Retro Review: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

The first Gameboy Legend of Zelda game is an impressive package for its system. The visual style of A Link to the Past translates pretty well to the small screen, though in many ways the game is a throwback to the original Zelda, particulary in its screen-by-screen nature.

Link’s Awakening departs in several key ways from its SNES predecessor, as a result of the system it’s on. For instance, for the first time in the series, your sword is treated just like any other item, and you can assign one item each to the two face buttons. In addition to giving you a general bit of flexibility, this allows for a few interesting combinations of items (such as firing bomb arrows) and makes it easy to use another weapon as your primary arm. Your shield is treated similarly, meaning that you can’t rely on it to block anything unless it’s actively in use. However, your shield is quite useful, moreso than in previous games, to make up for this.

The strength of Link’s Awakening also tends to be its weakness. The game features eight sprawling dungeons filled with traps and puzzles. A few of the solutions can be a bit obtuse, but the dungeon design is very solid overall. However, the overworld is laid out somewhat similarly to the dungeons, and the screen-by-screen nature of the game makes it very easy to lose your way. The world is not open like in Zelda 1 or even Link to the Past, instead being gated by various dungeon items. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not a problem, but getting to that point can be frustrating.

The game also has a tendency to occasionally throw things at you with no hints or prompts. Several times during the game, it’s unclear where you’re supposed to go next, or even in what direction you should travel. And several secrets are completely unfair, requiring you to bomb unmarked walls in some of the dozens of small caves in the game.

On the whole, Link’s Awakening is an impressive outing for the Gameboy, but the lack of hints and guidance can sometimes cause problems. Once you’ve figured it all out, the game really comes together. With several great Zelda dungeons, Link’s Awakening is highly recommended to fans of the series, particularly fans of the other portable games that are heavily inspired by this entry.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Mega Man IV (Gameboy)

Mega Man IV for the Gameboy is very similar to its immediate predecessor, Mega Man III. It’s a game with uneven, often unfair difficulty, and which doesn’t add enough to the formula to really justify its existence. At this point, the Mega Man series on Gameboy was clearly getting stale.

As with previous Gameboy Mega Man games, MMIV is split into two sets of four bosses. Capcom was especially lazy this time, presenting all eight bosses in the exact order you’ll likely want to fight them. The first set of bosses, from the NES Mega Man 4, are fine, but the game begins to fall apart in the second half. The latter stages experiment with more side paths and non-linearity than is normal for a Mega Man game, but these stages tend to be overlong and filled with exacting jumps and instant kill traps. They are, in short, not very fun.

Mega Man IV also suffers from general slowness. The game is plodding, and can be unresponsive as a result. This is not what you want in an exacting game like Mega Man, especially when you’re replaying a stage specifically because the slowness caused you to miss some pixel-perfect jump.

It’s not all bad, though. Mega Man IV makes decent use of its weapon selection, and the special new weapon designed for this game is very useful during the limited time you have it. The game is very generous with items and lets you buy more tanks of various types, though they don’t help with pits, spikes, and other death traps. Beat also makes a return here, useful but not as overpowered as in some of his NES appearances.

On the whole, Mega Man IV is more Gameboy Mega Man, and you should know what to expect if you’ve played previous games in the series. The snappy gameplay of the NES is too much for the Gameboy, and the challenge has largely been changed to that of memorization and perfect jumping. It’s not a terrible game, but it doesn’t do the series justice, either.

Review Score: C+

Retro Review: Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos

Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos is a worthy follow-up to its predecessor. Tecmo has changed up the gameplay formula in a number of ways, generally improving the game, and there is much less focus on memorizing each level to avoid gotcha moments. The cinematics that made Ninja Gaiden stand apart are back and even better.

The most dramatic gameplay change is that you can now get up to two shadow ninjas that will follow you around, similar to options in Gradius. These are especially helpful during boss fights, though their ability to duplicate ninja powers without an extra cost can be a huge advantage even in normal stages. And even when they aren’t actually helping very much, they just look cool.

Ninja powers have also been heavily revised in Ninja Gaiden II. Their costs now vary more, and it is possible to find items that will fill your power completely. To go with that change, you now have a maximum that can be upgraded as you progress through the game. The result is that ninja powers tend to see a lot more use during normal gameplay, especially later in the game where the effects are the most dramatic.

