The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is a sort of warped reflection of its predecessor, Ocarina of Time. It shares many of the same items, art assets, and even NPC models, yet the structure and even gameplay are considerably different. Majora’s Mask is an experimental game, one which brings a lot of new ideas to the Zelda series but doesn’t always work as well as it might have.

The core of Majora’s Mask lies in the collection of masks. This was a series of sidequests in Ocarina of Time, but here, the masks are a primary part of gameplay. In particular, three masks will let you turn into three non-human forms (Deku Scrub, Goron, and Zora), each with their own abilities and attack patterns. The game features fewer items than Ocarina did, but none are made redundant by a second world, and the masks make up for the lack. Nintendo did a good job of trimming the tools down to their essence. Most of the masks beyond the main three have limited use, though several are valuable additions to Link’s arsenal.

To correspond with the masks, the game features far fewer dungeons than any previous Zelda game. In fact, there are only four traditional Zelda dungeons, though there is at least another dungeon’s worth of content just to unlock each of these. Still, the dearth of primary dungeons can make the pacing of the game feel odd, and results in a truly ridiculous number of pieces of heart to collect.

The other core conceit of Majora’s Mask is that the entire game takes place on a repeating, three-day cycle. You can reset the clock at any time, and indeed this is how you save, but items such as money and ammunition are ephemeral. Actions you’ve taken that affect the world are also reset each time you begin anew. This is an interesting system which has its good and bad points. Every townsperson acts on a strict schedule, and analyzing their actions, Groundhog Day-style, is key to finding a number of the masks. This works incredibly well. But the game also occasionally requires you to replay significant sections of it just to find a minor secret, which can be a slog. On the whole, the three-day cycle works rather well once you get used to it.

Where Majora’s Mask starts to fall apart is in its emphasis on execution, particularly of platforming elements. The N64 and the Zelda interface are really not well designed for some of the things you have to do, such as rolling around at high speeds as a Goron. The challenge seems to come from the poor controls and camera more than actual gameplay, which is a problem. There are several sections that require significant backtracking as a result of anything less than perfect precision, and these get old fast.

How you feel about Majora’s Mask will largely come down to how much you enjoy its innovative time and mask mechanics, weighed against how much you hate its rocky challenge curve. There is a great game hidden behind some rough edges, but it takes effort to find it.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Mega Man Xtreme 2

Mega Man Xtreme 2 works on the foundation of its predecessor, adding a number of new options and gameplay modes to the mix. However, it also suffers from some very bad design in places, leading to a two steps forward, one step back scenario.

As in Mega Man Xtreme, the game is divided into two modes, each with four bosses. However, rather than dividing the bosses into difficulty levels, they are divided by hero: one scenario is played with X, the other with Zero. Zero’s play is based on his Playstation incarnations, complete with Z-saber combos and a general lack of ranged attacks. As in the games his play is based on, playing as Zero is substantially different than playing as X, and usually a lot of fun. The melee-based gameplay of Zero is a big change for the Mega Man series, and it works pretty well on the Gameboy Color.

Also as in Xtreme, completing both of the first two modes unlocks Extreme mode, though the extra features of this version of the mode make it a lot more compelling than the original. In Extreme mode, you can freely switch between X and Zero at any time, and can upgrade both while fighting through all eight bosses. There’s even an extra final stage added leading to the one true ending. However, perfectionists may not like how the power-up system works here. Heart tanks and even boss weapons can only be earned by one of your two warriors. Depending on which one earns which weapon, certain other upgrades may end up inaccessible. You can power up one fully at the expense of the other, and can get through almost all of the game with the fighter of your choice, but that doesn’t seem to be the intent behind the mode. There’s no way to have a “perfect” playthrough for both characters at once, though.

