Retro Review: Ninja Gaiden (NES)

Ninja Gaiden is a classic NES game marred by unfair difficulty. It’s one of the more stylish games on the system, and controls like a dream, but wastes that good will with cruelty to the player. The game rewards perfect play, and punishes anything less.

The mechanics of Ninja Gaiden are simple, with a few unique ideas tossed in that set it apart. Protagonist Ryu Hayabusa is armed with a sword that will take out almost anything, including projectiles, with decent range and blazing speed. You have to master this attack and learn to use it reflexively against enemies that spawn suddenly out of nowhere. Ryu also has access to various ninja powers, which work similarly to the sub-weapons in Castlevania. You collect ninja points and spend them to use the current power. These tend to be very powerful.

The game’s most unique mechanic is how Ryu interacts with walls. He can cling to almost any wall, even those that appear to exist as part of the pseudo-3D background. You’ll find yourself frequently jumping between two walls to climb and make precarious jumps. All of that is good, but this mechanic does have an important downside. Ryu cannot help but cling to any wall he hits in mid-air. This often results in accidentally stopping your progress by jumping on one of those aforementioned 3D walls, but the primary problem is that Ryu is tossed slightly into the air when hit. This can lead to him clinging to a wall above his opponents, and there’s often no good way to get back down (as dropping will simply result in him being hit again, repeating the cycle.)

Unfortunately, the repeated unintentional wall-clinging after getting hit is treated less like a bug than it is a feature in Ninja Gaiden. Enemy placement is essentially designed to screw over the player as much as possible. Enemies will spawn in the middle of the screen, sometimes repeatedly, or in mid-air. There are dozens of obstacles that simply will kill you the first time through the game, until you memorize which enemies need to be killed or avoided. The game is very short if you can beat it in one go, and they compensated for its length by making it totally unfair.

The problem with Ninja Gaiden is not that it’s difficult, but rather it’s the nature of the difficulty. The game will funnel you into situations where if you slip up at all, you’ll end up losing half your life or just falling into a pit. Once you’ve figured all of these out, the game is quite a lot of fun to play, but it’s aggressively hostile to the player. And lest you think this is just some unintentional quirk of design, the game has a mechanic where dying to any boss sends you back further in the game than dying anywhere else. The only concession the game makes is that you don’t have to re-play any part of the final sequence of bosses you’ve already defeated, but that’s a small comfort since dying to any of them sets you back three full stages.

While the gameplay can be quite uneven, the cutscenes in Ninja Gaiden are worth mentioning. While they don’t seem noteworthy in the context of today’s games, they were way ahead of their time, presenting detailed cinematics between each stage. The story holds up well, and actually lends a lot to the gameplay. The cutscenes are without a doubt the best part of Ninja Gaiden’s legacy.

Ninja Gaiden’s highs are quite high, but you have to suffer through its many lows to get to them. It’s a flawed classic, though the basic formula is a great one. This kind of player bullying may have been acceptable in 1989, but it doesn’t hold up today.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Ultima VIII: Pagan

It’s very hard to say nice things about Ultima VIII. There are actually a number of good ideas at work here, but without exception they are brought down by other aspects of the game. The story is interesting, but undermines the whole idea of the Avatar. The gameplay mechanics are well-intentioned, but barely work. The multiple magic systems are very cool, but a dated UI makes them frustrating to use.

The thing about Ultima VIII is, it should be really fun. You are stranded on a strange world, and given a mission to master its varied magic arts. Each of the four magic systems you learn operates differently, and by the end of the game you have a huge variety of spells (on par with previous Ultimas). Though the system differences aren’t actually that major, they really work conceptually. It’s nice to have healing and utility spells that don’t require reagents, attack spells that are pre-prepared, and so on.

Of course, calling the way you actually use these spells “annoying” would be a massive understatement. Ultima VIII has a lot of problems, and they almost all come down to UI. Not only is the UI fundamentally flawed, it’s flawed in two different ways. Spells (and consumable items, such as flaming oil) fail because of the terrible inventory management system. It’s like they took Ultima VII’s inventory system and removed anything good about it. And let me tell you, there wasn’t much good about cluttering the screen with windows full of crap. U8 doesn’t pause the game when you have inventory open, which in theory lets you react quickly with items or spells, but in practice just clutters the screen. Having to search for tiny icons to double click in the heat of battle is a terrible idea. Plus, buff-type spells you really want available to recast usually close all windows when they’re cast, thus defeating most of the advantages of the system.

