Retro Review: River City Ransom

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

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

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

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

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

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Legacy of the Wizard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review Score: B

Review: Hollow Knight

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review Score: A−

Review: Celeste

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review Score: C+

Retro Review: Ninja Gaiden Shadow

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

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

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

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

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

Review Score: B+

Review: Indivisible

Indivisible is a game spanning two genres, Metroidvania-style platformer and RPG. With many surface similarities to Valkyrie Profile, you may expect it to lean more heavily to the RPG side of that equation, but not so. Its exact genre is hard to pin down and drifts during the course of the game, but in the long run this is a beautiful platformer with RPG combat.

The game centers on its protagonist Ajna, an impulsive young girl who is thrust into a world-ending plot when her father is killed and her village is destroyed. For reasons unknown even to her, she can absorb people into herself, building a party out of them. There are a lot of characters to recruit, more than 20 in total, each with their own combat style. Ajna is very much the leader, though, whose power level determines that of the rest of the party.

The combat in Indivisible is reminiscent, as previously mentioned, of Valkyrie Profile. You have four party members whose attacks are mapped to the four face buttons. Comboing various attacks together to juggle enemies, break their defenses, and just generally cause mayhem is the name of the game. It is not turn-based in the traditional sense, though at any given time you can either attack or are being attacked and must defend with timed button-presses. Combat can be a bit of a slog in the mid-game, but is generally pretty enjoyable outside of that issue.

The platforming is where Indivisible really shines, and the game boasts an ability list that more than earns the Metroidvania genre claims. While many late-game abilities are simply overpowered (as one would expect), the earlier ones lead to a lot of interesting puzzles. For example, near the start of the game you learn the Axe Hang, which lets you cling to a wall and gain a bit of extra verticality without needing a second wall to bounce between. You can only do this once until you land again, and choosing where in a jump sequence to Axe Hang is often vital. Many other abilities follow similar patterns.

Indivisible’s plot and story won’t be winning any awards, but the varied cast can be quite charming, and the hand-drawn sprites look fantastic. This is a very pretty game, and that is one of its most appealing aspects. At the same time, the characters and particularly Ajna can be somewhat offputting. I spent most of the game wondering if the creators realized how flawed a character she really was (and they did, as it turns out). Like the combat, the plot becomes a bit of a slog in the middle, but recovers in the long run.

It’s hard to give a specific recommendation about Indivisible, because it’s not exactly what it appears. As an RPG, the mediocre plot and sometimes repetitive combat may be deal-breakers, but the game really isn’t an RPG. As a platformer, a lot of the more fun stuff doesn’t show up until later. In the end it’s a good experience, but that may not be immediately apparent. If the charming artstyle and characters appeal to you, give it a shot, but if they don’t, you may not end up sticking through the whole game.

Review Score: B+

Review: Borderlands 2

Borderlands 2 takes the gameplay draft of Borderlands and fleshes it out in virtually every way possible. It’s also the point at which Gearbox fully embraced the zaniness of Borderlands. The plot is pretty serious, but few opportunities to inject humor are passed up. Claptrap is no longer the only truly ridiculous character (though he’s so ridiculous that they reduced the number of claptraps to one presumably because more than that would have been too much – to be clear, this is a good thing).

In most ways, Borderlands 2 adds features on top of the original rather than removing them. The one exception is the loss of weapon proficiencies, which are replaced by badass ranks. These reward you with minor upgrades to stats of your (somewhat randomized) choice for fulfilling various mini-achievement type goals. The effects are far less than weapon proficiencies, but the system still feels better overall, especially since it’s shared between characters. Revolver ammo was removed in favor of general pistol ammo as well. A fourth non-weapon slot, relics, takes over some of the more esoteric abilities found on Borderlands class mods, and serve as a similar but class-agnostic enhancement slot. A new currency, Eridium, now pays for all inventory and ammo capacity upgrades, which has the unfortunate side effect of making money largely useless most of the time. Max inventory size is a bit more constrained now as well, even for the thorough.

There are four brand new characters to play (six if you include DLC), aligning roughly but not exactly with the four Vault Hunters from the first game. There’s another Siren, albeit with different abilities, and the tank and sniper class types are a bit different as well. The biggest change is to skill trees, which are now longer and build toward an ultimate ability with a single rank for each tree. It’s a lot harder to double-dip until second and later playthroughs, but the trees feel more meaningful than they did (and a respec is still available whenever you need it). Class mods with effects so powerful that you’ll want to respect to take advantage of them are much more common this time around as well.