Mega Man Xtreme 2’s new options are a lot of fun, and generally the game is well-designed. You’ll find bosses from all three SNES Mega Man X games here, with stages approximating the originals just like in the first Xtreme. The problem with Xtreme 2 is that several stages and bosses are extremely badly designed, resulting in immense frustration and repetition. In particular, the boss of the second endgame stage is one of the worst-realized boss fights I’ve ever seen, at least in the X Mode. Unfair instant death traps are also common, often killing you without warning on your first time through a stage.

Aside from the difficulty spikes, Xtreme 2 is a better game than its predecessor. However, they seriously hamper an otherwise fun experience. If you’re a serious Mega Man fan with a lot of patience, this is a compelling portable conversion of Mega Man X. It offers a lot of replay value between Extreme mode and an all-new boss rush that even features the eight bosses from Mega Man Xtreme. It also has a great upgrade system that lets you even the odds against some of the less fair bosses somewhat. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a good game.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, like Super Mario 64 before it, is a game designed to bring a long-running 2D Nintendo franchise into the realm of 3D. And like Mario 64, it succeeds admirably at this task. It translates the gameplay of a Link to the Past into the third dimension in enjoyable and convincing fashion, and avoids some of the pitfalls of its 3D brethren.

In structure, Ocarina of Time is very similar to its predecessor. You start off by completing three dungeons, after which you are transported to a different world to complete several more. Instead of the dark world, though, Ocarina of Time features the world of the future, where Link is grown up. One of the conceits of this design is that Link can use a different set of equipment as an adult versus his original child form, which allows the game to stretch the number of available items somewhat. However, this turns out to be a strength, as Ocarina is an extremely well-paced game that’s always giving you a new goal or item to keep things interesting. The only real downside of the design is that you get limited use out of arguably the most fun item in the game, the boomerang.

Ocarina of Time handles 3D differently than Super Mario 64, in that you have little control of the camera. You can re-center it, and you can lock on to certain targets, but that’s it. The abbreviated camera control works in the game’s favor for the most part, cleaning up the controls and focusing on a rather simple chase camera for controlling Link. The targeting system in particular is a revelation, allowing for interesting sword fights and exploration. The lack of explicit camera controls also frees up the controller buttons, allowing Link access to three items at a time, in addition to his sword and a context-sensitive action button.

The camera is not perfect, however. Sometimes the game will force the camera to move in certain areas without warning, which can mess with your controls. Because focus targeting uses the same button as the camera reset, it can be difficult to get the right camera angle when surrounded by foes. And like Super Mario 64, the game occasionally seems like it was designed for the camera to be the obstacle you must overcome. These issues can occasionally be frustrating, but on the whole they are rarely a real problem.

The gameplay of Ocarina of Time shines even today. The context-sensitive jumping and climbing mechanics work beautifully most of the time, and the game is pretty generous at giving you hints at some of the less obvious things you can do. Many of the mechanics established in Link to the Past translate well to 3D, such as pushing statues onto switches and lighting torches. This game is a bit more combat-focused than its predecessor, a fact which is aided greatly by the targeting camera. On a room-by-room basis, the design of Ocarina of Time is generally impeccable.

If there is one source of frustration in the game, it’s the larger-scale puzzles. Like the one obnoxious puzzle in the ice dungeon of Link to the Past, these puzzles often require you to understand how multiple rooms and floors interact, and the map is often unhelpful in this regard. It’s easy to get stuck not knowing what to do, especially in the latter half of the game, and this can stall the otherwise great pace of play.

One final consideration is the superb way Ocarina of Time handles stuff for you to find. In addition to all the basic items you need to progress, there are several optional items, and Pieces of Heart return as a primary reward for finding secrets. The game also introduces 100 Gold Skulltulas for you to hunt and collect, and executes this concept far better than some of the collect-a-thons that would appear later in the N64’s life. It will indicate when you’ve found all the Skulltulas in a given area, and they make a distinctive noise when they’re nearby. It can be tricky to find all 100, but all of the meaningful rewards are awarded by finding half of them. It’s an enjoyable mechanic for casual players and completionists alike, and is indicative of how well-designed Ocarina of Time is.

