Review: Dragon Quest (Switch)

A remake of the original Dragon Quest, based on the mobile phone port, has come to the Nintendo Switch. This serves essentially as a graphically enhanced version of the existing Dragon Quest remakes (such as that for Gameboy Color), which means the game’s grindiness has been toned down considerably from its NES iteration (Dragon Warrior). And that’s a good thing!

One nice touch in this remake is a return to the ye olde English-style dialogue of the original NES version, after the Gameboy version played things totally straight. The ancient hero may be Loto in Japan, but to me he’ll always be Erdrick. If you have an aversion to thees and thous, this game will frustrate you a lot. The graphical style can also be offputting, as it is a combination of low-resolution backgrounds, standard definition map sprites, and HD monster sprites.

The structure of the game is mostly intact from the original. The biggest change is that the enemies yield more experience and gold, allowing you to progress through the game much more quickly. The game system has also been updated to feature more stats like Resilience, as well as items that give you permanent upgrades to those stats. Some of the items have been rebalanced, but all work in essentially the same way they always have.

The big change here is that the dungeons have been redesigned to varying extents. The game doubles the size of its grid system in line with later series entries (though still keeps the need for torches or the Glow spell), and treasure chests no longer respawn. The treasures contained in those chests have been upgraded substantially to compensate, leading to a situation where delving dungeons can be very rewarding early on. Specific dungeon layouts have changed, though most follow a similar pattern to their originals.

The problem with the remake is that the reduction in grinding reveals how sparse the content in the original Dragon Quest actually is. Even with leveling speed increased dramatically, you’ll spend most of your time trying to gain experience or gold to prepare you for the next challenge. The entire game’s plot would fit into two or three towns worth of quests in any game later in the series.

The bottom line is, you can live without playing the first Dragon Quest, but if you want to experience it, the Switch is the best place to do so. It’s not a big time or money investment, and it ties directly into Dragon Quest 2 and 3, both of which are also available (and are far better games).

Review Score: B−

Review: Link’s Awakening (Switch)

The original Gameboy version of Link’s Awakening is considered by many to be among the best Zelda games, though this is not an opinion I generally share. It has a number of gameplay flaws that I found frustrating. The Nintendo Switch remake addresses all those and more, bringing Link’s Awakening into its full potential.

Generally speaking, “remake” is the correct term here. While plenty of specifics have changed to fit the much more powerful console, some of which (such as being able to attack at 45 degree angles) have significant gameplay implications, this very much feels like the original Link’s Awakening. This is most apparent by the enormous size of the tiles the overworld and particularly dungeons are made of, since each room is still restricted to the amount of visible area as the original. These giant, detailed tiles enhance the game in an odd way, trimming the fat of dungeon design and leaving only the essentials.

While staying true to the source material, the game makes graphical improvements where it can. The overworld is no longer divided into distinct screens, and some large dungeon rooms are also treated as a single whole. This does have the effect of making it obvious just how small the world map is, but the charm in the transitions between areas and the generally stellar look make up for it. The graphical style of the game may look a bit boring and plasticky in still shots, but in motion the game looks great.

One major new feature has been added to the game in the form of a dungeon creator. This is most definitely not “Zelda Maker,” though we can hope it is a precursor to it. Dungeons are made up of rooms adapted from the in-game dungeons you’ve beaten, and any given room has a set number of chests, doors, stairs, and so on. The mini-game is divided into two parts. First you need to create the dungeon, and to unlock more options you’ll need to do so in the form of “challenges” where you need to fit your available pieces under specific conditions. Then you’ll actually play through the dungeon. The gameplay is necessarily simplistic (for instance, aside from locked doors there is no way to make a specific room impassable until some condition is met) but putting your Zelda skills to use can still be a lot of fun. This is an enjoyable mode, but one that can easily be brought down by high (or even middling) expectations.

