Retro Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)

The very first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for NES is unlike basically all of those that would follow in that it is a strictly single-player experience. It also makes less use of the brand than one might expect. It feels like one of those licensed games that didn’t really need to be licensed at all, but it’s still a pretty fun platformer.

TMNT isn’t a typical action game in that it isn’t divided into linear stages. Instead, there are six areas to explore, each connecting side-scrolling areas with an overhead city view. It’s not exactly “non-linear” but its structure makes for a few interesting gameplay quirks. Not every side-scrolling area is relevant to the plot, but most of those that aren’t will reward you with items or health pickups (naturally in the form of pizza). All of these renew upon leaving and re-entering an area, and due to the game’s limited continues, it can be worthwhile to farm out items at times to give yourself a leg up. It is somewhat reminiscent of Blaster Master in that way, though almost every action area has at least some obvious upside.

The way the game uses the titular turtles plays into the overall gameplay style. You can freely switch between any of the four, each of which has its own weapon with wildly variant damage and range. Donatello is clearly the best turtle to use in most situations, but if he dies, you can no longer use him. In this way you essentially have four lives, or more accurately, four health bars. Switching between turtles to manage this overall health pool is vital to making it through the tougher areas of the game. Each turtle can also pick up sub-weapons, so switching between them allows you to stock multiple types of attacks for various situations.

The structure and ideas behind TMNT are solid, but the execution is unfortunately lacking. This comes across in two main respects. First is the difficulty: many specific sections of the game are quite difficult and require some combination of practice, patience, and outside-the-box thinking. A key example of this is the underwater level, which is the furthest many players get despite being found in the second area. The strict time limit and bypassing of the usual four lives structure make it very challenging, though even a mediocre player can clear the stage pretty easily by simply being overly aggressive rather than careful. This is very counter-intuitive for an NES game. Later stages throw difficult jumps and obnoxious enemies at you, and losing one or two key turtles can rapidly bring your game to a halt. You’ll need to learn the tricks of any given encounter, and with only two continues, it can be difficult to get far enough to try a hard section again.

On the whole, TMNT is a pretty solid game. The difficulty can be nasty but isn’t as punishing as some of the harder platformers of its time, and the strategic gameplay and free turtle switching contribute to an intriguing play style. The lack of co-op or more normal enemies a fan of the franchise would recognize are both flaws, but only as far as the license. As a game it holds up fairly well.

Review Score: B+

Weathering With Makoto Shinkai

I attended the special fan preview screening of Weathering With You, which included a recorded interview with Makoto Shinkai. In it, he made clear his intentions to create a movie that would hit audiences all across the world like Your Name did in Japan. In this, I fear he is going to be bitterly disappointed.

Following up Your Name, my favorite movie and I would argue one of the best-constructed movies ever, was no easy task. Shinkai appears to have tried to reproduce a similar story but on a slightly grander scale. A lot of the specific trappings of Your Name are there, but it just doesn’t work the same way. I have a lot of thoughts on this, but they do involve Your Name spoilers. (I will refrain from posting significant Weathering With You spoilers, though if there’s one thing the movie has over Your Name it’s that at least you can discuss it without everything¬†being a spoiler!)

Continue reading “Weathering With Makoto Shinkai”

Movie Review: Weathering With You

Weathering With You is the follow-up to Makoto Shinkai’s masterpiece Your Name. It shares broad similarities to that movie and Shinkai’s other works in that it is at its core a story of a boy and a girl and their relationship. But while Your Name used the core conceit of a body swap, Weathering With You stars a “sunshine girl” who has the power to control pockets of the weather in a rain-soaked Tokyo.

The story of Weathering With You follows Hodoka, a high school runaway who has come to Tokyo. He meets a variety of interesting characters including Hina, the aforementioned sunshine girl. She gained her powers through an event shown in the opening, and the two end up running a small business giving people pockets of sunshine during a months-long rainstorm. The two are both interesting characters, with Hodoka being a bit of a hothead with a penchant for making bad decisions, and Hina being preternaturally nice. She lives with and takes care of her little brother. She is certainly a pleasant character, with a thematically sunny disposition, but she does feel idealized beyond the point of believability.

The supporting cast is interesting as well, consisting mainly of a somewhat sketchy character that befriends and takes in Hodoka and his credulous assistant. They write tabloid articles, and the movie sets up a lot of the plot during their research of the sunshine girl phenomenon. Weirdly, this research is unrelated to Hina’s existence and powers, and the fact that both are going on doesn’t really reach a satisfactory resolution.

As with Shinkai’s other work, Weathering With You is absolutely beautiful. The animation is enchanting, and the fact that it’s almost always rainy and wet just makes that achievement more notable. The soundtrack is fantastic as well, and features Radwimps, the same band that recorded the soundtrack for Your Name. There are half a dozen lyrical songs that fit the themes very well, though only the main track is presented in English, even in the dub. Regardless, the movie is an audiovisual treat.