Also changed are the wall mechanics. You can now climb any wall you can grab, so you’ll do a lot less wall-kicking. The game uses some creative level layouts to take advantage of this. The types of stages also vary much more than in the original, adding mechanics like wind, slippery surfaces, and running water. It’s all a bit gimmicky, but it does give each level a very distinct personality.

The type of challenge has changed since the original Ninja Gaiden. There, you were expected to memorize monster spawn locations and learn the best path through each level. That is largely gone, though there are still plenty of potential one-hit kills, particularly in the last few levels. Ryu’s reaction to getting his is so dramatic that any hit on a small platform is liable to end in death. but instead of unfairly placed enemies, Ninja Gaiden II tends to throw large amounts of enemies at you. The result is frantic action, and while execution is still key, it feels like you at least have a chance the first time through a given area.

The only real problem with Ninja Gaiden II is that it’s just not as memorable as its predecessor. The story is largely a rehash, but the primary difference is that you won’t have to play certain sections dozens of times to learn them. With unlimited continues still available, this isn’t a particularly hard game to finish in a short time, especially if you can beat the original. Still, it does play nicely into nostalgia, including having normal enemy versions of most of the first game’s bosses. And the dramatic finale and gauntlet of bosses may be more memorable than they were the first time around, if only because you’re more likely to actually see them.

I’m not sure if Ninja Gaiden II is a better game than Ninja Gaiden I, but it’s much less hostile toward the player, and that makes a big difference in my book. There is more opportunity for creativity, as the game is more about handling dangerous situations than learning to avoid preset traps. And the mechanical changes make for a more interesting core gameplay loop. It may not quite reach its predecessor’s highs, but it avoids its lows as well.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Mega Man 7

Mega Man 7 is a strange entry in the Mega Man series. It’s the first main series game to be on a system other than the NES, though it came out after the first two Mega Man X games. In some ways it is a traditional Mega Man game, while in others it’s a massive departure.

The most noticeable change to Mega Man 7 is that Mega Man is comparatively huge compared to the NES games. The terrain is even larger in comparison, resulting in cramped rooms with a lot less going on per screen than in previous games. Your jump and slide cover much more distance than they used to, and as a result the game feels very cramped. There are a number of jumps made tough not by their distance, but by hazards directly above you that are hard to avoid due to the small play area.

Another big change in Mega Man 7 is that only four of the eight bosses are initially available. The other four become selectable after a certain point in the plot. This allows the design of the final four stages to breathe more, since the designers can take for granted that you have the first four weapons when playing them. However, it makes the boss order even more linear than in previous games, since the cycle of weaknesses still spans all eight bosses. Now, not only is the order set for you, the optimal starting point is as well.

Not all of Mega Man 7’s innovations backfired, however. The game introduced the currency known as bolts which give you an evergreen drop item and let you pick up spare energy tanks and such without having to replay particular stages. There are a number of special items to be found in the eight stages, most of which can alternately be purchased with bolts if desired. The two Rush suits from Mega Man 6 make a comeback, here combined into a single set of armor. The power of flight is changed to a diagonal air dash, but it’s still a fun set of armor to use. And don’t worry, the traditional Rush Jet is back for all of your flying needs.

Some of Mega Man 7’s bosses are seriously out of character for the series, like the vampiric Shade Man, but on the whole they aren’t a bad bunch. The proper weapon will have a more dramatic effect on a given boss, an idea introduced in the Mega Man X series, but the wrong weapon can actually power up some bosses. The weapons themselves are pretty middling by Mega Man standards. Several are genuinely useful outside of boss fights, and you can switch quickly between them with L and R, but most the weapons find little use. Still, there are some clever ideas, and the game’s shield sets a new series standard for both its effect and its animation.

It’s worth noting that Mega Man 7 has very nice graphics, though the sound isn’t nearly as memorable as tha of some of the early entries in the series. The art style is extremely cartoonish, which in truth Mega Man has always been, but it seems a bit exaggerated with the detailed sprites and wide color palette available on the SNES.

