Review: Mario Tennis Aces

Mario Tennis Aces represents a bit of a return to the basics for the Mario Tennis series. Eschewing both the ridiculous roster size of some of the earlier games and the more ridiculous options of the newer ones, it’s a pretty pure Mario Tennis experience that should please newcomers and series veterans.

With no current major tennis series in regular production, Mario Tennis Aces serves as the de facto multiplayer tennis game of this generation, and fortunately it (mostly) lives up to the expectations that carries. While the game is normally played with a variety of super powers and special shots, you can turn those off for a bit of simple but deep tennis action with your friends. You inexplicably can’t play a full-length tennis match (multiple sets of six games each), but aside from that Aces gets the basics down.

As usual, the characters are divided into various archetypes with their own strengths and weaknesses. The game uses all four face buttons for shots, allowing more powerful versions of three of them by double-tapping. This isn’t possible with lobs or drop shots, which share the X button (and can also be performed via combinations a la the older Mario Tennis games). Your extended set of special abilities uses the triggers and right stick as well, keeping the core controls intact for all modes. The main strategy in Mario Tennis Aces is to get into position for your shot early, to give you the most power and control. Characters are very good at keeping shots within the lines, so the main focus is on outsmarting or outworking your opponent.

While multiplayer is certainly the main draw of Mario Tennis Aces, the game does come with a few single-player modes as well. There are three surprisingly easy tournaments to complete, but the primary mode you’ll play solo is Adventure Mode. You can unlock new courts with optional hazards for use in free play mode, but other than that Adventure Mode is purely optional. New characters are unlocked via participation in online tournaments, though you automatically get the characters that were featured in previous months. Before too long, every character will be unlocked for everyone as soon as they load up the game.

Mario Tennis Aces gets the job done, with that job being serving up some good Mario Tennis fun in HD. Tennis has always translated very well to video game format, and doubles Mario Tennis is hard to beat as a four-player diversion. Aces does lack a bit in the extracurricular activities, which may be a bonus if you’re just here for the multiplayer. The core gameplay that makes Mario Tennis so good is intact, though, and that’s what really matters.

Review Score: B

Review: The Messenger

The Messenger is a retro-style platformer that looks and feels a lot like Ninja Gaiden, but has a whole lot more going on than a basic stage-by-stage action game. It is a wonderful synthesis of tried-and-true techniques and some cool new platforming ideas.

Like so many modern retro-style games, The Messenger can be described largely as an amalgamation of various NES games. However, a few things set it apart. First and foremost, while most such games blend their influences, The Messenger is very nearly split into two entire games. The first is an action platformer in the style of Ninja Gaiden, while the second is an open-world adventure more in the style of Symphony of the Night-style Castlevania games.

As with many good platformers, you gain various new movement and attack abilities during the game. The first ability you get is the most original, and serves as the core piece of gameplay that sets The Messenger apart right away: you can air jump every time you attack anything in mid-air. This applies not only to enemies and projectiles, but also objects, many of which are placed for this specific purpose. You will face many rooms where the challenge is to navigate a room without hitting the floor, or perhaps without having a floor at all.

The Messenger is a tightly-made experience that doesn’t get bogged down in dozens of upgrades and abilities. Your action set is fairly limited, and aside from upgrades purchasable with the plentiful in-game currency, you’ll earn all your major abilities during a normal playthrough. There are 45 “Power Seals” to find that will unlock an extra ability, but this isn’t a typical Metroidvania in the sense of having an ever-expanding arsenal. Instead, the game itself expands, opening up levels you played through previously with new passages and mechanics.

The world map is not a sprawling maze, but rather a series of interconnected caverns. Navigation is somewhat reminiscent of Castlevania II in that way, but various shortcuts are introduced later on to make it easy to get around. The exploration part of the game is less about traversing entirely new ground than it is about finding nooks and crannies that were previously hidden or inaccessible.

I don’t want to spoil any major plot points, so suffice it to say that the game introduces a lot of fun mechanics that keep the gameplay fresh despite technically retreading a lot of old ground. The writing is fun and very self-aware, though if you’re not into that kind of humor it could be a little grating. The graphic style is attractive and smooth, and the fact that you play as a ninja basically guarantees the game plays stylishly.

If you like retro-style platformers and are not looking for a game that will take up weeks of your time, give The Messenger a shot. There’s a lot of great platforming and some very cool ideas on display here, and the game is consistently fun to play. It’s a satisfying experience, and one that will keep you guessing as well.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Mario’s Picross

Mario’s Picross is the sometimes-forgotten introduction to Nintendo’s Picross series, a puzzle game consisting of grid-based puzzles called nonograms. It wouldn’t get a sequel in the US until Picross DS, twelve years later.

