Retro Review: Super Mario Bros. 3

Super Mario Bros. 3 takes the mechanics of the original Super Mario Bros. and builds upon them in countless new and fun ways. The result is a very tight game with a huge variety of ideas, none of which ever overstays its welcome.

The most obvious change in SMB3 over its predecessors is the number of powerups. The Fire Flower returns, accompanied by the Super Leaf that turns you into Raccoon Mario. This power provides Mario with a tail to swipe enemies with, which is also inexplicably used to fly for short periods. It also lets Mario control his descent in mid-air, which may be its most practical benefit. It’s either that or the sprite.

In addition to the two basic powerups, there are three rarer “suits” that Mario can find. The Frog Suit gives you excellent control underwater, though not on land, giving it only situational use. The Tanooki Suit is Raccoon Mario with the added power of turning into an invincible statue. And the Hammer Bros. suit lets you throw hammers and duck to block fireballs. With hammers that can defeat almost any enemy, it’s one of the most fun powerups in the entire series. Sadly, it appears only late in the game, and even then only rarely.

Once again, Mario is traversing 8 worlds, but this time each has a distinct theme. Indeed, you can probably blame SMB3 for the number of desert and ice worlds in video games to this day. That ice world in particular is really hard and less fun than most of the others, except maybe the water world. But the game also includes a world where the enemies and terrain are gigantic, and a pipe- and piranha plant-themed world that has some of the most creative and fun (not to mention hard) levels in any game, let alone Mario.

One of the reasons SMB3 holds up so well is that almost every stage is given a particular idea to run with, and these rarely repeat. The stages tend to be very short, and there are plenty of them, so you’ll never get bored. If you get stuck on a difficult stage, you can use one of the various items the game provides, some of which let you skip stages in various ways. My only real complaint is that there’s no way to replay a completed stage short of getting a game over or resetting the game entirely.

Game overs are particularly interesting in SMB3, because certain castle stages act as pseudo-save points. If you restart a world, these levels remain complete and you can usually skip right to their location on the map. However, playing the game straight through even without continuing takes several hours, and there are no save files or passwords to help you. The game does provide the ability to warp to any stage rather early on, which can be used as something like a save file.

Unlike many classics, I can’t really say that Super Mario Bros. 3 is more than the sum of its parts. But its parts are amazing, and their sum is quite great as it is. Nintendo just made the game fun in a way many other developers have never quite managed. It’s a philosophy that would continue to serve the series well for a very long time.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Mega Man & Bass

Mega Man & Bass is an extremely difficult game with a strange history. It began life as a Super Famicom game that came out after Mega Man 8 had been released on PlayStation, but didn’t make it to the U.S. until it was ported to Gameboy Advance many years later. It’s an interesting historical curiosity, but unbalanced design makes it a tough game to get into.

The title of the game refers to the fact that you can play as Bass as well as Mega Man. Each has to play through the game independently, though the collectable CDs the game offers are collected across multiple saves. Indeed, you need to play the game as both characters to find them all. Bass is much more agile than Mega Man, with a double-jump and the ability to fire upwards or on any diagonal. He has a rapid-fire shot instead of the ability to charge his main weapon, and has a variety of limitations such as the inability to move while firing. He also has a dash instead of Mega Man’s slide, a move that’s harder to execute reliably and does not let him fit in tight spaces. However, much of the game seems to be designed with Bass in mind, making him the easier character to play as in most (but not all) cases.

The structure of Mega Man & Bass is unique to the Mega Man series. After an intro stage, you can choose from only three bosses. Defeating any of these unlocks 2-3 more bosses, until you’ve unlocked all 8. You need to beat them all to complete the game, and they are ordered in such a way that you can always get the proper weapon to defeat any boss you’ve unlocked. However, starting the game is brutally difficult. Only one of the opening three bosses can be reasonably beaten with your base weapon alone, and even if you manage that, the next boss in line is incredibly difficult even with the proper weapon. It’s very easy to get stuck and frustrated early on. Once you’ve collected various weapons and unlocked some nice upgrades, the difficulty of the game generally comes into line with the harder games in the series, but the early going earns this game the title of perhaps the hardest Mega Man game.