A less obvious change is that the loot system has been broadened considerably. There are actually fewer manufacturers, but the remaining ones have a stronger influence on the nature of their items. They have general rules, like that Torgue guns are all explosive and Hyperion weapons get more accurate with sustained fire. As a result, the manufacturer can be nearly as important as the weapon type when choosing what to keep. In addition, there is a wider variety of legendary weapons with dramatic effects that usually need to be discovered by experimentation. Some of these are silly and difficult to use, while others can be key to specific builds. Fortunately, you can re-fight bosses at will, allowing you to farm specific legendaries you may need for your character.

The plot of Borderlands 2 centers on Handsome Jack, an antagonist that runs the Hyperion corporation and wants to use the power of (another) Vault on Pandora to his own nefarious ends. Jack talks to you frequently during the game, and makes for a funny and interesting villain who thinks he’s the hero. A wide cast of other new characters also appears, though your main allies are the Vault Hunters from the first game. You’ll fight alongside them at various times, which is a lot of fun for series veterans. In addition to the wide array of characters, the terrain in Borderlands 2 is varied. You start on a glacier and explore many different biomes that are thankfully not all just desert wastelands. This makes the game much more colorful than the original, and allows for a much wider variety of enemy types as well. The human(-ish) enemy list has also been dramatically increased, with some interesting foes like Goliaths that can be made to attack their allies and level up as a result.

In some ways, the original Borderlands felt like Diablo 1 made into a shooter. It had a predictable structure and was focused almost entirely on the gameplay. In similar fashion, Borderlands 2 fleshes out that gameplay and a whole lot more. It is roughly analagous to Diablo 2 in that way, but Borderlands 2 feels much more like its own thing. The plot runs through everything and often offers a strong sense of urgency. The sidequests are less monotonous and the early game is not bogged down with them. By the time you start seeing a lot of sidequests, you’ll have a central base area to return to. There are some dramatic and emotional moments that really set the game apart.

If the idea of a looter shooter is appealing to you, Borderlands 2 definitely deserves your attention. It’s a lot of fun, has plenty of replay value, and a truly ridiculous amount of DLC I haven’t even touched on. It’s fun in single player or multiplayer and with the addition of badass ranks and a shared bank, encourages multiple playthroughs as different characters. It’s dirt cheap these days, so check it out!

Review Score: A

Review: Borderlands Remastered

That an enhanced port of the original Borderlands exists is no surprise. That it was released ten years after the original version is. This game seemingly exists to make sure the entire series was playable on modern consoles to set up for Borderlands 3, but the changes made are entirely welcome.

As you would expect, Borderlands Remastered has improved graphics and presentation. However, the important changes were made to gameplay. First and foremost, while the in-game compass remains in place, the Remastered version finally offers a minimap. In addition, quest objectives are called out on screen in 3D space with a distance indicator, which helps immensely with certain confusing map locations. Sidequesting in particular goes much more smoothly than it did in the original version of the game. The other major UI update is an overhaul of the inventory screen to focus on item graphics more in-line with later Borderlands game. The layout actually causes you to see fewer items at once, but the addition of favorite and trash flags makes this a definite improvement on the whole. Those flags even work better than in Borderlands 2, as the game will not let you sell a Favorite item until you de-flag it.

Little has changed gameplay-wise, though some specifics have been retuned. Of particular note is that the final boss was made less trivial to defeat on normal difficulty. Some fancy new weapons were added for this version, as well as support for Golden Keys that can be attained through non-game means (such as codes distributed on Twitter) and give great loot whenever you need it. You are now able to re-assign buttons on the controller freely, which depending on your play style can be a big improvement to the basic shooting as well. The Remastered version also includes a fantastic improvement to basic looting, in that ammo and money are now automatically picked up from the ground when you walk nearby. These changes make it very difficult to go back to the original after playing this version (or any of the sequels, for that matter), not that you’d want to.

Every version of Borderlands Remastered includes all of the DLC, which consists of four packs that range from good to frustratingly repetitive. All four packs suffer from a strange decision not to add any fast travel locations beyond the initial one, leading to a whole lot of walking around. Moxxi’s Underdome avoids this problem by being a set of arena fights, but they go on interminably and offer very little in the way of rewards for your time. The other DLC is more imaginative, and embraces the weirdness of Borderlands more enthusiastically than the original game did. You’ll fight zombies created by Dr. Zed doppelganger Dr. Ned, and put down a rebellion consisting of Claptrap units. These scenarios are undeniably amusing, even if the leveling structure of the game makes them largely superfluous on your first playthrough.

