I have had a passing familiarity with some of the games I’ve written about here in these articles: I had picked up a controller and fiddled with Metroid before I sat down to play it in earnest; I had actually made it a fair way into Ocarina of Time before I went back and decided I needed to finish it to understand it better.
ActRaiser is different. This one I went into blind.
Well, maybe blind is a bit of an exaggeration. I knew that the game was divided into platforming sections and “simulation” sections, and a friend had once (aptly) described it as “Wizards and Warriors meets Populous,” but no one had told me how delightfully and expertly the two different modes of play were intertwined. It’s simple, it’s elegant, it’s compelling.
So here’s the deal, in case you’re as in the dark about ActRaiser as I was: You play the role of a god who, with the help of a tiny cherub secretary (who I’m going to pretend is Pit from Kid Icarus), frees the land from monsters (by slicing them in half with your sword) and then helps primitive civilizations to spread and settle a given region (by giving them marching orders while fending off monsters).
The dirty secret to ActRaiser is that, taken separately, neither of these modes of play are particularly special. Don’t get me wrong, they’re fun to play–the platforming has tight controls and cutting enemies to shreds with your sword feels real good! You will have a good time doing it.
All I’m suggesting is that these platforming sections aren’t Castlevania. They’re not Mega Man. They’re not even Ghouls and Ghosts, really (and thank goodness for that). They’re good! They’re just not genre-defining.
Likewise, the “simulation” sections aren’t exactly SimCity. They’re not even Populous, actually–all you’re doing is telling your little worshipers where to build so they can go stamp out the monster nests and occasionally using your phenomenal cosmic powers to bring your little dudes some favorable weather.
You should probably use your cherubic side-kick to make sure they don’t get carried off by giant bats, but hey–they’re villagers. Give ’em a little time, and they’ll make more of themselves. ActRaiser is actually quite forgiving: if you fail a given level, it’s not game over. You’re just taken back to your menu screen, where Pit tells you “it’s okay, dude, that level was pretty hard. Why don’t you give it another go?”
So if both sections of the game aren’t unique or compelling on their own, what makes ActRaiser special? The answer, of course, is the way that these two sections play off each other.
Like many 8-bit and 16-bit games, ActRaiser gives you a score for your platforming sections. With every bad guy you kill, with every power up you collect, you get another couple hundred points. You’ll also get a bonus at the end of every level for how many lives you have left in your inventory. Here’s the difference between ActRaiser and just about every other game that has this same mechanic, however: in ActRaiser, your score actually matters. I know, right? Weird!
Think about it: When was the last time you actually cared about your score in Sonic the Hedgehog? Sure, you’ll get an extra guy every 50000 points, but you’re not about to go out of your way to try and bust some extra baddies just to work toward that incentive. And, of course, you shouldn’t–the primary draw of Sonic is speed. So why does Sonic give you a score at all?
In ActRaiser, your score directly influences the potential population of the region you’re about to cultivate. The higher your score, the higher the population can be. This is exceedingly important, because the total population of your world is the number that functions as “experience” for your sword-wielding avatar. In other words, how well you do at platforming directly affects how well you can do at the “simulation,” and vice versa. If you don’t take the time to expand your towns to cover every possible inch of the map, you’ll never level up, and the later levels of the game will be impossible to conquer.
ActRaiser is perhaps the only game that I can think of whose level cap is set by the player’s performance. If you max out your score in the platforming levels, I think you can reach a global population of 6000 and go into the final confrontation at level 20. That wasn’t my experience playing it–I had all my towns at their “max” population going into the final battle, but I was just shy of level 17.
This simple loop created by the game is absurdly compelling. I definitely took the time to linger in levels, slashing monsters until I got my score as high as I dared before going into the boss area–a real gamble, considering the game’s difficulty curve: if you do well in the beginning and level up throughout, the game starts out challenging and becomes slightly easier as you progress; if you’re reckless, it can turn brutally difficult on you. Nevertheless, the incentive to get a high score so that I could reach a high level made me excited–it creates tension in the player that’s a whole lot of fun!
The aesthetics and “story” aren’t particularly engaging, but the game makes it blissfully easy to turn the message display speed all the way up and breeze through the dialogue and menus. And perhaps one of the great things to recommend ActRaiser is its length: Longer than your usual platformer but shorter than a proper RPG, the game is manageable and doesn’t drag.
Should you go back and play ActRaiser? Yes, emphatically yes. It’s not very long, it’s a reasonable difficulty, and it’s really fun. It’s not the most complex game you’ll ever play, but there’s strength in its simplicity, and its character progression system is a hook that makes it very compelling. You can get it in the Wii’s Virtual Console real easily, though short of emulation or finding a real authentic SNES copy in the wild, that’s about the only place it’s available at the moment.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I have had a curious relationship with most of Nintendo’s flagship series. A lot of this comes from the systems that I owned: First a Game Boy, then a Sega Genesis, then a Sony Playstation. As a result, I tended to play Nintendo games either at my friends’ houses or in their weird, off-beat, portable incarnations. I had the opportunity to spend time with and appreciate games that nobody else seemed to–but I never really played many of the classics when they first came out.
The common wisdom is that Ocarina of Time is the pinnacle of the Legend of Zelda series, and it has been on my list of “games I ought to play” longer than perhaps any other entry. I knew that, of all of the gaps in my gaming education, Ocarina represented maybe the biggest.
Now, however, having played it, I’m in a heated debate with myself over whether I think that it represents a “must-play” game.
One thing I want to make clear: Ocarina of Time is a brilliantly crafted game, thoroughly engrossing, and difficult to put down. I have never been in doubt that if you decide to sit down and explore this particular version of Hyrule, you’ll have a great time. And really, that’s probably enough–if you want to have fun, play Ocarina.