To add insult to injury, the windows aren’t even well conceived. They tend to waste too much space trying to look good, and you close them by double-clicking on an empty spot instead of clicking a check mark as in U7. This sounds like a good idea until you realize that it means if you mis-click a tiny icon, you close the whole damn window. And closing one container’s window closes any containers inside it, so if you want to organize your backpack with bags (a virtual must), you still need to keep the backpack open at all times. WTF?

Unfortunately, the controls aren’t any better. There’s a lot of jumping and such in U8, but provided you didn’t manage to find a pre-patch version, the jumping puzzles are the least of your worries. The most annoying thing in the game to do is try to climb on things. Sometimes it works, and sometimes you just can’t, and you have no idea why. Perhaps it’s because the isometric view gives no indication of height, or maybe the game just hates you. And god forbid you try to navigate an edge. Things are even worse in combat, which works like an early version of Diablo where they hadn’t yet figured out how to make the click-fest remotely fun. Monsters tend to stun-lock you, and the two best strategies when fighting anything beyond a ghoul are “use an invincibility item or spell” and “run away.”

And the grandaddy of all my complaints is the dreaded combination of UI and inventory: in-world item interaction. No longer can you pick things up or open doors from across the screen. While this adds something to the realism, it adds a lot more to the frustration. There’s no 3D camera to rotate, so it’s impossible to pick up things hidden behind your character. And since the distance required to move things is incredibly small, this can be a serious problem. But the worst design decision in the entire game is to have items on the ground act as terrain. Not only do bodies block your way to an obnoxious degree, if you get too close to any small item you tend to climb on top of it, and thus you can’t move it or pick it up. This problem isn’t too bad for most of the game, but once you start performing Sorcery, which involves laying out up to 14 items in a small area, you will want to kill Richard Garriott.

Honestly I feel like Ultima VIII is really a “B” game – it certainly doesn’t rise to the heights of the U7 games, story-wise, but it’s a cool concept and when things work, they’re very cool. Climbing around buildings in town is pointless but very fun, and the magic systems are great. The lack of a party makes discovering magic arms and armor more exciting. But dear god the flaws! I thought Ocarina of Time’s controls didn’t age well, but they have nothing on Ultima VIII. It wouldn’t be that hard to fix U8 – a shortcut bar a la U9 would go quite a ways. But as it is, this is a game that has to be wrestled with rather than played, and that’s not a good thing.

Review Score: C

Retro Review: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Despite being the third entry in the series, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is the prototypical Zelda game. It takes elements from both the original and even Zelda II, adds in a lot more narrative, and the result is one of the greatest SNES games of all time, and perhaps one of the best games ever, period.

A Link to the Past goes back to the overhead view of the original Zelda, but the world is much less open from the start. Instead, you will visit a series of dungeons, each with a special item that often allows you to access new areas of the map. Eventually, you discover a second, dark version of the world, allowing even more exploration. The overworld serves as both an area of combat and an area to find secrets, of which the game has many. One new feature is Pieces of Heart, four of which combine to grant an entire heart container. There are more than 20 of these to find, as well as a handful of optional items, making thorough exploration quite rewarding.

The game features a dozen dungeons, several of which you can approach out of order if you are so inclined. The dungeon design is extremely solid, with a mix of combat and puzzle solving. Most of the dungeons have a strong running theme, and they all feel unique. Some, like Turtle Rock and its track-and-platform mechanic, are like nothing else of its time. Others, like the water puzzles in one of the middle dungeons, require careful planning to solve.

Unlike its predecessors, A Link to the Past has a significant amount of story and lore. The first two games’ stories were mostly limited to the instruction manuals, but here you have a full intro and a decent amount of plot exposition. NPCs are scattered about the world, telling you about the lore as often as giving gameplay hints. This is the introduction of numerous Zelda concepts that would become fundamental to future stories, such as Ganon’s original identity as Ganondorf the thief. It’s well-told, and not presented in a way as to slow down the game.

What makes A Link to the Past a true classic is that it simply has no flaws. Probably the worst thing about the entire game is one obnoxious puzzle, and even that can be easily bypassed by retrieving the item from the next dungeon in sequence. The game is exquisitely paced, the difficulty ramps up steadily, and it never stops being fun. It sets the standard for all future Zelda games, and it holds up amazingly well more than 20 years later. A Zelda fan should not miss this one.