The difficulty of Mega Man & Bass comes from two aspects. First, the game is just kind of unfair. One-hit kills and other death traps are incredibly common, and the game is filled with normal enemies that will force you to your death if not dealt with immediately. You’ll have to just plow through enemies, taking tons of damage, to avoid some obstacles early on before you have many tools to use. The game also suffers from its conversion to Gameboy Advance. The GBA screen has a lower resolution than the original Super Famicom version, and the game was not adjusted to account for this. As a result, the edges of the screen will often hide enemies, obstacles, and other important information. Fortunately, the game is based on Mega Man 8 sprites, so at least your characters don’t take up a huge amount of the limited screen real estate.

All that said, Mega Man & Bass can be pretty fun once you start to master it. It features six new bosses as well as two bosses making a return from Mega Man 8, though the art style of all 8 stages are also taken directly from that game. It seems almost like it was intended to be an alternative version of Mega Man 8. The puzzles and enemies that won’t leave you tearing your hair out in frustration can be pretty interesting, and the 100 CDs hidden across the first nine stages give you a good reason to explore. You can buy fantastic upgrades with bolts, though most of the good stuff doesn’t unlock until you’ve defeated a majority of the eight bosses. You’ll have to toggle between several of these, and in the long run Mega Man & Bass becomes a highly strategic game. It makes better use of your arsenal than most Mega Man games of its time.

The simple truth is, if you’re not a skilled, hardcore Mega Man player, Mega Man & Bass is not for you. The difficulty is often unfair and will leave you wanting to throw your GBA at times. But as with most difficult games, mastering it is highly satisfying, and the game gives you the tools to show off that mastery. There’s a bit too much randomness involved in certain boss fights for the game to ever feel easy, but that’s what some people are looking for.

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages

It’s hard to talk about Oracle of Ages without also talking about its companion game, Oracle of Seasons. Developed by Capcom, both are 2D Zelda games in the general style of Link’s Awakening. Despite this, the two are quite distinct for Zelda games. Oracle of Ages is somewhat more focused on puzzles than Seasons, which favors action, though both games have plenty of both. Of the two, Ages feels more like a traditional Zelda, largely due to its dual linked world design.

Both Oracles games have new and interesting items, though the Mermaid Suit of Oracle of Ages might be the wackiest of the bunch. There are a lot of cool ideas here, some (like the Seed Shooter) used very effectively, and others (like the Switch Hook) which aren’t quite as well-realized as they could have been. Almost every item is used to solve various dungeon puzzles, which can actually get a little frustrating later in the game when it’s not at all clear what you need to do.

Oracle of Ages doesn’t pull punches with its puzzles, leaving me doing laps in several dungeons trying to figure out what to do. That is Zelda tradition, but the game also features some bosses that seem invincible due to rather obtuse mechanics. The fights aren’t generally as challenging as in Seasons in an action sense, but you can waste a lot of time just figuring out what you need to do.

If you like environmental puzzles, this is the game for you. Many dungeons feature looping and backtracking, and Ages even revisits the water level changing of Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple. Not only that, there are two world maps (one for each Age), and by the end of the game you can freely warp between them, much like the Light and Dark Worlds of Link to the Past. The game does put a few plot restrictions on this power, but generally you’re very free to explore. That said, as with most puzzles of this type, it’s easy to get lost or forget how to get back to somewhere you’ve been.

The link system between the two games is another aspect well worth discussing. While either game is a complete Zelda experience on its own, you can continue the plot from one game to the next, which allows access to “secrets” that grant special upgrades when searched out in the other game. While the secrets themselves can be annoying to transfer due to passwords with weird characters in them, the experience is very cool and adds a lot to the game.

As 2D, portable Zelda games go, Oracle of Ages is a solid entry in the series. With 8 dungeons per game, playing both games back-to-back may actually result in Zelda overload, if anything. Capcom deserves credit for making Zelda games that don’t feel out of place, and these are well worth the effort of picking up if you like the 2D Zelda style.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Mega Man Xtreme

Mega Man Xtreme takes a page out of the Gameboy Mega Man games, featuring four bosses each from Mega Man X and X2. Despite that superficial similarity, though, Mega Man Xtreme reflects a significantly different design philosophy than its portable predecessors, one that leads to an enjoyable port of the SNES Mega Man games on Gameboy Color.