The idea of Picross is to fill in pixels in a grid, which in Mario’s Picross ranges in size from 5×5 to 15×15 pixels in size. Each row and column has a series of numbers which indicate the size and number of separate consecutive sequences of filled-in pixels in that row or column. Using these hints as well as filling in boxes either as definitely filled or definitely empty, the user works through the puzzle until it is solved.

Mario’s Picross offers three sets of 64 puzzles, ordered by generally increasing difficulty. You have 30 minutes to complete each puzzle, though a cumulative two minute penalty (2 minutes for the first, then 4, then 6, etc.) is applied to the timer each time you incorrectly fill in a pixel. This can actually be useful, giving you definite confirmation of whether a guess is correct. There is no such penalty or warning for incorrectly non-filled pixels, though. You must fill in the puzzle completely before the timer runs out to mark each puzzle complete.

In addition to the general nonogram hints, Mario’s Picross also offers special hints for each stage, which fill in a random row or column completely. Every puzzle can be completed without these hints, though they can be quite helpful. Even if you fail a puzzle, you can start it over with a new timer and use the knowledge gained during the first playthrough to finish it more quickly. With all of these systems combined, anyone can finish the puzzle list regardless of skill. Not that you’d probably want to if nonograms aren’t your thing.

Completing every puzzle earns you access to Time Trial mode, a series of randomly chosen puzzles with no hints, no penalties or warnings, and no time limit. This is the ultimate challenge of the game, though if you play without hints it won’t be a significant departure from previous puzzles.

Whether you want to play Mario’s Picross comes down entirely to whether you enjoy Picross puzzles. If they are your thing, this game offers over a hundred puzzles to go through. It’s available on the 3DS Virtual Console and is worth a look if you’ve played the DS and later Picross games and just want some more Picross action.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter

The expansion to Icewind Dale adds a new, separate area of the game, as well as a number of much-needed convenience features. It is a bit on the short side, but the developers made up for that by releasing free extra content called Trials of the Luremaster to beef up the running time.

Perhaps Heart of Winter’s greatest contribution to Icewind Dale is adding a number of interface features that originated in Baldur’s Gate II, particularly the hotkey to highlight items, doors, and chests on the screen. It also added various containers, up to and including bags of holding in the Trials of the Luremaster. These new features apply to the original game, as does the increased experience cap and a number of new spells and even new abilities.

While Heart of Winter improves Icewind Dale’s gameplay in many ways, the structure of its actual content is a bit odd. You can teleport off to the new areas any time after reaching level 9, though the battles are balanced more for an endgame party from the original game. You can export characters who’ve finished Icewind Dale into Heart of Winter, which even adds a few potential bits of dialogue, but doing so will cost you your money and containers. Finishing both plotlines together in one playthrough makes the most sense gameplay wise, but doing them separately makes more sense plotwise.

The Trials of the Luremaster suffer from a similar conundrum, as it is challenging content contained within Heart of Winter that is nonetheless entirely separate. You could re-export characters a second time to complete it, but that seems pretty extreme. Fortunately the content is difficult but not impossible to complete during the course of Heart of Winter. As a downloadable mini expansion, Trials of the Luremaster is somewhat light on plot but features a sprawling dungeon with plenty of puzzles and enemies to fight.

The only real flaw in Heart of Winter is that it’s short, and its three dungeon areas can each get repetitive. The first of these is a particular issue, as it contains three types of undead that are all quite annoying to fight in combination. But the plot is pretty good, the loot is great, and it contains a few brief but intriguing sidequests in the hub town.

Overall, Heart of Winter is a must-have if you’re playing Icewind Dale, unless you are extremely hardcore and scoff in the face of convenience features. It makes an already good game better, and allows you to get into the higher levels where AD&D starts to get a bit crazy (but in a fun way). It’s not perfect, but it’s worth your attention.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Icewind Dale

Following on the heels of the original Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale uses the same Infinity Engine as that game but changes up the style to a more traditional D&D dungeon crawl.

It is difficult to define Icewind Dale except in terms of how it differs from Baldur’s Gate. Both use most of the same AD&D rules, but here the focus is on combat and delving labyrinthine dungeons rather than exploring an area of the world. The plot is interesting but not intricate, and the game follows a linear path that opens up each new area in turn.

