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

Retro Review: The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons

The two Zelda Oracles games are inextricably linked to one another, though they manage to be distinct Zelda games despite that. They were the first Zelda games developed by Capcom, albeit with Nintendo’s involvement, and share a lot with their Gameboy predecessor, Link’s Awakening. You have the return of items that only existed in that game, like the feather, and the interface is similar, but these games were made much later. There are a number of references to Ocarina of Time, for instance. Each of the two games has a general theme, and the theme of Seasons is action. There are still plenty of puzzles, but this game has some difficult combat, jumping, and other elements that fall under the “action” umbrella.

Oracle of Seasons has a lot of strong points, chief among them some of the cooler items I’ve seen in a Zelda game. The Magnetic Glove is my favorite, allowing you to use stationary polar stones to travel across pits as well as move other polar stones to complete puzzles. It takes the general place of the hookshot, but allows for some very interesting uses. The game also features five types of seeds which do anything from light torches to make you run fast to teleport you around the world. The item list does seem fairly abbreviated, but what you get is all good stuff. It’s supplemented in no small part by the massive collection of rings to find, each of which gives a passive but often very useful bonus. While the item list is similar to that of Oracle of Ages, they are different enough that each game keeps a distinct feel. Many items have an equivalent item with roughly the same purpose, and in several cases one game gets an extra upgraded version of an item they otherwise share.

The titular seasons are an interesting mechanic that adds a lot to the game. Each of the four seasons affects the world map in various ways, allowing for some very interesting overworld puzzles. You gain more control of the seasons as the game progresses, but they factor into your exploration right from the start. Some of the seasonal effects are oddly arbitrary (such as mushrooms that are immovable stone except in fall), but the logic is consistent and the puzzles that use it are pretty fair, if often totally non-obvious. Unlike in Ages, the four seasons don’t get their own world map, leading to a larger base world in Seasons but a smaller secondary one.

One issue I had with Seasons is that the ‘action’ can actually get quite difficult. These games were basically conceived as ways for Capcom to implement Zelda ideas they had come up with, and some of them are downright nasty, particularly the difficult bosses and minibosses in the eight dungeons. There are some really annoying movement puzzles later on, often involving ice, that were also more frustrating than fun. Several enemies feel downright unfair, and the game doesn’t go out of its way to explain how to fight them. Playing this game after Ages to take advantage of the link capability for upgrades may be a wise idea.

The best thing about Seasons is simply that it’s more Zelda. There are eight full dungeons and a plot that can be expanded if you play both games back-to-back. It’s not the most original story ever, but it’s not a bad reward for buying two games. That said, Seasons plays just fine on its own as well, though it is a lot of fun playing the second game to take advantage of the “secrets” system to get extra upgrades. (I should note that you can play the games in either order, and in fact for absolute obsessive completion you’ll have to play each twice.)

Overall, Oracle of Seasons is a solid game, and it works surprisingly well as a Zelda (except perhaps in balance) for a Capcom production. There’s solid 2D Zelda gameplay here, and a ton of stuff to collect if you want to get extra gameplay out of the pair. It’s not an essential part of the series, but it’s a lot more than just padding.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Super Mario Bros. 3

Super Mario Bros. 3 takes the mechanics of the original Super Mario Bros. and builds upon them in countless new and fun ways. The result is a very tight game with a huge variety of ideas, none of which ever overstays its welcome.

The most obvious change in SMB3 over its predecessors is the number of powerups. The Fire Flower returns, accompanied by the Super Leaf that turns you into Raccoon Mario. This power provides Mario with a tail to swipe enemies with, which is also inexplicably used to fly for short periods. It also lets Mario control his descent in mid-air, which may be its most practical benefit. It’s either that or the sprite.

In addition to the two basic powerups, there are three rarer “suits” that Mario can find. The Frog Suit gives you excellent control underwater, though not on land, giving it only situational use. The Tanooki Suit is Raccoon Mario with the added power of turning into an invincible statue. And the Hammer Bros. suit lets you throw hammers and duck to block fireballs. With hammers that can defeat almost any enemy, it’s one of the most fun powerups in the entire series. Sadly, it appears only late in the game, and even then only rarely.

Once again, Mario is traversing 8 worlds, but this time each has a distinct theme. Indeed, you can probably blame SMB3 for the number of desert and ice worlds in video games to this day. That ice world in particular is really hard and less fun than most of the others, except maybe the water world. But the game also includes a world where the enemies and terrain are gigantic, and a pipe- and piranha plant-themed world that has some of the most creative and fun (not to mention hard) levels in any game, let alone Mario.