Part of my consideration for this blog, however, is an examination of what it means to be “well-played,” and what constitutes a sort of baseline knowledge for gaming history. In this respect, the Legend of Zelda series is an interesting case, because the entire series is essentially a variation on one of two templates.
If you have never played a Zelda title, then I would posit that in order to really understand the series you ought to play two games: the original Legend of Zelda for NES and Ocarina of Time. The first is the origin of the formula and the second is the first entry to take that formula and rework it for use in a three-dimensional space (a feat which it accomplishes brilliantly). These two games are the archetypal Legend of Zeldas (“Legends of Zelda?”). They offer the purest, most distilled version of the series.
Unfortunately, they’re also sort of the least interesting. This might be a little heretical, but as someone who doesn’t have an enormous amount of nostalgia wrapped up in the games, the entries that have grabbed me the most are the ones that take the basic theme and do some riffing on it.
Link’s Awakening, Link to the Past, and the Oracle titles (not to mention Four Swords and Minish Cap) are all basically playing around with the same idea: Large, grid-based, open world divided into single screens and filled with several discrete dungeons in which you acquire an ever-increasing set of tools with which to defeat Ganon/Other. In order to separate themselves from the original, they take a new aesthetic and/or gameplay lens and apply it to the formula: Link’s Awakening gives us an actual plot; Link to the Past stuffs itself to the gills with sidequests and adds an entire second world map; Minish Cap… had a hat that made you small? I don’t really know, I never played that one.
When Ocarina came along, it was almost like a reboot of the series, taking all of the essential elements and applying them to an entirely new play space. As I mentioned, it does this very, very well–in fact, between this and Super Mario 64, Nintendo’s record for translating their series into the third dimension flawlessly on the first try is pretty spectacular. It took Konami ten years to give us a 3D Castlevania that wasn’t abominable.
And yet–Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword are all riffs on the exact same tune (In this one he’s a wolf! In this one he’s a Powerpuff Girl!), and because these successors all have to do something with themselves stylistically to distinguish themselves from Ocarina, they’re all far more interesting than the original template. (Full disclosure: I haven’t played Skyward Sword yet. I hear it’s pretty neat!) What’s more, the formula at the heart of Zelda doesn’t change as drastically from incarnation to incarnation as, say, the gameplay in each iteration of the Mario franchise (In this one he has a water cannon! In this one he’s in space! …You know what, on second thought…).
I know that being a wolf and sailing the seven seas seem pretty different from hoofing it across Hyrule Field for the eighty millionth time, but you’re still going to elemental dungeons, solving environmental puzzles, collecting keys, and Z-targeting to smack enemies in the face with your Master Sword. I’m not suggesting that Zelda is stale! Not really, anyway. I’m only saying that in order to understand the way the Zelda series works, you don’t have to play every incarnation.
And so, when the time comes to educate yourself as a gamer, when you sit down and try to fill in the gaps in your “gaming education,” you have a question to ask yourself: when it comes to the Legend of Zelda series, what’s important for you to know? If you want The Legend of Zelda at its most basic, then you should play the games that set the tone and offer up the template.
If that’s not important to you, I would suggest that you can come to know and understand Zelda by playing just about any game from each of its two formulae. If all you’ve played is Link’s Awakening and The Wind Waker, then you already know what The Legend of Zelda is all about and you can talk about it intelligently. You can sit down with any game in the series and find a creative, compelling adventure on which to embark–but if you don’t, you’re not missing as much conceptually as you might imagine.
I was a gamer from a very young age. Despite my parents’ firmly-held (and probably correct) belief that too much screen time is a bad thing for a developing mind, my extended family gifted me with a classic Game Boy when I turned six. This my parents tolerated–after all, it wasn’t a television, and could only be played in direct light. Then, when I turned nine, someone (not my parents) got me one of these bad boys:
A Sega Genesis. It was probably the best birthday ever up to that point, despite the fact that the games they picked for me were Krusty’s Super Fun House and James Pond. It didn’t matter! The system came bundled with Sonic 2, which was (and still is) a masterpiece of platforming.
I don’t know how it is that we gamers end up getting the music bug, but I already had it by the time I unwrapped my Sega. I had it bad. I was pulling up the sound test in every Game Boy game I owned, holding that pathetic speaker to my ear like I was some sort of boom-box sporting 90’s cliche. By the age of eight, I was already a dedicated game music enthusiast.
But a Genesis wasn’t portable like a Game Boy, and I couldn’t bring its excellent tunes in the car with me, or anywhere that wasn’t TV-adjacent. However, being a resourceful young lad with access to a handful of electronic devices, I devised a cunning plan: I held my parents’ stereo up to the TV speaker and made a Sega Genesis mixtape.
I’m writing to you, ladies and gentlemen, not simply to reminisce, but because I have made an archaeological discovery. I’ve uncovered that mixtape, and analyzed its contents. And I am here to tell you that young Nate had mostly great taste in 16-bit music.
What follows are, and I am not kidding you, the actual tracks on the Genesis mixtape I made when I was 12 years old.
1. Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, “Versus Mode”
This is what I’m talking about when I say that young me knew what he was talking about. The Genesis’s sound chip was kind of weird and limited compared to that of its competitor, the SNES, but I didn’t know that at the time! All I knew was that I liked these poorly-synthesized shredding guitars! This is the sort of piece that really deserves some attention on OCRemix. One of their musical sorcerers could undoubtedly translate this into something superb.
Mean Bean Machine is a pretty good game, too–as a Puyo Puyo clone, you could definitely do worse. I’d take it over Kirby’s Avalanche any day, even if it does have licensing from the Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon (the bad one).
2. The Lion King, “To Die For”
Disney interactive had a pretty great streak of making delightful games in the mid-90’s. Well, it had two, at least. The Genesis versions of both Aladdin and The Lion King were superior to their SNES counterparts, in my experience. (My wife could vouch for the Beauty and the Beast tie-in games, but I never played them myself.) Really good platformers, both of them! You should go play them.
