Retro Review: Lemmings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Bomberman II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review Score: C

Retro Review: Bomberman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Final Fantasy VI

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review Score: A

Retro Review: Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal

Throne of Bhaal, the expansion to Baldur’s Gate II and the finale of the Baldur’s Gate saga, is a satisfying ending to an epic journey. It brings closure not only to your quest, but to the story of your being a child of Bhaal, the God of Murder.

In addition to new post-game content, Throne of Bhaal provides enhancements and additions to the base game as well. Perhaps the most obvious and useful change is the addition of tab highlighting to find dropped items and treasure containers, a feature it’s hard to live without once you have it. The dungeon of Watcher’s Keep is also added, and can be accessed both before and during the expansion itself. This is a sprawling dungeon filled with puzzles and interesting fights, not to mention some fantastic loot. Its unique shared position also allows you to bring more items than you can carry over to the expansion, which is useful if you’re a hoarder.

Unlike Tales from the Sword Coast, the main Throne of Bhaal content is completely separate from the base game. Once you finish the original plot, you’ll find yourself on a new map with no ability to go back. The plot is also new, with few direct connections to that of Shadows of Amn. This time, you’ll be hunting down and fighting a variety of other Bhaalspawn, all of whom are dangerously powerful. With the experience cap more than doubled and weapons of up to +6 available to you, though, you’ll be quite powerful yourself. You’ll finally be able to memorize level 9 spells, and the addition of high level abilities such as making 10 attacks in a round or summoning high-level angels really ramps up the party’s capacity for battle.

Throne of Bhaal introduces a “pocket plane,” which acts as a home base that you can enter at any time. This pocket plane contains your alternate party members, several containers to store extra items, and your amusing imp butler that will construct powerful items from pieces you find (similar to Cromwell in the main game). It is somewhat reminiscent of, and perhaps the inspiration for, the Normandy of the Mass Effect series. It’s only too bad it took this long to get such an accessible base of operations. There’s only one new character to recruit, but they’re a doozy and a very fun addition plot-wise.

The relatively straightforward plot works very well for an epic-level expansion, allowing you to really flex your muscles and try out various crazy tactics. Your party’s resilience just keeps growing, to the point where multiple consecutive major battles with no rest are entirely doable (and good thing, since you’ll find yourself in that situation more than once). This is the kind of expansion where a demi-lich can be found as a no-big-deal random encounter.

Throne of Bhaal is satisfying in every sense, bringing closure to a character you may have taken all the way from level 1 and allowing you to play with powers typically reserved for heroes of legend. It serves as an amazing capstone to an amazing RPG series.

Review Score: A

Retro Review: Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn

Baldur’s Gate II takes the promise of the original game and delivers an epic story and some great Dungeons & Dragons action. Unfortunately, a number of questionable design decisions bring the game down a notch.

BG2 adds a number of features to the original Baldur’s Gate engine, including increased resolution and a better overall UI. It also adds new spells, new class kits, and even a few totally new classes from 3rd edition D&D (recently released at the time), in addition to greatly increasing the selection of monsters to fight. Notably, this includes actual dragons. Other rules tweaks like more granular weapon proficiencies add to the depth of the game. The main downside to the new options is that characters imported from the first game can’t take advantage of some of them (like the new classes), though they can choose to assign kits or change proficiencies.

Where Baldur’s Gate II shines is in its structure. The plot spans seven chapters, the middle several of which are a string of connected dungeons. At the beginning and end, however, you have free reign to explore the world and recruit a variety of new characters. The world map now consists only of relevant areas you’ve discovered through quests or other means, rather than semi-contiguous wilderness areas. This cuts down drastically on the exploration time required (or in the case of completionists, allowed). In a counterintuitive decision, there are fewer characters to recruit than in the previous game, but the characters here have more personality, interactions, and in most cases unique personal quests. You can even start a romance with several of them.

The game’s story has some tension with its structure, giving you a story reason to hurry up and get on with the quest while the game encourages you to explore and take things slowly. This isn’t a big problem, particularly since the early game has an open-ended quest goal that somewhat justifies your meandering, but character-specific quests are usually on a timer and this can make random questing seem frantic even when you’re taking your time. Party members will generally leave for good if you don’t follow their requests, though you are given ample time to keep everyone happy as long as you don’t ignore them.

In addition to recruiting a party to suit your tastes, your main character can earn one of a variety of strongholds, depending on their class(es). These strongholds act as a home base (and somewhere to store extra stuff you don’t want to sell) and offer various unique quests. Playing through the game more than half a dozen times to see every stronghold quest is not practical, but it’s cool to have an incentive to try out different characters.

Baldur’s Gate II’s story is its crowning achievement. You start off captured by a villain with unknown motives, and by the time you take the fight to him in the end, you’ll probably want revenge as much as your character does. Your companions are varied and interesting, and their quests and interactions add a lot of flavor to the world. While the plot is pretty linear no matter what you do, you do have full control of your character’s motivations and the game can be played as any alignment. You’re not tracking down the villain because you’re the good guys, you’re tracking him down because he has wronged you personally.