Review Score: A+

26 Years Later: Blaster Master Completed

In what I believe is the longest-term goal I’ve ever successfully completed, I beat Blaster Master legitimately for the first time last weekend. (I’ve beaten it before with a Game Genie and on the Wii U using save states, but this was on original hardware with no cheats.) I don’t know exactly when I originally got the game, but it was before I had a Super NES, so it’s been at least 26 years. Seeing the final boss explode immediately filled me with a sense of pride, followed shortly by a realization that no one I know actually cares about this accomplishment. Ah well, such is the lot of the retro gamer. But at least I can yell about it into the void of the internet!

Your Name Timeline

In talking to people and watching videos about Your Name (reminder: it’s amazing and you should see it if you haven’t), I noticed that there’s a lot of confusion on the specifics of the timeline. On repeated viewings I have noticed that events are generally closer together than I initially assumed, so I took it upon myself to use cues from the movie to construct a timeline of exactly when everything happens. Obviously there will be massive spoilers for the movie, and this isn’t a movie you want spoiled, so beware!

Continue reading “Your Name Timeline”

Retro Review: Castlevania: The Adventure

The Castlevania experience translates rather well to the Gameboy in Castlevania: The Adventure. Rather than a compromised port of a previous game, this is an all-new adventure with a distillation of traditional Castlevania mechanics. It’s short and simplistic, but it offers a good challenge.

The basic gameplay of The Adventure is stock Castlevania gameplay, with a slow protagonist that has deliberate jumps and a whip. However, the formula is changed considerably compared to the NES games. There are no hearts or sub-weapons here, and health restoration is far more common. The core mechanic is that your whip can be upgraded twice, with the second upgrade giving you the ability to shoot fireballs from the end of it, but getting hit by any monster or obstacle will decrease your upgrade level by one. As a result, the game is somewhat reminiscent of Contra, in that true mastery requires never getting hit.

All four levels are well-designed and distinct. Most of the game is focused on combat, though there is one stage that will test your platforming skill. The level design takes into account the smaller Gameboy screen in a variety of ways, the most notable of which is that there are none of the traditional Castlevania staircases to be found here. Instead, you’ll find yourself climbing on vertical ropes.

Castlevania: The Adventure is hard, but the difficulty curve is smooth. You’ll have to learn the levels and how to fight each monster type, but doing so is satisfying. Being an older action game, you will of course have to replay parts of stages you’ve already mastered to get to the parts you still need to learn. It can be jarring to modern gaming sensibilities.

The game captures the essence of Castlevania, even though it has its own quirks and plays quite differently from the home console games in many ways. It is technically primitive, susceptible to slowdown and even some screen distortions. But it’s a solid challenge if you’re a fan of the Belmont clan.

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Mega Man 6 (NES)

Even many Mega Man fans skipped Mega Man 6 back in the day, released as it was well into the SNES era and shortly after the superlative Mega Man X. It’s too bad, because this is a bit of a hidden gem in the series that went back to basics (though not nearly as much so as Mega Man 9 would, years later). It does suffer from some pretty lazy boss design, but the game works rather well.

The most jarring change in Mega Man 6 is the removal of all the usual utility items. For the first time since Mega Man 2, you don’t start with the Rush Coil. Instead, you can pick up two Rush upgrades that don’t use energy and change how Mega Man plays. Both prevent sliding and charged shots, with the Rush Power compensating with a powerful (though short-range) shot and the Rush Jet allowing you to fly with a jet pack. If that doesn’t sound cool to you, well, maybe skip Mega Man 6. The Rush Jet can only fly so long at a time, but it’s super fun to use and my biggest series regret is that they never did something quite like it again. (Much like Mega Man 3’s Rush Jet, I guess giving the player that much control just causes too many game design problems.)

The bosses in this game are lame beyond belief. Not only do they cover heavily-treaded ground by having Flame Man, Blizzard Man, and Wind Man, three of the bosses are just variations on (actual historical weapon) Man. The weapons are nothing to write home about either, and the game suffers from the same problem as the other later NES games where the Mega Buster is as good a choice as anything. The main choice you’ll make is whether to give up the charge shot for a Rush attachment.

