« August 2009 |
| October 2009 »
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
NES Links and Thoughts
Just finishing off the NES retrospective with a few links and thoughts...
- FCEUX: An easy to use and feature rich NES emulator that I used to get most of the screenshots for this series of posts. The best feature is the ability to save your game state anywhere during a given game. Since most Nintendo games didn't have this feature natively, it became a godsend when playing longer, relatively complicated games like Metroid or Zelda. It's amazing to me that there are still games made today, even on the current console generation, that don't allow saved games (or employ a nifty checkpoint system, etc...) NES games didn't allow them (or provided limited functionality) due mostly to technical reasons, though I guess it also gave kids bragging rights for some of these insanely difficult games. But for someone like me, save states are pretty much a necessity. While on the subject of save states, Kernunrex recently played Castlevania and made a similar point:
I have no idea how anyone ever did this in the era before save states. ... I can't imagine the gallons of tears this game must have generated from '80s children who had parents mean enough to buy it for them. As an adult, I had to make a save state after every successful hit on Dracula. Even then, it took me 30-40 minutes of work. Yeash.
- Two honorable mentions I inexplicably forgot: Super Mario Brothers and Bionic Commando. Alas, I don't have a ton to say about Super Mario Brothers, except that I never really got into all the sequels (though SMB3 seemed pretty cool) or spinoffs (though I do like Mario Kart). The original came is pretty cool and did indeed engage me for weeks after getting the NES. Exceptional music and that peculiar early NES design aesthetic are true classics though (I mean, seriously, the game is about mustachioed Italian plumbers who are seeking to save a Princess from a giant, turtle-like monster called Bowser by eating mushrooms that make them larger and flowers that allow them to throw fireballs). A lot of the classic games like SMB draw from archetypal sources, which lends them power, I think. For instance, in SMB's case, one of the primary sources has to be Alice in Wonderland. Ok, so I ended up saying more than I expected about SMB. Sue me. As for Bionic Commando, I said my piece on that a few weeks ago in a post on Bionic Commando Rearmed, the rather excellent current-gen remake (though by all accounts, the current generation Bionic Commando game is rather sucky).
- The Games that Defined the NES: A nice sampling of iconic games on this console - a lot of overlap with my list and... crap, I forgot to mention Excitebike. I did enjoy that game, though it was mostly because of the fact that there was a track editor that came in the game... which may have been a first for me. Anyway, the list has a few other games that are worth mentioning, but which I never really owned or got into (i.e. Kirby and Kid Icarus, though I may have played that one at some point - it seems very familiar).
- Duck Hunt is another I forgot to mention, though it's primary claim to fame was that it came with SMB and was the only game I ever owned that used the Light Gun. This is actually interesting to me because it's yet another Nintendo game that matches really well with a peripheral that was never really used so well again. Kinda like the Wii, where the single best example of a Motion Control game is still Wii Sports (though I guess you could argue that Wii Sports Resort has superseded the original... on the other hand, it's pretty much the same concept and it also requires an additional peripheral). But I seem to have digressed away from the NES. Moving on...
And that about wraps up the NES retrospective. It was fun! Next up in the list of retrospectives will probably be my family's first IBM compatible computer, a 66MHz 486 Gateway computer, and the various games I played on that (This will be very imprecise though, since there are classic games that I never played until much later on different computers... but given the personal and subjective nature of these retrospectives, it probably makes sense to focus on what I played on what machine... so when I leave out Sim City, don't worry, it'll probably be on the next computer on the list...) Hopefully, I'll get to that series of posts much quicker than I got to the NES (i.e. hopefully within the year).
Posted by Mark on September 30, 2009 at 06:34 PM .:
Sunday, September 27, 2009
6WH: Week 2 - The Slasher Calendar
As part of last year's marathon
, I watched a documentary called Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film
... As a result, when I drew up my list for this year, a lot of slashers sneaked onto the list (enough for several weeks). I won't get through them all, but there will be at least 6-9 slasher films in this year's marathon.
One of the conventions of slasher films is a holiday themed setting. This trend was arguably started by Bob Clarke's influential 1974 film Black Christmas
, but it really kicked into gear (along with Slashers in general) in 1978 with John Carpenter's Halloween
. After Halloween
's success, slasher films were flooding the market, many of which attempted to copy Halloween by focusing on different holidays. Indeed, at this point, there's a pretty full calendar of slasher films
that you can watch, if you're so inclined... and in case you can't tell, I am so inclined. I think this trend overlaps a bit with the convention of having some sort of historical element to the story (i.e. a tragedy of the past revisited in the present), but on the other hand, lots of slashers aren't calendar oriented either. Still, it's a common enough trope that I watched a bunch recently:
- Thursday the 12th (Robot Chicken)
- Uncle Sam (trailer)
- New Year's Evil (trailer)
- My Bloody Valentine (1981) and My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009): One of the better films to arise out of the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th was 1981's My Bloody Valentine. A prime example of both the holiday setting and the historical tragedy revisited, this movie takes place 20 years after a horrible mining accident in which the sole survivor was named Harry Warden. He managed to survive only by eating his friends. Warden blamed the supervisors, who had neglected their post in order to attend the annual Valentines dance, and eventually took his revenge. Harry warned the town that so long as they held the dance, people would die. 20 danceless years later, the town of Valentine Bluffs had finally had enough and started up the old tradition of the Valentines dance again. Suddenly, people start disappearing and it seems that Harry Warden's curse wasn't just the ravings of a madman. Again, this film is generally a cut above most other slasher films of the era. It's more polished and it has more of an interesting story than most, not to mention that the whole miner's outfit thing makes for a great slasher costume (not to mention the trademark pickaxe, which can come in handy for the slasher on the go). It's the little details that make this one work though. I'm no expert, but the production design really seems to capture the mining town aesthetic, the working class characters are actually somewhat empathetic (unlike the throngs of teens in a lot of slashers), and how can you not like the killer's poetic calling cards (a card on the first victim reads: "Roses are Red, Violents are Blue, One is Dead, And So Are You!!!"). There's an inferior remake that was released earlier this year, and despite being slightly elevated by the gimmick of 3D, it ultimately fell flat. It's worth checking out if you're a fan of the original, but if you haven't seen either, check out the original first (like a lot of remakes, this one is perhaps most notable for shining a light on a generally overlooked film). *** for the original, ** for 3D!