Whether you like Link’s Awakening or just never played it, the Switch version is well worth a look. (If you dislike the original, you’re probably safe to skip this one.) It’s a beautiful and well-executed game with notably charming sound design and writing. The dungeons remain well-built and challenging. There are even more Pieces of Heart and Secret Seashells to collect, but the game tracks them and offers a Seashell Detector to make the process much smoother. This is a fine original game polished and enhanced into a must-play for Zelda fans.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Mega Man: The Wily Wars (Genesis Mini)

Mega Man: The Wily Wars is a collection of Mega Man 1-3 released for the Genesis. Unfortunately, this game was only released on Sega Channel in North America, so it is quite rare. With its inclusion on the Genesis Mini, it’s readily available to all for the first time.

The Wily Wars is somewhat akin to Super Mario All-Stars in that it is a 16-bit remake of several 8-bit games. All three included games are quite faithful to the originals, but with upgraded graphics that use more colors, nicer backgrounds, parallax scrolling, and other new effects. The music is also arguably worse due to the Genesis’s sound hardware. The games have been modified in various minor ways, and do appear to be tuned slightly harder than the original versions. The easier difficulty for Mega Man 2 has been entirely removed as well.

While the first three Mega Man games are all good in their own right, The Wily Wars also features some new content. If you complete all three games (made somewhat easier by a battery save, which replaces the passwords in the latter two games), you unlock Wily Tower. This section consists of three Journey to the West-themed stages followed by a new set of Dr. Wily levels. While the new bosses offer no new powers for Mega Man, you are able to freely choose any 8 weapons and any 3 special items from among the three games when tackling these levels. This offers a huge amount of variety, and may be the most fun part of the game. None of the new stages or bosses are particularly inspired, but they do feature an interesting mix of enemies from multiple games and a variety of side paths that often require you to bring along the correct weapon to access. There’s a lot to play with here.

The one serious downside to the Wily Wars is that the games suffer from input lag. I assumed this was an artifact of the Genesis Mini, but I understand this was true of the original game as well. This can cause a lot of frustration when you need to perform difficult platforming feats. This issue is assuaged somewhat by the fact that the game smoothed out some of the unfair difficulty spikes of the original. The overall difficulty of the games remains similar to the originals as a result.

The Wily Wars may not be enough to justify a Genesis Mini purchase, but if you’re at all interested in that device, this is a nice incentive. I’m very glad Sega and Capcom worked to make this game available to us. I wouldn’t say it’s a must for any Mega Man fan, but it’s an enjoyable addition to the series.

 

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Gargoyle’s Quest II: The Demon Darkness

Gargoyle’s Quest II follows up on its Gameboy predecessor by largely playing it safe. It is a very similar game, albeit presented in color and on a larger screen, and to a degree it suffers from a lack of ambition.

The original Gargoyle’s Quest made excellent use of its small screen with slow-paced, precise platforming. Oddly, the NES sequel has a lot of problems with forcing you to make blind jumps, most frequently in a downward direction. Avoiding enemy attacks was difficult on Gameboy due to a lack of room to maneuver, while here the attacks tend to be faster. The result is a similar necessity for planning and skill, but the difficulty feels cheaper on the NES.

The good news is, Gargoyle’s Quest still has excellent gameplay. It remains largely unchanged, with the major exception being the platform-creating Magic Tornado weapon. It’s given to you relatively early, but the fact that it arcs upward and you can’t rise while hovering keeps it from being a game-breaking ability. Instead, you’ll find yourself switching weapons tactically, trying to maximize your advantage.

Magic Tornado aside, Gargoyle’s Quest II consists of a series of stages you need to traverse, all filled with highly vertical platforming and nasty traps. The random encounters from the original are gone, and you now move much more quickly on the world map, leaving the well-designed stages as the primary focus of the game. You receive ability upgrades at regular intervals, leading to a highly satisfying progression loop. The game does suffer slightly from the problem with other games of its ilk, in that the hardest stages tend to be towards the beginning of the game when you’re lacking some abilities and maneuverability.

The bottom line is, if you liked Gargoyle’s Quest, this is more of that, and it’s a lot of fun. The game is pretty short by NES standards, and fairly hard to find, but if it’s available it’s worth checking out.

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Super Metroid

Super Metroid is considered one of the greatest games of all time for good reason. Not only did it introduce a huge number of concepts that remain more or less intact in the modern “Metroidvania” genre it helped spawn, it’s just a great game in and of itself.

