Retro Review: Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge

Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, the second Gameboy entry in the series, builds on the foundation of Castlevania: The Adventure. By both refining its unique mechanics and taking more elements from the NES games, Konami created a solid and enjoyable portable Castlevania experience.

As in its predecessor, Castlevania II features two whip upgrades, the second of which allows you to shoot fireballs. However, only one type of enemy will now cause your whip to lose its upgrades, and two subweapons (the axe and holy water) have been added as well. You have more combat options, even while the game is somewhat less combat-focused than its predecessor. These options come in handy most often during the extremelly well thought-out and enjoyable boss battles. You are often rewarded with better offense if you can complete a stage without continuing, but you’re always given enough to get by.

The highlight of Castlevania II is its level design. You can choose to complete the first four levels in any order, and each has a very different feel. The game makes excellent use of the ropes that debuted in the original Gameboy Castlevania, adding fun wrinkles like pulley systems with multiple moving ropes. The result is the closest thing to a platforming challenge that you’re liable to find in a Castlevania game. Other cool innovations, such as using candles for light as well as to hold items, do a good job of riffing on what you would normally expect.

This is a challenging game, but a password system allows you to continue even if you turn the system off. The ability to try other stages if one is giving you problems also makes the game feel a lot more playable. The difficulty is nothing to scoff at, but it’s never unfair or arbitrary.

All told, I would consider Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge a hidden gem of the series. It’s not the longest game, but it’s a lot of fun, and I imagine many people skipped it due to the mediocrity of its prequel. If you like the slow-paced, NES-style Castlevania gameplay, this is a game you owe it to yourself to check out.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Mega Man X3

The final SNES entry of the Mega Man X series brings together everything established in the first two games, with a few fun new wrinkles to keep things interesting. It also added a few minor 3D polygon effects that have made the actual cartridge ridiculously rare and expensive. Not every innovation turns out to be worthwhile.

The premise of Mega Man X3 is the same as the previous Mega Man X games: you’re given 8 maverick robots to hunt down in any order you choose. Like its predecessors, you can find life upgrades, sub tanks, and armor upgrades among these stages, but X3 turns things up a notch with new ride armor types and secondary armor upgrades.

The ride armors are a cool concept that isn’t as fleshed out as it could be. Each of the four has special attributes, and almost every stage lets you use them at least one time if they’re unlocked, but they’re usually available for a short time and primarily to find other secrets. You don’t get to rip through entire stages with these special armors or anything.

The special upgrades give X massive bonuses, such as health regeneration or the ability to dash twice in the air, but you can only have one installed. This makes for a pretty interesting choice, though it is undermined by the well-known existence of the ultimate armor, which gives all four upgrades but can only be obtained if you did not previously obtain any. This kind of tension not to use significant upgrades is a bit problematic.

Of course, the meat of any Mega Man game is its boss and weapon selection. X3’s are fine, but really nothing special. Like many later Mega Man games, the weapons are all pretty gimmicky and, aside from use against bosses, the X-Buster is often the best weapon for the job. And as with other X games, the correct weapon is primarily useful because it will stun bosses rather than doing major damage.

While Mega Man X3 is undeniably a fun game, it feels a bit uninspired. All the extra stuff to find does keep it interesting longer than it may have otherwise been, but after this game, it became clear the series needed some kind of shakeup. Due to its rarity and special hardware, X3 has become one of the more sought-after SNES cartridges, but that’s not because the game itself is all that special.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Ultima IX: Ascension

Ultima IX caused a bit of an existential crisis for me. Most of the fun parts of the game were the parts that ignored the depth of previous Ultimas, such as the magic system. In fact, aside from the plot, most of U9’s issues revolve around the creators being too obsessed with making a world that felt real. (Of course, it doesn’t help that they fell woefully short, either.) If the game wasn’t so buggy, and the plot not so asinine, this may have actually been a pretty good game.

Of course, those are two pretty big “ifs.” Let me address the major problem with Ultima IX first: the plot is horrendous. Even detached from the Ultima series, it’s pretty stupid. But in context, it’s almost criminal. The game was written like a bad Ultima fanfic – there are a huge number of references to previous games in the overall plot structure, and not in a good way. We’ve seen corrupted virtues before, we’ve had to do a series of eight sets of the same quest before, we’ve cleansed the shrines before. The thing is, repetitive quests like those of the middle Ultima games only manage to not be obnoxious because the game is completely non-linear. Ultima IX is quite the opposite.

And it’s not just the bad structure that gets me. This is a game that makes many references to previous games that are flat-out wrong. Characters discuss factual things from previous games, even recent ones like U8 that don’t need to be ret-conned, and completely make up new facts. It’s bizarre – it’s not like a different company made the game or anything.