- Halloween (1978 - Trailer)
- Grindhouse: Thanksgiving (fake trailer)
- Graduation Day (trailer)
- April Fool's Day: This movie came out during the tail end of the slasher craze and its box office was ruined by word-of-mouth - once people heard about the twist ending (which I will not ruin), they stayed away in droves. Personally, I found it to be a rather unique slasher film and I appreciate the winking and nose-thumbing aspects of the movie. The film opens as a group of teens head to the island vacation home of their friend Muffy St. John for Spring Break. It being April 1st, it doesn't take long for the pranks to start, and things get pretty hairy pretty quickly. As the weekend progresses, guests begin to disappear and Muffy starts acting very strangely. Again, it's one of the higher quality slasher efforts, with a decent look and actors who aren't completely made out of cardboard (indeed, many of the characters are privileged punks, so the fact that you don't seem to mind hanging out with them is actually an accomplishment). Interestingly, the gore is surprisingly minimal here, and the real focus is on the story. The film knows what it is and it has a sense of humor, something that audiences just weren't ready for yet, I guess. The ending does feature a bit of a twist, and I'm sure there are some who don't like it (and don't get me wrong, this is not a tightly written film - there are plenty of near disasterous plot holes), but I thought it was an interesting and new idea. Alas, audiences did not respond and this film seems to signify the waning interest in slashers at the time. The big three slasher series would limp into the nineties, but after this film, the slasher craze was effectively dead. ***
Muffy is a bit strange
- Black Christmas (1974 - Trailer)
- Joe Vs. The Grinch (Family Guy)
- A Holiday Character So Alluring (Robot Chicken)
- Silent Night, Deadly Night: Slashers in general were controversial in their time, but this film apparently upped the ante to the point where people were protesting and picketing movie theaters. And they were successful - this film was pulled from theaters after a week or so, and it then became very hard to find on video (and apparently even DVD, as I had trouble getting my Netflix copy). In all honesty, this is a pretty mean-spirited movie, so I guess the protesting is understandable. I mean, this is a movie where not one, but two Santas get gunned down in front of a group of orphans (and one of the Santas was a kindly old deaf priest (the other was a homicidal axe murderer, but that's besides the point)). This isn't a very impressive movie. There's no real artistry, the performances are crappy, and even the Santa costumes are pretty lame. There are some high points though, including one of the first scenes in the movie, when an old man warns our young hero that Santa is coming to kill him because he's been naughty. He does this in a weird, grizzled old-timey tone that is just awesome. It's probably the best part of the movie. Also, what can I say, I'm a sucker for the Christmas setting. This film doesn't really come anywhere near the Christmas horror classics, but it's worth a watch if you like slashers and Christmas. **
Santa's gonna git ya
And that wraps up the slasher calendar for this year, but we've got another installment of slasher sequels coming, as well as some other miscellaneous slashers. In other news, The Devil Rides Out
is now unavailable, so the Hammer Horror week needs to be replanned.
As usual, Kernunrex
is doing it up at his site, and he's making lots of headway. He's even playing Castlevania
(in an experience similar to mine with Metroid
, he was able to beat the game using save states) and other horror related video games. It's always funny when we have overlap too. He watched The Deaths of Ian Stone
this week - a movie I watched last year
(our thoughts are very similar). Other than that, not much overlap... though I can see some convergences coming later.
Posted by Mark on September 27, 2009 at 11:37 AM .:
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
NES Games: Honorable Mention
The NES has so many good games, any list is bound to be incomplete, but here's a few I haven't mentioned yet.
- Blades of Steel: Sports games still didn't quite have the appeal back then, but they could be fun and somewhat memorable, in a simple way. Blades of Steel had that awesomely lame attempt at play-by-play commentary that ended up making the game hard to forget. It would be far surpassed by later games, but this represents the first true playable hockey game...
- Contra: It's got guns and aliens. What else do you want? Also infamous for the Konami code, which allows you to start the game with 30 lives instead of the usual 3 (and even then, I don't think we ever won this game, though we did get pretty far).
- Double Dragon II: The Revenge: This game is not nearly as good as I remember it, but this brawler was a lot of fun at the time. I believe this second game was the one I owned, and I'm pretty sure I even beat it. Later games would improve considerably on the formula set by these games though, so there's that.
- Gauntlet: A port of the arcade game, it was still a lot of fun, and very hard in the later levels. What can I say, I was a sucker for the swords and sorcerer stuff.
- Mike Tyson's Punch Out: That's right, I said it. Mike Tyson. Not Mr. Dream. Who the hell is that anyway? Even to this day, this game is amazingly fun to play (I haven't played the recent Wii version, but I gather that it's pretty much the same game with a few extra fighters and updated graphics, which is all it really needs). One thing that was obvious even to my younger self but which is so blazingly strange about the game is the absurd racial stereotyping that each fighter represents. It's still a great game. Also, when you win a title match and you start training, the music is incredible, some of the best for the NES. Later boxing games improved graphics and realism, but I think this might remain the best.
- R.C. Pro-Am: Did you know those were supposed to be radio controlled cars? That's what the R.C. stands for. I always thought this was just a regular racing game. And a really, really fun one. For all its simplicity, it's a really great game. That I was never able to beat. Dammit.
- Shadowgate: This is almost a throwback to those old text adventure games, but it's more formalized for use with a gamepad. I remember being completely consumed by this game when I got it, but it's the sort of game that doesn't do so well upon replaying. Once you know the secrets, it gets a bit boring. Still, it's one of the more memorable games I played.
Again, there are probably dozens of other games I should be mentioning (Double Dribble? Excitebike? etc...), but this series of posts has to end somewhere... Perhaps one more wrapup post next Wednesday...
Posted by Mark on September 23, 2009 at 06:57 PM .:
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Six Weeks of Halloween 2009: Week 1 - Universal Horror
It's that time of year again. Halloween is my favorite time of the year, and it provides a convenient excuse to explore one of my favorite genres of film (as I have done
for the past couple of years
). In preparation for this year's six week celebration of Halloween, I pretty quickly drew up a list that could easily take me through ten weeks... I doubt I'll get through them all, but I'm going to have fun trying. Highlights include this week's look at classic Universal Horror films, a sampling of the later Monster revival with Hammer Horror, perhaps some Vincent Price, and of course, some slashers and miscellaneous horrors to round out the pack (including the much anticipated Trick 'r Treat
, amongst others). If you can't get enough Halloween madness here, be sure to visit Kernunrex
, who's been doing this whole Six Weeks of Halloween thing a lot longer than I have... (Someday I'll redesign Kaedrin so as to allow for an easy switch to Halloween colors like he does... that day is probably not coming anytime soon, but still.)
