using my Stop & Shop discount and under the assumption that the two were likely near one another, I went right. I saw the Exxon station’s lights to the left as I made the turn. Even considering what I’d discover about Exxon shortly, I wish I had just gone left right there.

That’s not what I did, though. Instead, I noted my current mileage, added 2.7 to it, and determined when I should be in the correct vicinity. I was surprised to find that the road I was on ended abruptly in a T-intersection with a major road before I saw either Shell or McDonald’s. I had gone less than a mile. No signs indicated which way to go, so I figured I’d double down and go right again. My GPS did not agree, desperately begging me to make a U-turn (or what passes for a U-turn in New Jersey) and go the other way. I refused.

Two miles of sparse buildings and no gas later, I capitulated to my GPS. It indicated a jug handle unlike any I’d seen before. I’ve driven through New Jersey enough to have strong opinions on the liberties their civil engineers take, and I’ve seen and even used a jug handle or two in my day. But this time, the right was¬†after the intersection I was trying to make a U-turn at, with a circular ramp like the inside of a cloverleaf. It seemed like a reasonable enough idea conceptually, though driving past the left I could have easily made in most other states before turning right to come back to it was strange, even by New Jersey standards.

I assumed that I’d pass the point where I’d decided to turn right, go another few miles, and find that Shell station. Instead, I found myself back on the Interstate I had started on almost immediately. I had failed to get gas (or caffeine), but I still had 90+ miles of range left. I did want to get home sooner than later, but all I had to lose was time. So I tried again.

The Second Trial

The blue signs were so similar to those I had seen during my first attempt that I checked the remaining time on my GPS to confirm I hadn’t gone in a big loop. It was 10 minutes shorter than before, so I took that to mean this wasn’t the same exit. I almost wish it had been. This time, the exit ramp indicated that Exxon was in 1.7 miles, while Shell was further on at 2.4 miles, both in the same direction (once again to the right). McDonald’s was listed at 2.7 miles, also to the right. I expected to be diverted to yet another road long before I saw any of that, but this time things went smoothly and I saw the Exxon station come into view right on schedule.

Relieved that gas was in my future, I looked ahead and realized things were more complicated than I thought. The Exxon station was on my left, but there was no entrance from the road I was currently driving on. Just ahead, it did split into a four-lane highway, complete with concrete median divider. From what I could see, I had to be heading the opposite way to enter the Exxon station. Still, signs indicated that McDonald’s was to the left, and my GPS was telling me to go left and make a U-turn on this road to continue on my trip. I figured I’d go left, head to McDonald’s, then come back this way and hit up the Exxon before getting back on the Interstate. It was the perfect plan. It was, unfortunately, not what I actually did.

I found the McDonald’s at the end of a strip mall. I had only seen two previous strip mall McDonald’s before, and they always seemed a bit odd. As I pulled into the parking lot, I thought I recognized this particular McDonald’s. Perhaps this design was common in New Jersey, but I’m fairly sure I had stopped at this very McDonald’s a year earlier, learning how to use my phone as a hotspot to deal with some work issue or another. In any case, they had Coke, which was what was important. They didn’t have a drive-thru, but even at this point I was happy to take what I could get.

Aside from some disbelieving comments from the employees that people were still coming in at this hour, my order was filled without incident. I got back to my car and realized this was going to be more complicated than I had thought. The only exit to the strip mall took me on the same road I arrived at, going the same direction. With the median still in place, I was going to have to make a U-turn. Well, no biggie, I thought.

I proceeded up the road to a pleasant surprise: I was actually able to make a normal U-turn here, no crazy New Jersey traffic patterns needed! Things were looking up. I hadn’t seen the Shell station on the way, but the Exxon was still waiting for me. My GPS, however, was telling me to turn right off of this road almost immediately. I considered ignoring it to ensure I ended up at the one gas station I had actually seen so far, but the prices at that Exxon were 30 cents higher than anywhere else I’d seen in days (what happened to you, New Jersey gas prices?) and I still had plenty of range, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to listen.

The GPS told me to turn right almost immediately, but I was confused because to my right was some sort of non-freeway rest area. It looked like a park, not a driving route that would go anywhere. After missing that turn, it re-routed and told me to turn right up ahead. I ended up in a residential area, which would have been alarming, except I knew Google did that sort of thing sometimes. It usually worked out well. I’m struggling to make out the correct turn up ahead, and I see an SUV making it, so I assume I’m in good company. I turn left, and find myself on a surprisingly narrow road. It had no lines and seemed like it could barely fit two cars, which I quickly confirmed by having to nearly pull over to allow traffic to pass me in the other direction. I took a look at the GPS. I was supposed to turn in 1.9 miles and not before. This was going to be interesting.