It seems silly that young me should have preferred the 16-bit translations of Hans Zimmer’s excellent film score (which is superb), but, well, I didn’t have that film score, and in any case, the track in question takes a few brief measures of the piece which shares its name and extends them to become a whole piece unto itself–a piece which plays during a very cool level which was a departure from the standard side-scrolling the game had shown me up until that point.
3. Ristar, “Crazy Kings”
Ristar is amazing. A colorful, cartoonish platformer developed by Sonic Team, Ristar revolves around a quirky combat/navigation mechanic which is much more fun to play around with than it sounds (the titular character has… stretchy arms. Look, it works, okay?). Each world you visit in the game has a distinct personality and lush, detailed visuals. Because this is Sonic Team we’re talking about, the music is toe-tappingly great as well.
But for my money, nothing sells this game like the bosses. Fighting a shark in a submerged cavern, fighting a giant mechanical mole while in freefall down a mineshaft, fighting a deranged buzzard as it tries to take the stage from a songbird virtuoso–every boss in the game is unique, each one is gorgeous, and you get to fight them all while this music is playing. I’d listen to this while fighting possessed alien tyrants anyday.
4. Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf, “Intro”
All right, they weren’t all going to be gems. I was twelve, after all. This one takes the shredding guitars of Mean Bean Machine and takes them to their (il)logical extreme. Listening to this sounds like putting a Cylon through a wood chipper.
Desert Strike was a pretty cool game, I seem to recall, but man, was it difficult. I don’t think I got past the first area more than a couple times. Maybe that’s one worth revisiting. Was it, like, weirdly prescient? We did end up “returning to the gulf,” after all. Maybe there’s more to this one than meets the eye…
5. Cool Spot, “Rave Dance Tune”
Oh man! If YouTube is to be trusted (and I can’t think of a single circumstance where that wouldn’t be the case), this one’s by Tommy Tallarico, the guy responsible for Earthworm Jim and a handful of other 16-bit classics, as well as one of the creators of Video Games Live, an absolutely excellent show that I recommend you all attend when it makes its way to your city.
Cool Spot was not a great game. I seem to recall really wanting it, which about makes sense for a twelve-year-old. Some of its music included riffs on some pop culture tunes (wasn’t there the theme to The Magnificent Seven in there somewhere?), but other than that, well… it was about as engaging as you might imagine a game based around a soda mascot would be. I had almost forgotten about the game entirely until I discovered this track on my old mixtape. Nevertheless, a pretty nifty tune, huh?
6. Sonic 3D Blast, “Gene Gadget Zone Act 1”
This game was a mess. Sonic’s signature speed was gone, it was difficult to control, and the graphics were–well, the graphics were decent, but I think I was spoiled by a better 2D-to-3D conversion of a major gaming mascot. Coming out near the end of the Genesis’s lifetime, Sonic 3D Blast wasn’t really the swan song that Sega was hoping for, I think, and boded ill for the hedgehog’s future three-dimensional outings. Nevertheless, just about every track on this game’s score is solid musical gold. In fact, I may have spent more time with the sound test than I did actually playing the game.
And that’s it! Yep, six songs. Either that was enough to constitute a “mixtape” when I was twelve, or I just got bored and tired of holding that stereo up to the TV. In any case, I carried that tape around in my Walkman for several months before it became lost in a closet somewhere, buried beneath strata of personal belongings, to be excavated by me only recently.
That tape was important, though: it was telling. It was early evidence of a growing obsession with the music of video games–an obsession which continues to this very day!
It’s nothing new for me to claim that there’s a world of difference between Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which is widely regarded as a modern classic, and its successor, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, which is widely regarded as… not.
However, most of the complaints against Warrior Within are leveled against its aesthetics: gone is the flavor of “A Thousand and One Nights,” and in its place we have a sort of heavy metal, blood and guts, gritty flavor that one might accuse of aping God of War until one realizes that it actually precedes Kratos’s first outing by almost a year.
As I sat down finally to make my way through the game, however, some seven or eight years after its release, I realized that it wasn’t actually the disappointing aesthetic shift that bothered me the most. There was some magic in the gameplay of Sands of Time that was no longer in evidence here, or at least in shorter supply. What I ultimately came up with is this: the fundamental method of engagement in the first game is translation, and that gets muddled considerably in the second offering.
Allow me to explain a little bit what I mean by “translation.” Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a game which focuses brilliantly on one of the most basic elements of gameplay present in any platformer–evaluating the geography in order to discover the correct series of inputs to allow your character to traverse an area. The player “translates” the layout of the environment into the moves necessary to move through it.
The brilliance of the game is in the basic number of options you have, as the Prince, to navigate any configuration of terrain that the developers place in front of you. In this regard, the Prince of Persia games have more in common with Portal than they do, say, Super Mario Galaxy or even Assassin’s Creed, a series with which they share some aesthetic and even control elements. Like Portal, there is great emphasis in examining and understanding your surroundings in order to proceed. The true joy of Prince of Persia lies in looking at an environment and innately, almost instinctively, understanding “I need to wall-run here, then jump across that gap onto the bar and swing myself up to that ledge.” Unlike Portal, of course, less emphasis is placed on decoding the environment, and more emphasis played on controlling the Prince to correctly traverse the obstacles in his path.
The reason Sands of Time was so revolutionary was because of the way that the developers restrict your perspective: Ubisoft gave us enormous chambers and caverns, the entirety of which we couldn’t possibly translate from any one vantage point, and asked us to simply have faith and jump into it, trusting that if we could read the geography well enough, the path would always be laid out before us clearly, even if there were many places it would collapse beneath our feet if we dawdled for even an instant.
In playing Prince of Persia, we’re forced to translate on the fly, as we go, and when we’re able to do it successfully, it makes us feel like a total badass. The game is tuned to make those simple inputs show up onscreen as brilliant flips, jumps, and somersaults. There’s a huge amount of joy in making the astonishing feel easy.