Ocarina of Time is a great game marred by a few flaws that keep it from perfection. The camera is great by N64 standards, but can still be very annoying with more modern sensibilities. Some of the puzzles and combat can be intentionally frustrating. But it’s still a great game, and the template for 3D Zelda games going forward, and should not be missed by fans of the series.

Review Score: A−

Review: Axiom Verge

Axiom Verge is a retro-style side-scrolling in the vein of several NES games, most notably including Metroid. It’s a game where exploration is key, though the combat feels quite good as well. It takes a lot of ideas and puts it into a package that is reminiscent of the old while still feeling new.

While there’s no doubt that Axiom Verge takes a lot of its structure from Metroid, right down to its lack of non-rectangular rooms, it’s a mistake to think of the game as being nothing more than a Metroid clone. For one thing, though its graphical color depth suggests the NES, this is a game that takes many lessons from Super Metroid as well. It doesn’t hold your hand, but you generally won’t end up completely lost, either. There are a ton of cool abilities and weapons to collect, many of which primarily help with exploration.

Axiom Verge’s weapon selection is notable because it is far wider than that of Metroid or really any NES game. You can find well over a dozen weapons, all with different strengths and weaknesses. A weapon wheel mapped to the right stick makes them easy to switch between and experiment with, and the combat is tough enough that you’ll have a lot of incentive to do so. For any given encounter, there’s usually at least one weapon that will work well, often by letting you take out enemies from the safety of cover.

Where Axiom Verge really shines is in its general upgrades. A ton of these affect you the main character, Trace, moves, calling back to Metroid’s high jump, Bionic Commando’s arm, and even Unreal Tournament’s translocator. An increasingly versatile short-range teleport ability is fun to use and mix with other options, leading to some pretty acrobatic and fast-paced movement options. The game doles these upgrades out regularly, keeping things interesting throughout the game.

If Axiom Verge suffers from anything, it is perhaps that it included too many ideas. The grappling hook, for instance, is never as useful as it could be and can be a bit outclassed by your other options late in the game. Many of the weapons will likely never see use. And its plot is a bit hit-or-miss, often interrupting the action with some vague dialogue. None of this really detracts from the game while playing it, but it does make me wonder if a bit of editing may have made it an even tighter experience.

All that, and I haven’t even mentioned the famed corrupted graphics mechanic of the game. For plot reasons, some of the world is glitched like a dirty NES cartridge, and you have various tools to deal with this. It’s a cool idea, albeit one I needed to read about to fully understand the gameplay implications of. It’s definitely worth mastering, as glitching enemies is often the key to finding secrets, and this game contains a lot of secrets.

All in all, Axiom Verge feels like a game that would have eventually resulted if everyone had done the smart thing in the ’90s and copied Super Metroid. It’s by no means a ripoff of Metroid, though it feels more like the “Metroid” side of “Metroidvania” than many games in that genre. It’s a fun shooter with excellent exploration mechanics and a graphical style that takes advantage of the simplicity of NES graphics without being beholden to them at a technical level. It’s actually a really cool-looking game, despite the limited color palette and tiled graphics (indeed, a lot of it works because of the tiled graphics). If you like Metroidvania games or just retro side-scrollers in general, Axiom Verge is definitely worth a look.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Gargoyle’s Quest

Gargoyle’s Quest is an early Game Boy platformer with RPG elements, and a spin-off of the Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins series. As one would expect from a game in that series, it’s difficult, but the difficulty is that of precision execution rather than rote memorization. It’s a game that stands out with some fun and interesting mechanics that are well-suited to the Game Boy.

The core innovation of Gargoyle’s Quest is that your character, a gargoyle named Firebrand, can fly to a limited extent. He cannot gain height, but his flight capability is fully restored immediately upon landing on the ground or a wall, most of which Firebrand can cling to. Combined with Firebrand’s relatively slow movement, the result is a thoughtful platformer that is as vertically-oriented as it is horizontally-oriented.