Fortunately, I saw very few cars aside from the SUV I was following. I did see some deer, though, and proceeded to keep my speed to a bare minimum. I wondered whether my car’s obstacle detection would detect and brake for a deer in the road. I wondered what would happen if anyone was coming when we crossed the one-lane bridge. And I wondered where the side of the road was when I was trying to let the Jeep with the blinding lights pass me on a particularly narrow stretch.

Somehow I survived, and the tiny rural road spit me out right near the Interstate. That explained why Google thought it was a good idea to take me on this route, and I assume the same was true for the driver of the SUV I had followed for the full length. I had my caffeine, but I still needed gas.

The Third Trial

The next exit had no blue GAS sign that I saw, but the one after that did. Like the others before, it listed Exxon and Shell. This time, one had an A above it and the other a B, which I thought odd but didn’t think to keep in mind. It turned out that there were two different exits, A and B. I couldn’t remember which one was which, but I thought B was Shell, and after seeing Exxon’s prices I wanted to roll the dice on them.

For once, my guess turned out to be correct. A sign indicated that I should once again go right to reach my destination. And for the third time, I ended up at an intersection with an unexpectedly large road. Fortunately this time I caught the sign that told me Shell was to the left. The road was kind enough to give me another indication of the remaining distance to Shell, just over a mile, shortly before splitting with no indication of which way I should actually go. It seemed like the road itself was bearing left, so I did the same, my second consecutive correct guess. Not long after, I saw the Shell station. It was on the left side of the road, but I couldn’t tell if the cross street before it had an entrance to the station. The station itself was open to the road going to the other way, so I figured I’d just turn left into it.

That’s when I saw the police patrol car sitting in the parking lot, ready to head out onto the road. I was about to make a left right next to him, not only over an unbroken double yellow line, but one of those diagonal line-filled median areas. Was that illegal? It seemed like it might be, even thought it made no sense for it to be here. And that cop was right there, presumably waiting for some idiot to do exactly what I wanted to do. So I drove on.

I had slowed down to make the turn before aborting, and now the SUV behind me was right on top of me. His lights were blinding, and I was on a windy road with a lot of driveways and very few lights. It was hard to tell what was going on. I knew that I could turn on any side street and make the U-turn I needed, but I kept passing by them before I saw them. I checked my GPS, and the first “street” it indicated turned out to be a driveway. I was nervous with those SUV lights in my eyes, so I kept hoping, to no avail, for a traffic light. Even a second lane would have been a godsend, but it was not to be.

I proceeded for nearly two miles, frustration at the tailgater building, before my GPS told me to turn left up ahead. It looked like it wanted me to make a U-turn on that road, but something was odd. Very rarely has Google Maps told me to make a straight U-turn on a road without a median, and only when I was already on that road. It looked like that’s what it wanted, though. And mercifully, the intersection had a traffic light. Relieved that my gasoline odyssey was almost over, I got in the left turn lane to wait for a green.

The road I ended up on was another windy road through residential areas, though less trafficked than the one I had been on. It had a double yellow line, though, so I knew I couldn’t just make a three-point turn, even if Google seemed to want me to. The road was not wide enough for a U-turn, either. The GPS indicated I should U-turn at an intersection ahead, so I figured I’d turn onto that street, make a three-point turn there, then retrace my steps. So instead of a U-turn, I turned right. I was very surprised to see the “Private Drive” line in my lights as I did so.

Rather than a wide residential street, I was on a small dirt path barely wider than my car. I could either proceed into private property, or blindly back out onto the road. I weighed this decision for a few seconds, then made a little prayer that my backup camera cross-traffic detection was up to snuff and put it in reverse. As you may have guessed by the fact that I am writing this, I did not in fact end up killed right then and there. Instead I managed to retrace my steps and find that Shell station with upwards of 70 miles of range left to go.

I was so relieved I didn’t even look at the price. And no one asked for my Stop & Shop card, so I got no discount. As an aside, I did pass a few gas stations that were closed during the night, which gave me a new reason to resent New Jersey’s stance against self-service gas stations. I guess only the big ones were willing to pay people to man the pumps all night. I was fortunate and ran into no significant traffic for the rest of the night, but I did degrade New Jersey from the top spot in my Where To Get Gas rankings. And I got a dumb story out of it, so there’s that.

Retro Review: Gargoyle’s Quest II: The Demon Darkness

Gargoyle’s Quest II follows up on its Gameboy predecessor by largely playing it safe. It is a very similar game, albeit presented in color and on a larger screen, and to a degree it suffers from a lack of ambition.