Let me pause to say that these sequences–the huge, beautiful arenas in which the player may parkour to their heart’s content, are still present in Warrior Within. They’re there, and they feel just as wonderful as they do in Sands of Time. But before I follow that line of thinking, let me talk a little bit about the other elements of translation present in these games.
Near as I can figure, there are two other primary flavors of gameplay at work here: hallways full of traps, which operate in a different way than the expansive arenas, and combat, which works as a kind of “dynamic translation” that I’ll touch on in a minute.
All of the environments in the Prince of Persia games are populated with these absurd hallways full of spikes, spinning blades, buzz-saws, and spikes on spinning-blade-poles. These form a geography that needs to be translated, too–except, unlike the expansive arenas I’ve just described, you can see the entire sequence at once, which is important, because in each case, you need to traverse the hallway in one smooth motion by using the same inputs and mechanics you use to traverse the larger areas (or else be impaled, sliced, skewered, etc.). These hallways often form the bridges between the more large-scale platforming areas, and serve as a kind of breather for the player–the method of engagement is slightly different, asking us to translate small chunks at a time rather than a large sequence of inputs.
Something similar is occurring with the combat, which often takes place in pockets of the large areas, except the inputs are different–and yet still limited. The Prince is given a handful of different attacks, each of which seems to work better on a different type of enemy, and the player is asked to translate a moving target. (This is the “dynamic translation” I alluded to earlier.) Knowing that you can’t vault over the tall enemies and can’t directly attack the fat ones is functionally equivalent to understanding that a large horizontal surface means “wall run” and two poles next to a wall means “swing, wall-jump, swing.”
The combat in Sands of Time is relatively simple for a reason: the joy of the game is in achieving a sense of flow, where you can see the next moves unfolding in front of you even as you complete the current one. Every game has the player evaluating environmental stimuli and reacting to it, but the Prince of Persia games excel because they are straightforward, well balanced, and allow the player to feel “in the zone.”
So. Where does Warrior Within stumble? In a couple of different places. Firstly, the ratio of one type of engagement to another has been shifted, so that rather than focusing primarily on the large platforming arenas and using combat and trap hallways as bridges, the game gives us each type of gameplay in about equal measure. Though I can’t imagine why any series would want to shift its dynamic away from the thing it does the best, this in itself would not be a terrible move if it weren’t for a couple other changes that happen concurrently.
The Prince seems to take more damage both from traps and from enemies in Warrior Within, necessitating more uses of the Sands of Time to rewind and try again (and probably more game overs). This is probably in response to complaints that the first game was “too easy” or “too simple,” though I can’t find much evidence of these complaints in reviews of the first offering–perhaps this came out of a focus group? Whatever the case, more game overs in a series whose primary strength is creating a sense of flow in the player is absolutely a step in the wrong direction. Even having to use the Sands more frequently is probably a bad thing–the ability to rewind time functions best, in my opinion, as a reassurance that allows the player to proceed quickly and recklessly.
The biggest gameplay change from Sands of Time to Warrior Within is the change in the combat, which no longer functions as a kind of translation but instead is more complicated, with many more moves, combos, and even different weapons to be used. The removal of the simple combat from Sands of Time means that battles can no longer be “read” in the same way that they once could, and the player must be in an entirely different mindset when enemies are about. There are still combos which work better on certain enemies (can’t vault over the Sexy Battle Ninjas this time instead of the Tall Guys), but there’s no shifting geography to be read in the groups of enemies that you encounter in Warrior Within. You move around, you try not to get hit, and you lash out with the best combos you’ve got in order to try and dispatch the bad guys before they kill you.
In some ways this combat is more frustrating and less accessible, though there are times when the complexity allows for some satisfying moments. The problem, really, is that battles no longer function as a kind of extension of the primary gameplay mechanic of the series–the game’s focus is less unified than its predecessor, and focus is really the strength of these games. In addition, Warrior Within adds a number of boss battles, which, when you look at the history of video games, ought to be the perfect place to preserve that element of reading the enemy–but it somehow manages to miss the mark in this regard.
These three gameplay shifts (the change in ratio between the modes of engagement, the added difficulty, and the more complex combat) mean that Warrior Within is not as unified and focused as its predecessor, and when this is combined with the jarring aesthetic gap between the first game and the second, the whole game begins to feel weirdly disjointed.
Should you seek out and play Warrior Within? Well, I’m certainly not going to steer you away from it. The core of brilliant platforming is still at the heart of the game, even if it’s obscured by more clutter than the first game had. There are also a handful of awesome things going on in the game, most notably the sequences in which the Prince is chased by the Dahaka, which add a beautiful urgency and desperation to their gameplay.
Nevertheless, Warrior Within is not a “must play,” a title I would definitely bestow upon Sands of Time. (Please, please go play that if you haven’t already. It’s one of the best games of the last ten years.) If you’re a fan of the original, it would be worth your while to check out the second game in the trilogy, but be cognizant of the fact that it comes with some baggage. And if you’re just looking to spend some time with the charming protagonists you came to know and love in the first game… you’ll have to look elsewhere. They didn’t make it into this one.
Alright, Kid Icarus. You win.
I don’t want to play you anymore.
I’ve encountered a number of 8-bit titles that are exceptionally difficult. Heck, I just recently spoke about Contra a couple weeks ago–maybe the very pinnacle of difficulty! (Or maybe that’s Ninja Gaiden. Or Bayou Billy. Or Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins. Or that %#$@ dam level in the NES TMNT. Okay, you know what? There are a lot of hard NES games.) In part, this difficulty was a means of extending the longevity and value in an entertainment experience which has always been pricey. In part, it’s an artifact of an era when the whole medium was less accessible, less mainstream, more “hardcore.”