The original Metroid feels like a rough draft for Super Metroid. The games are structurally quite different, but most of those differences exist to fix the rough edges of the original. While Super Metroid is very much an exploratory game, you are led along a fairly linear critical path from upgrade to upgrade. Your ability to progress is not based on which hidden areas you happened to stumble across, as in the NES version, but how far you’ve progressed in the basic gameplay sequence.

Super Metroid handles power-ups extremely well. Almost every one of them will open up new avenues of exploration while being useful and fun for general use as well. In addition to the traditional missiles, the game offers more powerful (and more limited) super missiles and power bombs that can turn tough tactical situations into easy wins. There are five beam types to collect, and you can activate and combine multiples of them at a time. You can even turn off the various upgrades you find at any time, if you want to experiment or just make things harder on yourself.

A large part of Super Metroid’s legacy is due to its natural affinity for speed running. The “best” ending is rewarded for finishing the game in under three hours, so the incentive to move fast is already present. It was also one of the first games to report a now-common “item collection percentage,” allowing for a universal definition of what a perfect run might be.

Super Metroid hits all the gameplay details you could want, but the game design is what keeps it being replayable several decades after release. This game just feels good. The enemies are tough but fair, the platforming is solid, and there are tons of outside-the-normal-toolkit tricks you can master to break the game wide open (or just give yourself an advantage in combat).

While it’s not why the game is so great, Super Metroid’s crowning achievement may be its ability to tell a great story with very little text. Outside of the prologue, there is no narrative text in the game, yet the game tells its story clearly with environmental cues and the like. The final areas in particular are emotionally charged and remain among the better ending sequences seen in video games.

In short, if you’ve never played Super Metroid, go out and do so. Right now! And if you have played it, play it again. It’s still as good as you remember. It may very well be the best of all time.

Review Score: A+

Retro Review: G.I. Joe (NES)

Licensed games are notorious for being mediocre at best, but this wasn’t always the case. The first G.I. Joe game for NES is an example of a game that not only perfectly used its license, but was a good game all on its own.

The structure of G.I. Joe is key to why the game works so well. You have five playable characters available from the start, and each of the first five missions requires you to use one of them. You also get to choose two other team members to accompany the preset leader. Each characters has his own strengths and weaknesses. For example, Rock & Roll provides a powerful gun while Snake Eyes has a strong melee attack and a weak “gun” that doesn’t use ammo. Every character works on every stage, but playing to their strengths will make your runs go much more smoothly.

Choosing characters isn’t just a matter of preference, though. You’ll find permanent upgrades for character stamina and weapon level scattered throughout each stage, and these upgrades are kept permanently using a password system. Character death will result in the loss of some of this progress, but you can always re-enter your password and try again. Powerups are given out generously, and you have more than enough to max out every character’s weapon power in time for the final mission.

The missions themselves also have a distinct structure. The first and third parts are simple action sequences, while the middle section of each mission has you exploring a large base looking to plant bombs in certain locations. All three sections end with boss fights, allowing you to bask in a wide variety of G.I. Joe nostalgia, if you’re into that. You even get to ride a few vehicles you may remember as toys during the game.

All the structure in the world doesn’t actually make a game fun, but G.I. Joe has that covered too. Ammunition is limited, though not overly so, so you’ll want to make strategic use of melee attacks where feasible. The different characters’ guns have different strengths and firing patterns as well. There are many incentives to switch up your characters regularly, which keeps things interesting. The platforming is well-designed, though the controls are not up to the quality of the rest of the game.

Whether you have G.I. Joe nostalgia or not, I’d recommend trying the NES game for a deep and satisfying run and gun experience. It’s a short game, but one that’s fun to master and offers not only a second quest, but an expert-level third quest as well.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Lemmings

Lemmings is a classic puzzle game from the studio that would eventually create Grand Theft Auto. It popularized an unfortunate misconception about the titular creatures, and spawned a wide variety of knockoffs and clones.

In each of its 120 stages, some number of lemmings will appear at one or more entrances, and your goal is to get as many as possible to one of the stage exits. To do this, you are given eight tools, each of which is an ability that can be conferred upon an individual lemmings. They can dig through the ground at multiple angles, build ramps, and so on. Your uses of each of the abilities is limited based on the stage, and the stage also determines how many lemmings appear and how many you must save.