Its the nicest weather Earth has ever had!*
As previously mentioned, this year's marathon kicks off with a look at Universal Studios' classic monster films. I've seen two of the following films before, but not since I was very young, so I figured it would be worth revisiting (as a result, I now want to revisit the original novels upon which the following films were based, which if my current queue is any indication, means I'll get to them sometime in the 2020s). Here goes:
- Frankenstein's Fiancee (Robot Chicken)
- Frankenhooker (trailer)
- Frankenstein (1910 - Full Movie)
- Frankenstein (1931): My memories of Frankenstein were fond but not overly enthusiastic. I remember these films being hokey and over-the-top, and to be sure, there are elements of that here, but it is much more effective than I remember it being. Adapted from Mary Shelly's classic novel of the same name, the film is dramatically different from both the novel and the many stage variations of the preceding century. Despite the changes, the movie retains the feel and thematic resonance of the novel. This cautionary tale of technology gone awry is something that strikes a chord throughout most of history, perhaps even more now than when it was written. It certainly helps that James Whale was behind the camera and Boris Karloff was in front of it, and the movie has aged quite well (it is perhaps the best of today's choices). ****
Karloff's Frankenstein's Monster
- Young Frankenstein (trailer)
- Frankenstein for President
- Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (trailer)
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935): I may have seen bits and pieces of this film before, but never the whole thing. This direct sequel to the 1931 film features mostly the same cast and crew, and as such, the technical aspects of the film are superb. Indeed, they may even surpass the original. Karloff is given more to do in this film, and while he was wonderfully expressive in the first film, he goes above and beyond in this film, infusing the Monster with emotion and even evoking sympathy. Director James Whale had also honed his skills in the intervening years and the Bride's creation scene is particularly well done, especially when it comes to the editing. This film's special effects also stand out, as when Dr. Pretorius displays his miniature experiments for Dr. Frankenstein (the scene holds up remarkably well, which is more than I can say for a lot of special effects from the era... (or even modern effects, for that matter)). Another standout scene is when the Monster encounters an elderly blind man, who teaches the Monster about bread, wine, and rudimentary English. He also introduces the Monster to the concept of friendship, which drives the rest of the story. I must admit that the story does get to be a bit more silly in this installment, but it still works very well. Thematically, the film expands upon the original, and adds some new twists of its own. The ending is actually quite moving, as the Monster realizes what he is and where he belongs. Many consider this sequel to be superior to the first film, and in many ways, it is. However, it is sillier and more over-the-top than the previous film. It is still a wonderful film in its own right, and something I'm glad I caught up with. ****
- Vampire 7:00-8:00AM, Vampire 1:00-2:00PM, and Vampire 8:00-9:00PM (Robot Chicken)
- Bart Simpson's Dracula (The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror IV)
- Vampire Chase (Robot Chicken)
- Dracula (1931): I was curious to revisit this film in light of the current pop-culture craze for vampires we're experiencing right now. There are many who believe that vampires have been watered down these days:
Once upon a time, vampires were monsters. Creatures of the night. Beasts who crawled from their coffins at night; consorted with spiders, bats, and rats; ravaged women and tore out the throats of men. They were demonic; spawns of Satan. The best known image of the vampire is that of Bela Lugosi, whose intonation of the line: "I never drink
wine" has become the standard.
And indeed, many recent vampire stories take a less monsterous approach, favoring instead a more emotional and empathetic creature (though I must admit that I don't mind that approach either, just that it has become the pervasive approach). So in revisiting this classic film, it was refreshing to see Dracula portrayed as something unnatural and evil. Director Tod Browning is at his creepy best when framing Lugosi's Dracula onscreen. Lugosi's menacing glare is undeniably effective and his Dracula is indeed a creature to fear. Alas, the mechanics of the plot (and, uh, the special effects) leaves something to be desired. This is a little disappointing, though still quite entertaining and better than much of today's vampire stories (I'm looking at you, Twilight!). Someday, perhaps, I'll check out the Spanish language version of this film, which was apparently shot at the same time and using the same sets. Some believe it to be superior to the English language version... ***
One of the surprising things about all three of the above movies is that they are all between 70-75 minutes in length, significantly shorter than even the shortest movies in theaters today. It's worth noting that many of the above films are also restored from cut versions. In particular, the scenes missing from the original Frankenstein
are quite important (the missing scenes were restored in 1986 and most DVDs of the film have them), particularly the scene when the Monster plays with the little girl. It's actually quite a disturbing scene, but Karloff was always able to walk that line between evil and misunderstood, creating a monster that was scary and sympathetic at the same time.
It's also interesting to note that the characters of Dracula and Frankenstein are two of the most frequently utilized fictional characters in the history of film. Dracula has 200+ appearances, while Frankenstein has only had a mere 80+ roles. And I think both will continue to rack up the appearances. Interestingly, I think there are several more recent horror icons that could give the classics a run for their money... Jason Vorhees, Mike Myers, and Freddy Kreuger have established themselves pretty firmly in modern film culture, but I'm not sure they will ever be as prolific as the old Universal classic monsters. Why? Devin Faraci has speculated on this
There is one major obstacle that's stopping Freddy and Jason and Mike Myers and Leatherface from really getting to that position of being among the truly eternal monsters of filmland: copyright. While the versions of the Universal Monsters we love are copyrighted in terms of their appearance (although a zillion manufacturers of Halloween ephemera have skirted the edges of that legality), the characters themselves are in the public domain. This is what has allowed them to become such prominent forces in film, keeping them going in permutation after permutation. If Universal outright owned the characters then Hammer, for instance, would never have been able to reinvent them in the 50s and 60s (my colleague Ryan Rotten very astutely notes that what Platinum Dunes is doing with the characters of Jason, Freddy and Leatherface, and what Rob Zombie is doing with Michael Myers, is very similar to what Hammer did with the Universal Monsters, recasting them and re-presenting them for a new generation with new tastes). In fact, the copyright on the Gill-Man from The Creature from the Black Lagoon may be one of the things keeping him from really ascending and going places as a character. Being tightly controlled by Universal keeps him from escaping into the pop culture world at large.