But it has always been the goal of the game developer to balance difficulty with engagement, and the classics of the medium have always succeeded to a large degree at striking this balance. Take the Mega Man series, which combines brilliant level design with tight controls and allows the player to experiment through trial-and-error at finding the correct order in which to defeat the robot masters. Castlevania, similarly, allows players to prepare for difficult segments by knowing which of the sub-weapons will be most useful at dispatching the enemies (or the boss) they’re about to face. Metroid offers an enormous, open world full of dangers, but promises that each power-up a player collects will be forever preserved so that they can fully arm themselves for further exploration.
In structuring its progression, Kid Icarus tries to do something akin to what Metroid offers, but with a much more linear environment, far fewer checkpoints, and, you know, none of the aesthetically pleasing aspects of Metroid.
The game gives you about a dozen checkpoints throughout, one at the end of each of its levels, and all of the progress that you’ve made so far is saved–your items, your hearts (currency), your health, even your experience (and the game does have experience!). The upgrade system, which exists somewhere in between Metroid‘s power-ups and Legend of Zelda’s items, offers you new weapons to purchase as you proceed, as well as means of restoring your health when it’s been depleted. If you’ve killed enough enemies and accrued enough experience, when you begin a new level, you’ll have a larger health bar. There are places mid-level where, if you’ve dispatched enough foes, you can acquire more powerful arrows! It all goes a long way to make you feel like it’s worth it to kill bad guys and be thorough.
And this is where the game runs into its major problem, in my opinion. The great paradox of Kid Icarus is as follows: because the game is linear and you can’t go back to earlier levels in a given playthrough, you are inclined as the player to linger as long as possible, killing all the enemies and accruing as much experience as possible before moving on. You want to be prepared when the game gets more difficult in the later levels, right? Unfortunately, the longer you linger, the higher the chance that you’re going to get dinged by some piddly blue serpent or flying octopus, and the larger the odds that you’re not going to make it through to the end of the level. Playing methodically and carefully is actually a risky strategy, because the levels are long enough that your odds of clearing them are relatively low no matter how careful you are. With each run of a level, you are essentially gambling with your time.
In my experience with Kid Icarus, I tended to lose. The game is difficult, no bones about it, and for every attempt at a level that I played methodically and patiently, more often than not my reward was that I would lose ten minutes instead of five. It doesn’t help that a single missed jump will kill you instantly (unless you spend some of your in-game currency on “bad jump insurance,” in the form of feathers). It doesn’t help that the jumping mechanics feel more like the floaty, non-specific controls of Metroid than the pixel-perfect tightness of Mega Man.
It also doesn’t help that the main character, Pit, sounds suspiciously like Ecco the Dolphin when he takes damage, but that’s sort of beside the point.
I think, perhaps, that much of my complaint against Kid Icarus stems from the fact that the various systems that make it interesting are done more compellingly, and with better aesthetics, in other NES games of the time. Is it, strictly speaking, a bad game? No. Is it a game that you should go back and play?
I’m not going to straight up suggest that you would waste your valuable time playing Kid Icarus, and if you’ve got a childhood affection for it, go crazy! I have a long list of games I love that are of questionable quality, and I certainly wouldn’t let some jerk on the internet disparage my nostalgia. But if you have no previous affection for it, and you feel compelled to do some old-school platforming, might I make some other recommendations?
Do you have a hankering for a game where you jump around a lot and shoot things? In that case, may I suggest Mega Man, a series with six entries on the NES? It has tighter controls, better level design, and far superior music than what you’ll find in Kid Icarus.
Are you in the mood for a difficult platformer that rewards you for being careful and thoughtful, that has enemies flying at you from all directions and jumps which will kill you instantly? There are three Castlevania games for the NES, at least two of which are superb. Even if you’re familiar with the original, if you haven’t tracked down and played through Dracula’s Curse, you’re really missing out.
Do you simply have to have a game that’s exceptionally brutal? You should treat yourself to Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins. You’ll be up against an onslaught of enemies that are near-unavoidable, and you’ll die after only two hits. If you’re lucky, you might even make it to the second level! In my opinion, if you’re going to have your spirit broken, you might as well have it broken by the best.
As someone who aspires to be “well played,” I’m glad that I have gone and finally spent some time trying to wrangle with Kid Icarus. But you know what? Now that this blog post is over, it’s going to go back on my shelf, and there it will probably remain. Your mileage may very, but my advice is to pass this one over for another.
Confession time: I used The Code.
Is it so surprising? The Code is carved into the very heart of Contra. Contra is the reason that most of us know The Code. If it weren’t for The Code, thousands of children would have never seen Contra‘s later levels. Even as an adult gamer with some skill and a fair amount of retro cred, I can’t make it halfway through the game without The Code.
I wanted to really feel like I understood the game before I tried to comment on it, and I didn’t feel like I could do that properly without seeing it through to the end. Hence: The Code.
Contra is such a fascinating dichotomy: brutal, unforgiving, and unbelievably fast-paced; it is a game that chews up players and spits out their tiny pixelated bodies. And yet: The Code. Contra starts you out with three lives, and you’re allowed two continues. That gives you a grand total of nine–count ’em, nine–like a cat. Good luck making it past level three! You’ll need it.
Of course, all it takes is a little up up down down left right left right B A select start and you’ve got yourself a nice deal with the metaphorical devil: Thirty lives! Thirty lives per continue! For those playing along at home, that’s ninety lives. That’s ten cats.
Ninety lives gives you plenty of wiggle room to beat the game. On my first try, without having seen levels five through eight before, I cleared it in somewhere around sixty-seven deaths. It’s still fun, and it still takes a certain modicum of skill and reflexes, but deep down inside you know you’ve used The Code and there are no bragging rights to go along with your accomplishment. You are a Contra Tourist.