While the earlier games remixed each boss’s level and introduced new endgame bosses, Mega Man Xtreme is a straight-up remake of portions of the games it draws from. Or more accurately, it’s an 8-bit demake of those games, which is an impressive technical feat. This time around, the sprites have been scaled to better fit the Gameboy screen, and X controls very well. He retains all of his moves from the SNES games, including the all-important wall kick, and the game plays at a fast pace. The one downside to this direct conversion is that many projectiles are hard to see due to a lack of contrast. All in all, though, Mega Man Xtreme looks and plays much better than the previous Gameboy Mega Man games.

The levels are not exact copies of those from the source games, but rather abbreviated approximations. They are recognizable, though, and you’ll find secrets in many of the same places. The game also mixes up the formula by including an X2 boss among the first set of four, and an X boss in the second set. This doesn’t serve to make the boss order any more complicated, as the choices all have the same or otherwise obvious weaknesses, but it does set the game apart somewhat.

The oddest thing about Mega Man Xtreme is that it plays out over a set of three “difficulty” modes. Normal difficulty consists of four bosses and three endgame stages, while Hard consists of the other four bosses and the same three endgame stages. You can choose to keep all of your weapons and abilities from the Normal playthrough when playing Hard, essentially making it the second half of the game. But the lack of changes in the endgame is jarring, even if there are some minor differences in the bosses.

Finally, there’s the (almost) titular Extreme mode, which consists of all eight bosses in one set, followed by the same endgame stages for a third time. This is easily the most fun way to play, but you’ll have to complete the game twice just to unlock it, which is a downer.

Despite being a remake of existing levels, Mega Man Xtreme manages to be a lot of fun. The low-fidelity graphics give the game a unique feel compared to the games it’s based on, and it’s short enough that its insistence that you play it over and over isn’t too tiring. There’s not a lot new here, but Xtreme is one of the better portable Mega Man games.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Donkey Kong Land

The idea of translating Donkey Kong Country to Gameboy seems completely crazy, but Donkey Kong Land manages to pull it off. While not nearly as visually stunning as the original, at least not in a positive way, Donkey Kong Land brings a decent approximation to the small screen.

Donkey Kong Land’s graphics are far too busy for the Gameboy screen. Most of the sprites are taken directly from the SNES version, scaled down and made monochromatic. The same is true for the backgrounds, to the point that the game is a blurry mishmash on an actual Gameboy screen. The game was clearly designed for Super Game Boy, and in that context it works rather well. Stages have appropriate palettes, e.g. ice stages with a blue-white color scheme and jungles in shades of green. Gameboy Advance emulation also works well since it can apply different palettes to sprites and backgrounds.

The gameplay of the Donkey Kong Country series translates relatively well here, though pulling off some moves is inexplicably hard. For instance, rolling off an edge to get more distance on a jump is still possible, but not as intuitive. The problem is that Donkey Kong Country wasn’t really notable for its gameplay, particularly in the first game, which Donkey Kong Land roughly emulates. It’s a competent platformer with a lot of secrets, but with the graphical downgrade it doesn’t stand out except as a tech demo for the Gameboy.

It’s hard to recommend Donkey Kong Land unless you’re a huge fan of the Donkey Kong Country series and just want more. That said, it’s not bad, either. It’s an entirely middling game that makes impressive use of limited technology, but does so without really improving the final product.

Review Score: C

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is a sort of warped reflection of its predecessor, Ocarina of Time. It shares many of the same items, art assets, and even NPC models, yet the structure and even gameplay are considerably different. Majora’s Mask is an experimental game, one which brings a lot of new ideas to the Zelda series but doesn’t always work as well as it might have.

The core of Majora’s Mask lies in the collection of masks. This was a series of sidequests in Ocarina of Time, but here, the masks are a primary part of gameplay. In particular, three masks will let you turn into three non-human forms (Deku Scrub, Goron, and Zora), each with their own abilities and attack patterns. The game features fewer items than Ocarina did, but none are made redundant by a second world, and the masks make up for the lack. Nintendo did a good job of trimming the tools down to their essence. Most of the masks beyond the main three have limited use, though several are valuable additions to Link’s arsenal.