One of the biggest differences in Icewind Dale is that you create your entire party of up to six members at the start, rather than creating a single character and recruiting NPCs. This gives you the ability to finely craft a team, and you will need to do so in order to survive the challenges the game presents. No class is truly required, but it is well worth crafting a well-balanced party.

The nature of combat here tends to include large groups of creatures, with less of a focus on single bosses or mages with a variety of protections. Those do exist, but Icewind Dale’s dungeons are more a test of endurance than a test of how well you can exploit the system. The game avoids some of the pitfalls of low-level AD&D by giving you quest experience early and often. Levels are gained at a fairly rapid, satisfying pace, and the game satisfies the desire to gain in power. By the end, your party becomes quite formidable.

There is no one aspect of Icewind Dale that sets it apart, but the game is enjoyable throughout. It avoids any major lulls by keeping the plot moving forward, and the difficulty curve is well-constructed. If a fight is particularly difficult for your party, a change in tactics or the use of consumable items will often make a large difference.

In the end, Icewind Dale succeeds because it never tries to be more than it can be. They took a good AD&D engine and made a good AD&D dungeon crawl with it. If you like the Infinity Engine, you’ll have a good time with Icewind Dale.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Baldur’s Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast

The expansion to the original Baldur’s Gate reveals an evolving level of skill and design philosophy in the game’s development team. This is a focused effort to engage the player in a different way than the original, and it largely shines as a result.

While the main draw for players may have been the increase in the level cap, Tales of the Sword Coast offers some compelling combat content that puts much of the original game to shame. There are three new areas to explore and clear, in addition to a new town. These range from a simple mage-filled maze, an island with mysterious inhabitants, and a multi-level tower filled with traps and puzzles. All are rewarding, both in the sense of being fun and in terms of giving fantastic loot and experience.

The centerpiece of Tales of the Sword Coast is Durlag’s Tower, a new dungeon that appears in the southern part of the map. Despite its proximity to some early game areas, the challenges here are for high-level players. The upper floors of the tower are filled with traps and monsters making up a classic but compact RPG dungeon. The lower floors are more puzzle based and populated with powerful foes that you’ll be hard-pressed to defeat without considered tactics (or save scumming).

You don’t actually need to complete any of this content to beat Baldur’s Gate, considering that the final battle was designed for a party without access to the expansion, but its contents are rewarding enough to make it well worth your attention. Tales of the Sword Coast is a preview of things to come, and has a lot of aspects of what made games like Baldur’s Gate II so great.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Baldur’s Gate

Baldur’s Gate introduced the world to the Infinity Engine, a 2nd edition AD&D game engine that would power several classic RPGs. The original game is notable but lacks the polish of its successors.

One issue plagues Baldur’s Gate above all others: it is a low-level AD&D adventure. Starting at level 1 is rarely fun, since bad combat luck can make even the simplest encounters deadly. Your party lacks a lot of options, both in terms of a limited number of spells and abilities and in access to advanced items or tactics. All of these issues make starting off in Baldur’s Gate a bit of a slog.

You create a single hero character in Baldur’s Gate, almost without limitations. You can even be entirely evil, though taking this too far can make the game unplayable. You even have the option to create your own custom party of six, though the game encourages you to recruit various NPCs instead. These NPCs vary in their usefulness (though most have suspiciously high stats), but their interactions with the player and each other range from somewhat interesting to downright fantastic.

The actual game system is based on AD&D, but the core combat engine runs in real time rather than being turn-based. As a compromise to allow this to work, you can pause the game at any moment and give your party specific orders. This works out surprisingly well, but other aspects of the combat system do not. Character positioning in particular can be a pain, even outside of combat.

The good news is that Baldur’s Gate has an engaging story that stars your created character. You will spend a considerable portion of your time playing the game on various sidequests that allow you to gain the levels and equipment required to face all of the available challenges. The main plot thread ties everything together and leads to a confrontation with a powerful villain and rival you’ll want to take down, regardless of your character’s motivation.

Sadly, the best that can be said about Baldur’s Gate is that it spawned so many great games. This original attempt is lacking in a variety of ways, no doubt due to the team’s self-admitted lack of experience with the genre. Inventory management is painful and everything seems slower than it rightfully ought to be. It’s a game worth playing if only to import your character into the absolutely fantastic sequel, but it’s not the classic that sequel has proven to be.

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

Though presented as the sequel to Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island represents a new type of Nintendo platformer. It contains some aesthetic elements from the Mario games that preceded it, but blazes its own trail in myriad new ways.