On its own, Weathering With You is a great story with likable characters, excellent writing, and breathtaking presentation. Where it suffers, it must be said, is in trying to capture the lightning in a bottle that made Your Name so memorable, and failing. The movie would have been well-served to take a divergent course from its predecessor, and at the start it seems that it will. There are too many parallels to ignore by the end, though. Weathering With You does make a lot of bold choices, but it lacks a special something. The emotional connection Shinkai is so excellent at evoking doesn’t work here as well as it does in his other works, either.

If you like beautiful anime with a good touch of the supernatural, Weathering With You might be the movie for you. If you like naive teenagers falling for one another, or saving the day despite the adults in the room, again, this is the movie for you. It’s not life-altering or anything, but it is a joy to watch.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Bionic Commando

Bionic Commando is a classic and unique NES platformer. Unlike virtually every other platformer that has ever existed, in Bionic Commando you lack the ability to jump. Instead, you navigate the world with a grappling hook.

The grappling hook mechanic is the heart and soul of Bionic Commando. You can fire the grappling hook forward, straight up, or up at a 45 degree angle, and can swing or climb to most obstacles. Your character can also fire a gun, though only forward. Several unlockable guns have different firing patterns, but for the most part you’ll be using your grappling hook to position yourself to attack enemies. Swinging puzzles are also quite common, often resulting in instant death or close to it if not executed perfectly. The game is particularly challenging when you find yourself trying to swing in the vicinity of enemies, any of which can knock you off of whatever you’re attached to.

Bionic Commando has an extremely odd difficulty curve. The first stage is one of the hardest, due to starting the game unable to take multiple hits and with only three lives and no continues. Leveling up by collecting bullets dropped by enemies will solve the first problem soon enough, but the way continues work in this game is among the strangest in gaming. You start with none, but it is extremely easy to earn enough to keep you going indefinitely. As a result, once you get a few levels and completed stages under your belt, even the game’s toughest platforming puzzles become much less stressful to navigate.

In addition to the RPG-like leveling system, Bionic Commando features a variety of items to collect. You can bring one of each type (weapon, protection, special, and communicator) into any given stage, and many of these are required to progress through certain stages. Some are found in hidden locations, but most are earned when you complete any given hostile area. The “RPG Elements” even extend into an open world of sorts, where you can travel to most stages at will if you’re willing to take on some random encounters. Of course, practically speaking you have to mostly go in order to complete the game.

Bionic Commando is a charming combination of weirdness and difficulty. The grappling hook is tough but satisfying to master, and expanding your arsenal is a lot of fun. This isn’t an easy game, but it’s certainly beatable if you stock up on continues. The stages are short but have a lot of variety, and the puzzles and plot progression are fair despite the somewhat broken translation. It’s a good game, though it’s well-known more for its uniqueness than anything else.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Strider (NES)

Strider for NES is an interesting game with a lot of good ideas. It’s also one of the jankiest good games for the NES. NES arcade ports often differ wildly from the originals, but in most cases they did so in order to allow the NES to handle them. Not so much here.

Strider presents itself as a non-linear game, with a level select that adds more levels over time. The truth is, the progression is pretty much set in stone, though you will find yourself revisiting levels quite often. A small few of the upgrades you find are optional, but for the most part you’ll collect a variety of new abilities and items while searching for the keys needed to advance to a given area.

You are equipped with a cool-looking energy sword of some type, but the mechanical problems with the game start there. The hit box of the sword (or perhaps the enemies) is not at all consistent, and you’ll often miss enemies for no good reason. Moving and jumping are even worse. The jumping in Strider is among the least fun and consistent I’ve seen in a game. The wall jump, which is necessarily (thankfully only twice) to complete the game, is so difficult to pull off that I assumed the manual was incorrect and I had to learn it somewhere. (A turbo controller works wonders when trying to pull this move off.) Even the vertical scrolling in stages is jumpy and buggy. As far as game engines go, Strider’s is a mess.

Despite its terrible execution, Strider manages to be fun due to its structure, plot, and ideas. You’re initially tasked with assassinating a captured ally, but you immediately decide to disobey and save him instead. Over time you’ll discover who the bad guys are, what they’re planning, and how to stop them. The stage designs are all over the place, varying wildly in size and structure. The jumping puzzles tend to be a nightmare due to the bad controls and physics, but everything else tends to work reasonably well.

All in all, Strider is fun despite itself. However, since the most frustrating parts of the game are early on, it’s difficult to recommend the game. Even when things are working right, the stuttering scrolling and graphical glitches make the entire game seem amateurish.