To correspond with the masks, the game features far fewer dungeons than any previous Zelda game. In fact, there are only four traditional Zelda dungeons, though there is at least another dungeon’s worth of content just to unlock each of these. Still, the dearth of primary dungeons can make the pacing of the game feel odd, and results in a truly ridiculous number of pieces of heart to collect.

The other core conceit of Majora’s Mask is that the entire game takes place on a repeating, three-day cycle. You can reset the clock at any time, and indeed this is how you save, but items such as money and ammunition are ephemeral. Actions you’ve taken that affect the world are also reset each time you begin anew. This is an interesting system which has its good and bad points. Every townsperson acts on a strict schedule, and analyzing their actions, Groundhog Day-style, is key to finding a number of the masks. This works incredibly well. But the game also occasionally requires you to replay significant sections of it just to find a minor secret, which can be a slog. On the whole, the three-day cycle works rather well once you get used to it.

Where Majora’s Mask starts to fall apart is in its emphasis on execution, particularly of platforming elements. The N64 and the Zelda interface are really not well designed for some of the things you have to do, such as rolling around at high speeds as a Goron. The challenge seems to come from the poor controls and camera more than actual gameplay, which is a problem. There are several sections that require significant backtracking as a result of anything less than perfect precision, and these get old fast.

How you feel about Majora’s Mask will largely come down to how much you enjoy its innovative time and mask mechanics, weighed against how much you hate its rocky challenge curve. There is a great game hidden behind some rough edges, but it takes effort to find it.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Mega Man Xtreme 2

Mega Man Xtreme 2 works on the foundation of its predecessor, adding a number of new options and gameplay modes to the mix. However, it also suffers from some very bad design in places, leading to a two steps forward, one step back scenario.

As in Mega Man Xtreme, the game is divided into two modes, each with four bosses. However, rather than dividing the bosses into difficulty levels, they are divided by hero: one scenario is played with X, the other with Zero. Zero’s play is based on his Playstation incarnations, complete with Z-saber combos and a general lack of ranged attacks. As in the games his play is based on, playing as Zero is substantially different than playing as X, and usually a lot of fun. The melee-based gameplay of Zero is a big change for the Mega Man series, and it works pretty well on the Gameboy Color.

Also as in Xtreme, completing both of the first two modes unlocks Extreme mode, though the extra features of this version of the mode make it a lot more compelling than the original. In Extreme mode, you can freely switch between X and Zero at any time, and can upgrade both while fighting through all eight bosses. There’s even an extra final stage added leading to the one true ending. However, perfectionists may not like how the power-up system works here. Heart tanks and even boss weapons can only be earned by one of your two warriors. Depending on which one earns which weapon, certain other upgrades may end up inaccessible. You can power up one fully at the expense of the other, and can get through almost all of the game with the fighter of your choice, but that doesn’t seem to be the intent behind the mode. There’s no way to have a “perfect” playthrough for both characters at once, though.

Mega Man Xtreme 2’s new options are a lot of fun, and generally the game is well-designed. You’ll find bosses from all three SNES Mega Man X games here, with stages approximating the originals just like in the first Xtreme. The problem with Xtreme 2 is that several stages and bosses are extremely badly designed, resulting in immense frustration and repetition. In particular, the boss of the second endgame stage is one of the worst-realized boss fights I’ve ever seen, at least in the X Mode. Unfair instant death traps are also common, often killing you without warning on your first time through a stage.

Aside from the difficulty spikes, Xtreme 2 is a better game than its predecessor. However, they seriously hamper an otherwise fun experience. If you’re a serious Mega Man fan with a lot of patience, this is a compelling portable conversion of Mega Man X. It offers a lot of replay value between Extreme mode and an all-new boss rush that even features the eight bosses from Mega Man Xtreme. It also has a great upgrade system that lets you even the odds against some of the less fair bosses somewhat. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a good game.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, like Super Mario 64 before it, is a game designed to bring a long-running 2D Nintendo franchise into the realm of 3D. And like Mario 64, it succeeds admirably at this task. It translates the gameplay of a Link to the Past into the third dimension in enjoyable and convincing fashion, and avoids some of the pitfalls of its 3D brethren.