Perhaps audiences will still be squirming in their seats in fear of Jason, Mike, and Freddy a century from now, but maybe not. One thing is for sure though: Audiences will still be entertained by updates on Frankenstein and Dracula...
* With apologies to the MST3K Movie for that joke, though it works even better on the newer variations on the logo...
Posted by Mark on September 20, 2009 at 12:00 PM .:
Thursday, September 17, 2009
NES Games: Final Fantasy and Dragon Warriors
Like the action/adventure games described in the last post
, this post contains a few standouts from the RPG genre. I'm sure there are a few others that were popular at the time, but these were my favorites. Unless you consider old dungeon crawlers like Temple of Apshai
a full blown RPG, these are really my first experience with the genre (at the time, I was also getting my feet wet with tabletop RPGs as well, though I never progressed that far there).
The three games listed below are remarkably similar. At least, that's how I remember it. I didn't get very far in replaying, well, any of them. One of the features of the games I've covered so far is that they were very difficult and required a lot of time playing and replaying various aspects in order to defeat the game. The same thing goes for RPGs, but here it's more systematic. A common feature of these game is something called grinding
. I did this in Zelda II
, to an extent, but neither really approaches the levels of these RPGs. I spent countless hours trolling forests and dungeons, picking fights with imps and slimes in order to gain experience points and leveling up my characters. I didn't really recognize it then, but this was my way of cheating (grinding for a long time will make your characters more powerful than they are required to be). I honestly think that more recent games where the enemies' power is proportional to your power (for example, Oblivion
), while eliminating the tedious and unfun grinding process, also take some of the fun away from the games. You didn't really need
to grind as much as I did, but I did it because there was a benefit to it. It made the world more open to exploration for me, and as I've already established, that's a big part of what I like about games.
For the most part, the game mechanics are the same. There is a top-down overworld of sorts (similar in some ways to the original Zelda) where you lead an adventurer (or a team of adventurers). You will randomly encounter enemies, at which point the game enters a combat screen in which you engage in a turn-based battle with enemies (i.e. for each adventurer, you select which enemy you want to attack, then the game plays out your attacks, followed by enemy attacks, and so on, until one group is completely killed). When you defeat enemies, you get experience and loot. When you get enough experience, your characters go up a level and you get new abilities, etc... And when you defeat powerful enemies, you get better loot. Usually there's some sort of epic story of a land beset by a powerful evil and a chosen warrior (who you play) chosen by the king to defeat the enemy. Pretty standard stuff, really. But if you enjoy exploration and the steady improvement of your characters through experience and magic items, these games can be addicting. So here are my favorites:
- Final Fantasy: This is really a great game, from start to finish. You start with a team of four characters, each of which from a different class of character (usually combining the offensive strength of a fighter with other types of fighters and magicians) and begin exploring the various areas. Most of the time, you are funneled through choke points, forcing you to face off against a boss in an area before continuing. You are also prevented from exploring to certain areas because of the power of the enemies you face there (hence the aforementioned grinding). Many of these bosses are memorable and challenging. I distinctly remember several, including the first boss named Garland (which I borrowed as a name of one of my D&D characters, a ranger if I remember correctly). A later boss was the Kraken. I remember it being very difficult to get to the Kraken without depleting your energy too much, to the point where I kept my NES on for a few days (i.e. I didn't want to turn it off because I got so far in good condition). Of the games mentioned in this post, this is the only one I've actually completed. For some reason, despite loving this game, I never played any of the sequels or spinoffs (of which there are over a dozen at this point), though I have to admit a certain anticipation for FF13.
- Dragon Warrior: This game actually predates Final Fantasy by a year or so (and I'm sure it influenced the makers of FF) and is very similar. To be sure, I don't think I ever got that far with this game, but it introduced me to the franchise and I remember playing this game and Dragon Warrior II at a friend's house often.
- Dragon Warrior III: When I finally saved up enough money to buy one of these games, Dragon Warrior III had just come out, so I ended up purchasing that game. This game expanded upon the others by including a massive amount of content. A larger world to explore, more and varied enemies to defeat, and a massive amount of special items to collect. Indeed, I remember it having an absolutely huge instruction manual and a big map of the world with a list of magic items and creatures on the back (such things were common then). The game was huge, so despite enjoying it, I don't think I ever finished it. I did get pretty far though, and I had a lot of fun with it...
Well, that about wraps up the RPG portion of this series. The Six Weeks of Halloween series of posts will be starting up this weekend, so I'll probably be finishing off the NES posts with an honorable mentions post and some final thoughts on the coming Wednesdays...
Posted by Mark on September 17, 2009 at 09:03 PM .:
Sunday, September 13, 2009
NES Games: Zelda, Zeus and Dracula
Like any game genre, there were tons of great action/adventure games for the NES, but to me, it really comes down to the following four games (and a few other implied games).
- The Legend of Zelda: I'm surprised at how well this game holds up, even today. Sure, the game is very difficult and requires a level of mastery I rarely attained, but the game's mystique has always kept me interested and wanting more. This is yet another proto-open-world game (I'm beginning to see a pattern here in early games that I consider great), where you simply begin playing in the middle of a gigantic video game world. In the Zelda games, these are referred to as the "overworld" and you navigate up there to find various dungeons, fighting monsters in order to find and reassemble scattered fragments of Triforce. Once you have all the fragments, you fight Gannon and save the princess.
Link navigating the overworld
The overworld is a masterpiece of game design. It's mostly open, meaning that you can go almost anywhere at any time. There are some areas that require an item or two to reach, but even then, you're given surprising freedom of movement within the gameworld. The thing that keeps you out of certain areas are all based on how powerful the enemies are. Sure, you could head over to the graveyard at the beginning of the game, but chances are that you'll have some trouble surviving there long enough to get anything good. I haven't played much of the newer Zelda games, but there seems to be a distinct lack of "overworld" style gameplay that really causes the newer games to suffer. Like Metroid (another pseudo-open-world), the original Zelda is a game that places a premium on exploration. The world is huge and filled with secret rooms, stores and dungeons. The game doesn't make you feel as isolated and alone as Metroid (you encounter many NPCs in Zelda), but it does a lot of similar things.