Difficulty levels in games have always fascinated me, because when considering the choice of which difficulty to select you necessarily have to ask yourself what you want to get out of the game experience, like an actor calling offstage to the director: “What’s my motivation?” Are you playing primarily for the narrative? For the joy of exploration? Or are you playing for the challenge itself–for the sense of accomplishment that comes from having triumphed over a system that’s trying to kill you?
Speaking from personal experience, I almost always play games on “Normal.” Why? What’s my motivation? Well, when I ask myself what I want out of a game, I ultimately have to admit that a lot of the reason I’m playing is to have a dialogue about the experience with other players. When I talk to other gamers about having played the game, I want to make sure that my experience is in line with theirs–and I assume that most players select “Normal” because this is often the default setting. Very frequently, if I take a second trip through a game, I’ll crank the difficulty up to “Hard” in order to give myself an added challenge.
Nevertheless, this decision has implications. I’ll be honest and admit that I wasn’t all that frightened by the original Dead Space on account of playing it on Normal. (It’s still a super great game! I had fun!) I simply didn’t feel in real danger enough to be frightened (brilliant sound design and direction notwithstanding). I still enjoyed the narrative a great deal, and the exploration–it’s a very atmospheric game–and blasting Necromorphs was a hoot even if they didn’t kill me very often.
I was frankly a little bored during my first playthrough of Kingdom Hearts II because it was simply too easy on Normal. I was mostly in it for the story (yes yes, enjoy your laughs at my expense here), but the game does have a very compelling combat system that’s a great deal of fun to play–if it’s challenging enough for you.
If I’m playing the guitar in Rock Band, I get bored if it’s a difficulty lower than Expert–if I’m playing drums, I’ll fail out almost immediately if it’s on Hard. All of these choices of difficulty can legitimately affect the quality of the entertainment I’m experiencing (and the character of the entertainment as well, in the case of Dead Space).
Which brings me back to Contra. How does the enormous difficulty gap affect this game? More importantly, is this a game you should go back and play?
Ultimately, I think it is. It has a flavor unique among 8-bit games, and because of its arcade roots, it’s immediately accessible–jump, shoot, run. I think the most important thing about it, though, is that there are more than just two Contras: there is, of course, the Contra that will keep you cursing and fumbling with your pitiful mortal thumbs after the fifth time you’ve been shot in the foot and killed. There is the benevolent, forgiving Contra that grants you innumerable chances and reassures you with “There, there, it’s all right–perhaps I made the flame-spewing pipes too numerous. Give it another try.”
But in an environment with such a yawning gulf of stark contrast, there must necessarily emerge player-driven objectives and self-challenges. “Well,” perhaps you’ll say, “I’ll use The Code, but if I bring my buddy along for the ride we’ll see if we can beat the whole thing without having to continue.” “Let’s see who can get the furthest on the nine lives we’re given.” “Whoever dies first buys the beer.” That sort of thing. Could we call them “emergent objectives?” Why not? Who’s to stop us?
The common wisdom is that 8-bit games are monstrously difficult, and this truism isn’t entirely off-base. But through avenues like the Konami Code, they are more diverse than they are often given credit for. Contra is made easier by means of The Code, but it’s not at all cheapened. Rather, it’s made more interesting–the player is given more perspectives from which they can evaluate it. It’s for this reason that I think it’s worth going back and replaying. Well, this, and because shooting everything with a million bullets is somehow fundamentally satisfying. Surely that has something to do with it.
In this modern day and age, when almost everyone has a communication device with access to a global, mostly-unregulated data network, we are confronted with an existential quandary which our forebears could not have even imagined: How to ensure your phone’s ringtone matches your winning personality.
This is a humdinger, make no mistake: Leave your phone on one of the default sounds, and people might think you lack imagination. Select the incorrect pop single, and people will think you shallow. You don’t want your friends and relations to cringe every time you receive a call and Justin Beiber’s “Girl Hair Blues” plays, do you? (Full disclosure: I do not know any Justin Beiber songs.)
With that said, there is a source of simple tunage to which all gamers may turn in this time of need: the Nintendo Entertainment System. NES music is chippy and simple enough to function well as a ringtone, and by necessity the songs’ melodies usually assert themselves quite clearly in the first thirty seconds of play–perfect for using as an alert sound on your futuristic communication devices!
Here, for your consideration, are a sample of some excellent ringtone choices from the 8-bit era, with an explanation of how they might be right for you.
1. Mega Man 2 — Stage Select
Why this is a good choice: Simple, effective, and with a loop no more than a few seconds long, this tune is immediately recognizable to an old-school gamer and won’t make you inclined to let the ringtone play for thirty seconds so you can get to the good part.
What this says about you: “I’m going to check the Caller ID before I pick up to make sure I’m properly equipped for this conversation.”
2. Castlevania — Vampire Killer
Why this is a good choice: The first incarnation of a theme that appears throughout the entire Castlevania series, “Vampire Killer” is the most recognizable of the bunch and will help you to keep your cool in stressful situations.
What this says about you: “I am an unrelenting badass.”
3. The Legend of Zelda — Overworld Theme
Why this is a good choice: Hearing this music coming from your phone will remind you that there is adventure and freedom to be found in all aspects of life, even in the midst of a boring work day.
What this says about you: “I do my best work when I’m at full health.”
4. Ducktales — The Moon
Why this is a good choice: The Ducktales Moon Theme is the pinnacle of all human musical creation.
What this says about you: “You would be impressed by my extensive collection of precious gems.”
5. Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins — Stage One
Why this is a good choice: Another track whose melody is prominent right from the get-go, the main theme from Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins is packed with tension and is up-tempo while still feeling ominous. When your phone rings, you will at once be alert for spooks, spirits, and haints in your immediate vicinity.
What this says about you: “I can get the job done in my underpants.”
6. Final Fantasy — Prelude
Why this is a good choice: The Final Fantasy prelude is possibly the piece of 8-bit music best able to transport the listener to another world, and it can do so in just a few seconds with a handful of simple arpeggios. By putting this on your phone, you will make each call you receive feel magical, mysterious, and possibly even epic. Even if it’s from your Mum.