The original Gargoyle’s Quest made excellent use of its small screen with slow-paced, precise platforming. Oddly, the NES sequel has a lot of problems with forcing you to make blind jumps, most frequently in a downward direction. Avoiding enemy attacks was difficult on Gameboy due to a lack of room to maneuver, while here the attacks tend to be faster. The result is a similar necessity for planning and skill, but the difficulty feels cheaper on the NES.

The good news is, Gargoyle’s Quest still has excellent gameplay. It remains largely unchanged, with the major exception being the platform-creating Magic Tornado weapon. It’s given to you relatively early, but the fact that it arcs upward and you can’t rise while hovering keeps it from being a game-breaking ability. Instead, you’ll find yourself switching weapons tactically, trying to maximize your advantage.

Magic Tornado aside, Gargoyle’s Quest II consists of a series of stages you need to traverse, all filled with highly vertical platforming and nasty traps. The random encounters from the original are gone, and you now move much more quickly on the world map, leaving the well-designed stages as the primary focus of the game. You receive ability upgrades at regular intervals, leading to a highly satisfying progression loop. The game does suffer slightly from the problem with other games of its ilk, in that the hardest stages tend to be towards the beginning of the game when you’re lacking some abilities and maneuverability.

The bottom line is, if you liked Gargoyle’s Quest, this is more of that, and it’s a lot of fun. The game is pretty short by NES standards, and fairly hard to find, but if it’s available it’s worth checking out.

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Super Metroid

Super Metroid is considered one of the greatest games of all time for good reason. Not only did it introduce a huge number of concepts that remain more or less intact in the modern “Metroidvania” genre it helped spawn, it’s just a great game in and of itself.

The original Metroid feels like a rough draft for Super Metroid. The games are structurally quite different, but most of those differences exist to fix the rough edges of the original. While Super Metroid is very much an exploratory game, you are led along a fairly linear critical path from upgrade to upgrade. Your ability to progress is not based on which hidden areas you happened to stumble across, as in the NES version, but how far you’ve progressed in the basic gameplay sequence.

Super Metroid handles power-ups extremely well. Almost every one of them will open up new avenues of exploration while being useful and fun for general use as well. In addition to the traditional missiles, the game offers more powerful (and more limited) super missiles and power bombs that can turn tough tactical situations into easy wins. There are five beam types to collect, and you can activate and combine multiples of them at a time. You can even turn off the various upgrades you find at any time, if you want to experiment or just make things harder on yourself.

A large part of Super Metroid’s legacy is due to its natural affinity for speed running. The “best” ending is rewarded for finishing the game in under three hours, so the incentive to move fast is already present. It was also one of the first games to report a now-common “item collection percentage,” allowing for a universal definition of what a perfect run might be.

Super Metroid hits all the gameplay details you could want, but the game design is what keeps it being replayable several decades after release. This game just feels good. The enemies are tough but fair, the platforming is solid, and there are tons of outside-the-normal-toolkit tricks you can master to break the game wide open (or just give yourself an advantage in combat).

While it’s not why the game is so great, Super Metroid’s crowning achievement may be its ability to tell a great story with very little text. Outside of the prologue, there is no narrative text in the game, yet the game tells its story clearly with environmental cues and the like. The final areas in particular are emotionally charged and remain among the better ending sequences seen in video games.

In short, if you’ve never played Super Metroid, go out and do so. Right now! And if you have played it, play it again. It’s still as good as you remember. It may very well be the best of all time.

Review Score: A+

Retro Review: G.I. Joe (NES)

Licensed games are notorious for being mediocre at best, but this wasn’t always the case. The first G.I. Joe game for NES is an example of a game that not only perfectly used its license, but was a good game all on its own.

The structure of G.I. Joe is key to why the game works so well. You have five playable characters available from the start, and each of the first five missions requires you to use one of them. You also get to choose two other team members to accompany the preset leader. Each characters has his own strengths and weaknesses. For example, Rock & Roll provides a powerful gun while Snake Eyes has a strong melee attack and a weak “gun” that doesn’t use ammo. Every character works on every stage, but playing to their strengths will make your runs go much more smoothly.

Choosing characters isn’t just a matter of preference, though. You’ll find permanent upgrades for character stamina and weapon level scattered throughout each stage, and these upgrades are kept permanently using a password system. Character death will result in the loss of some of this progress, but you can always re-enter your password and try again. Powerups are given out generously, and you have more than enough to max out every character’s weapon power in time for the final mission.

The missions themselves also have a distinct structure. The first and third parts are simple action sequences, while the middle section of each mission has you exploring a large base looking to plant bombs in certain locations. All three sections end with boss fights, allowing you to bask in a wide variety of G.I. Joe nostalgia, if you’re into that. You even get to ride a few vehicles you may remember as toys during the game.