The game does an excellent job continually training your platforming skills. You have no way to engage enemies above you, and can only engage those below by losing altitude, so gaining height is key in many battles. In some ways the combat is reminiscent of Joust, though Firebrand actually attacks with projectiles. You gain more flight time and higher jumps as the game progresses, and the challenges ramp up to match. You’ll have to learn how to get every inch possible out of your flight distance, how to transition from walls to floors, and how to adjust your altitude multiple times between landings.

The boss fights are also platforming challenges, generally consisting of an arena with a series of platforms where your primary goal is to maneuver away from the boss and any projectiles it may be firing. This is very much a defensive game, as Firebrand can’t take many hits, resulting in a combat style where you’ll take potshots when you can but give priority to defense.

While Gargoyle’s Quest’s action sequences are generally great, you’ll also spend a lot of time in an RPG-like overworld. Nothing directly dangerous happens here, but the slow and stilted text crawl speed can make your adventures frustrating. The game seems to go out of its way to dole out the fun stuff as slowly as possible, which is too bad.

Gargoyle’s Quest is tough, but fair, and mastering it is quite satisfying. It’s a well-designed and well-contructed game, though as an early Game Boy title is it unsurprisingly quite short. It’s also much more generous than Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, offering a password system that saves your built-up stock of lives and even a multiple-use healing item. The challenge here is mastering Firebrand’s controls, and the game focuses on that to its benefit.

Review Score: B+

Review: Azure Striker Gunvolt

Azure Striker Gunvolt is a side-scrolling action game in somewhat of a retro style, though it doesn’t feel quite like any specific retro game. It’s structured similar to the Mega Man series, and has a visual style vaguely reminiscent of the PS1 Mega Man X games, but remains its own thing largely due to an innovative core gameplay mechanic.

You play as the titular Gunvolt, a character with special electricity-based powers. Chief among these is his electric field, an ability that serves multiple functions and is the core of what makes the game unique. You can also jump and shoot, but the projectiles Gunvolt normally fires do insignificant damage. Instead, hitting a target “tags” it, which causes that target to take heavy damage whenever Gunvolt uses the electric field. In addition, the electric field does damage to nearby enemies and objects even if they are not tagged, and also slows him down while falling. The end result is a fairly complex set of mechanics that controls simply with only three buttons.

You can go through most of the stages in Azure Striker Gunvolt in any order, but unlike the Mega Man games that popularized this mechanic, you don’t do this to gain specific boss abilities. Instead, each stage has a number of drops you can earn by completing them with high scores. These items are used to construct new gear, which can alter your offensive or defensive capabilities, add double or triple jumps, and more. In addition to completing stages, you can gain these items by completing challenges, which are basically single-stage achievements you have to deliberately activate to earn. The result of this system is that you have a lot of customization of how Gunvolt plays, without causing any major changes to how his offense works.

Gunvolt also earns new guns by progressing through the games, though most of these follow the basic theme of being used primarily for tagging. Each has different patterns of fire, offers a different maximum amount of tags, and so on. Gunvolt will also level up through normal gameplay, which earns him new abilities. These have limited use and long cooldowns, but can have dramatic effects. Indeed, making good use of your abilities goes a long way toward beating some of the more difficult bosses.

Azure Striker Gunvolt’s gameplay is frenetic and a lot of fun. There is some lack of variety, and Gunvolt’s sprite takes up a lot of screen real estate, but the game is designed in such a way as to minimize these issues. The challenges and leveling system make backtracking worthwhile and effective for powering yourself up to take on some of the harder stages, and the game offers a number of really cool stage ideas. It’s an entertaining, though not super memorable game. If you like retro-style side-scrolling shooters, it’s definitely worth a look, especially now that it’s been released on the Switch.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom

Ninja Gaiden III returns to the series’ roots of brutal difficulty. However, this is a much more refined game than its predecessors, and despite being tough as nails, it’s actually a lot of fun.