You can start at stage 31, 61, or 91 if you want, but the progression of stages ramps up on a steady difficulty curve. Early stages exist largely to teach you how the various abilities work, and you’ll occasionally learn some fancy new trick as well. A few of these tricks are not obvious, and you can get stuck in a few places if you don’t experiment enough, but for the most part the difficulty is quite fair.

For most of the game, the challenge is figuring out exactly what you need to do. You have to determine how many lemmings may need to be sacrificed to achieve your goal, and whether that’s too many to successfully complete the stage. Precision becomes more and more vital as the difficulty increases, and you’ll often find yourself trying the same level several times to execute your plan. This can be frustrating for several reasons, the most common of which is the difficulty in targeting a specific lemming (or a lemming walking in a specific direction) among a large group.

Unfortunately, the nature of Lemmings’ gameplay causes the later stages to focus less on clever puzzles and more on difficulty of execution. Nearly pixel-perfect ability use is often required, and you may have to try a stage many times to determine the proper timing. Many stages involve sending off a lone lemming to clear a path before allowing the rest to follow, but late in the game the stage timer is so tight that you’ll need to take major risks to have a chance.

Lemmings is a great concept and a fun game, but the premise can only scale for so long. The lemmings are always going to keep on walking, and there are only so many ways you can direct them around the stage. The game makes the most of its concept, but may have a few stages too many. (The bonus stages in the Super NES version, for instance, show the kind of frustrating nonsense that passes as difficulty beyond the original concept.)

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Bomberman II

Bomberman II takes the template created by the original Bomberman and polishes it to a nice shine. Unfortunately, along with the dirt, some of the more fun aspects of the original have been removed.

The main thing Bomberman II adds to its predecessor is multiplayer. There is a two-player mode, and those with the NES Four Score (or NES Satellite) can access a three-player mode as well. As Bomberman has become synonymous with multiplayer, and especially with more-than-two-player multiplayer, Bomberman II deserves a lot of credit for starting that trend. However, this review is limited to the single-player portion of the game.

Bomberman II has a similar structure to Bomberman, in that you are tasked with clearing a number of stages in order, occasionally broken up by a bonus stage. The game has much more of a story this time, involving a second bomberman framing your character for a crime, and you progress through six areas each with their own graphics and music. The stages also differ in size, though the majority are of the same approximate size as in the original.

The graphical upgrades are significant, and make Bomberman II a far more attractive game to look at than the original. The changes in music are also quite welcome. Not only are the backgrounds and enemies much better looking, bomberman himself finally takes on his full iconic look in this game.

The flaw in Bomberman II is that they dialed back the most fun parts of Bomberman: the crazy powerful upgrades. They show up much more rarely, but are lost just as easily. The immunity to your own bombs is only temporary, preventing any possibility of becoming an unstoppable juggernaut as in the first game. Rather than being the main thing to look forward to, these power-ups are more of a novelty in this version.

With less emphasis on power-ups, Bomberman II relies instead on challenge. There are more enemies than before, and some can be quite a pain to deal with. Stages are still randomly generated, and every now and then you’ll have enemies that will make a beeline for you, right through walls, while you still have far too little room to effectively avoid them. The ultimate challenge, though, comes from the timer. Particularly in the final areas, you have very limited time to complete each stage. You’ll have to learn to drop many bombs in succession to clear these areas before bomberman keels over.

While Bomberman II is more refined in every way than Bomberman was, some of the most fun parts of Bomberman were those very unrefined bits. As a result, the sequel is a prettier and better built game, but lacks a lot of the pure joy of its predecessor. It’s also a very rare NES game that comes with a hefty price tag that isn’t worth the price.

Review Score: C

Retro Review: Bomberman

The Bomberman series is primarily known for its multiplayer, but the original entry is strictly a single-player affair. It’s a very simple game in many respects, but with gameplay that is far more fun than you’d expect.