One of the reasons SMB3 holds up so well is that almost every stage is given a particular idea to run with, and these rarely repeat. The stages tend to be very short, and there are plenty of them, so you’ll never get bored. If you get stuck on a difficult stage, you can use one of the various items the game provides, some of which let you skip stages in various ways. My only real complaint is that there’s no way to replay a completed stage short of getting a game over or resetting the game entirely.

Game overs are particularly interesting in SMB3, because certain castle stages act as pseudo-save points. If you restart a world, these levels remain complete and you can usually skip right to their location on the map. However, playing the game straight through even without continuing takes several hours, and there are no save files or passwords to help you. The game does provide the ability to warp to any stage rather early on, which can be used as something like a save file.

Unlike many classics, I can’t really say that Super Mario Bros. 3 is more than the sum of its parts. But its parts are amazing, and their sum is quite great as it is. Nintendo just made the game fun in a way many other developers have never quite managed. It’s a philosophy that would continue to serve the series well for a very long time.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Mega Man & Bass

Mega Man & Bass is an extremely difficult game with a strange history. It began life as a Super Famicom game that came out after Mega Man 8 had been released on PlayStation, but didn’t make it to the U.S. until it was ported to Gameboy Advance many years later. It’s an interesting historical curiosity, but unbalanced design makes it a tough game to get into.

The title of the game refers to the fact that you can play as Bass as well as Mega Man. Each has to play through the game independently, though the collectable CDs the game offers are collected across multiple saves. Indeed, you need to play the game as both characters to find them all. Bass is much more agile than Mega Man, with a double-jump and the ability to fire upwards or on any diagonal. He has a rapid-fire shot instead of the ability to charge his main weapon, and has a variety of limitations such as the inability to move while firing. He also has a dash instead of Mega Man’s slide, a move that’s harder to execute reliably and does not let him fit in tight spaces. However, much of the game seems to be designed with Bass in mind, making him the easier character to play as in most (but not all) cases.

The structure of Mega Man & Bass is unique to the Mega Man series. After an intro stage, you can choose from only three bosses. Defeating any of these unlocks 2-3 more bosses, until you’ve unlocked all 8. You need to beat them all to complete the game, and they are ordered in such a way that you can always get the proper weapon to defeat any boss you’ve unlocked. However, starting the game is brutally difficult. Only one of the opening three bosses can be reasonably beaten with your base weapon alone, and even if you manage that, the next boss in line is incredibly difficult even with the proper weapon. It’s very easy to get stuck and frustrated early on. Once you’ve collected various weapons and unlocked some nice upgrades, the difficulty of the game generally comes into line with the harder games in the series, but the early going earns this game the title of perhaps the hardest Mega Man game.

The difficulty of Mega Man & Bass comes from two aspects. First, the game is just kind of unfair. One-hit kills and other death traps are incredibly common, and the game is filled with normal enemies that will force you to your death if not dealt with immediately. You’ll have to just plow through enemies, taking tons of damage, to avoid some obstacles early on before you have many tools to use. The game also suffers from its conversion to Gameboy Advance. The GBA screen has a lower resolution than the original Super Famicom version, and the game was not adjusted to account for this. As a result, the edges of the screen will often hide enemies, obstacles, and other important information. Fortunately, the game is based on Mega Man 8 sprites, so at least your characters don’t take up a huge amount of the limited screen real estate.

All that said, Mega Man & Bass can be pretty fun once you start to master it. It features six new bosses as well as two bosses making a return from Mega Man 8, though the art style of all 8 stages are also taken directly from that game. It seems almost like it was intended to be an alternative version of Mega Man 8. The puzzles and enemies that won’t leave you tearing your hair out in frustration can be pretty interesting, and the 100 CDs hidden across the first nine stages give you a good reason to explore. You can buy fantastic upgrades with bolts, though most of the good stuff doesn’t unlock until you’ve defeated a majority of the eight bosses. You’ll have to toggle between several of these, and in the long run Mega Man & Bass becomes a highly strategic game. It makes better use of your arsenal than most Mega Man games of its time.

The simple truth is, if you’re not a skilled, hardcore Mega Man player, Mega Man & Bass is not for you. The difficulty is often unfair and will leave you wanting to throw your GBA at times. But as with most difficult games, mastering it is highly satisfying, and the game gives you the tools to show off that mastery. There’s a bit too much randomness involved in certain boss fights for the game to ever feel easy, but that’s what some people are looking for.

Review Score: B−