All in all, Mega Man 7 is a pretty forgettable Mega Man game. It doesn’t do anything particularly memorable, aside from having a brutally hard final boss, but it’s not egregiously bad or anything. The quality of the series has declined over time, and that hardly starts with the seventh entry. Still, if you can get it cheap via the Virtual Console or a collection, Mega Man 7 is worth checking out. (The price of the SNES cartridge, on the other hand, is not.)

Review Score: C

Retro Review: Super Castlevania IV

Super Castlevania IV is a combination of two things: a reinterpretation of the original Castlevania, and an impressive tech demo for the Super NES. It tinkers with the Castlevania formula in a number of interesting ways that make it feel significantly different than its predecessors.

The most obvious gameplay change in Castlevania IV is that Simon can now whip in any direction (though he can only whip in the downward directions while jumping). With the larger sprites on the SNES and the longer whip, this makes his primary weapon extremely powerful and flexible. Unfortunately, this flexibility does somewhat diminish the usefulness of subweapons like the axe, which were useful in previous games to attack in directions Simon otherwise couldn’t. In addition to directional whipping, Simon can also hold his whip out and flail it around. This does very little damage, but can be a useful technique for blocking projectiles or cheesing enemies just below you.

There are other fundamental changes which are smaller, but still have a big impact on the game. Simon can now control his jumps in mid-air, allowing for a slightly more action-oriented pace to the game. There are several platforming sections that require precision jumping, and this change is much appreciated. In addition, Simon can now jump onto staircases, and even drop off them. As a result, you’ll fall into a lot less pits. To compensate for Simon’s improved ability to navigate his surroundings, the enemies in Castlevania IV are generally a bit tougher and more aggressive than in previous games. It’s a good balance that exchanges the precision pace of the older games for something a bit more modern.

Where Castlevania IV really shines is in its presentation. It has great, atmospheric graphics and an understated but quality soundtrack. But, as an early SNES game, it also exists largely to show off the SNES’s capabilities. From a stage with a separate foreground and background area to a series of interesting mode 7 tricks and a ton of transparency, Castlevania IV really puts the system through its paces. In some cases it’s a bit much, as there is considerable slowdown caused by large numbers of sprites in several areas.

The level design is particularly interesting. Several levels are remakes of those from the original Castlevania, but most of them are all new and quite different from anything we’ve seen before. Aside from the mode 7 tech demo level, there are also vertical platforming levels, levels focused on swinging by your whip, and a visually stunning level that’s entirely filled with treasure. The bosses are also visually interesting, though not all that interesting in terms of mechanics. A lot will grow and shrink with mode 7, but there’s a lot of avoiding projectiles while whipping things without any real subtlety.

With solid gameplay and presentation, Super Castlevania IV is a good game. However, nothing sets it apart and makes it a truly great game. It loses a lot of what made Castlevania unique, and as a result kind of gets lost in the shuffle. It’s no accident that no future Castlevania game would be made in the style of this one. It’s an interesting evolutionary branch, but ultimately one that didn’t have a huge impact. It’s a fun game, just not a very memorable one.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Mega Man X

Mega Man X is the quintessential example of how to turn a great NES series into a great SNES series. Far beyond simply upgrading the graphics, Mega Man X takes the Mega Man formula and adds to it considerably, creating a new series clearly descended from its predecessor yet still distinct.

Probably the single most influential change in the Mega Man X series was giving X the ability to climb walls with jumps. This radically changes stage design, allowing for a lot more verticality and clever constructs, but more importantly it gives you a lot more room to dodge bosses. Instead of playing with the bottom of the screen, the whole thing is now in play, and even the relatively huge bosses like Flame Mammoth don’t take up so much of the screen that it becomes a problem.

The flashier additions to the formula are also a ton of fun. X can collect four separate upgrades that enhance not only his abilities, but his look. It’s a lot of fun going from the relatively simple NES-style palette to something with gold and white in it. And the dash ability becomes fundamental to how the game is played, making Mega Man X far more frenetic than the original series ever was. (Indeed, all X sequels would include the dash as a basic ability going forward.) In addition to the upgrades, X can extend his life bar and get reusable sub-tanks that fill up from extra energy, replacing the energy tanks of the original series.