What this says about you: “I have a close-knit group of friends with whom I have gained a lot of experience.”
7. Ninja Gaiden — Basilisk Mine Field
Why this is a good choice: It’s highly likely that hearing this song coming from your phone will get you so pumped up that you will kick bystanders in the face.
What this says about you: “If I don’t take this call, it’s only because I’m too busy slicing someone in half.”
8. Dr. Mario — Fever Theme
Why this is a good choice: Despite the fact that this piece of music goes through a couple evolutions in a minute or two and you won’t get to hear all of it as a ringtone, the first thirty seconds are still enormously chippy, peppy, and happy. This is the kind of music that gets you going in the morning, like a good cup of coffee or the news that school has been canceled due to snow or chemical leak.
What this says about you: “I’m high on life, or perhaps psychoactive medications.”
9. Super Mario Bros. — Starman Theme
Why this is a good choice: Never has a tune so simple conveyed something so clearly.
What this says about you: “I am invincible.”
10. River City Ransom — Running Around the City
Why this is a good choice: This is a piece of music that clearly suggests that you are on a mission, but that you’re going to take your time getting around to it while you pummel the crap out of anyone who deigns to get in your way. A perfect ringtone for someone who spends a lot of time in malls, someone who likes to twirl a metal chain menacingly, or someone not afraid to throw their best friend’s prone body into a crowd of thugs.
What this says about you: “I am going to spend all my pocket money on a book that will teach me to spin-kick people in the face.”
Alright, I’ll level with you: Tetris Attack doesn’t appear near the top of many “Best Games of All Time” list.
I know, right? I was surprised, too. But here’s the thing: look at just about ANY list of that nature, and you’re bound to notice something. Something about Tetris. How about this? Or this? Or THIS? (Yeah, that last link is ugly, but it goes to prove my point.)
Tetris is widely considered to be among the top five games of all time. Sometimes it’s given the top spot. This almost certainly has to do with the fact that the authors of these lists usually take into account both a game’s continued playability and its influence on the medium when choosing rankings. Tetris, being both the progenitor of the puzzle genre and the single most ported game in the medium (It’s true! Look it up!), rightfully scores high in both of these areas. It has cemented its place as a classic for all time.
I’ve played Tetris, though. Who needs a review of Tetris? You don’t need to tell me whether or not you should go back and play Tetris: You already have. We all have. It was bundled with the Game Boy I got for Christmas when I was six years old. Technically, it was the first game I owned.
Tetris Attack isn’t Tetris, though. Tetris Attack has about as much to do with Tetris as Bejeweled has to do with being a real jeweler.
Alright, maybe that’s a little disingenuous. They’re both puzzle games. They both involve making rectangles disappear. They both rely on a growing sense of panic and urgency to drive the player mad as their speed increases. But it turns out that Tetris Attack is just a title that Nintendo slapped on the game because they know no red-blooded American was going to buy something called “Panel de Pon.”
There’s something about puzzle games, though, as a genre: because they’re not shackled to expectations of narrative or graphical fidelity, they rely entirely on the gameplay and the feel of the game to engage the player. While pretty colors and happy sounds can definitely enhance an experience (and here I tip my hat to Peggle, that irrepressible nugget of charm), the reason we as gamers approach these titles is for the mechanics. Part of the reason that Tetris feels so timeless is that the mechanics haven’t aged.
Tetris Attack has exceptionally good mechanics. Yes, the aim of the game is to match three like-colored shapes, and yes, that’s pretty simple. But Tetris Attack abandons the frequent puzzle trope of having things fall from the sky–instead, the tiles rise from beneath your stacks, and you are tasked with unloading the pile before it reaches the top of the screen.
Oh, big deal, you say. Things rising instead of falling. Like that changes anything.
Well, actually, it kind of does. The player’s need to anticipate what piece is coming next is a staple of the puzzle genre, and games like Tetris, Columns, Dr. Mario, Puyo Puyo, and heck, even Yoshi’s Cookie create tension by dividing the player’s attention between the field of play and the little window that tells them the future.
Other puzzle games, like Puzzle Quest and Bejeweled, remove the tension of timing altogether and allow the player to concentrate on a static field of objects to manipulate.
Tetris Attack is the best of both worlds: there is a constant (oftentimes nerve-wracking) pressure to keep making moves, to flip tiles around, to do something oh god OH GOD–but because the tiles are always coming up from the bottom of the screen, line by line, you can always focus your attention on where you’re playing. When you rack up combos, the rising tide of tiles halts for a few precious seconds as you take in the screen, sometimes staring through the colors altogether, trying to find the next move you can make before your brief reprieve is over.
Tetris Attack occasionally feels like Bejeweled with a timer, but at the higher speeds and difficulties it requires a zen-like focus and the same sort of reflexes that make the original Tetris so exciting. The last level of the single-player “campaign” (if you can call it such a thing) took me so many tries that I was nearly ready to give up, but when I finally succeeded it was in such a state of absolute concentration and awareness that upon the completion of the level, I realized that I had been holding my breath.
So: Should you go back and find a copy of Tetris Attack to play? If you have more than a passing interest in puzzle games, I’d have to say yes. Tetris Attack is definitely one of the best I’ve played, and it has a distinct feel that is worth experiencing.
You have a couple of different options: It’s a delight to play in its original SNES incarnation (provided you have nothing against the cast of Yoshi’s Island), especially against a skilled opponent. This is the version I played, and I enjoyed it thoroughly… though it might be hard to get a hold of! Apparently there was an N64 version of the game, reskinned to feature everyone’s favorite pocket monsters, titled Pokemon Puzzle League. I’ve still never put more than forty-five minutes into anything with the Pokemon name on it (gives me a chance to write about it here!), but Wikipedia tells me that the N64’s processing power makes the gameplay go down even smoother. Pokemon Puzzle League is up on the Wii’s Virtual Console if you’re willing to plunk some money down on it. Maybe you’re a fan of the Pokemans! This could be right up your alleyway, so to speak.