In structure, Ocarina of Time is very similar to its predecessor. You start off by completing three dungeons, after which you are transported to a different world to complete several more. Instead of the dark world, though, Ocarina of Time features the world of the future, where Link is grown up. One of the conceits of this design is that Link can use a different set of equipment as an adult versus his original child form, which allows the game to stretch the number of available items somewhat. However, this turns out to be a strength, as Ocarina is an extremely well-paced game that’s always giving you a new goal or item to keep things interesting. The only real downside of the design is that you get limited use out of arguably the most fun item in the game, the boomerang.

Ocarina of Time handles 3D differently than Super Mario 64, in that you have little control of the camera. You can re-center it, and you can lock on to certain targets, but that’s it. The abbreviated camera control works in the game’s favor for the most part, cleaning up the controls and focusing on a rather simple chase camera for controlling Link. The targeting system in particular is a revelation, allowing for interesting sword fights and exploration. The lack of explicit camera controls also frees up the controller buttons, allowing Link access to three items at a time, in addition to his sword and a context-sensitive action button.

The camera is not perfect, however. Sometimes the game will force the camera to move in certain areas without warning, which can mess with your controls. Because focus targeting uses the same button as the camera reset, it can be difficult to get the right camera angle when surrounded by foes. And like Super Mario 64, the game occasionally seems like it was designed for the camera to be the obstacle you must overcome. These issues can occasionally be frustrating, but on the whole they are rarely a real problem.

The gameplay of Ocarina of Time shines even today. The context-sensitive jumping and climbing mechanics work beautifully most of the time, and the game is pretty generous at giving you hints at some of the less obvious things you can do. Many of the mechanics established in Link to the Past translate well to 3D, such as pushing statues onto switches and lighting torches. This game is a bit more combat-focused than its predecessor, a fact which is aided greatly by the targeting camera. On a room-by-room basis, the design of Ocarina of Time is generally impeccable.

If there is one source of frustration in the game, it’s the larger-scale puzzles. Like the one obnoxious puzzle in the ice dungeon of Link to the Past, these puzzles often require you to understand how multiple rooms and floors interact, and the map is often unhelpful in this regard. It’s easy to get stuck not knowing what to do, especially in the latter half of the game, and this can stall the otherwise great pace of play.

One final consideration is the superb way Ocarina of Time handles stuff for you to find. In addition to all the basic items you need to progress, there are several optional items, and Pieces of Heart return as a primary reward for finding secrets. The game also introduces 100 Gold Skulltulas for you to hunt and collect, and executes this concept far better than some of the collect-a-thons that would appear later in the N64’s life. It will indicate when you’ve found all the Skulltulas in a given area, and they make a distinctive noise when they’re nearby. It can be tricky to find all 100, but all of the meaningful rewards are awarded by finding half of them. It’s an enjoyable mechanic for casual players and completionists alike, and is indicative of how well-designed Ocarina of Time is.

Ocarina of Time is a great game marred by a few flaws that keep it from perfection. The camera is great by N64 standards, but can still be very annoying with more modern sensibilities. Some of the puzzles and combat can be intentionally frustrating. But it’s still a great game, and the template for 3D Zelda games going forward, and should not be missed by fans of the series.

Review Score: A−

Review: Axiom Verge

Axiom Verge is a retro-style side-scrolling in the vein of several NES games, most notably including Metroid. It’s a game where exploration is key, though the combat feels quite good as well. It takes a lot of ideas and puts it into a package that is reminiscent of the old while still feeling new.

While there’s no doubt that Axiom Verge takes a lot of its structure from Metroid, right down to its lack of non-rectangular rooms, it’s a mistake to think of the game as being nothing more than a Metroid clone. For one thing, though its graphical color depth suggests the NES, this is a game that takes many lessons from Super Metroid as well. It doesn’t hold your hand, but you generally won’t end up completely lost, either. There are a ton of cool abilities and weapons to collect, many of which primarily help with exploration.