While the bosses are lame in concept, they do at least look cool, and the stages have stronger thematic elements than many other Mega Man games. Tomahawk Man has an old west feel, Yamato Man feels very Japanese, and so on. There are a number of memorable stage design elements in play here, from the “flower” energy pellets in Plant Man’s stage to the super-cool upside-down waves in Centaur Man’s stage. (Side note: “Centaur Man”? So he’s half horse, half man, another half man, but also a robot, I guess?) These stages also branch quite frequently with the use of Rush attachments, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s cool, but it also leads to alternate bosses, which are how you get Beat.

Most Mega Man games have an agreed-upon “best order” but Mega Man 6 takes that to a new level. You’ll want to fight the four Beat-related bosses later so you can get to the proper alternate rooms to fight them, which basically means that not only is the order set, the starting point is as well. Which is fine, I guess, but it’s kind of going against the whole concept of Mega Man. Fortunately, Beat isn’t quite as ridiculous here as he was in his debut.

It’s easy to tell that Capcom was on the right track with Mega Man 6, and I think Mega Man X (which came out after Mega Man 6 in Japan) proved beyond any doubt that they still had it. The basic Mega Man series took a strange turn once it got off of the NES, though, which is probably why we eventually ended up with Mega Man 9 and 10. Still, this is a very fun game, and not as laughably easy as its predecessor, so it’s worth checking out. Though like its predecessor, it’s quite expensive to pick up in NES cartridge form, so maybe stick with one of the dozen collections that have been released.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Ultima VII Part 2: The Silver Seed

Making an expansion to an RPG that doesn’t simply continue the plot after the end is tricky business. Ultima VII’s Forge of Virtue did a clunky job solving this problem, by making you super-powerful as a reward. The Silver Seed does a much better job as an expansion to Serpent Isle, though. Not only have the rewards been toned down while still being worth it, there’s actually a story this time, and it’s not completely lame!

The Silver Seed takes place hundreds of years before the events of Serpent Isle, during the Ophidian conflict that eventually led to their disappearance from the land. While involving time travel is not inherently problematic, the fact that you’re stymied by minions of the Guardian and speak to a Monk from modern day Serpent Isle are both head-scratchers. Those strange events aside, the Silver Seed is interesting because you get a look at the Order side of the War of Imbalance through more than just books. It does a good job fleshing out how the war actually went on and why it ended as it did.

Of course, the actual plot of the expansion is pretty basic. You need to delve four dungeons searching for magic items so you can plant the Silver Seed, yadda yadda yadda. Not the most amazing stuff. But those four dungeons, and the treasures within them, are what make this expansion shine.

While Forge of Virtue rewarded you with a super-powered Avatar, the Silver Seed instead gives a series of items that improve your combat statistics. This is great because anyone can use them, which has the effect of making your training point expenditures more interesting instead of completely irrelevant. You also get a magic keyring at the start of the expansion, which is basically an apology from Origin for having way too many keys in Serpent Isle. The keyring effectively combines every key you ever find into one, and adds a hotkey for it to boot. It’s good stuff.

There is one ridiculously overpowered reward to be found here, though it’s also the toughest find in the expansion. The ring of reagents completely nullifies the need to use reagents to cast spells. In any previous Ultima game, this would be amazing but not game-breaking. However, Serpent Isle not only introduces new reagents, but several reagents are in very limited supply. One of them is even somewhat plot important. By adding the ring of reagents, they’ve turned every reagent cache from potentially exciting treasure to useless garbage. Not that I don’t mind not having to carry a bag full of reagents, but it does sort of feel like cheating. Of course, nothing’s stopping you from not using it.

On the upside, the dungeons you must clear in the Silver Seed are quite challenging, so you won’t be getting any of your rewards without a fight (at least, not any of the combat-related ones). You can visit this expansion quite early in Serpent Isle if you want to, and doing so many be worth it just for the keyring, but actually clearing the dungeons is no trivial matter. It pays to wait until you at least have a spellbook to take on these dangers.

The Silver Seed is fun, informs Serpent Isle’s plot without interfering with it, and has great rewards. And it doesn’t introduce any huge islands that interfere with sailing, unlike some other expansions. What more could you want? (You know, aside from 60 Strength.)

Review Score: A

Retro Review: Ultima VII Part 2: Serpent Isle

The only game in the main Ultima series to share an engine with one of its predecessors, Serpent Isle is a bit of an enigma in the series. Engine re-use was not unprecedented for Ultima games, as the two Ultima VI spinoffs were similar in some ways to Serpent Isle, but those games are not relevant to the greater series plot, while Serpent Isle very much is. The engine improvements lead to significantly better gameplay than Ultima VII, but despite the two games looking so similar, they are quite different.