At its core, this is still a Mega Man game, and that means 8 bosses whose weapons you can earn. While the game does have a very specific rotation of bosses with dramatic weaknesses to the appropriate weapon (often being stunned by the correct choice), most of the weapons themselves are very useful even outside of boss fights, making for one of the better selections in the series. Being able to quickly flip between weapons with the L and R buttons encourages experimentation. Defeating a boss does more than just give you their weapon, as well: many stages will change in some way depending on whether you’ve defeated a specific boss. These changes don’t follow the weapon vulnerability pattern, giving you a good reason to revisit stages and experiment.

Even the stage and enemy design are remarkable in Mega Man X. Enemies have a ton of personality, such as flying heads that laugh at you when they score a hit, or monsters that look around for you when they aren’t already engaged. The levels tend to be a lot of fun with memorable music, and contain memorable sections like the mine cart sections of Armored Armadillo’s stage.

Overall, Mega Man X is an absolutely fantastic game. It’s not great in the same way as Mega Man 2, but perhaps that’s why it succeeds. This is a new evolution of the Mega Man concept, much more kinetic and a bit less precise. It’s not quite as perfectly balanced as its best predecessors, but it makes up for it by just being tons of fun.

Review Score: A

Retro Review: Chrono Trigger

Many RPGs are good, but Chrono Trigger is the essence of a good RPG. It’s what you get if you trim all the fat from a typical RPG, and it’s as close to a flawless example of the genre as exists.

Developed by a team-up of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest developers long before Square and Enix would merge, Chrono Trigger really was a dream project. It doesn’t play particularly like either of those series, though it borrows elements from both. The way these elements are combined results in a fantastic game with no wasted plot or mechanics.

Combat in Chrono Trigger plays out similarly to the active time battle system of Final Fantasy, but a number of key innovations set it apart. First and foremost, all battles take place directly on the current area map, rather than on a separate battle screen. Many battles throughout the game can be avoided simply by avoiding the visible enemies on the map, a mechanic that was way ahead of its time in 1995. Further, positioning matters in combat, as many abilities have specific-shaped areas of effect. If Chrono Trigger has one tiny flaw, it’s that you can’t manually re-position your characters to take advantage of this, though that’s rarely an issue.

The party takes its cues from Dragon Quest, consisting of six core members (and one optional one) who each have eight abilities (techs). Each character is distinct, and their ability lists are non-formulaic, allowing for a wide variety of viable party combinations. Playing into this, every pair of characters can learn three techs that are combinations of one tech from each character, and often have dramatic effects. Further, there are triple techs available to every combination that includes the main character. In this way, the game keeps the ability lists simple but allows for a huge variety at the same time. The possibilities at play here are immense.

The storyline of Chrono Trigger starts off as small as RPG plots come, though the stakes soon become world-altering. Despite the epic scale of your quest, the plot never starts to meander, and every step of the way (save maybe one or two) serves a clear purpose in the story. There are a number of involved sidequests, all of which become available towards the end of the game. The structure is such that these sidequests are less something to do to kill time, and more a path of preparation for the final battle. You can, after all, fight that final battle practically whenever you want, from early in the game. (Though make no mistake, you will be crushed!)

Which brings me to another Chrono Trigger innovation, the New Game+. Truth be told, this mode is somewhat lacking compared to later iterations, since the game doesn’t get any more difficult when you play it at a higher level. Indeed, most of each New Game+ is trivial, though you can rush through those bits in a matter of a few hours. The main purpose of the New Game+ is to allow you to discover all of the dozen endings. Some of these are a bit disappointing, but several are hilarious or shed some interesting light on the plot. And even though the game lacks the challenges to justify it, New Game+ is also your path towards leveling your characters to godlike levels.

It’s not that Chrono Trigger is perfect by any means. The game could be improved in some ways. But at the same time, it really has no flaws. The graphics are great, the music ranges from good to incredible, the story is memorable and touching, and the combat is fantastic. And the game is about time travel. What more could you want? If you’re a JRPG fan but somehow missed Chrono Trigger, go play it right now. Just stop whatever you’re doing and find a copy (though preferably not the laggy PS1 version). And even if you have played it, maybe it’s time to play it again!

 

Review Score: A+

Retro Review: Mega Man III (Gameboy)

For the Gameboy Mega Man games, in many way the third time was the charm. The four-and-four bosses system finally makes gameplay sense, and this feels more like a Mega Man game than its predecessors.