The plot is bad, but let’s be honest, you can ignore that sort of thing if the gameplay is good. What is much harder to ignore is constant crashing. The game was so buggy that Origin actually shipped out new install discs with the “final” patch to everyone who bought the game. Which was a very nice gesture, except the final version is still buggy. It doesn’t help that the primary graphics engine is 3dfx’s now-defunct Glide system. No modern computer is using that without some crazy tweaking, and the Direct 3D support is pretty spotty. There are a ton of fan patches to correct these and other bugs, as well as fix gameplay balance issues, but I’m reviewing the official game, not fan patches.

So what about the gameplay? Due to the repetitive nature of the quests, there are basically three aspects of the gameplay: exploration, NPC interaction, and dungeon delving. I’ll cover the NPC interaction first, because it’s pretty bad. Conversation trees are much shorter than they used to be, and options inexplicably disappear so you have to talk to NPCs repeatedly to have a full conversation. This is all, of course, due to the game’s full voice acting, which is a cool feature. Of course, the voice acting is really bad, and the game is a lot less grating if you turn it off. Because everything is voiced, they’ve done away with the traditional faux-Old English “thees” and “thous,” but you don’t miss them. The fact that there is full voice acting is especially impressive when you remember this game came out in 1999.

Exploration, on the other hand, is pretty fun. Britannia has been decreasing in size since Ultima VI, and here it’s downright tiny. They seem to have decreased the Avatar’s walking speed specifically to counter this issue. Tiny it may be, but they’ve packed a ridiculous number of secrets into the landscape. (It’s also very easy to cheat the system and go places you’re not supposed to, but that’s another story.) The only real annoyance with exploring is that overworld enemies respawn, which is dangerous in the beginning of the game, and silly by the end since their drops never disappear. In particular, there are a pair of staff-wielding thieves outside Minoc, and by the time I finished the game there were staffs piled everywhere in the area.

I want to take a moment to mention the combat system, because it’s actually pretty good. The game is fully 3D, but lacks traditional controls. Rather than WASD for movement, you right click and move in the direction the camera is pointing, using Ctrl and Alt to strafe. It’s a weird system, but it kind of works. The game needs to be mouse-driven because you drag-and-drop items in 3D, a cool idea which ultimately doesn’t really work (which is why no one does it anymore). Combat is similar to Ultima VIII, with a lot of frantic clicking, but with five weapon types and potentially four moves usable by each one, it’s actually pretty fun. Better than that is the spell system, which took some of the better ideas from Ultima VIII. You still use reagents, but only to put spells in your spellbook – afterward, you need only mana to actually cast spells, and there is an item that drastically reduces mana costs, making spells more usable than they’ve ever been in the series. And there are a lot of fun ones, too.

And that, finally, brings us to dungeons. I’m torn on how I feel about the dungeons – in many ways, this game is trying very hard to be Ocarina of Time. Some of the 3D puzzles are actually pretty good, although there are plenty of puzzles where there’s no way to guess which button you’re supposed to press first and such. You won’t be moving blocks like in Zelda, but there are plenty of switches, pressure plates, and keys to worry about. But these dungeons are massive and involved, and unlike the rest of the series, you have to fully explore all of them. They are also well-themed, and this is at least one area where they got Ultima tradition right: Wrong is a prison, Destard has dragons and lots of gems, etc. The towns are actually more themed along Zelda lines, and not necessarily in a good way. Yew has always been in the woods, but now looks like the Ewok village, and Minoc has had gypsies a few times, and now consists of nothing but gypsies. I guess having per-town populations under a dozen limits the variety.

I could nitpick U9 all day, and I could find nice things to say just as easily, but what it comes down to is that this game is a mess. It’s buggy, the UI is wonky, the plot is terrible, but the game usually remains pretty fun. There are frustrating bits (especially with early-game inventory management), but in the end it kind of works. Presuming you save every few minutes, at least. It wouldn’t even take that much work to make this game good: restructuring it to give the player more freedom to explore other towns earlier, for instance, would go a very long way. But it is what it is: a sort of fun game that hardcore Ultima fans can pass on, and no one else has any reason to play. It’s hard to recommend even to those fans, since the ending is not only nothing to write home about, it’s really pretty stupid. You may be better off thinking up your own.

Review Score: C

Retro Review: Mega Man V (Gameboy)

Capcom’s first four Gameboy Mega Man games were remixes of the NES games, but for the fifth and final entry, they decided to change things up. Instead of using existing bosses and weapons, Mega Man V features nine all-new planet-themed robots. The stages, bosses, weapons, and even common enemies are all new. The result is a surprisingly good Mega Man game.