Review Score: C

Retro Review: River City Ransom

River City Ransom is a memorable NES brawler that combined fun, emotive graphics with RPG mechanics to make the genre a bit more interesting than it could otherwise be.

At its core, River City Ransom is a pretty simple brawler in the vein of Double Dragon and other games. In fact, the combat is even simpler in some ways. You can learn six moves besides your basic punches, kicks, jumps, and throws, but half of those moves are just rapid-fire versions of other attacks. The change in your power during the game instead comes mainly from purchased upgrades, which come in the form of food, items, and services. You earn money by defeating enemies, resulting in a system not unlike the experience system of many RPGs.

River City Ransom is a part of the Kunio-kun series, a wide array of games that feature a common art style but all sorts of varied genres and gameplay types. The series is known for its emotive deformed characters, and River City Ransom adds to their personality by having them talk during fights as well. Having these semi-unique characters to fight goes a long way in breaking up the monotony of brawling.

Unfortunately, its various gimmicks can’t really hide that, at its core, River City Ransom is a short and repetitive game. It’s not as straightforward as Double Dragon and its ilk, but the number of side paths can be counted on one hand and the only reasons you ever have to backtrack are to find a few bosses and to shop. Grinding is extremely effective, and you can beat the game pretty easily (at least on Novice difficulty) by saving up and building up whatever techniques you are most comfortable with.

River City Ransom is a strange case of a game whose mystique far surpasses the game itself. It was way ahead of its time, but now that you can see the seams it does feel a bit lacking. On the other hand, its charm and co-op mode are both worth the price of admission.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Legacy of the Wizard

Legacy of the Wizard is a non-linear exploration action game for the NES. It is similar in some respects to the original Metroid, with the addition of multiple characters and a more contiguous adventure area.

There are five playable characters in Legacy of the Wizard, and you can freely choose between them at your home base. This home base is a family home, and the characters are members of a family tasked with defeating a great dragon currently trapped in a painting. To do this, you’ll need to retrieve four crowns and the DragonSlayer sword. Though the game doesn’t explicitly tell you so, each character is intended (and in most cases required) to complete one of these tasks.

The gameplay of Legacy of the Wizard is fairly simple. The one large dungeon the adventure takes place in consists of single-square blocks and enemies. All enemies damage you by touch, while your own characters each have projectile attacks. Each character has different jump capabilities, and their attacks have different range and damage amounts. When the game starts, these are the only differences between each character, but you will find a variety of equippable items that enhance various characters’ abilities. You can equip three at a time and swap between them at will, or spend some money at the many inns in the dungeon to change your loadout.

It is the retrieval of these special abilities that makes Legacy of the Wizard shine. Since each character can only use some items, and many items are exclusive to a single character, the gameplay of each diverges as the game continues. This is a lot of fun, though it can be frustrating because your progress is often blocked and the game never tells you which character can unblock it. There is a “correct” order to do things in, but is neither obvious nor required.

Combat in Legacy of the Wizard is fun, especially once you find items that increase your damage or range, but the dungeon design is often quite frustrating. Paths are designed to take as long as possible to traverse, and are often dead ends with no significant purpose. Tricks that in other games would seem like exploits are often required to complete your mission. And the movable blocks that your characters can handle in different ways can be extremely finicky to deal with. This is a game that would have benefitted greatly from an extra controller button or two.

All in all, Legacy of the Wizard is a fun adventure which will nonetheless frustrate you at times. Character death means a loss of progress, though the means to return to base and get a new password are readily available. Even when you do die, the effort to get as far as you did is often more valuable than the items you found on the way. This is a game of trial and error, and while it’s not as constantly rewarding as most modern games, completing it is quite satisfying.

Review Score: B

Review: Hollow Knight

Hollow Knight is a beautiful hand-drawn Metroidvania with some intensely challenging bosses and harrowing platforming. It’s extremely fun to play, though it can also make you quite mad.

Hollow Knight’s difficulty feels like that of an old-school NES game. When you die, you are given a slight stat penalty until you find and defeat your former self where you fell, but more importantly you lose all of your money until that time. If you manage to die again before recovering it, it’s gone forever. As a result, the game requires extra care even when exploring. Dying once is often no big deal, but even that can be stressful if you died on the other side of some deadly obstacles. This can be especially difficult in the case of some early bosses, though by the later game losing a boss fight usually only costs time.

As a result of its difficulty, you need to play carefully and learn how to use your abilities well. The game is generous with abilities, particularly those that enhance your movement. You’ll gain a dash early on which can be used both airborne and grounded, and a double-jump later in the game. Both can be used repeatedly without hitting the ground if you grab a wall or hit an enemy from above. As a result, you can remain in the air for quite a while and feel like a total badass doing it. The wall jump also allows you to easily scale any vertical surface (more akin to Mega Man X’s wall jump than that seen in Super Metroid). And the rocket dash ability you eventually get is inexplicably fun to use.