Sadly, the best part of Ninja Gaiden II (shadow ninja options) did not make it into the finale of the trilogy. However, the items in general have been upgraded in a number of ways. First and foremost, you can now see what item or powerup is in each floating orb before you hit it, which makes it much easier to keep the weapon you want. One new ninja power, a vertically-oriented blade, has also been added. This power plays well with the new movement mechanic, which allows Ryu to hang on some overhead platforms. Finally, a new powerup which will significantly extend the range of Ryu’s dragon sword has been added. This is a must-have, and fortunately is usually pretty easy to get. Given the game’s brutal enemy placements, this serves as a nice equalizer for the player.

More so than in previous games, you’ll find a lot of use for your ninja powers in Ninja Gaiden III. The game is generous with power refills, and it throws a ton of nasty enemies at you from angles that your sword alone can’t handle, even when upgraded. There is a large focus on vertically-scrolling areas that increase the utility of most of your available powers. The game’s levels are very well-designed, and learning them is quite fun. And it’s a good thing, too, because you will spend a lot of time dying as you learn them.

Mercifully, the game offers 1UPs in many stages, giving you some breathing room to screw up from time to time. You’ll need to take advantage of these, because Ninja Gaiden III also introduces limited continues to the series. In fact, the game was made significantly more difficult than the Japanese release (in order to counter the rental market), and it shows. On a stage-by-stage basis, the game is not unfairly hard like the original was at times, but getting through the entire game with five continues will require you to master every stage. Most of the bosses are predictable and can be easily beaten after a few tries, which is good because you’ll have to fight them after difficult stage areas and will likely have low health.

The presentation is as good as you’d expect from the previous games in the series, and Ninja Gaiden III features a number of highly imaginative level designs and some great music. It also features the coolest (and grossest) implementation of a sinking-into-the-floor mechanic I’ve seen. The cinematics are great as usual, though the plot is gibberish.

Really the only thing going against Ninja Gaiden III is its difficulty. It doesn’t feel unfair like the original game, and you won’t have to deal with constantly respawning foes, but make no mistake: this game is very hard. The difficulty works very well, though. In some ways it feels like Contra, and like that game, finishing it is extremely satisfying. Of course, there is no 30-life cheat to use here. The faint of heart may want to play this game on the Wii U Virtual Console, to take advantage of the save state feature.

If you want to play a game with a great gameplay loop and tons of challenge, Ninja Gaiden III is the game for you. This game requires mastery, but won’t have you throwing your controller in frustration. At least, not as often as the original did.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge

Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, the second Gameboy entry in the series, builds on the foundation of Castlevania: The Adventure. By both refining its unique mechanics and taking more elements from the NES games, Konami created a solid and enjoyable portable Castlevania experience.

As in its predecessor, Castlevania II features two whip upgrades, the second of which allows you to shoot fireballs. However, only one type of enemy will now cause your whip to lose its upgrades, and two subweapons (the axe and holy water) have been added as well. You have more combat options, even while the game is somewhat less combat-focused than its predecessor. These options come in handy most often during the extremelly well thought-out and enjoyable boss battles. You are often rewarded with better offense if you can complete a stage without continuing, but you’re always given enough to get by.

The highlight of Castlevania II is its level design. You can choose to complete the first four levels in any order, and each has a very different feel. The game makes excellent use of the ropes that debuted in the original Gameboy Castlevania, adding fun wrinkles like pulley systems with multiple moving ropes. The result is the closest thing to a platforming challenge that you’re liable to find in a Castlevania game. Other cool innovations, such as using candles for light as well as to hold items, do a good job of riffing on what you would normally expect.