Having all-new content improves Mega Man V in many ways, including by making comparisons to the NES games less obvious. This is still a slower-paced Mega Man than the original games, due to the Gameboy hardware, but for once the game seems designed with that in mind. There are tricky jumps, but the stages are not brutally difficult as in some of the earlier games. And Mega Man takes less damage from most basic attacks, to reflect his shorter life bar.

The revelation of Mega Man V is the boss design, however. Since Mega Man 4 for NES, every game in the series has had a very basic boss rotation, but Mega Man V is a callback to the earlier games where things aren’t quite so simple. Some weapons work on multiple bosses, and one can’t even be used on any of the eight basic bosses. The weapons themselves are well-designed, many calling back to earlier weapons with a slight new spin. The correct weapons for each boss are as much informed by how the weapons operate, and what can actually hit each boss, as by any other logic.

While Mega Man’s basic weapon remains powerful, Mega Man V does a decent job of giving you a reason to use other weapons during the course of normal play. Some enemies are hard to reach with a normal horizontal shot, and the new charged-up Mega Arm has a cooldown before it can be fired again, scaling back its power somewhat. The later stages also feature various secrets requiring specific weapons, and the game features a number of useful upgrades for Mega Man to spend P-chips on.

All in all, Mega Man V is not only good, it’s arguably the best entry in the series since Mega Man 3 for the NES. Mega Man has become rote and unchanging over the years, and the Gameboy games were particularly bad in this way. Mega Man V changes all that, and it’s too bad this is where the series ended. It’s also too bad the original cart is obscenely expensive, though the game is available on several flavors of Virtual Console. Mega Man fans should definitely check it out.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Blaster Master

The original Blaster Master for NES is something of an oddity. The game is divided into two distinct styles. The primary style, where you control a rolling tank inexplicably named Sophia III, has excellent gameplay and amazing graphics for its time. The central appeal of the game is that you earn new abilities for your tank upon completing each area. However, all of the actual boss fights take place in the other style, an overhead shooter that’s passable but nothing special.

The tank gameplay of Blaster Master is, if you’ll excuse the pun, a blast. You can fire left and right as well as straight up, and the tank is highly mobile, able to jump and control itself in the air. You’ll eventually gain the ability to hover briefly, a fun mechanic that is unfortunately fairly limited in its applications, and by the end of the game you can drive on walls and ceilings. While these abilities are undeniably cool, they aren’t perfect. Several, particularly the wall abilities, actually make your tank harder to control, a limitation no doubt caused by the small number of buttons on the NES control pad.

For most of the game, the tank gameplay remains a lot of fun, and you’re rarely in much danger if you’re careful. The exception is the final stage, which is a brutal slog the rest of the game doesn’t really prepare you for. But on the whole, playing as a tank is what makes Blaster Master fun. The levels are cleverly designed with a lot of shortcuts back to the start (which are useful when traveling between areas) and some tricky layouts designed to force you to pay attention. They each have distinctive designs and most have excellent and memorable music.

The overhead shooter sections, by contrast, are frustrating throughout the game. This is due to the gun power mechanic. In addition to a life meter, your character has a gun meter that starts at zero. Each gun power up increases the effectiveness of his weapon, at least in theory. You’ll start by getting more distance on your shots, progress to a firing pattern where some shots veer off on a curve, and finally get two levels of sinuous wave shots. Unfortunately, every one of these levels is flawed. Even the top level, a devastating wave beam that shoots through walls, can be hard to hit things with consistently without a turbo controller. The non-piercing wave beam may be the worst of the bunch, as it is quite effective except in narrow quarters where it is basically useless.

Fortunately, you can also use powerful grenades. These are an important weapon, because the other problem with the gun meter is that it decreases every time you get hit. If you’re relying on your maximum gun power to take out a boss, getting hit even once will ruin your day. Grenades are always available, and always quite devastating. Of course, you have to get in close and have good aim to use them effectively, but it’s a skill worth mastering if you want to get far.

The challenge in Blaster Masters comes from two places: the bosses, and the limited number of continues. Aside from area 8, you’re liable to lose most of your lives fighting bosses. While each has a fairly predictable pattern, many require constant vigilance and precision dodging. As mentioned, one mistake will cost you your gun power, though in many cases grenades are your most effective weapon anyway. You get three lives per continue, and dying against a boss once can quickly cost the rest of your lives as you restart the fight with no gun power. Each continue sets you back to the start of the area and robs you of all your accumulated weapons and types of power. One failure can quickly escalate into a game over.

If you’re willing to put up with its considerable difficulty, Blaster Master is a lot of fun. It’s pretty, it sounds great, and even though it’s hard, it’s not unfair. The controls start off great, though they can actually get in the way by the end of the game. Hopefully by that point, you’ll be hooked. Then again, you could just play the excellent remake, Blaster Master Zero, instead.