Link entering a dungeon
One of the greatest things about the game is the music. It's amazingly good. Despite a decent amount of repetition, the music never really seems to get boring, which is kinda surprising (the dungeon music is perhaps less brilliant than the overworld stuff, but it's still damn good). Likewise, the visual design of the world and the various creatures that inhabit it are excellent. The world is bright but not overly cheery and the dungeons are all ominous without being suffocating.
One other thing that seems silly, but which definitely differentiated this game from all the others was that the physical game cartridge was gold in color (rather than the standard, boring gray). Normally, I would think of gold as being gaudy and obnoxious, but the Zelda cartridge, manuals, and packaging all seemed to be somewhat classy. So perhaps I was just buying into the hype of the day, but hell, it worked.
Zelda's Gold Cartridge
This is actually a game I never owned as a kid. Winning the game was a group effort undertaken by several kids on my block, and it was a lot of fun. Due to various time constraints, I only got about halfway through the game as of this writing (that's even relying on my tendency to cheat at video games), but it's something I definitely want to finish replaying at some point. Other games in this series of posts (or this post itself) won't be so lucky. But Zelda is a true classic, one of the best games of all time.
- Zelda II: The Adventure of Link: Having loved the first game, I naturally moved on to the sequel, which ended up being a very different game. There was still an overworld, but that was not the main arena for battle. Instead, you used the overworld as a way to get from one dungeon/cave/town to another, occasionally running into some enemies along the way, something more typically seen in RPG games. Indeed, this game built on the RPG elements of the original Zelda in many considerable ways, instituting an experience points system, allowing various magic spells, and of course, expanding upon the concept of collecting magic items and other special abilities. The other huge change in this game was that all of the combat took place in a side-scrolling action/platforming environment. This is a rather large change in gameplay style, though my young self didn't seem to have any issue adjusting (the new and expanded RPG elements were enough to placate me). This game was made rather quickly after the first game, so perhaps Nintendo wasn't sure if the original game's top-down view would continue to work. In any case, the game's controls were relatively well balanced, making it easy to pick up and once you got some of the more advanced abilities, the game gets more fun. It's also worth noting that the overworld had more significant obstacles and choke points, making the game progress a little more linearly than the original. This was mitigated by the sheer size and scope of Zelda II's world, but it's something I found a bit lacking.
Zelda II's Overworld
From what I can gather, this seems to be one of the least favorite Zelda games in the series. Having played only 3 myself (the original, this one, and Twilight Princess Wii), I'm not really a good judge, but I loved this game when I was a kid. I played through it at least 3, maybe 4 times. One time, a friend got his save files corrupted after getting pretty far into the game, so I volunteered to play the game up to that point for him so that he could continue on.
The music for this game was good and more varied, but somehow not as iconic as the original (which isn't to say that it's not iconic in its own right). The visuals and enemy design were a definite improvement though. The boss fights, in particular, seemed to be more memorable. One distinct step down in this game was the way it handled character deaths. In the original game, if you died in a dungeon, you would start back at the beginning of the dungeon. In Link, you're given 3 lives, but if you die that many times, you end up back at the beginning of the game. So dying is more of a pain in Zelda II.
I hate fighting these guys
Now, replaying this game, I've only managed to get to the second dungeon (due to the way the overworld is constructed in this game, the dungeons/caves/towns are the star of the game, so that's what everything gets associated with). This is mostly because I didn't have time to figure out the appropriate cheat codes, but it's also because this game is extremely long! At one point, you get to a screen that very much resembles the overworld of the first game. Malstrom has speculated that Zelda I was perhaps just a close-up view of a piece of Zelda II (See the map in his post - he also mentions that most of the new Zelda games are lacking in the overworld department).
Despite any complaints above, this game is still a classic and one of my favorites of all time. I've probably logged more hours on this game than any others in this post, which is pretty impressive. I doubt I'll have time to completely revisit this game in the near future, but it would be worthwhile if I did.
- The Battle of Olympus: Given my undying love for Zelda II, it's no wonder that I ended up loving this game as well. It's basically a Zelda II clone in terms of action and fighting gameplay, only it uses Greek Mythology as a base. There's not much of an overworld to the game (there is a map of sorts, but I wouldn't call it an overworld in the Zelda sense), but it's not a completely linear experience either. There are branching paths and backtracking, just not as much as we've seen in games previously discussed.
Visiting a god
Despite stealing gameplay elements from Zelda II, the game feels very distinct. I think a lot of the power of this game had to do with its reliance on Greek Mythology. You play Orpheus, a real figure from Greek Mythology, who goes on a quest to the Underworld to save his beloved Eurydice from her afterlife in Hades (if I remember correctly, the game is a somewhat less tragic retelling of the story). Along the way, you meet up with familiar gods (Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, etc...), mythological beasts (a Cyclops, a Minotaur, Cerberus, the Lamia (which I find amusing considering the current season of True Blood), a Siren, a Centaur etc...), and you collect various legendary items (Apollo's Harp, the sandals of Hermes, etc...) All these familiar elements lend a timeless quality to the game, even if it isn't the most innovative of it's time (something that God of War would much later cash in on as well, though that game is probably more timeless than this one).
All of that said, this isn't really as good as Zelda II. The platforming and fighting controls are a little more floaty and difficult to master, and some of the enemies in this game are ridiculous. In particular, I hated battling Cerberus. He has three heads, and you have to destroy each one to defeat him. The only issue is that after destroying one head, you have to be really fast because if you wait too long, it will regenerate. On the one hand, this was annoying as hell. On the other hand, it really stuck out in my head, and once I did manage to defeat him, there was a real sense of accomplishment.
I didn't get very far in replaying this game, so it's hard to say for sure, but I can see the appeal to my younger self. The game very clearly depends on a love of mythology and Zelda II, but given that I enjoyed both, I have very fond memories of this game. It's probably not something you'll see in a lot of best-of lists, but it holds a special place in my gaming history.
- Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse: Having played the first two Castlevania games at various friends' houses, I ended up getting this game when it came out. I never really got far in either of the previous two installments of the game, but I really liked the feel of those games and the prospect of vampire hunting seemed fun to me, so I took the plunge with this game. Technically a prequel to the first two games, you play Trevor Belmont, a vampire hunter on a quest to defeat Dracula. Pretty simple stuff.