Once again, you’ll fight four bosses each from two NES Mega Man games, but this time the second group are actually found in named stages like the first. This alleviates the issue with the previous Gameboy Mega Man games where the core concept of Mega Man, figuring out what weapon to use against what boss, was largely defeated.

If there is an issue with Mega Man III, it’s that it becomes much harder in the second half, sometimes unfairly so. Ironically, the stages representing Mega Man 4, one of the easiest games in the series, are all quite challenging. They tend to be very long and filled with instant death traps and pixel-perfect jump requirements. Essentially, every stage needs to be memorized like the Guts Man or Quick Man stages from the NES game.

While Mega Man III does a good job making at least some of its special weapons worthwhile, enemies aren’t your main problem in Mega Man III. Your real foe is the size of the screen. With such limited real estate, all of the spikes you see are that much more threatening, and the game features some of the most evil crushing ceiling rooms you’ll ever find. If you’re a fan of this kind of challenge, you’ll love this aspect of the game, but it goes a bit beyond what I think is generally reasonable.

Most of the bosses are well translated from their NES incarnations, though due to the level design you’ll often arrive at boss rooms low on health and lives, which makes things difficult. Energy tanks are hard to come by in Mega Man III, so to win you’ll really have to learn each stage. The bosses outside of the eight robot masters are another story. You’re generally fighting in very cramped quarters, sometimes not even the whole Gameboy screen, and these bosses hit extremely hard. You’ll need perfect reflexes to dodge every attack.

The developers get a lot of credit for making a Gameboy Mega Man that really plays and controls like one of the NES games. They do sometimes overdo the amount of things on screen at once, leading to some pretty drastic slowdown, but the game doesn’t feel off like Mega Man II did at times.

On the whole, Mega Man III is probably the best of the first three Gameboy Mega Man games, though its difficulty should not be underestimated. The game can be frustrating, but the majority of it is solid Mega Man fun.

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse

Castlevania III returns to the series’ first game’s action roots, adding a variety of new elements to the mix. It introduces a new hero, Trevor Belmont, who is essentially identical to previous hero Simon Belmont in every meaningful way. The primary differentiator of Castlevania III is that it also introduces three other playable characters, each with their own style of play.

The structure of Castlevania III is quite odd by NES standards. There are a total of 17 stages, but in any playthrough you’ll encounter no more than 10 of them. The second stage is fully optional, and lets you recruit one of the new characters, and the game splits into distinct paths, each with its own recruitable character, shortly after that. A second, smaller split occurs later on one of these paths, giving the game a total of three basic routes to play through. Because you can only have one character with you, there are a variety of ways to play through the game.

While you don’t actually have to recruit any of them to complete the game, the three optional characters really make Castlevania III special. Sypha has the same lack of mobility as Trevor, and a less impressive weapon, but wields powerful spells as sub-weapons. Grant can control his jumps in the air and can climb walls and ceilings, but lacks a variety of offensive options. Alucard can turn into a bat to fly past obstacles, but his only offense is in the form of a weak ranged attack. The game truly shines because the stages work so well with the different characters. You can freely switch between Trevor and your recruited character, and it can be incredibly fun to see how differently any given level plays with the mobility options of Grant or Alucard. The switching mechanic also finally makes the whip upgrades introduced in the original Castlevania serve a purpose, giving you an incentive not to neglect Trevor.

Unfortunately, while Castlevania III sports great level design, the game can be brutally hard at times. As with many action games of the time, the US version of Castlevania III was made considerably more challenging than the Japanese version, in an attempt to foil the rental market and give players an incentive to buy. Many stages, particularly on the harder route, need to be memorized in order to be beaten without a great deal of luck. It’s satisfying to complete the game, but the effort can be aggravating. If the basic game challenge isn’t enough for you, you can replay the game in a harder mode after viewing the ending. This even lets you take your recruited character to stages they would not otherwise be available for.

Castlevania III is a great game marred by unfair difficulty. It’s worth mastering, though, and there’s plenty of room to experiment with different characters and game routes. If you’re a fan of the old-school Castlevania style, this is the game for you. But don’t let the presence of Alucard fool you into thinking this game is similar to Symphony of the Night and its ilk.

Review Score: B+

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