Ultima VII (part one) was notable as the Ultima game that best nailed the feeling of a living world. Serpent Isle, on the other hand, is a very linear and story-driven game that stops feeling like a real world less than halfway through. It doesn’t help that SI was rushed to market, and the cracks in U7’s world are outright chasms here. Even major plot points are often ignored by characters who by all rights should be central to them, and quest flags can be set at seemingly random times. The net result is that the “immersion” that makes me so fond of its predecessor falls apart quickly in Serpent Isle.

That said, Serpent Isle isn’t a bad game by any means. The Ultima VII engine was already good, and the advances made in Serpent Isle are fantastic. The obvious additions like hotkeys and the awesome paperdoll equipment system are nice, but even more subtle improvements in game scripting and conversation flow really help Serpent Isle work. The game also features a smaller party, which helps inventory management and combat both flow better.

The real strength of Serpent Isle, being the first highly linear Ultima game, is the storyline. Like any video game story, it won’t be winning any writing awards, but it definitely keeps you interested and wanting more. Not to spoil anything, but events play out quite a bit differently than you might expect. Where in the Black Gate the actual plot involved less than half the world and could be resolved fairly quickly, here practically everything on the map is important in some way. Whether this is a strength or a weakness depends on what you like in your RPGs.

Serpent Isle really shines in large part because it does not take place in Britannia. Without the burden of a dozen towns that must exist, Serpent Isle keeps things simple with only three major cities. The ruins of a lost civilization are scattered across the island, and discovering their secrets is a large part of the game. There are important references here to both Ultima I and Ultima III, but the world stands well on its own.

As good as it is, Serpent Isle is a flawed game. Many of these flaws probably would have been fixed had the game gotten more development time, but that doesn’t make them any less game-breaking. There are quite a few events that, if done out of order, can result in an unwinnable game. There are even a few bugs you’re relatively likely to run into unless you specifically avoid them. If you go off exploring too much, you risk causing problems – for best results, stick to what people tell you to do.

And therein lies the problem, for me. One could certainly argue that Serpent Isle is a better overall game than the Black Gate, but the forced linearity really ruins it for me. The game is chock-full of events that clearly only happen to steer you towards a given event, and the game’s final quests require a whole lot of hunting for random items for no particularly good reason. If thereare any notable optional sidequests, I don’t remember them.

But don’t let me steer you away from Serpent Isle. If Ultima isn’t really your “thing,” Serpent Isle just might be, because it’s a very different type of game (at least, outside of the opening few quests). It’s certainly excellent, but it is unfortunately a harbinger of things to come – both of its sequels are even more restrictively linear (perhaps partially because of how poorly Serpent Isle handles things when you do go out of order). It’s just too bad neither of those sequels could live up to Serpent Isle’s story.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: ActRaiser

ActRaiser is a unique game, part of the SNES launch lineup that would never be duplicated on that system. It is part action game, part town simulator. It’s an eclectic mix that works surprisingly well.

The action sequences of ActRaiser are definitely the weaker part of the game. In each of the six areas, there is an introductory stage and a final stage. In these, you play as a hero with a sword and, if you’ve found any in the simulation part of the game, a limited-use magic spell. Beyond the spells, there’s no real variation in your abilities as the game progresses. You are able to take a lot of hits, and the game is generous with health items before boss fights. The stages are littered with secrets, but none are particularly vital. Your goal, aside from completing the stage in general, is to get a high score, which influences each area’s maximum population.

The sim mode is what makes ActRaiser unique and great. Each area is under constant attack by monsters, and you have to hold them off with your little angel helper while directing the townspeople to expand the town. Your goal in the early going is to help the townspeople destroy the monster lairs. Once that’s done, the simulation becomes much more relaxed, and the focus is on optimization and exploration. In addition to the basic simulation gameplay, you can earn items from your followers, and these items are often useful in other areas to help the townspeople with unique problems they have. It’s a relatively simple mode, but it works beautifully. Your long-term goal is to maximize your population, which in turn will increase your level (and therefore health) during action sequences.

The mix of action and simulation ensures that ActRaiser doesn’t get stale, and never overstays its welcome. It’s a beautiful game with great atmospheric music, all the more impressive considering it was one of the first SNES games released. It’s unique and fun, and well worth checking out. There isn’t much else like it.

Review Score: A−