First and foremost, you play as Yoshi in Yoshi’s Island, complete with a unique new moveset that would eventually make it to Super Smash Bros. mostly intact. Mario is literally just along for the ride. Yoshi’s strange secondary jump and ability to create and throw eggs make controlling him or her (and indeed you play as many different Yoshis during the game) feel very different from previous Mario games. Perhaps the biggest departure is the lack of a run button in favor of Yoshi gaining momentum naturally.

Yoshi’s controls can take some getting used to, and you will often fall into pits or otherwise randomly end up dead until you do so. Planning is vital in Yoshi’s Island, from planning jumps to making good use of your stock of eggs. You need to eat enemies to make more, and they aren’t always available. You need those eggs to find most secrets and bonus items, so managing them is key.

Yoshi’s Island is structurally as different from its predecessor as could be. It’s perhaps no surprise that the game wasn’t branded as a sequel to Super Mario World in Japan. The game is entirely linear, consisting of 48 stages completed consecutively. You are scored at the end of each stage, and gaining a perfect score in all 8 stages of a single world earns you a bonus stage and free access to a minigame. This demand for perfection, requiring you to find all the hidden red coins and flowers as well as completing the last part of the stage without getting hit, is quite unlike the alternate routes of Super Mario World. This demand for perfection and focus on collecting items is a bit of a harbinger for where Nintendo gaming would go in the N64 era.

Fortunately, Yoshi’s Island is extremely well-made and enjoyable, despite what some might consider structural deficiencies. The stages tend to be large, and the game’s hand-drawn aesthetic grows on you and works extremely well for the SNES hardware. The game makes use of the Super FX chip, but isn’t focused on polygons like others of its ilk. Instead, the chip is used to create a series of very cool effects which are mind-blowing for the SNES hardware, though less impressive in a modern context.

The best use of technology and innovation comes in the boss fights, which the game is wisely packed to the gills with. These generally involve huge opponents and have a strong puzzle aspect. One amazing fight in particular suggests the planetoids of Super Mario Galaxy 12 years and three generations before that game was released. These fights don’t take the usual Mario shortcut of doubling up with a slightly more difficult version later in the game, either. They represent the best Yoshi’s Island has to offer.

Yoshi’s Island’s high points are incredibly high, with some of the best visuals and effects the SNES would ever achieve. However, its occasionally drawn out levels and some annoying enemy placement bring the game down somewhat. If you go in expecting a Mario game, you might be a bit disappointed, but standing on its own, Yoshi’s Island is a breath of fresh air.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Contra III: The Alien Wars

The games in the Contra series are essentially sequences of action movie-style set pieces, and Contra III is the culmination of this design. Taking full advantage of the Super NES’s graphic and sound capabilities, Konami packs all the action fun of Contra into a memorable and fantastic game.

Contra III is short, consisting of only six stages, but very little is re-used at any point in the game. Each set piece is different and they tend to be dramatic, with giant sprites and imaginative foes. As with the NES games, Contra III has two stages in a different style, and these stages make the game feel considerably more dynamic. They are top-down, allowing you to rotate your perspective and take on a set of targets in whatever order you wish. Rather than the carefully curated battles of the side-scrolling stages, the fighting in these stages tends to be emergent and requires you to by dynamic and master a set of top-down-specific techniques.

The spread gun returns in Contra III, but it is no longer the obvious best weapon. Every weapon is good in certain situations, and the additions of the crusher (a powerful exploding missile) and the evolution of Operation C’s homing gun, not to mention a fantastic new take on the flamethrower, are quite welcome. Best of all, you can carry two weapons at once and swap between them at any time, with the added bonus that you only lose the one you were using at the time when you die. Death also resets your stock of screen-clearing bombs, a new innovation that works particularly well because the game encourages you to use them liberally.

Contra III features three difficulty levels and a design which encourages you to play through each in turn. Rather than just giving you less lives or some other arbitrary disadvantage, each difficulty adds more enemies and more varied enemy attacks to the mix. Beating the game on Hard is an accomplishment on par with completing the original game, and a lot of the same techniques (i.e., memorizing enemy layouts) are important here. Interestingly, instead of an extra lives code, you can choose to play with 3, 5, or 7 lives. There’s no penalty for using more, so this acts as a kind of built-in lives code.

All in all, Contra III takes everything that was good about Contra and makes it play better and look amazing. It’s one of the premiere action games for the Super NES, a worthwhile classic that any fan of run-and-gun shooters should play. It’s easy to find in several formats including the SNES Classic, so what are you waiting for?

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Final Fantasy V (Super Famicom)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review Score: A−