 

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Mega Man X2

Mega Man X2 is very much Mega Man X again, but with new stages and bosses. Given how good Mega Man X is, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but X2 makes a few design decisions that bring the whole thing down a bit.

The formula for the sequel is a close copy of the original, with another 8 bosses and 8 weapons, four armor upgrades, four sub-tanks, and eight health upgrades. The main new wrinkle in X2 is three hidden bosses that will randomly be assigned to various stages. It’s astoundingly easy to permanently miss one or more of these if you’re not paying close attention, or just unwilling to die to leave a stage due to bad luck. Fortunately the drawback is not incredibly serious, and it does offer the game some replay value.

Unfortunately, X2’s special weapons are not nearly as inspired as its predecessor’s. Most of them are rarely useful in normal combat, though several have very cool effects once powered up. Of course, you’ll need to find the arm upgrade before you can use any of those abilities. That is, in a nutshell, X2’s problem. While Mega Man X offered secrets in out-of-the-way places, they weren’t that hard to find if you were looking. In X2, the secrets are better hidden and often require certain other abilities or even combinations of abilities and upgrades to obtain. Even in the best-case scenario, you need to play most stages at least twice to earn everything.

The actual boss design is at least quite interesting in X2. There are a lot of novel attack patterns and interesting mechanics at work. Like in Mega Man X, the correct weapon will have a highly significant effect on each boss. This is even more vital this time around because the bosses tend to be tougher, and more difficult to get into stun loops. The hardest part of the game, as with many Mega Man games, is beating that first boss to start the cycle.

The game also boasts a number of very cool stages, including a volcano where you flee from rising lava, a desert you speed across on a bike, and more. It’s definitely a fun game in general, though the lack of weapon utility does hinder it somewhat. You are well-rewarded for thorough exploration and execution of some very difficult maneuvers, often including the new air dash. X2 revised the armor upgrades somewhat, but only that ability really stands out as a game-changer.

The bottom line is, if you like Mega Man X, Mega Man X2 is more of the same. It’s a bit tougher, which might be a good thing. It doesn’t do the game any favors that Capcom included a special chip that increased its price (including on the secondary market) just for some quaint polygon effects, either. Nothing really stands out about X2, but it’s a solid entry in a great series.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country is a game that has gone from being overrated to underrated over the course of the last few decades. A phenomenon at launch due to its then-next-gen-looking graphics, it turns out Donkey Kong Country is actually just a middle-of-the-road platformer with a few nice features that help it stand out. It’s not a terrible game, but it’s not a great one, either.

DKC’s pre-rendered graphical style renders it different than many SNES platformers in more than just appearance. Many games on the system used tiled graphics, resulting in something approximating a grid on the field of play. Not so with Donkey Kong Country, which features oddly-shaped sprites and plenty of hills and curves on its platforming surfaces. This generally works pretty well, though the hitboxes of your characters and the enemies can behave somewhat unpredictably at times.

As a platformer, DKC’s stand-out feature is its two protagonists. Donkey Kong is the powerhouse, able to defeat enemies his smaller partner can’t and perform a ground slap attack, while Diddy Kong is quick and nimble. The controls for each are the same, and they don’t differ in basic speed or jump height like many such duos. Instead, its the difference in their animations that sets them apart. Donkey Kong stands taller and holds barrels above his head, allowing him to throw them further but making it impossible for him to test walls for secret passages. Diddy holds barrels in front of him, making him ideal for exploration and finding secrets, but less proficient at attack. It’s a subtle but important dichotomy.

Donkey Kong Country doesn’t rely on powerups like the Mario series, instead presenting straightforward levels to run and jump through. You will occasionally find an animal buddy to ride, but you’re mostly doing the same basic moves from beginning to end. To mix it up, the game features a variety of gimmick levels: mine cart stages, stages with limited lighting, and a whole lot of barrels to shoot yourself out of. These gimmicks are generally fun while they last, with the possible exception of underwater stages.

“Fun while it lasts” is the essence of Donkey Kong Country. It’s not a long game, nor would being longer make it better. You can finish in a few hours, though it will take longer if you want to track down every secret. The game keeps tabs on which levels you’ve found all the secrets in, and assigns a completion percentage based on your overall progress. It’s a precursor to the collect-a-thons that Rare would popularize on the N64, but there’s far less nonsense to worry about here.

The problem with Donkey Kong Country is that it is competent throughout, but never superlative. The bosses are uninspired, the best stages don’t last long enough, and there’s very little in the game that will make you say “wow.” This is particularly true now that its once-amazing graphics are old hat (though still pretty nice by SNES standards). But there is some solid platforming to be found here, and finding cleverly-hidden secrets is always fun. (Finding the totally obtuse secrets is less so.)

Review Score: B−

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+