There is one aspect to Baldur’s Gate II which does, in my view, hurt the game substantially. That is how it treats enemy mages, and particularly liches (of which there are a shocking amount). Mages use contingencies and spell triggers to put up defenses that require either a very specific set of counterspells or various types of cheesy tactics to defeat. Notably, none of the most annoying spells seem to actually exist in pen and paper AD&D, and those that do are made far more powerful in game. Granted, mage fights without these protections tend to be very easy, but these fights can quickly become tedious and annoying. Constant one-hit kill spells are no fun either, especially when bugs result in things like your romance being cancelled because your paramour was petrified.

Annoying magic fights aside, Baldur’s Gate II is a fantastic game and a model for western RPGs that followed it. The character recruitment and quests clearly inspired the systems for games like Mass Effect (also by BioWare), and the overall structure really nails the balance between linear narrative and exploration of part of a living world. The writing is excellent, the rewards for side quests are worthwhile, and the potential for replayability is high. There’s a reason this is one of the all-time RPG classics.

Review Score: A−

Review: Final Fantasy IV: The After Years

Final Fantasy IV: The After Years is the first Final Fantasy sequel numerically, though not the first that was actually released. Originally an episodic game for WiiWare, this sequel/remix of FF4 features SNES-style graphics, a new plot, and a whole lot of reused assets.

The structure of The After Years is reminsicent of Dragon Quest IV: each chapter features a separate set of characters, culminating in a final chapter that brings every character together into one big finale. Unlike the original game, the plot doesn’t heavily feature Cecil, which allows the game room to explore the various minor characters of the original. People like Edward and Palom and Porom get the spotlight they were never given previously, and a number of fun new characters are added to the mix as well.

Unfortunately, while the players in the plot are pretty novel, the plot itself is largely derivative of the original FF4. You’ll revisit almost every location from that game, sometimes several times, and many feature the same basic mechanics and enemy mix. There are a few new locations, particularly in the form of “challenge dungeons” you’ll find in every chapter, but nothing of any real substance until the finale. It’s fun to revisit old haunts, but it gets old pretty quickly, and the plot’s focus on mystery and putting off resolution doesn’t help.

Most of the game takes the form of the final chapter, which consists of a short plot introduction followed by a massively oversized dungeon. The first few floors are recycled from old content, but most of this final dungeon is brand-new. The enemies are not, however, borrowing from all of the first six Final Fantasy games. You’ll fight sets of bosses from each, and while the game does offer many opportunities to save or regroup, the constant boss fighting quickly becomes tiresome. The encounter rate would have been high even in the ’90s, which is even more frustrating in modern times.

If you like tailoring a huge party to your specific desires or hunting for rare items, there’s a lot to do in The After Years. However, much like the original Final Fantasy IV, you can overcome every challenge without doing half of the crazy stuff, making these special items feel somewhat extraneous. Only completionists need apply.

The After Years makes great use of the FF4 combat engine, using some mechanics (such as a separate timer bar for abilities) that the series didn’t follow up on, and most battles are pretty quick. The roster is incredibly large and there are dozens of discoverable combo attacks, though you don’t actually need to switch out from your favorite party in the final dungeon.

The bottom line is, if you loved FF4 and want an excuse to revisit the world, The After Years is it. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something new, you will likely be overwhelmed with the old. There is good stuff if you go look for it, but you’ll have to put in the work.

Review Score: B−

Review: Super Mario Odyssey

Super Mario Odyssey is a Mario game in the style of Mario 64 and Mario Sunshine, meaning that it consists of a series of relatively open worlds with a variety of goals in each. While this isn’t my favorite type of Mario game, Odyssey may be the best expression of it so far.

The key gameplay innovation over its predecessors is that Mario Odyssey gives out Power Moons (the equivalent to Stars and Shines) quite generously. Instead of each world having a few large goals, they each contain dozens of small ones. While secrets would historically grant coins or extra lives, here they will almost always reveal Power Moons. This prevents the frustration of getting stuck on a particular objective (boss battles aside), and makes the game feel generally more rewarding.

The downside to having so many Power Moons is that Odyssey can feel like a collect-a-thon. In addition to the Power Moons, there are special coins to find in each world, and Mario’s usual golden coins are used as currency and a low-penalty stand-in for extra lives. The game provides you with lists and hints to find everything, but there is a whole lot to find and I’m not sure the fun needs to be stretched out that far. Still, the game comes to a perfectly acceptable conclusion even if you ignore this aspect.

Mario Odyssey introduces a new mechanic which essentially takes the place of power-ups: Mario now has a sentient cap he can throw at objects. Throw it at an enemy, and you can possess that enemy. Many enemies have special abilities, and the game makes excellent use of these to add new puzzles and interesting situations to the gameplay. Nintendo avoids grinding a fun mechanic into the ground, so there’s a ton of variety in what you can do. It’s an innovative and fun mechanic that works very well in the open-world style of Mario game.