Hollow Knight is very much about exploration, and does little to hold your hand through a linear progression of items or bosses. Thorough exploration is rewarded with money, items, and charms. Charms are a wide variety of equippable abilities with various effects like increasing your attack range, enhancing your spells, or even changing how you heal. Healing in particular is an interesting mechanic. Hitting enemies fills your Soul meter, which powers your spells but can also be used to recover from damage. This takes a few seconds, though, so you need to be in a safe spot to do it. Finding these safe spots during boss battles is the key to winning many of them, at least until you’re good enough to dodge their attacks (which is the preferred tactic in the long run).

While it is a finely-tuned challenge in most respects, Hollow Knight does suffer somewhat for a few extremely difficult bosses. These can feel like a wall when you fight them, and depending on how you’re exploring, you can even challenge some bosses before you have a reasonable chance at beating them. Learning their patterns, and earning the abilities required to avoid those patterns, is rewarding in the long run but can be very frustrating in the moment. Even greater challenges have been added via free updates, so if you like games that require absolute mastery, Hollow Knight can give you that.

The bottom line is, Hollow Knight is a ton of fun. The art style is fantastic, the gameplay is super fun, and it’s incredibly satisfying to get good at. It’s tough, no doubt, but all the required content is definitely doable. If you like challenging Metroidvania-style games, Hollow Knight is a must-play.

Review Score: A−

Review: Celeste

Celeste is a challenging retro-style platform puzzle game. Featuring pixelated graphics and an intriguing story about mental health, its a game whose main appeal lies in its difficulty.

One of Celeste’s strengths is in its simplicity. You can jump, grab (and climb) walls, and dash in any of eight directions. Those are the only controls, and they don’t change throughout the game. You are given all of the tools you need to tackle any given game challenge, and its up to you to execute.

While your basic controls don’t change, each of the game’s chapters introduce various interesting new mechanics. Many of these involve allowing you to reset your dash ability, which is normally accomplished only when landing on solid ground. The mechanics range from the incredibly fun and interesting to the rather boring and frustrating, though they tend toward the fun side.

There is no penalty for dying in Celeste, aside from the game counting your deaths, and indeed you will die quite often learning how to traverse each room. The game never sends you back very far upon death, so you can freely retry tough challenges. Though the game has a retro style, the difficulty feels much more modern. In older platformers, mastery was achieved through repetition and memorization, while here you only need to succeed at any given challenge once. The challenges are much harder individually than anything you’d see in an NES game, though mastery isn’t as necessary to complete the game.

As you’d expect, Celeste also features a variety of collectables. The main ones, Strawberries, don’t have any mechanical effect, but the rarer collectables unlock various harder content. If you enjoy Celeste’s challenges, you can spend a ton of time opening up and completing them all. Full completion is not for the faint of heart.

If you like challenge for its own sake in the form of a straightforward gauntlet of puzzles, Celeste is the game for you. I have to admit that I am not, and while I enjoyed the well-told and interesting story, I found Celeste a bit too punishing for my tastes.

Review Score: C+

Retro Review: Ninja Gaiden Shadow

Ninja Gaiden Shadow is a prototypical Gameboy port of an NES action game. It’s superficially similar to the other games in the series, but plays much more slowly and methodically than they do. It’s a relatively short gauntlet of combat challenges with boss fights punctuating the difficulty curve.

Ninja Gaiden Shadow avoids the common Gameboy issue of too-large sprites. Instead, the character and enemies in the game scale well to the Gameboy screen, and the graphics are simple enough that terrain and hazards are easily identifiable. In particular, there is a type of platform which can be grabbed from below that has a distinct look that stands out quite well. Some stages hide this to a degree by putting these platforms far away from the main field of view, but once noticed they are quite obvious.

Ryu’s skill set has been considerably constrained in the game, under the justification that this is a prequel to the main Ninja Gaiden series and his techniques are limited. You can use just one ninja power, and rather than being fueled by a numeric meter, you can store up to five uses at any given time. There is one ability unique to this game, a grappling hook that can attach to the aforementioned grabbable platforms from considerably further than your vertical jump would allow.

This is very much a game of learning the patterns of enemies and obstacles and adapting to them. Continues are unlimited, but you only have three lives to get through the sections and boss fight in each stage. Like many other Gameboy action games, you will essentially need to master Ninja Gaiden Shadow to progress, though the game is not so complex that this requires a huge time investment. Patience and observation are key, especially against the game’s bosses.

Ninja Gaiden Shadow doesn’t feel much like a Ninja Gaiden game, but it does work well in a way similar to other Gameboy games like the Castlevania series or Operation C. It is analogous to those games’ takes on their original series. If you like this style of game play, you can do much worse than Ninja Gaiden Shadow.

Review Score: B+