This is a challenging game, but a password system allows you to continue even if you turn the system off. The ability to try other stages if one is giving you problems also makes the game feel a lot more playable. The difficulty is nothing to scoff at, but it’s never unfair or arbitrary.

All told, I would consider Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge a hidden gem of the series. It’s not the longest game, but it’s a lot of fun, and I imagine many people skipped it due to the mediocrity of its prequel. If you like the slow-paced, NES-style Castlevania gameplay, this is a game you owe it to yourself to check out.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Mega Man X3

The final SNES entry of the Mega Man X series brings together everything established in the first two games, with a few fun new wrinkles to keep things interesting. It also added a few minor 3D polygon effects that have made the actual cartridge ridiculously rare and expensive. Not every innovation turns out to be worthwhile.

The premise of Mega Man X3 is the same as the previous Mega Man X games: you’re given 8 maverick robots to hunt down in any order you choose. Like its predecessors, you can find life upgrades, sub tanks, and armor upgrades among these stages, but X3 turns things up a notch with new ride armor types and secondary armor upgrades.

The ride armors are a cool concept that isn’t as fleshed out as it could be. Each of the four has special attributes, and almost every stage lets you use them at least one time if they’re unlocked, but they’re usually available for a short time and primarily to find other secrets. You don’t get to rip through entire stages with these special armors or anything.

The special upgrades give X massive bonuses, such as health regeneration or the ability to dash twice in the air, but you can only have one installed. This makes for a pretty interesting choice, though it is undermined by the well-known existence of the ultimate armor, which gives all four upgrades but can only be obtained if you did not previously obtain any. This kind of tension not to use significant upgrades is a bit problematic.

Of course, the meat of any Mega Man game is its boss and weapon selection. X3’s are fine, but really nothing special. Like many later Mega Man games, the weapons are all pretty gimmicky and, aside from use against bosses, the X-Buster is often the best weapon for the job. And as with other X games, the correct weapon is primarily useful because it will stun bosses rather than doing major damage.

While Mega Man X3 is undeniably a fun game, it feels a bit uninspired. All the extra stuff to find does keep it interesting longer than it may have otherwise been, but after this game, it became clear the series needed some kind of shakeup. Due to its rarity and special hardware, X3 has become one of the more sought-after SNES cartridges, but that’s not because the game itself is all that special.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Ultima IX: Ascension

Ultima IX caused a bit of an existential crisis for me. Most of the fun parts of the game were the parts that ignored the depth of previous Ultimas, such as the magic system. In fact, aside from the plot, most of U9’s issues revolve around the creators being too obsessed with making a world that felt real. (Of course, it doesn’t help that they fell woefully short, either.) If the game wasn’t so buggy, and the plot not so asinine, this may have actually been a pretty good game.

Of course, those are two pretty big “ifs.” Let me address the major problem with Ultima IX first: the plot is horrendous. Even detached from the Ultima series, it’s pretty stupid. But in context, it’s almost criminal. The game was written like a bad Ultima fanfic – there are a huge number of references to previous games in the overall plot structure, and not in a good way. We’ve seen corrupted virtues before, we’ve had to do a series of eight sets of the same quest before, we’ve cleansed the shrines before. The thing is, repetitive quests like those of the middle Ultima games only manage to not be obnoxious because the game is completely non-linear. Ultima IX is quite the opposite.

And it’s not just the bad structure that gets me. This is a game that makes many references to previous games that are flat-out wrong. Characters discuss factual things from previous games, even recent ones like U8 that don’t need to be ret-conned, and completely make up new facts. It’s bizarre – it’s not like a different company made the game or anything.

The plot is bad, but let’s be honest, you can ignore that sort of thing if the gameplay is good. What is much harder to ignore is constant crashing. The game was so buggy that Origin actually shipped out new install discs with the “final” patch to everyone who bought the game. Which was a very nice gesture, except the final version is still buggy. It doesn’t help that the primary graphics engine is 3dfx’s now-defunct Glide system. No modern computer is using that without some crazy tweaking, and the Direct 3D support is pretty spotty. There are a ton of fan patches to correct these and other bugs, as well as fix gameplay balance issues, but I’m reviewing the official game, not fan patches.