Axiom Verge’s weapon selection is notable because it is far wider than that of Metroid or really any NES game. You can find well over a dozen weapons, all with different strengths and weaknesses. A weapon wheel mapped to the right stick makes them easy to switch between and experiment with, and the combat is tough enough that you’ll have a lot of incentive to do so. For any given encounter, there’s usually at least one weapon that will work well, often by letting you take out enemies from the safety of cover.

Where Axiom Verge really shines is in its general upgrades. A ton of these affect you the main character, Trace, moves, calling back to Metroid’s high jump, Bionic Commando’s arm, and even Unreal Tournament’s translocator. An increasingly versatile short-range teleport ability is fun to use and mix with other options, leading to some pretty acrobatic and fast-paced movement options. The game doles these upgrades out regularly, keeping things interesting throughout the game.

If Axiom Verge suffers from anything, it is perhaps that it included too many ideas. The grappling hook, for instance, is never as useful as it could be and can be a bit outclassed by your other options late in the game. Many of the weapons will likely never see use. And its plot is a bit hit-or-miss, often interrupting the action with some vague dialogue. None of this really detracts from the game while playing it, but it does make me wonder if a bit of editing may have made it an even tighter experience.

All that, and I haven’t even mentioned the famed corrupted graphics mechanic of the game. For plot reasons, some of the world is glitched like a dirty NES cartridge, and you have various tools to deal with this. It’s a cool idea, albeit one I needed to read about to fully understand the gameplay implications of. It’s definitely worth mastering, as glitching enemies is often the key to finding secrets, and this game contains a lot of secrets.

All in all, Axiom Verge feels like a game that would have eventually resulted if everyone had done the smart thing in the ’90s and copied Super Metroid. It’s by no means a ripoff of Metroid, though it feels more like the “Metroid” side of “Metroidvania” than many games in that genre. It’s a fun shooter with excellent exploration mechanics and a graphical style that takes advantage of the simplicity of NES graphics without being beholden to them at a technical level. It’s actually a really cool-looking game, despite the limited color palette and tiled graphics (indeed, a lot of it works because of the tiled graphics). If you like Metroidvania games or just retro side-scrollers in general, Axiom Verge is definitely worth a look.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Gargoyle’s Quest

Gargoyle’s Quest is an early Game Boy platformer with RPG elements, and a spin-off of the Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins series. As one would expect from a game in that series, it’s difficult, but the difficulty is that of precision execution rather than rote memorization. It’s a game that stands out with some fun and interesting mechanics that are well-suited to the Game Boy.

The core innovation of Gargoyle’s Quest is that your character, a gargoyle named Firebrand, can fly to a limited extent. He cannot gain height, but his flight capability is fully restored immediately upon landing on the ground or a wall, most of which Firebrand can cling to. Combined with Firebrand’s relatively slow movement, the result is a thoughtful platformer that is as vertically-oriented as it is horizontally-oriented.

The game does an excellent job continually training your platforming skills. You have no way to engage enemies above you, and can only engage those below by losing altitude, so gaining height is key in many battles. In some ways the combat is reminiscent of Joust, though Firebrand actually attacks with projectiles. You gain more flight time and higher jumps as the game progresses, and the challenges ramp up to match. You’ll have to learn how to get every inch possible out of your flight distance, how to transition from walls to floors, and how to adjust your altitude multiple times between landings.

The boss fights are also platforming challenges, generally consisting of an arena with a series of platforms where your primary goal is to maneuver away from the boss and any projectiles it may be firing. This is very much a defensive game, as Firebrand can’t take many hits, resulting in a combat style where you’ll take potshots when you can but give priority to defense.

While Gargoyle’s Quest’s action sequences are generally great, you’ll also spend a lot of time in an RPG-like overworld. Nothing directly dangerous happens here, but the slow and stilted text crawl speed can make your adventures frustrating. The game seems to go out of its way to dole out the fun stuff as slowly as possible, which is too bad.

Gargoyle’s Quest is tough, but fair, and mastering it is quite satisfying. It’s a well-designed and well-contructed game, though as an early Game Boy title is it unsurprisingly quite short. It’s also much more generous than Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, offering a password system that saves your built-up stock of lives and even a multiple-use healing item. The challenge here is mastering Firebrand’s controls, and the game focuses on that to its benefit.

Review Score: B+