Trevor Belmot and his trademark whip
As gameplay goes, this is more similar to the original Castlevania. It's more of a platformer than anything else, though it's not completely linear. You can take different paths to get to Dracula's castle, and depending on your choices, you can pick up companions along the way. These companions apparently wind up being pretty important throughout the game series, but for the purposes of this game, they're pretty great (well, two of them are). The first one you could encounter is Grant DaNasty, a pirate who was corrupted by Dracula (which is kinda funny considering that pirates aren't exactly saints themselves). Once you defeat him, he becomes human again and you can choose to have him come with you on your quest. He gives you the ability to jump higher and further than Trevor and he can also climb on walls, making some previously inaccessible areas available. He was one of my favorite characters and became the basis for a D&D character I played for years. Another character you could play was Alucard, who is actually Dracula's son. Alucard would go on to star in what is often considered the best game of the Castlevania series, Symphony of the Night. If you chose to use him as your companion, you got the ability to use a fireball attack and you could also change into a bat. Finally, you could also play Sypha Belnades, who didn't have much of a physical attack ability (and thus was probably the least useful of all the characters), but she made up for it a bit with some magical abilities.
Visually, the game was decent, though not exceptional. Same thing for the music, which is memorable and contains that iconic Castevania theme, but is otherwise not particularly special.
Grant jumps onto a swinging pendulum
In replaying this game, I have to admit that I'm surprised it held my interest so much back in the day. Granted, I do still love the mythology of the Castlevania franchise. Dracula is a fantastic villain in any medium, and video games are no exception (and the game makers certainly made that final bossfight count - it took me forever to beat him). The addition of Grant and Alucard (and to a lesser extent Sypha) also did a lot to help my interest in this game (I mean, come on, did you know that Dracula had a son? Holy shit man! That's awesome!). I don't necessarily shy away from a challenge, but man, the platforming and control scheme in this game is just plain shitty (things are improved a bit with Grant, who has a bigger leap and his ability to cling to walls also comes in handy). Unlike previously discussed games like Metroid and Zelda II, the controls here seem quite poorly balanced. So a big portion of the challenges in this game are only challenging because the controls are crappy. I do remember eventually finishing this game and yes, it was quite a good feeling of accomplishment, but looking back at that now, I'm still a bit surprised.
Aside from the platforming annoyances, it really is a good game, and apparently an influential one on the rest of the series. Alas, I'm not that familiar with other games in the series (I remember playing one on the PS2, but that game wasn't very good), but perhaps I can change that in the near future. I have a lot of fond memories about this one, so perhaps a more lengthy visit in the future would be warranted.
Well that about wraps up this installment. Next up are the RPGs. I will be traveling this week though, so they might get short shrift (which is probably for the best, considering how much time I spent playing those damn games - time that I would never get away with these days).
Posted by Mark on September 13, 2009 at 10:23 PM .:
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
Emergency order. Defeat the Metroid of Planet Zebes. Destroy the Mother Brain.
--Galaxy Federal Police M510
One of my favorite games for the NES is the non-linear, action/adventure game Metroid
. In revisiting the game, I realized several important things. First, not only did I never finish Metroid
back in the day, I didn't get very far into the game at all! At best, I had gotten to one of the bosses, but that, of course, is nowhere near the end of the game. The game was indeed hard, but it's interesting that I did fall in love with it nevertheless.
In replaying the game, I actually managed to win. Of course, I cheated
. I used maps
and most importantly, I utilized my emulator's ability to create saved games. That last one, more than anything else, made the game about a hundred times less frustrating to play. I recognize that the hardware limitations of the NES made it difficult to allow saved games (this game was released before the batteries that allowed saves on newer games), but Metroid was incredibly punitive. It often seems like the game is constructed to waste time, something that would infuriate me in a game today (and indeed, I was not a fan of Metroid III
). So the ability to save the game at any time made things a lot easier. I know this isn't a "fair" way to play the game, and I'm sure purists are leaving my site in disgust, but I have to say, the game was a lot of fun.
So why do I love this game? I think a lot of it has to do with the atmosphere of the game. There's not much of a story, but it's clear what you're supposed to do. The music is evocative, the character and monster designs are fantastic for an 8 bit game, and the gameworld is sprawling, open and varied. Again, there's no real narrative in the game, so when you see various designs, you're forced to come up with explanations of your own. For instance, whenever you find a power-up, it's being held by some bird-like statue. Why? Who knows? When entering various boss' lairs, there is a weird alien creature's head that is evocative without being too cheesy.
Samus entering Kraid's lair
This is an action game with platforming elements, but the primary gameplay element is actually exploration
. One of the most shocking and subversive things this game did was that it forced you to go left
. Indeed, in order to start exploring past the first screen, you need to go left first and gain a power-up. This might seem trivial or silly today, but it was revolutionary back then. The notion of going left-to-right is so ingrained in our consciousness from reading (and other video games), that the concept that we not only could go left, but that we were required to do so, was amazing. The game was also one of the first to use backtracking as a key element. In addition, the game is filled with secrets, hidden barriers, and tricks. Furthermore, these secret barriers were necessary in order to win the game, making the process of exploration that much more fun. Despite the punishing difficulty of the game, the focus on probing
captivated me, even when I was younger (and now that I can mitigate the difficulty with saved games, the focus on probing and exploration is that much more rewarding).
Samus finds a new weapon
Like other games of the era, such as the Zelda
required you to collect various items, weapons, and abilities in order to strengthen your character. And as you gained various powers, additional areas of the map became accessible. The sprawling, open-world design of the world was quite alluring (I'm also a big fan of precursors like Pitfall II
and successors like GTA III
) and again, the game's atmosphere really draws you in. It's funny, but part of the allure is the solitary nature of your character. You are literally the only person on the planet. A planet infested with all sorts of nasty creatures and lava pits and all sorts of other crazy obstacles. The design works well, emphasizing the solitude and desperation, yet somehow retaining a fun experience.
One of the things that really struck me upon replaying this game was just how excellent the platforming elements of this game are. Many platformers of the era had floaty, unresponsive controls (I'm looking at you, Castlevania
!) which at the time were considered part of the challenge. Not so here. The control and freedom of movement of Samus was quite liberating compared to other games. You could even control a jump while in mid-air. And later powerups like the Super Jump and most importantly, the Screw Attack (one of the best video game weapons ever), made the experience that much better.