The bottom line is, if you liked Mario 64 (and especially if you liked Sunshine), Mario Odyssey will fill you with joy. If you prefer the stage goal structure of Mario Galaxy, you’ll probably find a lot to like here as well, but this is not that game. Odyssey doesn’t focus on tightly designed gameplay (though it features plenty of it), rather favoring experimentation and exploration. Any 3D Mario fan will get something out of it, though exactly what you want from Mario will determine how much.

Review Score: B+

Review: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

If Super Smash Bros. Ultimate lives up to its name and really is the final Smash Bros., it certainly went out with a bang. Featuring every character from every previous game and then some, this is the culmination of decades of Smashing.

I am not a super technical Smash Bros. player, so I can’t comment on the niceties of balance or changes to core mechanics. What I can say about SSBU is that it preserves the fun of previous games while adding an overwhelming amount of stuff. If anything, there are too many characters, items, stages, and so on. With 74 characters at launch, 63 of which need to be unlocked, you likely won’t even see the full breadth of the game for more than a dozen hours.

When it comes to the core Smash gameplay, I don’t have much to say beyond “it’s Smash Bros., but moreso.” I will therefore focus on Adventure Mode and the spirits that go along with it. Spirits are equippable gear-like entities that correspond to characters and items from a variety of games (even beyond those represented with playable characters). They can grant a general level of power as well as specific rule-breaking abilities. You can earn many of these in Adventure mode, but also by challenging them, summoning them by consuming other spirits, and various other methods. There are enough spirits that you can mess with them forever, if you want.

The best use of spirits, though, is in Adventure Mode. You start out with just Kirby, and have to unlock all 73 other characters one by one. (Doing so unlocks them in the main game, but not vice-versa). Due to the design of the mode, some basic characters will remain locked for a ridiculously long time, which can make this mode frustrating if you have one or two specific main characters you can’t use. However, aside from the fights to unlock characters, every fight in the game is with a spirit, and this is where the cleverness of the spirit idea shines through.

Spirit fights are against normal Smash Bros. characters, but they are modified to resemble the spirit in some way. As a basic example, when you fight Dr. Wily you’ll fight 8 metal Mega Men (Mega Mans?), representing the usual 8 bosses from Mega Man games, followed by Dr. Mario filling in for Dr. Wily. Some of these only work if you squint a bit and don’t think too hard, but many of them are quite clever and work far better than they should. SSBU’s ridiculous roster size helps immensely in this regard, as some of the stand-ins for various spirits are inspired.

The problem with Adventure Mode is that it’s insanely long, taking dozens of hours to complete. If you just want an excuse to play solo Smash for weeks, that’s great, but it’s not an efficient method to unlock content and it is in serious danger of wearing out its welcome. Then again, Adventure Mode is entirely optional. You can completely ignore it and focus on normal Smash, Classic Mode, or just good old online multiplayer.

The upside of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is that, whatever you want from Smash Bros. is probably in here. The downside is that a ton of stuff you may not care about is in here too. That’s a good problem to have, and this love letter to Smash Bros. fans is hard to complain about. If you like the series, you’ll find something to like here.

Review Score: A−

Review: Dead Cells

Dead Cells is a procedurally-generated action platformer featuring numerous roguelike elements. It splits the difference between permanent death and a Diablo-style loot fest in a smart way that keeps it interesting and enjoyable for an extended period.

While it is often referred to as a Metroidvania, I find that characterization a bit misleading. Dead Cells certainly borrows some basic Metroidvania concepts, but the gameplay is more about action and execution. Exploration is certainly not the main concept here. The gameplay loop centers around obtaining upgrades, but these are mostly in terms of weapons and other combat abilities.

Every time you die in Dead Cells (which will happen a lot), you start over from the beginning of the game. Any equipment you had is lost, but permanent ability upgrades remain. The pool of equipment you are likely to encounter is expanded in a similar way by finding and cashing in blueprints for new gear. As a result, even though permanent death is quite real, you will make long-term progress in the game. You do have to complete levels to cash in most upgrades, though, and this is not a game where constant iterating will win you the day.

Dead Cells is at its most interesting at the start, when you are seeking out a half-dozen permanent upgrades that allow you to traverse new areas. The sequence of levels always begins and ends in the same place, but as you earn these special runes, you’ll unlock a variety of different paths to explore in the middle. Getting all of the runes can take a while, and the game can start to become a bit rote after you’ve done so. At that point, your main goal is to unlock more upgrades and get good enough to complete the game at increasing difficulty levels. The moment-to-moment gameplay is incredibly fun, but it can nonetheless get a bit monotonous after a while.

You can get as much out of Dead Cells as you want, but its lack of a definitive ending leads to it being the kind of game you don’t finish so much as eventually stop playing. It’s great while it lasts, but if you’re like me and like wrapping games in a nice bow, you’ll likely end up a little bit disappointed.

Review Score: B