Something tells me, though, that your best bet might be Planet Puzzle League for DS or the somewhat truncated Puzzle League Express (available in the DSiWare shop). Puzzle games fare really well on handheld devices (there’s a reason the original Tetris was a pack-in for the Game Boy), and I could see myself losing some serious hours to a Panel de Pon port if I could carry it with me. If Nintendo didn’t have such a monolithic philosophy and was willing to release a cheap port of Panel de Pon to the smartphone market, it could make approximately a bajillion dollars. Playing versus mode over bluetooth? Sign me up.
Ah well. We can dream. If you’ll excuse me, I think I might go play just one more round…
My Experience So Far: I have a very odd relationship with Nintendo’s flagship series. All of them. It’s a little difficult to pin down the nature of this relationship, but generally stated, I have a tendency to play (and love) all of the oddball entries in Nintendo’s canon while ignoring the biggest, most important games in a series. Consequently, there are many stand-up classics that I have never played (and hopefully, that means I’ll get to them in the course of writing this blog).
I never owned an NES as a child. I got into gaming with a grey-brick Game Boy (and my relatives’ Atari 2600), and when I got a real honest-to-goodness home console, it was a Sega Genesis. This is probably where my awkward relationship with Nintendo originates.
So suffice to say, I had never really spent any quality time with Metroid. If I played games at the house of a friend who had an NES, it was usually a game like Super Mario Bros., in which we could take turns, or World Cup Soccer, in which we could pummel the hell out of each other while pretending to play a sport.
There’s something about Metroid which evokes solitude, and I never had that with an NES.
What makes it a classic? Samus Aran’s original outing on planet Zebes is probably best known for a couple of things: the mood it creates, with its countless subterranean corridors and eerie, machine-like ambient music; encouraging exploration as a primary play aesthetic by populating this world with approximately a hojillion secret passages; the surprising reveal at the end that you’ve been playing as a girl this whole time.
Metroid, just like The Legend of Zelda, was one of the pioneering forays into open-world gaming. You can go almost anywhere on the map right from the outset, with only a handful of areas being cordoned off until you pick up the super jump boots or the morph ball bomb. There are plenty of items that you don’t HAVE to pick up–in fact, one of my few complaints against the game is that the three best powerups–things which I would say are essential to beating Mother Brain–are locked behind secret passages. If you don’t know where to bomb/shoot, you’ll never stumble across the Varia Suit, the Wave Beam, or the iconic Screw Attack.
You can debate amongst yourselves whether this bit of level design was a Dedication to a Pure Core Aesthetic of Play or an Excuse to Sell Strategy Guides, but speaking personally as a man who has lots of games he wants to play in his adult life, I could not be bothered with it. I pulled up GameFAQs without a second thought and figured out where I needed to go to get the items I needed to fill Mother Brain full of missiles.
As a child, I would have gotten a book of graph paper and a pencil, and I would have made a map of Zebes myself, and I would have gotten immense pleasure out of the exercise.
Here’s the thing about Metroid, though–that exploration and discovery may have been the core play aesthetic when it was originally designed, but even if you subvert that by goin’ to the ol’ GameFAQs as I did, it’s still an amazing game. The platforming controls are super-tight, the difficulty curve is pitch-perfect (Castlevania caution in the early levels, Mega Man recklessness once you’ve powered up).
Metroid even feels modern, thanks to the way it handles its checkpoints: Every power-up you grab is an item you’ve earned permanently. If you die, you’re sent back to the beginning of the area you were currently in (of which there are only five), given a meager, meager amount of health, and instructed to claw your way back up to full energy tanks. But–and this is the key–you keep all your stuff. Did you just barely make it to the Ice Beam before dying? That’s cool! As long as you touched it, it’s yours forever.
Metroid is compelling because it lays one rule on the table very clearly from the outset: there is a kind of progress that the game will never take from you.
That one simple concession to the player is something that makes Metroid very easy to play as a gamer used to auto-saves and frequent, generous checkpoints. There are no “continues,” no “lives,” not really–there’s no way to get a permanent game over.
Should you go back and play Metroid if you missed it? Yes. Emphatically yes. The gameplay holds up as well as that of Zelda, Mega Man, or Castlevania, the aesthetics are still remarkably potent (alright, so the 8-bit music can’t creep you out like Dead Space can–turn off all the lights in your living room and play with the sound way up and try and feel like you’re not nine years old again), and it’s a glorious challenge worthy of any retro gamer. Pull up GameFAQs and snag a map like I did, it doesn’t matter. It won’t affect your experience much.
BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE– This, I think, is the best thing about the original Metroid: if you are the kind of person who doesn’t like to kick it old-school, if you wish the 8-bit music were just a trifle more intricate, if you can’t possibly play a Metroid game without a map in the pause menu, if you are FINICKY, geez… There is a game for you!
That’s right, in 2004, when Metroid Fever was sweeping the nation (or… not), Nintendo released Metroid: Zero Mission for the GBA. The game is essentially a retread of the original Metroid with fancy new graphics, updated mechanics (i.e., a map), and a gratuitous sequence in which you play as Zero Suit Samus. I played Zero Mission back when it first came out, and that’s part of the reason I didn’t get around to playing the original until now.
It might be a little harder to get a hold of a GBA game now than it was five years ago, and many of you probably don’t have a GBA anymore (or even a DS), but I can definitely say that Zero Mission is worth your time.
At this point, everyone with aspirations of being a Renaissance Gamer probably owns at least ONE Nintendo system. The original Metroid is available on most of them. I think that most of you will probably find it rewarding and enriching to seek this one out and give it a go.