Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo

A Zelda game set in the same world as the SNES classic Link to the Past is just inviting criticism. Link to the Past is one of Nintendo's finest games, and frankly, one of its proudest achievements. Any game set in the same world would have huge expectations, and any misstep would be a disaster. A game set in that world would have to be near perfect in order to stand on its own. It feels like, at worst, a symptom of creative bankruptcy and at best a fool's errand.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is almost perfect. It holds specific charms if you've played Link to the Past, but the previous game isn't required to enjoy Link Between Worlds. As great as Link to the Past is, it still bears some of the fingerprints of old game design philosophy, with its emphasis on grinding and esoteric puzzles. Link Between Worlds takes what was great about Link to the Past and removes anything that's not necessary to the actual playing of the game. It's another masterclass in design from Nintendo.

Monday, April 14, 2014

NES Replay: Trojan

Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Released: February 1987
Capcom was so skilled in the early years of the NES that even crappy games had something that almost redeemed them. Case in point, Trojan.

Trojan was developed by Takashi Nishiyama, the same person who developed Kung Fu and later made Street Fighter and was extremely influential at SNK. Trojan and Kung Fu are almost spiritual cousins. In Kung Fu, you saw the outline of the fighting game genre: High attack, low attack, punch, kick. In Trojan, you saw another evolutionary step, as blocking became a major component.

Trojan's gameplay is very similar to Kung Fu. As you move around in the level, enemies will come at you from the left or right and you can attack them high or low. Some enemies take more hits, though, so you have to anticipate their attacks and block with your shield.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

NES Replay: 1986's Games Ranked

17) Tag Team Wrestling - If the only good thing to come out of your game is a name that gets used years later, you've made a bad game.

16) M.U.S.C.L.E. - I still get mad when I think of this game. Let's move on.

15) Karate Champ - Got your nose!

14) Urban Champion - Punch someone a couple of times. Keep punching. Repeat until bored.

13) Chubby Cherub - Coincidentally, "fat angels eating food and running away from dogs" was what I saw last time I mixed medications.

12) Ninja Kid - A great idea squandered by poor execution.

11) Gumshoe - Nintendo rethought what the Zapper could do, and it ALMOST worked.

10) Balloon Fight - A Joust clone with a few good ideas added in.

9) Mario Bros. - Not polished enough and too dull to enjoy.

8) Popeye - Interesting but dull.

7) Donkey Kong 3 - Yes, it's polished. Yes, it looks great. However, yes, it's hard to play and not fun.

6) Commando - A varied shooter with some major technical problems that hold it back from greatness.

5) 1942 - Fun, but repetitive.

4) Donkey Kong - Almost a perfect arcade port. Almost.

3) Ghosts'n Goblins - Incredibly hard and incredibly fun.

2) Gradius - PEW PEW PEW

1) Donkey Kong Jr. - A perfect arcade port of a great game.

Monday, April 7, 2014

NES Replay: Gauntlet

Developer: Tengen
Publisher: Tengen
Released: 1987
Gauntlet is frequently viewed as one of the first mainstream action RPGs. However, if you try and play it like you would play a modern action RPG, you're gonna have a bad time.

In a modern action RPG, killing enemies gives you experience points, which then increases your strength, helps you progress further, and makes you more attractive to the opposite sex. In other words, killing more enemies gives you access to better loot, which allows you to kill more enemies, which allows you access to better loot.

Gauntlet's not the same way, which is disconcerting when you first try and play it. In Gauntlet, killing enemies is a sidebar to picking up the gold bars scattered all over the levels. Picking up gold increases your power and helps you progress. Your weapons don't get better, and the only resources you have to manage are your health and your magic.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

NES Replay: 1987

There were some good games for the NES between 1985-6, but in 1987 the NES exploded. In one year, Castlevania, Kid Icarus, The Legend of Zelda, Arkanoid, Metroid, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! and Mega Man all hit the NES. That's an amazing run of games probably unequaled since, all in one year on one system.

Even more impressively, Nintendo didn't need to prop up the NES anymore. In the beginning, if a good game needed to come out for the system, they had to make it. Not so anymore. Nintendo now had the flexibility to lay back and make games at their own pace, investing more time and money into providing big experiences instead of tossing games out just because something had to be released.

The downside of this was that other companies started to take notice. From this point on, the highs of the NES would get higher and higher, but the lows would get lower. The NES looked like a big, fat sack of money, and making a game for the NES could make you rich. This brought out the opportunists and cynics, who put crap on a cartridge and expected it to sell. Sadly, a lot of times it worked.

However, that shouldn't temper what turned into one of the best console years ever. We'll anoint 1987 as the Year the NES Came Around.

Notable events:

January: Aretha Franklin is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
March: U2 releases The Joshua Tree.
April: The first Simpsons cartoons are televised.
June: Margaret Thatcher is elected to a third term.
June: Ronald Reagan tells Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall."
August: Michael Jackson releases Bad.
September: Star Trek: The Next Generation premieres.
November: Workers rebel against the communist regime led by Nicolae Ceaucescu.

Monday, March 31, 2014

NES Replay: Gradius

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Released: December 1986
Gradius was the first classic shooter for the NES. It's got an awesome progression system, it's challenging even if you have every possible weapon upgrade, and it's relentlessly interesting. It also looks fantastic.

So what's so great about each of these parts? Let's pull them apart and look at them.

1) The powerup system.

In most early shooters, a power-up will automatically improve your ship. In Gradius, picking up a power-up fills a meter at the bottom of your screen. If you have only one power-up banked, you can upgrade your ship's speed. If you have more bonuses banked, you can apply the bonus to things like a missile that attacks below you, extra drones that fire along with you, and a shield that protects you from damage temporarily.

There's a risk/reward dynamic involved in this system. In order to get the really good upgrades, you have to keep picking up bonuses and not using them. Can you survive long enough with some of the vanilla powers? Or will you give in and take that speed power-up instead of getting the extra drone? It's a really well-made system that Konami would use in other shooters.

Monday, March 24, 2014

NES Replay: Karate Champ

Developer: Technos Japan
Publisher: Data East
Karate Champ is either frustrating or hilarious. There is no in-between.

The point of Karate Champ is that you're in a one-on-one fight against another karate master. There are different arenas: On top of a cliff, in the trees, in the desert, etc. You throw a variety of punches and kicks at your opponent, and the first one to land a blow wins the match. Win a few matches in a row, and you move on to the next karate master.

So what makes it frustrating? Well, when you're throwing kicks and punches in the direction of your opponent and you can't tell whether or not they're going to land, that's frustrating. For example, if both players throw a punch at the same time, does either one land? If I'm kicking, and they're punching, does either one land? What if I'm kicking low and he's punching high? There doesn't appear to be any rhyme or reason to them landing. This leads to less of a karate fight and more of a flailing competition.

For Your Consideration