The bottom line is, if you like Borderlands, you should play the Remastered version exclusively. All of the improvements are positive, and it doesn’t break the original game or try to shoehorn in new content that disturbs the original vision. This is just Borderlands 1 with a UI worthy of Borderlands 2 and beyond. Given how relevant the Borderlands cast is going forward, it’s worth it to play at least once.


Review Score: B+

Review: Borderlands

Borderlands helped define the looter shooter genre, taking the basic gameplay loop of games like Diablo and applying it to the first-person shooter genre. It hews closer to that inspiration than others of its genre in many ways, while keeping a style distinctly its own.

The tone of Borderlands is undeniably weird, as the game’s cover makes immediately clear. It features a masked Psycho, a common in-game enemy type, apparently shooting himself in the head with finger guns. The vibe doesn’t quite match that image in practice, though. Borderlands can be a wacky game at times, though the main plot is played mostly straight. The silliness is mostly injected via the various side characters like the Claptrap robots you find all over. The game’s distinct cel-shaded look also sets it apart from other shooters.

When you boil it down, the gameplay loop of Borderlands is pretty simple: you do quests, you kill bad guys, you get randomized loot. Most of this loot is in the form of guns, which are randomized not only in effect but in appearance. There are six main types of guns, as well as a variety of manufacturers that align with general attributes that are applied to each gun. You’ll also modifications for your basic grenades, more powerful defensive shields, and class mods that can have a huge variety of effects. The game uses a standard color scheme to indicate loot rarity, as well as keying the power of its loot to level, resulting in what is now a familiar scheme for searching for that next upgrade. Inventory size starts small, requiring you to sell off excess loot frequently, but can be upgraded to a pretty good size via sidequests. Ammo capacity can also be increased by spending increasing amounts of money (refreshingly presented as cash rather than some pseudo-futuristic credit scheme), which can otherwise be spent on the same kind of loot you’d otherwise find.

The gameplay in Borderlands feels pretty good by shooter standards, with the caveat that one of the stats is accuracy. Inaccurate guns can be a pain to use, and you’ll find yourself using them more early on before you find really good guns. Sniper rifles will always be more accurate than shotguns, so you’re not going to be completely helpless, but there has to be room to grow as well. There are four characters to play, each aligning with a specific class that has a unique ability. Each character has a three-part skill tree to improve, and it is laid out in such a way that you’ll be able to concentrate on one or dip into two during a typical playthrough. The level progression is based on points spent per tree, though, preventing a generalist approach to the game. Fortunately, you can re-distribute skill points for an affordable price at many points throughout the game, allowing you to experiment.

The characters are imaginatively setup, presenting classes that range from the pretty standard Soldier to the more supernatural Siren. Any class can use any gun type, though each has skills that suggest a focus on certain guns. The special abilities of each class are on a cooldown but can have battle-determining effects and are usually subject to significant upgrades by at least one of the skill trees. The characters have a lot of personality, though not as much as the various denizens of the world.

The plot of Borderlands doesn’t really live up to the creative spirit of the rest of the game. You (and your companions, in multiplayer) are Vault Hunters, on the planet Pandora in search of an ancient alien vault presumably filled with treasure. The plot centers around the machinations of various factions trying to find the Vault first. You’ll make friends and allies along the way, but the details are pretty forgettable: finding the Vault is always the priority. The game offers tons of sidequests, usually with several appearing at once after major plot points. Some of these are quite amusing and rewarding, while many others are just a slog. There’s no good way to know which is which on first glance, which is too bad because you definitely don’t need to do them all to be powerful enough to complete the game. There is a cash penalty for dying, but cash is plentiful and there’s not a lot to buy besides ammo upgrades, so that’s not really a concern either.

On the whole, Borderlands is a fun shooter with fun loot mechanics and a fun world. The series doesn’t fully embrace its wackiness in its first entry, and lacks a certain level of personality in all aspects aside from its graphics. The enemy types are interesting but there are a limited number of them, battles are challenging but often go on too long and in a repetitive fashion, and predictably most of the loot is vendor trash. The game also lacks a minimap, a serious oversight that is corrected in both its sequels and the Enhanced version of the original. Indeed, if you’re going to play Borderlands today, I highly recommend playing that version instead of the original. It’s worth it just for the minimap, and they added a number of other fantastic tweaks as well. Borderlands may not have received the love of Borderlands 2, either from its creators or the public, but it’s still a fun game in its own right and worth playing if for no other reason than to get all the later references. Your four Borderlands character choices all appear as plot characters in Borderlands 2 and beyond, so give Borderlands a shot.


Review Score: B

Review: Dragon Quest (Switch)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review Score: B−