So what about the gameplay? Due to the repetitive nature of the quests, there are basically three aspects of the gameplay: exploration, NPC interaction, and dungeon delving. I’ll cover the NPC interaction first, because it’s pretty bad. Conversation trees are much shorter than they used to be, and options inexplicably disappear so you have to talk to NPCs repeatedly to have a full conversation. This is all, of course, due to the game’s full voice acting, which is a cool feature. Of course, the voice acting is really bad, and the game is a lot less grating if you turn it off. Because everything is voiced, they’ve done away with the traditional faux-Old English “thees” and “thous,” but you don’t miss them. The fact that there is full voice acting is especially impressive when you remember this game came out in 1999.

Exploration, on the other hand, is pretty fun. Britannia has been decreasing in size since Ultima VI, and here it’s downright tiny. They seem to have decreased the Avatar’s walking speed specifically to counter this issue. Tiny it may be, but they’ve packed a ridiculous number of secrets into the landscape. (It’s also very easy to cheat the system and go places you’re not supposed to, but that’s another story.) The only real annoyance with exploring is that overworld enemies respawn, which is dangerous in the beginning of the game, and silly by the end since their drops never disappear. In particular, there are a pair of staff-wielding thieves outside Minoc, and by the time I finished the game there were staffs piled everywhere in the area.

I want to take a moment to mention the combat system, because it’s actually pretty good. The game is fully 3D, but lacks traditional controls. Rather than WASD for movement, you right click and move in the direction the camera is pointing, using Ctrl and Alt to strafe. It’s a weird system, but it kind of works. The game needs to be mouse-driven because you drag-and-drop items in 3D, a cool idea which ultimately doesn’t really work (which is why no one does it anymore). Combat is similar to Ultima VIII, with a lot of frantic clicking, but with five weapon types and potentially four moves usable by each one, it’s actually pretty fun. Better than that is the spell system, which took some of the better ideas from Ultima VIII. You still use reagents, but only to put spells in your spellbook – afterward, you need only mana to actually cast spells, and there is an item that drastically reduces mana costs, making spells more usable than they’ve ever been in the series. And there are a lot of fun ones, too.

And that, finally, brings us to dungeons. I’m torn on how I feel about the dungeons – in many ways, this game is trying very hard to be Ocarina of Time. Some of the 3D puzzles are actually pretty good, although there are plenty of puzzles where there’s no way to guess which button you’re supposed to press first and such. You won’t be moving blocks like in Zelda, but there are plenty of switches, pressure plates, and keys to worry about. But these dungeons are massive and involved, and unlike the rest of the series, you have to fully explore all of them. They are also well-themed, and this is at least one area where they got Ultima tradition right: Wrong is a prison, Destard has dragons and lots of gems, etc. The towns are actually more themed along Zelda lines, and not necessarily in a good way. Yew has always been in the woods, but now looks like the Ewok village, and Minoc has had gypsies a few times, and now consists of nothing but gypsies. I guess having per-town populations under a dozen limits the variety.

I could nitpick U9 all day, and I could find nice things to say just as easily, but what it comes down to is that this game is a mess. It’s buggy, the UI is wonky, the plot is terrible, but the game usually remains pretty fun. There are frustrating bits (especially with early-game inventory management), but in the end it kind of works. Presuming you save every few minutes, at least. It wouldn’t even take that much work to make this game good: restructuring it to give the player more freedom to explore other towns earlier, for instance, would go a very long way. But it is what it is: a sort of fun game that hardcore Ultima fans can pass on, and no one else has any reason to play. It’s hard to recommend even to those fans, since the ending is not only nothing to write home about, it’s really pretty stupid. You may be better off thinking up your own.

Review Score: C