Samus is a woman!
One of the things I never realized about Metroid (perhaps because I never finished it back in the day!) was that there actually multiple endings to the game
, based on how long it took you to complete the game. Three of the endings revealed something that was pretty shocking at the time: the character you had been playing for the whole game with the awesome power armor? It was a woman! The version I got had her take off her helmet to reveal her long hair. Other versions included her taking off all her armor to reveal a leotard or even a bikini. Then there are the versions where you took too long to complete the game. Those had her keep on her suit (in effect not revealing her identity) and in the "worst" ending, she turns her back to you and covers her face in shame. The fact that the game had different endings based on how quickly you finished started a trend of people doing Metroid Speed Runs
, attempting to win the game as quick as humanly possible (The best time right now is just over 18 minutes, which is pretty insane).
It's interesting that the original game has so many elements that I don't especially like in games, but it makes up for any shortcomings with exceptional visual, sound, and gameplay design. It definitely isn't my all-time favorite game for the NES, but it's up there with my favorites .
More screenshots and comments below the fold...
This is where you start in Metroid, and I have to admit to a nostalgic chill when I first heard the famous Metroid fanfare playing.
This is one of the bosses, Kraid. The game also has a "fake" version of Kraid, presumably to trick you into thinking you defeated Kraid, then getting to the end of the game and realizing that something is very wrong. These game designers for Metroid
, they were very cruel.
This is the other boss, named Ridley. To be honest, I'm not sure which boss you're supposed to defeat first (which is a pretty cool consequence of an open ended game like this), but Ridley is extremely easy to defeat.
Frustration, thy name is this screen (and I've already gotten pas the really hard part).
One of the consequences of having a somewhat open world like this is that you can reach screens very early in the game that will not become important until the very end. This screen is very tantalizing, and it's really the only in-game hint that there are two bosses you need to defeat before continuing to the last area in the game (they're the two statues on the page - they're Kraid and Ridley - and later in the game, shooting them both opens a bridge across the lava).
Once again, these Metroid
designers were very sneaky. Any time you run into a situation like this where something very desirable (like the energy tank) is seemingly easy to access, you know something's up. It turns out that there's an invisible pit just before you reach the energy tank in this screenshot. To get the tank, you have to then make a looooong trek through a bunch of enemy infested screens in order to get back up to the tank.
The little jellyfish thing below Samus there is one of the titular Metroids. These things are huge pains in the ass. You don't get to see any of them until the very end of the game though, and by then you should be pretty adept at using the ice gun... Thank goodness for saved games though.
This is the final boss in the game, Mother Brain, and she is damn hard to beat. It's not so much her that's tough as those stupid fire ring things and gun turrets that surround her. Also, if you fall into the lava in front of her, it's very hard to get back out. Man, the thought of doing this without saved games makes me queasy. Amazingly, once you defeat Mother Brain, the game isn't over. You're given 999 seconds to escape through a vertical shaft that requires some very nifty jumps. But that doesn't stop you for long, and then you get the ending:
I have to admit, for an ending to a game this difficult, this is actually quite lame. If it wasn't for the reveal of Samus' gender a little bit later, this qould be a horrible ending. As it is, it works really well.
Well, that finishes off Metroid
. It's probably not my favorite game, but I probably won't have such a detailed recap for other games. It was the fact that I actually managed to win the replay of this game that allowed me to take all these screenshots. I haven't played through as much of most of the other games I'll cover, and there are too many games to go over in this much detail... But I'll do my best. Stay tuned for the Zelda
Posted by Mark on September 09, 2009 at 07:47 PM .:
Sunday, September 06, 2009
A Video Game Retrospective: Part 3
Several years ago, I started a Video Game Retrospective
, beginning with my first video game console, the Atari 2600
then moving on to the Commodore 64
. In typical Kaedrin fashion, I have thoroughly ignored the series for a little over two years, so it's probably time to get back on the horse. I was reminded of the series during my recent bout with Bionic Commando Rearmed
as well as accidentally stumbling upon a box with a good portion of my old Nintendo cartridges (along with reams of paper containing various passwords and maps, etc...)
So this third installment will be focusing on the classic Nintendo Entertainment System
(aka the NES). My memory on exactly when I got an NES is a bit fuzzy, but I can say that it was at the very earliest 1989 - this is actually somewhat late in the life cycle of the NES (the Genesis was introduced within a year, and the SNES not much later than that). Despite this fact, I played quite a bit of NES. The multitude of available games ensured I always had something new and interesting to play, and these games tended to be better, deeper, and more fun than the previously discussed Atari and Commodore games. In addition, the transition to the 16 bit era seemed to take a bit longer than other transitions in the history of gaming (at least, from my own subjective memory of such things, which is probably not very reliable). Most of my friends had an NES, and even the fancy ones who got newer consoles still had and played the NES.
Something that never really occurred to me until recently is just how revolutionary the NES controller was. There really hadn't been anything like it up until that point. Both of the previous systems I mentioned had joysticks of some kind. I remember that I had some weird handheld football game
not sure if those match exactly what I had, but it was close Update:
It was an Entex: Color Football 4
...) that had a sorta gamepad style control (i.e. buttons for up/down/left/right) and I'm sure some arcades had similar style controls, but the dominant controller at the time was the joystick. The gamepad was a huge innovation and it's something that survives to this day (even Nintendo's new fancy motion-controllers double as old fashioned NES controllers, which is actually kinda impressive). I don't want to get into a holy war regarding the history of video game controllers, but it does seem like Nintendo has always been an innovator in that realm. Sometimes that hurt them (I believe the N64 controller was the first major console controller to feature an analog stick, but Nintendo wasn't sure how that would work out, so they also included a standard gamepad style control, which resulted in a weird three pronged controller), sometimes they scored big (the wiimote). In any case, the classic NES controller is pretty awesome, despite the blocky, non-ergonomic design.
The previous two installments were an interesting exercise in nostalgia, and I had some fun revisiting those games, but for the most part, those games were severely lacking. The NES generation of games was the first generation that utterly enthralled my young self. I can still remember the excited anticipation as my parents drove me to Toys R Us to pick up the action pack, and the giddy joy as I played Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt well into the night. I fondly remember hours of grinding through RPGs, mastering various keyboard combos and maneuvers, taking notes and drawing maps on pieces of paper(!?), and other things that I'm amazed I put up with. I remember the strange problems with the top loading cartridges and the silly-yet-seemingly-effective countermeasures (such as blowing on the cartridge or using the Game Genie as an intermediary). Most of all, I remember having a lot of fun, which is what this is all about, right?