All the structure in the world doesn’t actually make a game fun, but G.I. Joe has that covered too. Ammunition is limited, though not overly so, so you’ll want to make strategic use of melee attacks where feasible. The different characters’ guns have different strengths and firing patterns as well. There are many incentives to switch up your characters regularly, which keeps things interesting. The platforming is well-designed, though the controls are not up to the quality of the rest of the game.

Whether you have G.I. Joe nostalgia or not, I’d recommend trying the NES game for a deep and satisfying run and gun experience. It’s a short game, but one that’s fun to master and offers not only a second quest, but an expert-level third quest as well.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Lemmings

Lemmings is a classic puzzle game from the studio that would eventually create Grand Theft Auto. It popularized an unfortunate misconception about the titular creatures, and spawned a wide variety of knockoffs and clones.

In each of its 120 stages, some number of lemmings will appear at one or more entrances, and your goal is to get as many as possible to one of the stage exits. To do this, you are given eight tools, each of which is an ability that can be conferred upon an individual lemmings. They can dig through the ground at multiple angles, build ramps, and so on. Your uses of each of the abilities is limited based on the stage, and the stage also determines how many lemmings appear and how many you must save.

You can start at stage 31, 61, or 91 if you want, but the progression of stages ramps up on a steady difficulty curve. Early stages exist largely to teach you how the various abilities work, and you’ll occasionally learn some fancy new trick as well. A few of these tricks are not obvious, and you can get stuck in a few places if you don’t experiment enough, but for the most part the difficulty is quite fair.

For most of the game, the challenge is figuring out exactly what you need to do. You have to determine how many lemmings may need to be sacrificed to achieve your goal, and whether that’s too many to successfully complete the stage. Precision becomes more and more vital as the difficulty increases, and you’ll often find yourself trying the same level several times to execute your plan. This can be frustrating for several reasons, the most common of which is the difficulty in targeting a specific lemming (or a lemming walking in a specific direction) among a large group.

Unfortunately, the nature of Lemmings’ gameplay causes the later stages to focus less on clever puzzles and more on difficulty of execution. Nearly pixel-perfect ability use is often required, and you may have to try a stage many times to determine the proper timing. Many stages involve sending off a lone lemming to clear a path before allowing the rest to follow, but late in the game the stage timer is so tight that you’ll need to take major risks to have a chance.

Lemmings is a great concept and a fun game, but the premise can only scale for so long. The lemmings are always going to keep on walking, and there are only so many ways you can direct them around the stage. The game makes the most of its concept, but may have a few stages too many. (The bonus stages in the Super NES version, for instance, show the kind of frustrating nonsense that passes as difficulty beyond the original concept.)

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Bomberman II

Bomberman II takes the template created by the original Bomberman and polishes it to a nice shine. Unfortunately, along with the dirt, some of the more fun aspects of the original have been removed.

The main thing Bomberman II adds to its predecessor is multiplayer. There is a two-player mode, and those with the NES Four Score (or NES Satellite) can access a three-player mode as well. As Bomberman has become synonymous with multiplayer, and especially with more-than-two-player multiplayer, Bomberman II deserves a lot of credit for starting that trend. However, this review is limited to the single-player portion of the game.

Bomberman II has a similar structure to Bomberman, in that you are tasked with clearing a number of stages in order, occasionally broken up by a bonus stage. The game has much more of a story this time, involving a second bomberman framing your character for a crime, and you progress through six areas each with their own graphics and music. The stages also differ in size, though the majority are of the same approximate size as in the original.

The graphical upgrades are significant, and make Bomberman II a far more attractive game to look at than the original. The changes in music are also quite welcome. Not only are the backgrounds and enemies much better looking, bomberman himself finally takes on his full iconic look in this game.

The flaw in Bomberman II is that they dialed back the most fun parts of Bomberman: the crazy powerful upgrades. They show up much more rarely, but are lost just as easily. The immunity to your own bombs is only temporary, preventing any possibility of becoming an unstoppable juggernaut as in the first game. Rather than being the main thing to look forward to, these power-ups are more of a novelty in this version.

With less emphasis on power-ups, Bomberman II relies instead on challenge. There are more enemies than before, and some can be quite a pain to deal with. Stages are still randomly generated, and every now and then you’ll have enemies that will make a beeline for you, right through walls, while you still have far too little room to effectively avoid them. The ultimate challenge, though, comes from the timer. Particularly in the final areas, you have very limited time to complete each stage. You’ll have to learn to drop many bombs in succession to clear these areas before bomberman keels over.

While Bomberman II is more refined in every way than Bomberman was, some of the most fun parts of Bomberman were those very unrefined bits. As a result, the sequel is a prettier and better built game, but lacks a lot of the pure joy of its predecessor. It’s also a very rare NES game that comes with a hefty price tag that isn’t worth the price.

Review Score: C