Bomberman feels like a very old NES game because it is. The original Famicom version was released way back in 1985. In that context, it’s less surprising that the game features a single mode, no graphical differentiation between levels, and a single theme song. The game is structured in a very straightforward way, consisting of 50 levels and 10 bonus levels all sharing the same grid-based layout. Each level is randomly laid out, and differs only in terms of what enemies appear and what power-ups are available.

The power-ups are the heart and soul of Bomberman, and the source of its fun. You start off able to place one bomb at a time, which will explode after a short time with a very small blast radius. You will find permanent upgrades to both the blast radius and number of bombs you can place at once, which results in an odd difficulty curve where the early levels are among the toughest because killing enemies with one weak bomb is very difficult. You need to kill every enemy to clear a given level, and do so in a single life, which can be a tough proposition early on.

The real fun is in the other power-ups, which let you do crazy things like walk through walls or survive your own explosions. You can also gain the ability to detonate your bombs manually rather than wait on a timer. Each of these power-ups is fun in and of itself, but once you get a few of them at the same time, you can become a nigh-unstoppable killing machine. If you die (more often from your own bombs than enemies), you reset down to your standard bomb power-ups, slowing things down considerably.

The downside to Bomberman’s gameplay is that it’s one of those games that rewards perfect play and punishes small mistakes. It’s a lot more fun to be a master than it is to learn the game. But because the reset point doesn’t leave you defenseless and the game allows unlimited password-based continues, the penalty isn’t a complete show-stopper.

Bomberman is far more fun than its simple design should allow, especially considering this version doesn’t even feature the mode that made the series popular. The barrier to entry is a bit high, but the payoff is worth it. Of course, there are many more modern versions of the game to play, so there’s no particular need to search out the original.

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Final Fantasy VI

Final Fantasy VI is a dividing point in the series. While FF7 is the one remembered for its cinematics, in many ways FF6 did the same thing with lesser hardware. It was the turning point in the series, the first time it abandoned its pure fantasy roots in favor of something a bit darker, a bit more serious, and a whole lot more cinematic.

Graphically, Final Fantasy VI holds up so well that it makes one wonder what they were thinking with those blocky polygons in the PS1 generation. You can recruit 14 characters, each with a range of animations that are pretty simple but still manage to convey a lot of emotion. The tilesets are seamless and, for the first time in the series, aren’t obviously just arranged in a grid. The sound design, particularly the music, is also flat-out amazing. FF6’s soundtrack is among the best in RPG history.

The gameplay of FF6 is a strange amalgamation of two distinct concepts. Each character is based on a special ability, many of those based on the jobs of FF5 (similar to how FF4’s characters were mostly recreations of FF3 jobs). But FF6 allows you to teach every character any spell, so there are no dedicated “mages,” per se. Unfortunately, the system is so flexible that you can lose the individual elements of each character in the magic and leveling system. It’s not a total loss, as they retain their abilities and each have different equipment lists, but any endgame FF6 party can just spam Ultima to kill everything, regardless of how you played the game up to that point.

Indeed, Final Fantasy VI has a fundamental flaw: the game isn’t just breakable, it’s very nearly pre-broken. It’s a very easy game once you have a grasp of the mechanics, and even at that point there are more powerful mechanics to learn. There’s a reason various low-level or low-powered challenges are so popular among FF6 players.

But what FF6 lacks in gameplay balance, it more than makes up for in storytelling. It’s a story that, like many in its series, features a band of rebels fighting an encroaching empire. You will span the world gathering intelligence and strength in a fairly linear progression culminating in an epic battle. That’s a good RPG right there, but for FF6, that’s just the first half. The game fundamentally changes, becoming wide open to the player while retaining the strong story aspect. Your first-half battles have real consequences in the second half, and you can witness the results firsthand. Emotionally resonant cutscenes are found throughout, including some of the most well-known in JRPG history. The Opera House scene has no business being anything at all but cheesy and ridiculous, but it’s stuck with gamers for decades.

In the end, what you get out of Final Fantasy VI will come down to what you want from it. If you’re looking for the deepest tactical RPG system there is, this is not that (though I hear there’s a ROM hack). If you’re looking for a story that will make you feel for its characters and struggle, you may just find it here. Or you may find it to be trite nonsense. But I can only speak for myself, and I love this game.

Review Score: A