The way these retrospective series have gone is that I do an introduction, then I pick one favorite game, then I post several honorable mentions, and conclude with a few links and additional thoughts. Because the NES has so many incredible games that totally blew me away during my formative years, choosing a single favorite would be impossible. As such, I'm not really sure how many posts I'll get out of this, but I plan to be done in a couple of weeks (at which time the annual six weeks of Halloween will commence). I've been revisiting my favorite games on the Virtual Console of my Wii and also on an emulator on my computer (much easier to get screenshots that way, and the emulator offers certain functionality that makes the more frustrating aspects of some games more bearable (i.e. the ability to save - which, yes, is a cheat, but sometimes I like cheats
)). A tentative schedule of posts is listed below:
Depending on time, I might even check out some games I didn't play much (or games I never played at all). In a lot of cases, I've played only one game in a given series. For instance, I never cared much for Mario, and as such I only ever owned the one that came with my system. Sure, I played part 2 and part 3 from time to time at friends' houses, but I was never really down with the series. In other cases, when I got my hands on enough cash to buy a game, I ended up buying the latest incarnation of a series I know I liked (Castlevania III is a prime example, but there were several others).
In the end, I'm sure my retrospective will be woefully incomplete from any objective standpoint, but as with my other retrospectives, this is a) a subjective list and b) limited to my experience playing video games as a youth. That being said, feel free to list your favorites or make suggestions in the comments. I'm doubting that I'll have a ton of time to devote to them, but you never know...
Posted by Mark on September 06, 2009 at 10:21 PM .:
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
Bionic Commando Rearmed
Back in the day, the first NES game my brother and I purchased (beyond SMB and Duck Hunt, which came with the system) was Bionic Commando
. To be quite honest, I have no idea what possessed us to pick that particular game. It's not like we weren't familiar with the other popular games of the era (i.e. Zelda
, etc...), so I'm not sure what it was about that game that caught our interest, but I'm glad it did. And it turns out that it is something of a cult classic on the NES system - not a top tier title that spawned a massive franchise like Mario or Zelda, but a very well received game that had a big following.
The game was essentially a side-scrolling platformer, but the twist was that your character couldn't jump. Instead, you're given a bionic arm which can shoot out and latch on to stuff, allowing you to swing or climb over various obstacles. It's amazing how lost you can feel without the ability to jump, but the core mechanic of swinging and climbing is actually pretty intuitive and once you get used to the idea, the game becomes a blast. It's something I've revisited many times over the years. Not too long ago, someone decided it was time to give the game a facelift and release it on the next gen consoles. The result was Bionic Commando Rearmed
. The game is technically a remake, with several key differences:
- The graphics have been updated to modern standards. The game is still a 2d platformer, but the graphics engine is 3d and displays a lot more detail. The music has also been given a contemporary facelift. In both cases, the level design and feel of the game has been preserved, while at the same time giving the game a more modern look and feel. The music, in particular, is fantastic - so much so that Capcom has made it available for sale by itself...
- Many of the annoyances of the NES era have been smoothed over and revised. The game automatically saves after each level, and while you're in the level, if you die, you respawn where you were last standing (usually - there were some times I got sent back further and didn't know why, but in any case, it's an improvement over the original). One of the frustrating things about the original game was that you could only take one of each piece of equipment into a zone (i.e. only 1 gun, only 1 communicator, only 1 special item), but in Rearmed, you always carry everything. There are no "continues" and you don't need to collect extra lives (at least, at the default difficulty you don't).
- The Boss battles have been completely revamped. There are minor similarities and some of the bosses resemble their original counterparts, but the way the boss battles work is now completely different. I could go either way on this. The new boss battles are definitely good and they can be challenging and fun, but I also enjoyed the originals. One of the things that I always thought was interesting about the original was that in some cases, you didn't even need to defeat the boss in order to win the level - you just needed to destroy each level's reactor to win... but that detail has been left out here. Still, the new Bosses do ensure a freshness to the game that would have been missing if the originals were simply copied.
- The weapons have been updated, in some cases making them more powerful and also allowing for a few new ideas to make their way into the game. When combined with the ability to access all weapons during a given level, there are some interesting consequences to this variety. For instance, if you're hanging out somewhere and you need to start swinging, you can change to the shotgun and fire off a blast that will get you swinging and allow you to jump to another area, etc...
- The game features a couple of new modes, including something called Challenge Rooms which are unlockable obstacle courses. These start out pretty easy but quickly become nigh impossible. With a lot of practice and lightning fast reflexes and muscle memory, you'll be able to get far, but man, these things get hard. There are 56 rooms in total (plus some bonus rooms), but by the time you get to the 10th or 11th room, you'll be hurting, and it doesn't get any easier from there. There's also apparently a cooperative mode where two players can play through the game, but I haven't tried that part yet...
- There are a ton of secrets and weapon upgrades, etc... in the game. In some cases, these are fun to find, in others, I have to wonder how anyone would find them without some sort of walkthrough.
There are lots of other changes, but overall these updates to the game are for the best. The developer, Grin, managed to keep the essence of what made the original great, while jettisoning the stuff that is no longer necessary. The result is a game that retains the feel of its predecessor while still carving out an identity of its own. This isn't a point for point, near identical remake, which ends up being a good thing.
Interestingly enough, the thing that struck me the most about this game is that it represented the return of sweaty palms to gaming for me. I haven't had that sort of feeling for many years and definitely not on this latest generation of consoles. Given my predilection for cheating
, I have to wonder how much I'd like this game if I wasn't already in love with the original, but in any case, I think I can recommend the game. It should be available for download on XBLA or PSN for a paltry $5-10 (it sometimes goes on sale).
Update: Check out these comparison videos
to see the similarities and differences in action. I swear, the transitions between the two different music styles are sometimes seamless, which is pretty amazing (though it's annoying that they play so much of the Rearmed soundtrack over the original game visuals).
« August 2009 |
| October 2009 »
Posted by Mark on September 02, 2009 at 07:13 PM .: