Retro Review: Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimension (SNES) – NichePlays

Released in 1992, Zool is a 2D platformer for the Commodore Amiga. The game revolves around it’s titular gremlin on a quest to become a ninja as he travels through several worlds loaded with baddies, fruit, and collectables waiting to be nabbed.

Prior to it’s release, Zool was heavily marketed as a Sonic the Hedgehog killer, due to the games emphasis on speed based action. Rifling through a few of the ads that were out at the time, you could tell that the games developers, Gremlin Graphics, were really out for blood and that they were interested in trying to cement the character as the de facto mascot of the Amiga. However despite strong reviews for the Amiga release of the game, Zool wasn’t really destined to stay a system exclusive, and would make it’s way over to a variety of other devices such as the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo (which happens to be the version that I’ll be reviewing today and was published by GameTek). 

Now I’ve personally never played Zool, but I do remember seeing the Genesis and Super Nintendo ports of the game for sale at my local retro game store fairly often when I was younger. Zool kinda reminds me of Bonk or Bubsy in the sense that, while I never played his games growing up, I feel a weird attachment to his character through the familiarity of seeing his game everywhere over the years.  

And seeing as the character was intended to compare with Sonic the Hedgehog, my favorite gaming character of all time, I was honestly pretty excited to play through this one.

But… does it hold up?

Because while Zool’s Amiga release got good reviews and a sequel, it’s not like anyone has really done anything meaningful with the character since the 90’s, which makes me a little worried for how well his game fares on the Super Nintendo. While the Amiga has it’s fans and is a console I’d love to one day properly dive into the catalogue of, the fact that Zool didn’t continue to get sequels on the SNES or Genesis makes me worried that his first adventure may not stack up when compared to the platforming competition that those consoles have to offer. And that’s not a knock on any Amiga or Zool fans out there, it’s just that Nintendo and Sega’s 16-bit hardware have some really steep competition when it comes to platformers.

Gameplay

Zool takes place across 7 different worlds, with each of them containing a different theme such as a candyland, a music world, or a toy room. In each of the levels, you’re tasked with collecting a set number of that stages pick up that’s shown on the bottom left of the screen, before following the arrow next to it in order to reach the exit. From there, it’s just a matter of playing through each of the world’s four stages, fighting the boss at the end of that last one, and then rinsing and recycling that process on the next level.


Zool has a couple of abilities up his sleeve to help you fight enemies and navigate through each of the games levels. Aside from the genre staples of running and jumping, Zool has the ability to throw projectiles at his enemies in order to eliminate them, and can even perform a spinning attack while in mid-air. He also has the ability to do a power slide, which allows him to travel underneath spiked areas and can serve as an attack.

Zool also happens to be a quick little Gremlin who blasts off at full speed from the slightest tilt of the D-Pad, a quirk that honestly leads to him feeling really hard to control and that’s sure to make players approach these levels all the more cautiously. If you’ve ever played Bubsy’s 2D games, Zool’s movement feels really similar to that in the sense that both games scoff in the face of acceleration. If you compare the movement and physics of a game like Zool to Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s night and day. Part of what makes Sonic’s 2D Genesis games so fun to play is the amount of control you have over the characters movement, and how the physics of that movement operate within the confines of a fairly realistic, but greatly exaggerated, understanding of concepts like acceleration and gravity. But Zool? Well, it’s more like Flubber doing it’s own thing.


Honestly though, the games central idea of being a 2D collect-a-thon sounds alright on paper, but fails to live up to it’s potential in execution. I personally found that it forced a level of exploration onto the game that it didn’t seem optimized for. I feel like Zool may’ve been better suited as a game with a simpler objective, such as trying to reach a goal, than as a game that wants players to traverse every nook and cranny of it’s levels for otherwise meaningless pickups, and getting lost in the process. 

And yeah, that’s probably going to end up happening to you at least a couple of times when you’re playing through the game because levels like to recycle assets and seemingly even some of their layouts, leading to things becoming a confusing and frustrating hall of mirrors for the player. And the worst part? While the game encourages, if not vaguely forces, exploration onto the player by throwing an increasing number of dead ends your way as the game progresses. The most you’ll likely get out of exploring these levels is the opportunity to score more of the levels pickups that are needed to complete the level, but in my playthrough I never really had an issue collecting enough of them to beat the stage without needing to stop and explore to begin with. In fact, the only reason I ever stopped to explore the stages was because I had either gotten lost trying to find the exit, or because the path that contained the exit was obscured behind a hidden wall. Which was really annoying by the way, as the game doesn’t really do much to hint at this being a thing. I even went as far as to track down a copy of the games SNES manual on the Internet Archive to see if they mentioned it there and nope. Nothing.

The manual did mention that, as a valued GameTek customer, you could be eligible for a free introductory membership to Compuserve though.

So that’s cool.

Anyway, the game kinda even teases you into thinking that it’s going to be a laid back linear adventure by having the first stage or two of each world start off with a straightforward and fairly alright linear layout, before sprinkling in maze layouts and gimmicks as the level progresses.

Take for instance level 1-4, which has a chocolate river gimmick that makes Zool move slower than molasses and takes away your ability to jump unless you’re at the edge of a platform. I know I was complaining about how fast this character was just a minute or two ago but that didn’t mean to tie anchors to his legs. It’s almost as if one of the devs was playing Sonic the Hedgehog and wasn’t really impressed until he got to Labyrinth zone, when he went full Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born over the slow moving, trudging gameplay and decided to include that in the game.

However, I don’t think that level gimmicks are necessarily even a bad thing. In fact, games like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze show that, when done right and with a gimmick that isn’t teeth grindingly invasive, they can actually really make for a fun and unique experience. I guess one of my main issues with stuff like that here though is that these gimmicks provide a diversion from the title’s standard mode of play by… making things worse. 

That’s not to say that Zool’s baseline gameplay is anything to write home about though. As I mentioned earlier, movement feels way too sensitive due to the lack of acceleration, and while the inclusion of a projectile attack seems like a good inclusion but can sometimes be frustrating to use due to how hard it can be to actually hit some enemies when you’re in mid-air. 

Plus some of the controls and physics just make little to no sense. For example, Zool slides down inclines automatically, which isn’t that bad in and of itself, but can get frustrating when there’s an enemy on said incline. Plus, you can’t even run up inclines in the game to begin with. Like, you can try to, but Zool’ll just slide down them. Instead, you have to keep jumping up them in a way that quickly grows annoying. It kinda reminds me of trying to force your way up a steep hill in Super Mario 64, only you’re required to do that in order to progress in this game. And while we’re on the subject of jumping, there are a ton of moments when you’ll need to basically take a leap of faith and hope that you won’t land on a spike or enemy that was just off screen. Zool already moves pretty fast to begin with, but once you throw trying to do blind jumps into the mix, avoiding obstacles quickly becomes annoying. It also doesn’t help that the hit detection feels a bit sensitive when it comes to obstacles, as walking into the side of some vertically placed spikes can damage you just as much as falling on top of them would. Could you imagine if that happened in a level like Green Hill Zone?

I know I’ve really been ironing in the Sonic comparisons this week but, when the games marketing goes out of its way to claim Zool is that much better than Sonic and stuff, it’s kinda hard not to. 


Visuals´

Zool does have some pretty great graphics though. Each of the game’s characters are colorfully designed and well detailed, and the game honestly has some great parallax scrolling going on in the backgrounds. The game feels really layered and alive, and even works in some foreground elements to great effect in a couple of its stages. Plus, with unique enemies and pick-ups in each of the games worlds, there’s no denying that Gremlin Graphics did a great job building Zool’s world

However, while Zool looks good on a technical level, the actual implementation of those graphics leaves a bit to be desired. While the level of detail and layering on display here is impressive, it’s also a bit overstimulating due to how fast you move. There’s also something to be said about the game’s color palette, which tends to use darker and extremely saturated colors in a way that I found a bit too contrasty and jarring for my liking. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using a darker color palette, I suppose, but it just feels like it obfuscates the designs of the on-screen sprites and makes things a bit harder for the player to process. There are also instances where colors really clash with each other, such as in the background of the Fruit themed level, which doesn’t feel right from a color theory point of view. Going with a lighter, paler color palette may have provided a solution to this issue too, as it would’ve meant that those contrasting colors were less saturated and may’ve blended together a bit better.

Music

As far as Zool’s soundtrack goes, it isn’t terrible and actually has a few pretty memorable songs that sound great coming out of an SNES. I do have to point out that the game tends to use sounds that try to sound… well, “oriental” though for lack of a better term. And while that makes some sense due to the game starring a Ninja and stuff, it also feels kinda weird given the fact that, outside of that, this game has nothing to do with Japan. While kinda weird and something that probably hasn’t aged all that well, it’s mostly downplayed and stands more of a relic in its composition than anything.

Parts of this game soundtrack are really catchy though, and the music in general carries a really light and cartoony vibe to it. If any of you guys remember that Vapors song “Turning Japanese” from back in the 80s, it’s a bit like that, or how movies like Rush Hour loved to play with eastern motifs.

And I’m not even saying whether or not that’s a good or bad thing, or whether or not that’s offensive, because I honestly don’t have a definite answer there. What I can say though is that it is a part of the games soundtrack and that, if you aren’t a fan of that sort of thing, it’s something worth knowing about. Something that’s actually pretty cool about Zool’s music though is that it can actually be disabled from the games options menu when you boot it up, which feels decidedly modern as games didn’t always offer stuff like this back in the day.

Closing:

So does Zool hold up? Unfortunately, I’m gonna have to say that it doesn’t, as I honestly had a hard time getting into it. I get that there are a decent number of people that grew up playing Zool and that really like or maybe even love the character, but I personally found the games level designs to be lacking and the movement/gameplay to be a bit too fast and stiff for my liking. While the game may have been pretty good back in the day, I think this is one of those cases where it hasn’t aged well due to how many other better platformers have come out after it. I wouldn’t call it a bad game or anything, just one that didn’t really stand out to me as being particularly special.

I also feel like the games marketing may have ultimately hurt the game for me, as selling it as a Sonic the Hedgehog killer made it hard for me not to compare the two, with Zool mostly being unable to compete with Sega’s blue blur. And that’s not to say that I went into this game not wanting to like it, because I see the appeal that a game like Zool must’ve had for players back in the day though, and I’m genuinely glad that the game recently got a re-release. While I myself didn’t like or particularly care for this game, it’s awesome that there are people out there who did, and I genuinely have no issue with them for liking it. It’s kinda like how I enjoy games like The Karate Kid for NES; we all just have different tastes in games and that’s part of what makes talking about them in videos and stuff interesting. 


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Retro Review: Psychonauts (Xbox) – NichePlays

Released in 2005 for the original Xbox, Psychonauts is a 3D platformer that follows a young psychic named Raz on an adventure to save his summer camp for psychics, as well the world, from an evil dentist named Dr Loboto that’s harvesting the brains of his fellow campers in order to power a bunch of tanks and do generally evil stuff.

Upon its release, Psychonauts received positive reviews and was commended for its solid gameplay, incredible art style, and the attention paid to its storytelling. Unfortunately though, the praise didn’t convert into sales and the game would end up flopping on the Xbox as well as on PC and the PlayStation 2 after it had been ported there. However despite its poor sales, Psychonauts would manage to find an audience over the years and has since become a bit of a cult classic. It even managed to get a sequel, which is appropriately named Psychonauts 2, and is coming out on modern platforms on August 25th.

Which is actually why I decided to play through this one to begin with, as I’ve meant to pick Psychonauts up for a long time now and just never got around to it. But since I’ve been clamoring for a good 3D platformer lately and, because my girlfriend recently told me how this was one of her favorite games of all time, I figured now was the time to give it a chance via it’s PC port.

And from as early as my first hour with the game, it’s hard not to see the appeal here. Psychonauts has a really distinct and macabre style to it that, and take a shot if you’ve heard this one before, reminds me of early Tim Burton. It’s art style also reminds me of some of Oingo Boingo’s early album art, namely Nothing to Fear, Good For Your Soul, and Dead Man’s Party, and also feels inspired by Jhonen Vasquez’s art and sense of humor. 

When people say they love Psychonauts, they usually really love the game, and it’s easy to see why due to how unique it is. The same could be said for people that don’t like the game though, as, to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson, it has an extremely slant art style and decidedly demented sense of humor that isn’t for everybody. 

But… does it hold up?

Because while the game has only grown in popularity over the years, and has a sequel coming out that’s quickly becoming one of my most anticipated games for 2021, it also has some quirks that root it decidedly in the mid-2000’s and make for a bit of a rougher gameplay experience than I was hoping for.

Story, Background, Themes

Psychonauts tells the story of a young carnival acrobat named Raz as he trains to become a psychic spy named a Psychonaut. His adventure brings him to a summer camp and eventually a mental institution that’s filled with kooky and tortured characters, who all carry and suffer from trauma and mental baggage. Through your adventure to become a secret agent man, you slowly unravel the nature of each of these characters’ issues by literally entering their minds, Inception-style, in order to ultimately help them recover from their various hang ups or diagnoses.

Psychonauts’ story has a minor emphasis on mental health and wellbeing that was extremely refreshing back in 2005, and manages to be every bit as unique now as it was then. Especially given the past year or two in world events, it often feels like we as a society are at least beginning to seriously consider the value of cognitive wellbeing, and Psychonauts serves as a great conversation starter on the subject.

Without getting too personal, 2020 and 2021 have been an extremely debilitating for myself and my mental wellness for a multitude of reasons both personal and world spanning, and allowed me to see first hand how quick doctors and people in general can dismiss serious symptoms and issues as being psychosomatic or something that you just need a prescription of pharmaceuticals for. And frankly, that simply isn’t true. Mental health issues are an extremely serious topic that deserve the utmost care and compassion, and playing through Psychonauts for this review really reinforced that to me. 

What’s really impressive about that is that it managed to do so without ever sounding overly intellectual, serious, or without breaking the pace of the game itself. One of Psychonauts greatest strengths is that it never lets up on it’s wildly creative humor, it’s instantly charming and memorable story, and it’s dedication to its message of self fulfillment and betterment through Raz’s good deeds, as well as his ceaseless pursuit of realizing his potential as a Psychonaut. In that regard, the game really struck a personal chord with me, as I’ve spent just over a year recovering from prolonged illness and as a result have had a lot of time to contemplate my potential as a human being, as well as the importance of doing something meaningful with my life without letting myself regress into taking things like my health and priorities for granted, as I had prior to getting sick. 

In short, I like Psychonauts. A lot. It’s one of the most creative games I’ve ever played in terms of how alive and fully realized it’s ideas are, and if I had to compare it to a film or character, it leaps off the screen and manages to capture the players imagination in a way that reminds me of how it must’ve felt to see Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character for the first time

But it’s not perfect. Without even getting into the actual gameplay itself, I have some issues with how Psychonauts paints mental illness, namely it portrays them as always being curable. I think Game Maker’s Toolkit said it best in his Psychonauts video from a few years ago when he said that the game makes the mistake of painting mental illness a bit too simply at points. While the game clearly means well in having solutions to its characters issues and is ultimately, ya know, a game, mental illness simply doesn’t work that way. In fact, the NIH’s page on the subject literally states that most mental illnesses can’t be cured at all and that the objective when facing them is to treat and minimize the symptoms so that people can function as well as possible on a day to day basis. Portraying mental illness as something that’s solvable, as opposed to something that one must learn to co-exist with and manage feels a bit dismissive in a way that doesn’t sit that well with me. And while, again, Psychonauts is just a game that happens to include mental illness as a part of its story, without making it the focus of the adventure, I felt as though I should at least comment on my issue with it doing what it does here.

And that’s not to say that I think Psychonauts even necessarily does a bad job handling it. In fact I actually think that, especially for something from the mid to early 2000’s, Psychonauts manages to handle its characters with a pedigree of care, thoughtfulness, and compassion that reminds me of cartoons like Hey Arnold and Courage the Cowardly Dog. 

It never overtly makes fun of the characters themselves and, more often than not, derives its humor from the circumstances Raz finds himself in and how he responds to the people around him. This allows the humor to be really character driven, as the momentum of Psychonauts jokes comes purely from character interaction as opposed to jokes that come at somebody’s expense.  It also certainly helps that Raz himself is an extremely charming and memorable character, who plays the perfect straight man to everyone around him’s behavior. The game’s character driven comedy also helps endear us to each of the characters found in each level as it gives us insight into who they are and allows us to contemplate over the circumstances that made them into the person that they ultimately became. Even better, Raz going out of his way to help each of the characters that essentially function within the game itself as obstacles he needs to pass also gives the game a really attractive sense of empathy. So yeah, I may have issues with that aspect of the game, but I ultimately really enjoyed the moment to moment character interaction and the general effect that it had on the game.

And if you had an issue with that, I don’t know what to tell you man. Opinions can be somewhat paradoxical sometimes.

Gameplay

Anyway, Psychonauts is more than just an exploration of mental health issues — it’s also a pretty good 3D platformer.  The game is split across a number of different worlds that are themed after the dozen or so characters whose brains you inhabit on your journey to stop Dr. Loboto. Because each of the characters you encounter in the game come from wildly different backgrounds, the gameplay is often split between different activities such as a levitation themed world that’s kinda like the racing minigame in Super Monkey Ball, a stealth level based around paranoia over a milkman in a town that looks reminds me of the one from Edward Scissorhands, and even a board game themed after Napoleon and the battle of Waterloo, which I especially liked. On top of that, you have your usual slew of platformer goodies such as jumping, attacking enemies and a wide variety of items and collectibles to pick up. And, as if that wasn’t enough, you even have a number of psychic abilities that you can unlock on your adventure to help vary the gameplay even more. Although, more on that in just a sec. 

Each of the levels are a joy to look at and explore, as they’ve all got impeccable theming and fairly clear cut layouts. Take for example the milkman stage I had mentioned a second ago; while it would’ve been easy to get lost on the level’s nearly identical streets and buildings, that’s actually never much of an issue, due to how straightforward the stages layout is. It’s also helped by the fact that there are a bunch of G-men scattered throughout the stage with different, erm, disguises to help differentiate the area a bit. It’s actually kinda impressive that the level is as easy to navigate as it is too, as one of the most iconic aspects of the 50’s suburban utopia trope that the game is tapping into is the fact that everything is supposed to look the same within it.

Unfortunately though, while navigating the many worlds of Psychonauts is usually a fun and straightforward experience, the actual act of progressing through the game isn’t always so cut and dry. At the beginning of the video, I had mentioned that parts of the game felt trapped in the era it was created in and when I said that, I was referring to how some of the game was structured. On a technical level, everything works precisely as it should. The controls are responsive, the UI is clean, and the various inventories and menus you can access all make enough sense. My main issue with the game though is in the way that its tutorials teach the player how the game works because it feels, at least a little, antiquated.

At the beginning of the game, you’re kinda bombarded with tutorials and instructions on how to use your basic abilities. While relatively standard fare, the game goes a little out of its way to show and demonstrate the different abilities at your disposal. However, that in itself isn’t really a problem. What is a problem though is how long the game spends teaching you how to play it, due to the nature of collecting new psychic abilities. What results from this is a high cognitive load on the player, who’s expected to remember each and every technique and skill he’s unlocked up to that point and how each of them work. What’s outdated about this is that, since 2005, game design has started to shy away from overloading you with dozens of abilities in favor of either giving you a few abilities that you’re then responsible for maximizing the utility of, or by gating when you can access those abilities to begin with. Two examples of what I’m getting at would be The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is built around creatively using a handful of different abilities at any given time, or Super Mario Odyssey, where you have a standard set of abilities and special skills that can be used in specific parts of each world.

But, because Psychonauts allows you to use any number of Psychic skills at any given moment, there are bound to be several times in the game where you’ll want to use one of your skills to complete a challenge, only to find out that you needed to use a different one entirely. For example, in the aforementioned Milkman stage, there’s a moment where you’re expected to use invisibility to sneak past a girl scout in order to trigger a cutscene. However, unless you knew that there was an invisibility ability in the game and had either collected it before entering the level (or know to leave the level, collect it, and make your way back to where you were), there’s a chance that you’ll just be aimlessly trying to run through the door like you’re in a Windex commercial.

For the record, that’s what happened with me, and while it was only a minor inconvenience, it hardly felt good from a gameplay experience, and it wasn’t the only time in playing the game where I felt like it didn’t do a clear enough job of telling me what skill was needed to pass a challenge.

But I also can’t really say that it’s the games fault for that either as while I was playing through the game my girlfriend, who did a great job of not backseat gaming me when I’d struggle to figure out what to do next by the way, pointed out that some of these issues weren’t really that bad to begin with but that they had been exasperated over the years due to how much better game tutorials and design has gotten. And she’s totally right, it’s not that Psychonauts is doing anything wrong by being less flexible than I’d like it to be, or by expecting it’s players to be more inquisitive, it’s that games don’t really work like this anymore. And coincidentally, that’s actually a huge part of why I like to ask whether or not a game holds up to begin with, because it’s totally possible for a game to have a lot going for it but to also have some outdated aspects that new players might wanna know about. So thanks, Sierra. You’re the best.

Going back to the positive though, Psychonauts is still a really fun game. While I found the platforming itself a bit more on the functional side than exhilarating, it does more than enough to entertain in between sections of narrative progression. Plus, with all of the different gameplay styles available in the game, it’s not like you’re really shackled to any particular type of gameplay for too long, so it’s not like you’ll have to worry about things getting too dull or repetitive for your liking. If it sounds like I wasn’t impressed by the gameplay though, that honestly has more to do with how taken away I was by the visuals and music than anything. Because seriously, if it weren’t for the graphics and sound, there’d still be a good game here; it’s just that things are elevated that much by these qualities. But without them, Psychonauts still manages to consistently deliver a satisfying and enjoyable experience. It’s just that, for me, Psychonauts’ real draw is in it’s storytelling and visuals, more than anything else.

Visuals and Music

On the subject of Psychonaut’s visuals, the game’s modern re-releases do a great job of upscaling the visuals in a way that really works for the game. I suppose it’s not that shocking though, as the game’s surreal and trippy visuals are totally compatible with being rendered at a high resolution. Just like in my Nights into Dreams review, something about low, or at least comparatively low polygon, artwork being rendered in HD just hits different. And even the lower quality assets that haven’t been upscaled quite as well here manage to still compliment the adventure. While I’d love to play through the game on an original Xbox that’s hooked up to a CRT some day, there’s nothing wrong with playing through the game on modern platforms. Whichever way you cut it, the game’s environments look great and genuinely brought a smile to my face with how fully realized they were. There were times when I was playing the game and I found myself just stopping to bask in the atmosphere and appreciate the thought that went into designing the world.

The game mixes a clean, kinda art deco design that makes the game feel oddly nostalgic for me with a style that somewhat recalls German Expressionism and the moody effects that it can have on a viewer. Ever see The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari? It’s a bit like that, in the best way, especially when you get the asylum with it’s twisted and bent architecture and the way it forces the camera into deutsch angles. It kinda reminds me of the work of filmmakers like David Lynch, who’s known for combining the idyllic iconography of the 1950’s with dark, often morbid imagery in a way that’s both visually stimulating and thought provoking. And that kinda lo-fi upscaled to HD look I was complimenting a second ago? That’s pure Lynch, bay-bee. 

And musically, Psychonauts is just awesome. It’s music feels deeply inspired by 1950’s and 1960’s spy music, the macabre and over the top, as well as classic sci-fi. It was written by Peter McConnel, who’s also worked on multiple Sly Cooper games, Escape from Monkey Island, and Grim Fandango, so if you liked the music for any of those games, you’ll feel right at home with his work here. While it wears its influences on its sleeve, the game’s soundtrack never comes across as too demanding of a player’s attention, and is a total treat to listen to.

Closing

So does Psychonauts hold up? 

Absolutely.

While I did have some issues with the game’s design that kinda root it in the mid 2000s’ for me, I do think that these issues are more than manageable to work past and that the games visuals and characters pull things together into a cohesive and satisfying experience.

The game really stood out to me as being a quirky, endearing adventure and, especially given how this game’s influences seemingly include just about everything I hold dear to me, I honestly can’t believe that it took me so long to play through it to begin with. So if you haven’t played Psychonauts yet and are curious about the sequel, or you just wanna run through it one more time because Psychonauts 2 is coming out, I couldn’t recommend this game more to you. It’s available on the Xbox One, the PS4 and Steam for a pretty low price and you’re bound to have a blast with it.

Retro Review: Metroid (NES) – NichePlays

Released in 1986 for the Famicom Disk System, before being localized for the US a year later, Metroid is an 8-bit sidescrolling adventure game for the NES. Developed by Nintendo’s R&D1 team in collaboration with Intelligent Systems, the game follows bounty hunter Samus Aran on a planet trekking journey to find and eliminate the dreaded Mother Brain, before she can use the stolen Metroids mentioned in the cold open to, presumably, usurp the Galactic Federation.

The game is an early and touchstone example of a genre that would eventually come to be known as Metroidvanias which, as the title implies, derives part of its title from the game, as well as the many sequels, spin-offs, and remakes that it’s spawned.

Now I’ve always had a lot of love for the Metroid franchise. In fact, the original Metroid was actually one of the first games that I ever played, as my parents owned it for the NES. As I mentioned way back in my Karate Kid NES review, my Mom actually bought an NES back before I was born and would obsessively play Super Mario Bros on it. My Dad, curious about video games himself, ended up buying several NES titles that were mostly sports or card based games. But among the few action games he did buy at the time was the original Metroid.

And he hated it.

Honestly, I don’t blame my Dad for hating it though. You see, he’s never really been into video games, outside of stuff like Galaxian or Galaga, so throwing him in an open world with little direction or guidance proved to be a bit too confusing for him.

And frankly, when it comes to Metroidvanias, the original Metroid tends to be looked at as being one of the more archaic or oblique games in the genre, so starting with that game in particular had to be especially rough on the guy. 

Anyway, at the time of it’s release, the original Metroid received some pretty rave reviews, with players and critics alike complimenting the title for its vast and expansive world, the secrets held within that world and the, then and somehow still subversive inclusion of a female protagonist. 

And yeah, before a few of you start typing a comment about how painfully obvious and over-reported this is, I know this isn’t really news to a lot of us but it’s kinda hard not to at least acknowledge it. And that’s all I’m really qualified and plan to do here, acknowledge it as being culturally significant and flat-out pretty awesome. I especially appreciate how hidden this fact was from players back in the day, as the game only reveals Samus’s true identity after you’ve gotten one of it’s good endings. Heck, the original manual refers to Samus as a straight up male cyborg and a “true form that’s shrouded in mystery,” setting players up to find out that Samus was a woman all along.

But… Does it hold up? Because rave reviews, spawning a popular franchise that’s loaded with great games, and featuring one of the most iconic video game characters of all time is one thing — but managing to remain fresh and playable 35 years later is another feat entirely. And while I have a lot of love and affection for this game, that doesn’t mean I’m blind to it’s many faults or the fact that most players these days have seemingly unanimously decided that it doesn’t.

Gameplay

Metroid takes place on the planet Zebes, which is separated into three distinct areas. These areas are named Brinstar, Norfair, and Tourian, respectively. There are also two hideouts for the games two bosses, Kraid and Ridley, as well as a number of hidden power ups, and energy/missile tanks to help supe up Samus’s arsenal for her journey. 

While many of the powerups found in this game are required for progression, one of the things that I’ve always loved about the original Metroid is how hands off and generally laissez faire the game is about the order in which you go about collecting them. Outside of collecting the morph ball at the start of the game, you can really go about picking up items at your own discretion.

That bit of non-linearity, while heavily iterated on and improved in subsequent entries to the series, proves to be Metroid’s biggest draw for myself and numerous other players around the world. Simply put, it’s really fun to run around Zebes and strip the planet for parts to find upgrades for Samus’ power suit. And you’ll really need all the powerups you can get, especially for the last area in the game, which is populated by the titles titular Metroids and are best disposed of with a combination of the ice beam and missiles. Oh, and nervously rolling around in the morph ball while they literally try to eat your brains. Although, it does kinda make me wonder what these power ups were doing here to begin with. Like, I understand that the subsequent games in the series would elaborate on this somewhat, but I can’t help but ask why Mother Brain and the Space Pirates never did anything about all the chozo statues with powerups or straight-up live ammunition that was laying all over the place. It also makes me wonder whether or not they even knew Samus was loading up like freaking Arnold Schwarzenegger on a mission of total destruction. 


Anyway, when it works, the open ended and maze-like structure of Metroid is a glory to behold and the opening area of Brinstar shows how fun it could be to traverse and navigate an alien world. The only problem is, this kinda starts to fall apart once you navigate to some of the other areas on the planet due to the game lacking a built-in map. In fact, this is actually one of the chief complaints held against the game by modern players as, without a map of some kind to help you chart your journey, a lot of the rooms start to blend together due to a lot of copy and pasted level design. But, and this is purely a personal preference, I actually kind of appreciate the lack of a map here. This could just be due to how used to it I’ve gotten from playing the game so much over the years, but there’s something quaint and even charming about how the game doesn’t try to guide you as much as other games in the genre would go on to. And perhaps I’m just romanticizing things here but the idea of charting your progress through a physical map you would need to draw out yourself honestly sounds really immersive and like it would encourage players to roleplay their way through the game.

That’s not to say that you can’t beat Metroid without a map though, it just means that it’ll probably make for a more tedious and frustrating experience. And even with a map, you’re still in for at least some tedium, as another thing that also makes traversing the map difficult is the lack of any clear indication of hidden passageways in later parts of the game. This is especially weird because the game goes out of it’s way to tell you that the floor of certain areas can be destroyed with a bomb as early as in the second screen of the game, but then expects you to figure out which areas are hidden behind unmarked barriers for the rest of the adventure.

While not that bad, and something you quickly grow numb to after a while, it’s a far cry from how later entries in the genre would handle things. I totally get hiding optional passages or powerups behind this kind of game design, but hiding an area you need to access through something like this feels kinda cheap and unfair to the player. For example, there’s a passage hidden behind lava in one point of the game that you’re expected to just know that you can fall through without going all T2: Judgement day and melting to death. And in another area, you’re expected to know that you can bomb your way into a lower part of the world without any indication or telegraphing. 

As for the moment to moment gameplay in Metroid, it’s all pretty good outside of a few flaws. Samus moves at a pretty decent speed and killing enemies feels fun enough, even if you’re often woefully outnumbered and cornered by them. The game strikes a pretty decent balance of making Samus feel overwhelmed by the creatures surrounding her, while also making her feel powerful due to all of the upgrades you can find as she slowly becomes a swiss army knife of alien exterminating goodness. An inspectoid-gadgoid if you will. And while it’s a serious shame that you can’t crouch or fire diagonally, it’s not that hard to get used to, nor is it necessary once you’ve picked up the bomb power up or gotten the screwattack.

However, that doesn’t excuse how outright grindy the combat can get. Upon spawning in a new game or after you’ve died, Samus is stuck with a measly 30 health and in order to recover your lost HP, you’ll need to cozy up in an area with an endlessly respawning horde of enemies in order to grind energy. This isn’t helped by the amount of health that enemies can take away from you in a single blow and is probably the worst part of the game for me because it feels more like a punishment for trying to play the game, as opposed to a gentle nudge of encouragement for you to continue your adventure. Plus, it totally breaks the pace of the game itself and encourages players to approach Metroid in a slower or more cautious fashion.

Which really sucks because I genuinely believe that Metriod is a game best played aggressively. Nothing honestly feels better than zipping across the planet and mowing down hordes upon hordes of enemies like you’re Buzz Lightyear on the hunt for Zerg. While nowhere near as fast paced as something like, Contra or that other Konami game where you rush and attack (I believe it’s called Rush N’ Attack)  it’s a really thrilling way to approach the game.

Being an NES game, the original Metroid also falls victim to your usual slew of 8-bit issues. The game flickers, it slows down whenever there are more than a few enemies on screen, and the fairly limited NES controller leads to some frustrating controls due to all the switching between missiles and your standard beam that you’ll be doing. Oh, and the game also features a very long winded password system as opposed to battery saves in every region it came out in except for Japan.

While each of these issues and limitations are relatively par for the course for the NES and aren’t that bad with the proper context of the hardware in mind, it does make for a somewhat impaired experience. 

Assuming you’re playing this on an actual NES, that is. Thanks to modern technology though, we can actually fix each of these issues with little to no effort. The game’s slowdown and flicker can easily be worked around on something like RetroArch, and we can relatively easily fix the aggravating use of the select button to toggle missiles by remapping the select button to something like the X or Y button on a modern controller. You can even do this on your Nintendo Switch, which offers the game for free to Nintendo Switch Online subscribers. Oh, and the password system? You can just spam savestates to your heart’s content. Even the game’s grinder moments can be improved somewhat on the right emulator thanks to being able to speed up the game and cut those grinding sessions in half.

The quality of life improvements don’t have to stop there either. Thanks to romhacks, you can straight up improve the actual games graphics and experience such as with the fantastic Metroid Mother, which improves the visuals considerably and even adds a map to the game. 

Honestly, with a few of these quality of life improvements on your side, the original Metroid is a fairly breezy experience. And even without these quality of life improvements, there’s no denying that the original Metroid’s appeal is well intact, despite it’s shortcomings. It’s got it’s issues, but the game’s solid structure manages to persevere in spite of it. Simply put, it’s just really fun to play and defeat mother brain.

Visuals

While very limited by the 8-bit hardware it’s running on, the original Metroid manages to provide a dazzling and otherworldly environment for the player to explore, and it manages to do so despite a pretty limited color palette.

Each of the game’s main areas are color coded to stand out from each other and all have distinct enemy designs. This makes trekking between the games several areas feel like a journey across different ecosystems, as well as accomplishes the task of giving the game a relatively varied identity.

Frankly, Metroid is full of personality. For example, despite Samus’ fairly small and straight forward sprite, the game is able to tell you a few things about the various power ups that you have available to you. It’s small, but I love how Samus’ cannon goes from green to cyan when you’re using missiles, as well as how the suit itself changes color once you’ve found the Varia suit. Later games would expand on this greatly, thanks to adding larger and more detailed sprites to the game, but the original Metroid really makes good use of what’s available to it. 

I could go on about how I wish the game featured more animation or larger and more detailed sprites like what are available in some Metroid romhacks, but I personally find what’s on display here to be extremely charming and more than adequate for the introduction to the series. Plus, while a lot of people have probably expressed discontent at how tiny the games bosses are in comparison to later iterations of those same characters… Well, I dunno, I think chibi Ridley and Kraid are kinda cute. Like, look at them, they look like unevolved Pokemon in this game.

The overall sparseness of the world is actually a part of it’s charm for me, such as in how the game’s backgrounds are always a black void. While it’s a pretty common practice in NES games to feature a black background, it actually kinda adds to the ambience of the game here and makes Zebes feel like the desolate and lonely planet that it is. While later games would revisit Zebes and flesh out the world through the inclusion of detailed backgrounds, I find the lack of one weirdly appealing. If I’m being honest, adding backgrounds to this game would just look kinda cursed to me.

Music

Composed by Hirokazu Tanaka, the soundtrack is filled with iconic themes and jingles that are appropriately heroic and unnerving when they need to be. The game’s music has been referenced in subsequent titles in the series, as well as in Super Smash Bros, and it’s one of my favorite video game OSTs of all time.

It’s honestly kinda hard to describe Metroid’s music, as a lot of it is honestly fairly lowkey and can even get pretty ambient at points. In the grand scheme of things though, the fact that Metroid’s music was this lowkey was actually a fairly big moment in the history of gaming as, at the time, music for video games typically served the purpose of operating more like fanfare to an adventure than something that underscored a journey. And yeah, Metroid has it’s share of fanfare too, such as in the excellent Brinstar theme, but that quickly falls to the wayside once you start to venture deeper into Zebes.

There’s just something otherworldly to playing through Metroid late at night and having the various bleeps and bloops of the soundtrack to accompany you. Even the more ambient and atonal music, such as the theme for Norfair, manages to add a certain je ne sais quoi to the journey. Also, if any other early 2000’s Cartoon Network viewers are watching this video, can you let me know if I’m crazy for thinking that song sounds like a deranged serial killer version of the Rainbow Monkeys song from Codename Kids Next Door? 

And for fans of the game’s soundtrack that have never checked out the Famicom version of the game, well boy do I have a surprise for you. Because the game was released for the Famicom Disk System and not on a standard cartridge, Metroid’s Japanese OST is actually in higher quality and has a different mix that, frankly, blows the NES version out of the water.

Like seriously, at the risk of sounding like that one friend we all have that swears that listening to the original Mono mixes for Beatles albums of vinyl sounds way better than streaming stereo versions over Spotify, the difference between the two is night and day.

Closing

So does Metroid hold up? Kinda, but not really at the same time. 

While the game received great reviews back in the day and spawned one of my favorite Nintendo franchises, Samus’s inaugural adventure proves to be a fairly rocky adventure. And while I believe it’s aged a lot better than I think a lot of us give it credit for, it’s still a bit rough around the edges and offers little incentive to revisit outside of the novelty of it being the first Metroid game.

However, as I said earlier in this review, a lot of the games flaws are either fairly easy to overlook, can be remedied through the use of emulation, or have almost become a part of the games unique charm 35 years later. 

Simply put, if you’re planning on revisiting the original Metroid, you’d probably be better off revisiting it’s much beloved remake Metroid: Zero Mission, or playing through this one on an emulator for a few quality of life improvements. Don’t get me wrong, the NES original is a great game through and through, but it’s more of a great game within the context of the mid-to-late 80s, and isn’t as much of a timeless classic as, say, Super Mario Brothers. 

Still, it’ll always have a special place in my heart and will probably remain a game that I revisit every year or two. There’s just something really inviting about it’s relatively short length, the nostalgic memories it brings up for me, and watching the patriarchy self-destruct whenever I beat the game.


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Retro Review: Dragon Ball Z: The Legacy of Goku (Game Boy Advance) – NichePlays

Released in 2002 for the Game Boy Advance, Dragon Ball Z: The Legacy of Goku is an action RPG that roughly adapts the first third or so of the Dragon Ball Z story. Developed by the US-based Webfoot Technologies and published by Infogrames, the game follows Goku’s adventures on Earth and Namek and tells a highly truncated version of the events leading up to and including Goku’s climactic battle with Freiza.

Despite reviews that were mostly mixed to negative, The Legacy of Goku was followed up with two sequels, titled Dragon Ball Z:  Legacy of Goku II and Buu’s Fury, respectively, which built on the gameplay established in this first entry and took massive steps to fix the issues found in this game. 

I actually remember playing the Legacy of Goku a lot as a kid, as well as its sequels, and actually have pretty fond memories of playing Dragon Ball Z games in general when I was growing up. DBZ was arguably my favorite show back in the day. And while this mostly had to do with how straight-up fun the show itself was, as well as how shoved down our throats anime in general was back in the early 2000’s, a huge part of this had to do with the number of decent-to-good DBZ games that were finally hitting the market here in America. I mean, you really had your picking of alright Dragon Ball games to work through, such as the fantastic Budokai games on home consoles, the two Supersonic Warrior games for handhelds, and even stuff like Dragon Ball Advanced Adventure on the GBA, which I’m seriously overdue to do a full playthrough of.

I know, I know, I’m fascinating and unlike every other guy in their mid-20s because I grew up liking Dragon Ball Z. Believe me, I’m a hit at parties and other human social events. I’m so popular it drives people crazy.

Anyway, I’ve always found it kinda interesting how most of these good DBZ games have always been one on one fighters. While I get why that format works so well for the show, I suppose I’ve just always thought that the series would’ve been ripe for a decent RPG. That’s not to say that I expect something of the caliber a Chrono Trigger or a Dragon Quest game though, I’ve just always found it kinda odd that we didn’t get that many attempts at games that would allow us to actually explore the playful and wildly diverse world of Dragon Ball, which is where the Legacy of Goku games come in.

The Legacy of Goku didn’t exactly get the best reviews back in the day, but it was the first Dragon Ball Z game that myself and many other longtime fans of the anime ever played, so it’s always held a special place in my heart. I remember watching the commercial for the game one summer day when I was between the second and third game and thinking to myself; “Man, I think I can beat Freiza.” And wouldn’t you know it, I did. Repeatedly. I actually have some fond memories of beating this game in a single afternoon while watching the show or sitting in the car on family vacations as a kid.

But, does it hold up? Because while The Legacy of Goku means something to me and did well enough to warrant two fairly well remembered sequels, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good game. On top of that, there have been a literal boatload of Dragon Ball Z games released after it that have retold the same story, as well as covered more of the series at the same time. So not only will The Legacy of Goku need to hold up in terms of its gameplay, it’ll also need to hold up in terms of how it compares to its competition.

Gameplay

The Legacy of Goku features design elements that vaguely remind me of games like Secret of Mana. The title also seriously gives me The Legend of Zelda vibes, but it honestly doesn’t really play like a Zelda game so that comparison is mostly squandered. Anyway, the game throws you into areas that operate vaguely like hub worlds and feature several side quests or, for lack of a better term, puzzles that need to be completed before you can face a boss. The vast majority of these tasks tend to be little more than fetch quests that range from finding and laying down stones for a man trapped on an island, finding and laying down gems in a Namekian temple, or finding and collecting several lost ghosts in the depths of Hell. To complete them, you’ll need to explore every nook and cranny of the game’s several overworlds while fighting anything from snakes to dinosaurs, Freiza’s henchmen, or common criminals. Against freaking Goku. 

Completing these tasks nets Goku some experience to help him level up and, once you’ve completed an area’s provincial busy-work and squared up against that level’s respective boss, you’ll automatically be taken to the next area to rinse and repeat that cycle. It’s a fairly simple and watered down RPG formula through and through, but while I commend the game on keeping things relatively straightforward and easy to pick up, I feel that this simple structure actually does more to hurt the game than anything. 

Because the game is ostensibly broken down into levels and lacks any sort of way to manually traverse from one location to another, the experience feels extremely silo’d and linear. The inability to, for example, take Goku back to Master Roshi’s house once you’ve completed the opening of the game creates a weird sort of tunnel vision where you’re constantly encouraged to progress through the story, as opposed to getting to stop and enjoy the world of Dragon Ball. And this is a huge missed opportunity as a huge part of why a non-fighting Dragon Ball Z game would be fun in the first place probably should have been getting the freedom to explore all of your favorite locations from the show. It kinda feels like getting to play with a set of action figures but only being allowed to kinda closely follow a script.

Instead, we’re shepherded through a really truncated version of the first hundred or so episodes of the anime and get few opportunities to stop and catch our breath. And while you can technically stray off the beaten path within each of the game’s available areas, the areas themselves never really bother to flesh many of themselves out, unless they’re directly used to progress the game itself.  It all just makes the game feel hollow and less like a labor of love for fans of the series and more like a generic action game, which is a total waste of the license.

Despite the fact that it does follow the plot of the show’s Saiyan and Freiza arcs, it hardly tries to do more than quickly spout off a sparknotes version of the story, with little regard for pacing or tone. It’s bad. Like, really bad. For example, when you complete your fight with Goku’s brother Raditz, Goku dies and is sent to the Other World to begin training until he can be revived with the Dragon Balls. In the show, it’s a pretty well told and dramatic moment. But in the game, you literally just die and the game cuts to the Other World while cheery music plays.

However, I’d be willing to overlook The Legacy of Goku’s funneled experience though if its base gameplay was at least exciting and something I could have fun with. 

The lack of exploration here is actually the least of the game’s problems though, as The Legacy of Goku’s biggest fault lies in how stiff everything feels. For starters, you can’t sprint or move diagonally in the game, which leads to travelling through the world at a snails pace and making maneuvering during fights extremely difficult. On top of that, the combat itself just feels stiff and lacks anything that approaches dimension or depth. Fights essentially boil down to spamming standard punches or one of three special attacks against your opponent, running or flying away to let your ki recharge, and then doing it again. And that’s assuming you can even hit your opponents to begin with because the game’s hit detection is… well, it simply isn’t all that good. In my playthrough of The Legacy of Goku, I literally lost count of the number of times that I clearly made contact with an enemy but didn’t do any damage to them. And maybe I’m just projecting because I’m feeling neglected and invalidated or something, but when I hit somebody I want to know that they felt that. 

But the effects of the unreliable hit detection goes well beyond feeding my unchecked neuroses. It also means that the game is building a sizable chunk of it’s gameplay experience around something that’s fundamentally flawed. Add to that the fact that, even if the hit detection was better, the games combat and AI’s simplicity would still ultimately lead to a relatively shallow, and buggy, game.

For example, you can actually trigger an invincibility state in the game by abusing Goku’s ability to fly. Whenever you’re airborne, enemies refrain from attacking you unless they’re charging up a ki blast. And if that ki blast manages to hit you after it’s been fired, the game will continue to think that you’re flying even though you’ve been knocked to the ground. What this means is that you’ll then be able to walk up to your enemy and literally beat them to death while they stand there and take it. And if you feel bad for exploiting this bug in order to cheese the game, it’s such an obvious and easy to find issue that should have been spotted when this game went through QA, that I’d hardly call it unfair.

It also doesn’t help that boss battles can last a pretty long time, especially if you’re underleveled, and that leveling is a tediously grindy experience. While there’s no short supply of enemies for you to fight, even the weakest of opponents are able to wipe out a chunk of your health with a single attack, which boxes you into either exploiting that flight glitch I mentioned a second ago, or approaching battles in an extremely cautious manner and focussing on weaker enemies to bolster your levels. 

Thankfully, you can heal yourself at any point by pausing the game and using some disposable items such as senzu beans or herbs that can be found while travelling throughout the world. Unfortunately though, while senzu beans can fully heal you in the blink of an eye, they’re also pretty rare, so you’ll mostly be relying on herbs that are scattered throughout each of the levels. And if you plan to play through the game authentically, you’ll probably end up pausing the game every 20 or 30 seconds to use them, especially because you can only hold up to six of them at a time.

Overall, The Legacy of Goku’s gameplay just feels half baked. Due to all the bugs and how grindy the combat is, I honestly struggled to get engaged with the game on any meaningful level. I often just felt like I was completing tasks and fights for the sake of the review, which is seldom a good sign. I’ve been trying really hard not to compare this game to its sequels but there’s really no excuse for how undercooked the game’s base mechanics are, especially since those aforementioned follow ups prove the Devs ability to work well within this gameplay style. It just really wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out that this game had been rushed through development and that we were ostensibly playing an incomplete build of it. 

Visuals

Thankfully, things generally fare a bit better for the game visually. While generally lacking in animation, the game’s sprites are mostly quite well drawn and representative of its source material. It’s certainly not perfect and would also be greatly improved on in it’s sequels, but things are generally easy to decipher. It may be nitpicky of me but I do have to admit though that the game’s character portraits for dialogue are pretty lacking due to being tiny and devoid of many details. While this is likely due to trying to fit this game onto a normal GBA cartridge, it just doesn’t sit right with me due to how it’s sequels were vastly longer and more complex games and managed to fit in some absolutely gorgeous pixel art portraits.

However, that isn’t really the biggest deal to me and, like I’ve already said, The Legacy of Goku actually looks pretty good with the biggest exception to that being the game’s use of stills from the anime.

For starters, it just looks cheap and comes across as a little lazy. I mean, using footage from something to cut corners? Who would do something so heinous and trite?

It honestly looks pretty terrible all things considered, due to the amount of compression needed to fit these images on a GBA. The colors look kinda washed out and it doesn’t really do anything to add to the experience. I would’ve much preferred some scripted sequences that take place in the game itself and feature a few unique sprite animations. It looks especially bad once you start seeing stills from the show get used for some of the background elements in the game itself too, like when you’re on namek and enter some of the only enterable buildings in the game only to see that parts of the background are directly ripped from the anime.

This is all a bit of shame and disappointed me quite a bit as I’ve always loved Akira Toriyama’s art style. Plus, what with Akira Toriyama providing designs for the Dragon Quest series and Chrono Trigger which are, ya know, two of the most beloved RPG properties of all time, it’s not like there wasn’t already a precedent for bringing his designs to life.


I will give the game kudos for it’s opening animation though as it features full video from the series that may be extremely pixelated, but is also really impressive given the hardware. I dunno, I recognize how it may be hypocritical for me to like the full video intro even though I was just complaining about stills from the show, but seeing stuff like this on the GBA has always just been cool to me.

Plus, while I don’t like the use of screenshots in the game, it’s not like they ruin the experience or anything. The game has so many other glaring problems in its gameplay and storytelling that the screenshots aren’t that big of a deal.  

Music

Now one of the parts of the Legacy of Goku that I genuinely loved was it’s soundtrack. The music is, as far as I can tell, all original compositions that bare little resemblance to the music found in either the US or Japanese soundtracks to the anime, with the only exception to this being the games theme which very vaguely recalls Bruce Faulconer’s opening theme for the Funimation dub. Despite the lack of influence that the shows very iconic themes had on the game, the soundtrack is pretty great though, even if it also often fails to feel appropriate to what’s going on in the game itself.

One of my favorite songs is the extremely somber song “Devastated Planet,” which plays when Goku lands on Planet Namek. It’s a genuinely moving and heartbreaking composition and the use of it leads to one of the few moments in the game that feels like it’s given the appropriate gravitas. It also sounds eerily like the opening theme to Twin Peaks, which is one of my favorite shows of all time, so it’s got that going for it. Seriously though, you could easily swap this song into a few scenes from that show and it would fit perfectly. Weirdly enough, the song Goku’s Home from The Legacy of Goku II sounds even more like the theme to Twin Peaks which is… well, I honestly don’t know what to make of that.

But the rest of the game’s soundtrack is also solid. Some of it may sound a bit cheesy or way too similar to 80s instructional video music for some players’ liking, but I personally enjoyed just about everything that the soundtrack threw my way. Like I said earlier though, it doesn’t always sync up with the tone of what’s happening on screen all that well though, which is a bit lame.

Closing

So does Dragon Ball Z: The Legacy of Goku hold up? Well, no. Not really.

While the Legacy of Goku series would go on to have two pretty great sequels, this first game left me feeling pretty cold. And while I understand that it isn’t necessarily fair to compare a game to it’s sequels, especially due to the hindsight that devs have access to when they’re making those sequels, it’s still kinda hard to justify recommending this game to anybody.

In my opinion, the best thing a Dragon Ball Z fan can do if they’re looking for a decent DBZ game on the Game Boy Advance is to check out the other two Legacy of Goku titles or the fantastically button-mashy fighter Dragon Ball Z: Supersonic Warriors. There’s also Dragon Ball: Advanced Adventure for those of you that are interested in the original series as well. While I’ve only played some of that game before and can’t fully vouch for it, I’ve heard some pretty great things about it and highly recommend it.

It’s honestly a shame that this game didn’t turn out better than it did. While I don’t think it would’ve been enough to recommend it to players, some tighter combat and more fleshed out storytelling would have gone a long way in improving the experience. As it stands though, you can probably just skip out on this game as it has a lot of issues that, while never game breaking, make revisiting it for any reason other than a nostalgic one kinda hard to rationalize.

Unless, of course, you like kinda bad licensed games. In which case, go nuts. I personally enjoy bad games as much as I do good ones so if that’s your thing, more power to you!


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Retro Review: Zombies Ate My Neighbors (SNES) – NichePlays

Released in 1993 for the SNES, as well as the Genesis, Zombies Ate My Neighbors is a top down shooter that follows it’s protagonists Zeke and Julie on a mission to stop a variety of monsters and b-movie antagonists from harming, maiming and, well, killing Zeke and Julie’s neighbors. 

Developed by LucasArts and published by Konami, the game received positive marks upon its release, despite not being much of a hit. However, while it didn’t immediately catch on and much like the B-movies that inspired it, it eventually worked its way to cult status and has since become a beloved staple of the 16-bit era. So much so that the game, and it’s sequel Ghoul Patrol, are actually about to get a re-release for modern platforms.

Which is actually part of what brings me here today as I somehow managed to go almost 26 years without properly sitting down and playing it, which is especially weird for me because almost everything about the game is right up my alley.

I’ve actually loved B-movies for as long as I can remember and, on many occasions growing up, loved making parodies of them with my friends. And yes, they were terrible. Really, really, terrible.

Anyway, I’ve always loved B-movies so getting to sit down and play through Zombies Ate my Neighbors has been a long time coming. And overall? I, perhaps unsurprisingly, really enjoyed it! It was loaded with references to classic horror movies, had this amazing 50’s-culture-revived-in-the-80s rockabilly attitude, and it even has co-op! 

But does it hold up? Because while the game has it’s classic horror and sci-fi references down, that doesn’t always make for a good game, much less one that has aged well close to 30 years later.

Gameplay

Zombies Ate My Neighbors takes place across 48  levels that are themed after everything from your neighbors backyard, to Dracula’s castle, the inside of a pyramid and the all-american shopping mall. In them, you’re tasked with rescuing people from the stage’s various enemies before they can get massacred or mutilated. To do so, you’ll have to navigate the stages and mow down hordes upon hordes of enemies with the wide variety of weapons that you’ll find along the way. These include things like soda cans, which can be lobbed like grenades, a weed wacker which can be used to kill enemies Lawnmower Man style, or a fire extinguisher that can be used to temporarily freeze your enemies like you’re in Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

There are a ton of weapons that you can pick up alongside those ones too and they’re also scattered just about everywhere in the game, which is great due to how unbelievably outnumbered you are. What’s also great about many of the weapons in the game is that certain ones are especially effective against specific enemies. And believe me, any excuse you have to make the game a bit easier is one that you best consider using because Zombies Ate My Neighbors is far from what I’d consider a walk in the park, and it doesn’t feature saving or any alternate difficulty options.

Those aren’t bad things though, as the game is designed and paced in a way that’s mostly in line with these limitations. For example, you can pick up the action from any level of the game as long as you know that stage’s corresponding password. And you can also beat most, if not all of these stages in a fresh playthrough so long as you manage to find some weapons to power up your arsenal. 

The only real exception to this that I personally found playing through the game was in level 20, The Invasion of the Snakeoids, which features giant snakes that take forever to kill and renewed my fear of ophidians. There’s nothing wrong with this level in itself, but the giant snakes that populate it take a ridiculously long time to kill unless you know how to aim your bazooka.

Oh yeah, how could I forget that you get a freaking bazooka in this game? Unfortunately for me, I’m not much of a great shot.

Anyway, one of the other things that can aid you in your adventure is the multitude of shortcuts and alternate paths through each of the levels. A well placed rocket, or punch if you’re using one of the games many power ups, can open cracked walls and allow you to either skip rooms with enemies in them, or help you access some additional goodies. On top of that, knowing the layout of the level in general may allow you to beat it while bypassing particularly tough enemies altogether. 


When it comes down to it, all of this actually makes Zombies Ate My Neighbors a fairly strategic game that rewards players who take the time to explore every nook and cranny of its world, and who have the dexterity and skill to navigate it without getting a game over.

I personally struggled with Zombies Ate My Neighbors and ended up relying on passwords a few times, as well as a healthy number of save states to get through the game. And while I know that save-stating your way through games is a bit of a hot-topic amongst retro gamers, I have no regrets about doing so, because of how engrossed I was in the world and wanting to see what else it had in store for me. While I didn’t end up beating this one, although knowing me I probably will in the near future, I found myself totally lost in how much fun it was. I simply had a great time seeing the different enemies and themes found in each of the levels. 

However, that’s not to say that the game is perfect. For starters, depth perception can be a little hard to make heads or tails of. It’s pretty easy to misline shots or occasionally even the distance between you and some enemies due to the overhead perspective. You do adapt to it eventually, but it is something that does take some getting used to.

On top of that, while I absolutely adore the variety of enemies in this game, there’s no denying that some of them can be beyond frustrating. I’ve already talked about those snake-bois, those awful, awful, snakebois, but the game also features enemies such as these demonic little dolls that are really hard to hit, as well as chainsaw wielding maniacs that can create and take shortcuts to chase you around the level.

I understand the importance of enemies like these in a game, especially for difficulty scaling reasons and because they’re modelled after famous horror characters, but there’s no denying that a certain chill goes down my spine whenever I see them. While frustrating to deal with, and often something that I outright avoid, these characters add tension to the game by making you feel more like their prey than a predator. 

There’s a certain thrill to playing through the game and finding yourself getting chased by enemies, only to slip through a shortcut or temporarily freeze them in order to make an escape. And I can only imagine, what with this games reputation as a classic co-op caper, that doing so with a friend makes it all the more fun. 

Visuals

Visually speaking, Zombies Ate My Neighbors gets a lot out of its home on 16-bit hardware. The game features a dazzling color palette that is appropriately playful and macabre. On top of that it also features wonderful sprite work that does a great job of conveying the atmosphere of a classic B or horror movie. Zombies Ate My Neighbors had to have been a work of love from a team of film affionatos who painstakingly and lovingly crafted the look and feel of the game with the best of tools.

I’m especially big on the game’s use of dithering and how it adds layers upon layers of details to the visuals. Even though the SNES can handle transparency, I’ve always loved when developers would rely on dithering to simulate a variable opacity instead. There’s just something really endearing about that kind of technical showmanship at work here. It’s similar to how an artist would employ something like cross hatching in their work, as opposed to shading with different colors. And with a good CRT or shaders on an emulator, there’s no denying how good the dithering looks thanks to scanlines. It really does a great job bringing the environments of the game to life and makes them feel either lived-in or appropriately mythical, depending on the environment of a particular level.  

The game’s various character designs are also all on point from a design perspective. They walk that fine line of directly recalling their source material, while also taking the necessary liberties to make these characters both their own, and to avoid legal repercussions over any similarities to their Universal Studios incarnations. 

My only complaint with the game’s visuals, if you could even call it one, is that I would’ve loved some more animation in the game overall. Now, don’t get me wrong, what’s on display here is solid from an animation point of view, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least say how great it would’ve been to see things moving a bit more fluidly here. Again, I don’t even really know whether or not you could call this a complaint though, as adding more frames of animations to the characters walk cycles and stuff could’ve ended up changing the look and feel of the game a lot, or could’ve led to a less stable frame rate. And when it comes down to choosing between a solid frame rate or getting a stuttery, unstable game, I’d pick the former every time.

Still, if you even have a passing interest in vintage horror movies, or even something like Tim Burton movies, you’re sure to have a blast with this game and it’s visual style. 

Sound

And that Tim Burton comparison also extends onto what I think of this game’s music and sound too. The soundtrack reminds me a lot of the work of Danny Elfman and comes across as extremely playful, not to mention it does a great job of inviting the player into the over the top and cartoony game world. It’s also pretty diverse and knows when the slow things down and to be more atmospheric, while also never letting up on how catchy it is.

You could literally tell me that some of these songs were Oingo Boingo demos and I wouldn’t bat an eye; they’re just so kooky and eclectic, as well as appropriate to what’s going on in the game. Take the song “Pyramid of Fear” from the game, which seriously reminds me of Oingo Boingo’s song “Forbidden Zone” from the absurdly offensive 1982 movie of the same name.

However, there’s more to the game’s sound than just an awesome soundtrack. It also has sound effects that are appropriately horror themed and arcadey. There’s just something deeply satisfying about running up to a zombie in this game and hearing them explode as you shoot them with your water gun. The explosion sound that plays when they die is a really bassy sound for the SNES and other enemies also feature appropriate screams or other sound effects when you defeat them.

Hell, even stuff like the clown powerup have some pretty great sound effects to them. While the clown power up admittedly has a bit of an annoying laugh, I also kinda love it due to how uncannily similar it is to the Joker’s laugh in Tim Burton’s Batman.

All in all, Zombies Ate My Neighbors has really solid sound design across the board. It can get a little heavy on the constant screaming of the ghouls and baddies as you kill them, but the actual quality of the sound coming out of your Super Nintendo is superb.

Closing

So does Zombies Ate My Neighbors hold up? Well, seeing as I’ve just spent a bit over 10 minutes gushing over, well, everything about the game, I think it’s safe to assume that it does.

The game is an extremely charming and fun adventure, that may be challenging, but still manages to do a mostly fine job of preventing itself from being frustrating. 

And even for players that are less interested or familiar with B-movies or horror, I feel as though the game does a fine job of standing on it’s own and providing a fun and fulfilling gameplay experience. If you do like those things though, you’re in for a great game that’s loaded with enough pop culture references to fill an Elvira’s Movie Macabre.

Thanks to this game getting a modern re-release, there’s honestly no reason not to pick this one up. While I didn’t get to play this in co-op for today’s video, I can tell why it quickly became such a standby for co-op gamers. And the game itself, while distinctly 16-bit has aged quite well in spite of it. The parts of it that may or may not have aged that well have, at least for me, become part of the identity of the game itself over the years. It’s as synonymous with the DNA of the title as, say, the sort of cheap effects that populate numerous 50s B-movies are.


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Retro Review: Alex Kidd in Miracle World (Sega Master System) – NichePlays

What do you get when you need a mascot to compete with the Super Mario Bros but haven’t learned how to run around at the speed sound yet?

Well, whatever you get sure looks plucked out of an 80s shonen.

Released in 1986, Alex Kidd in Miracle World is a 2D platformer for the Sega Master System and follows the titular martial artist Alex Kidd on a quest to rescue Prince Egle and Princess Lora from the evil Janken the Great. It was developed by Sega themselves with the intention of being the company’s mascot as well as their answer to Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros, who by the mid-80’s were already on their way to becoming the face of gaming. Despite positive reviews upon its release, and several sequels on the Master System and the Genesis, Alex Kidd would later be replaced by Sonic the Hedgehog as the company mascot and was then relegated to the sidelines with, well, let’s just say a lot of other Sega franchises. 

Now I’m a bit of a novice as far as my familiarity with Alex Kidd goes as, while I’ve always been aware of the character and even used him in my main racer in the likes of Sega All Star Racing Transformed and the fantastically underrated Sega Superstars Tennis, I actually only started playing his games about a year ago, and even then, I’ve only played through Alex Kidd in Miracle World and Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle, which I understand to be among the two less popular installments to the series. 

Still, I’ve always liked the character and idea of Alex Kidd in general and, because Miracle World is getting a remake later this month for modern platforms, I thought now would be a great time to revisit his inaugural adventure. Because, like I said earlier, the game did receive some positive reviews back in the day and the character was clearly popular enough to warrant being the face of Sega for a couple of years, so there’s clearly an alright game here.

But does it hold up? Because I may just called it alright, but whether or not this game is worth revisiting in 2021 is a different story entirely, especially given the fact that this game came out in a time when side scrolling platformers were still in their infancy. 

Gameplay

Alex Kidd in Miracle World takes place across 17 stages and juggles a variety of gameplay styles within them. While the majority of the adventure is a standard side scrolling platformer, Alex Kidd does mix things up with some vertical platforming, some optional vehicle sections that auto-scroll, and some levels that forgo scrolling entirely. There’s also one of the game’s most well known features, boss battles that revolve around games of rock, paper, scissors. And they’re exactly what they sound like they’d be; you select your attack, listen to a short jingle, and then pray to RNG-esus that you win two out of three rounds against your opponent. But more on that in a bit.


As far as each of the game’s individual gameplay styles go, they’re all executed quite well and play about as well as you’d expect them to. They do feel a little unrefined at points and could’ve probably used a bit more time in the oven, but is pretty good for a game that was released just a year after Super Mario Bros nailed the side scrolling platformer genre. Plus thanks to the variety of gameplay styles, you won’t actually spend that much time playing one particular style, which helps prevent the game’s slightly clunkier moments from getting too frustrating.

Speaking of slightly clunkier moments, it’s high time I brought up Alex Kidd’s combat. Being a martial artist, you can dispose of enemies by using a standard punch, which is hilariously misrepresented in the game’s American box art and makes Alex Kidd look more like Mr. Fantastic from the Fantastic 4 than a martial artist. However, the actual process of hitting enemies in the game leaves a bit to be desired. Simply put, it doesn’t have enough range to be all that useful and I also had some issues with how reliable its hitboxes were. Because of it, I actually found myself avoiding combat for most of the game as it made for more trouble than I thought it was worth.

However, it paled in comparison to what I thought might was the worst part of this game for me, which was the rock, paper, scissors boss battles that I had mentioned a bit ago. They totally break up the pace of the game by forcing the action to come to a halt and by making boss battles a complete game of chance, as opposed to a test of your abilities. And while it’s somewhat expected that losing at these boss battles leads to you losing a life, that’s still pretty frustrating and feels just a little cheap due to the inherent gamble of the boss battle itself. The game does step away from this towards the end of the game by giving you a few “normal” boss battles, as well as a few simple combat challenges after a rock, paper, scissors match, but by then its far too little too late. As a game about a martial artist, you just assume you’d do more martial arts or get to use weapons or items against a boss then you actually end up getting to.

That’s not to say that you don’t get any items in the game though, as you actually get to visit shops multiple times throughout your adventure that allow you to pick up power ups and other temporary abilities to help you on your journey. These abilities include being able to shoot fireballs, temporary invincibility, and even the ability to float through the air. These powerups really come in handy too, especially towards the end of the game. If it weren’t for the fact that I went out of my way to buy power ups whenever I could, I honestly think I would’ve gotten stuck in some of the final stages here, as Alex Kidd in Miracle World is actually pretty hard.

Part of the game’s difficulty comes from it often feeling like Sega built Alex Kidd’s engine around being able to quickly zip around the world, but also designed stages that were full of obstacles and hazards to stop you from doing so. In a lot of ways, it’s actually a lot like the first Sonic the Hedgehog game and how that game was built around a physics based engine but forced you to spend a chunk of the game waiting for blocks to move on lava or waiting for labyrinths to be zoned. Movement itself also feels a bit slippery here and makes trying to blaze through these stages an exercise in futility. This comes to a head in the games final levels, which play more like a traditional non-side scrolling platformer and has you navigating through a maze that’s complete with dead ends, traps, and hazards at every turn. On paper, there’s nothing wrong with this sort of design, especially when it’s coming up so late in a game, but I don’t think it was
implemented all that well here due to how out of left field it was.

It’s sorta like how the last castle in Super Mario Bros keeps looping endlessly until you can figure out a puzzle sequence to get to Bowser. And my gripe with that here is the same with my gripe with that kind of shakeup in game design in Mario 1; because this stuff isn’t telegraphed to the player in advance, it comes across as frustrating and unfair, as opposed to the culmination of an adventure. And as a result of that, it’s less satisfying to complete than a simple rehash of several of the gameplay styles from earlier in the game, done back to back.


I mean, it’s literally the same issue I have with the rock, paper, scissors boss battles; it kills the buzz of being close to the end of the game because it doesn’t feel like a reward for everything you’ve been through up to that point. And that’s no to say that doing something like that couldn’t be a fun or clever way to end an adventure. With a bit more work, it could actually be pretty subversive and be a part of the game’s charm. 

And honestly, maybe that is a part of the game’s charm for some players and, if it is, that’s awesome. But it just didn’t do much for me personally. 

Visuals

Visually, Alex Kidd in Miracle World looks pretty alright. I won’t claim that it looks like one of the best games on the Master System or anything, mostly because I’m not that familiar with the hardware, but everything looks clean and has a playful anime aesthetic to it that seems to be mostly inspired by the work of Akira Toriyama, the creator of Dragon Ball. In fact, the game actually began development as a Dragon Ball game and it kinda shows, especially if you’re a fan of the original manga and anime. For example, one of the levels ends with Alex fighting against a bull, which is similar to how Goku trained fighting a monster named inoshikacho when he was a kid. The levels also feature a pickup that even looks a bit like a recolored dragon ball, and I could totally see the environments you travel through in the game as having composites from the iconic manga. Hell, even the rock, paper, scissors mechanic from the boss battles appears multiple times in Dragon Ball, such as in Goku’s fight with Jackie Chun at the World Martial Arts tournament.

If you guys can’t tell, I kinda like Dragon Ball. I know, I’m like every other guy in his twenties for saying that, but it’s true.

Even if these similarities are coincidental at best, there’s no denying that Alex Kidd in Miracle World carries what could best be described as a playful permutation of that Toriyama-esque charm. It was developed at a time when the famous manga artist’s popularity was on the rise and back when he was better known for comedic series’  like Dragon Ball or Dr. Slump than he was for stuff like the slightly more serious Dragon Ball Z. Even though he wasn’t directly involved with this game, that comedic sensibility makes it into this game well intact.

Some of the environments that you’ll get to explore include lush 8-bit forests, aquatic ocean levels, the inside of a volcano, and several castles. Each of the locations feature their own slew of different hazards to avoid as well as original enemies in each of these areas. While that may not sound all too impressive, it actually is once you consider the context of the era in which this game came out. As a title released in 1986, it was likely still a relatively new thing for games to include this kind of variety in them due to how limited memory was back then. I know I’ve brought up Super Mario Bros a lot already, but it’s a great example of what I’m talking about here. While that game provided a ton of well thought out and fun levels to traverse, it managed to do so on a measly 256 kilobit cartridge thanks to the creative recycling of assets and music. And don’t get me wrong, Alex Kidd does this too from time to time, but it also goes out of it’s way to mix up the visuals and the action that goes along with it.


Despite the limited hardware it’s on, Alex Kidd in Miracle World is a joy to look at and does a fine job of illustrating it’s world and characters. While the game skimps on giving its characters more than a few frames of animation for any action, it did come out relatively early in the Master System’s life cycle and doesn’t look all that bad all things considered.

I really don’t have that much else to say about the visuals here, other than the fact that they’re colorful and get the job done. 

Music

The same also goes for Alex Kidd’s music, which is mostly inoffensive 8-bit goodness. While the main theme of the game is actually really catchy and, for whatever reason, reminds me of a mix of the Zyu Rangers theme and Madonna’s “In the Groove,” the majority of the games soundtrack doesn’t do much to impress me.

Thankfully though, the main theme is played throughout multiple levels and is likely the most used musical piece in the entire game. And while the main theme does get a little repetitive by the end of the adventure, it’s also fairly excusable given the point in gaming history that this game came out in. After all it was 1986, a time in which many of the rules and conventions for gaming were still getting figured out. It was still common for games to attribute songs to specific level types as opposed to the individual stages themselves in order to save space on a cartridge. The fairly small and limited soundtrack here isn’t a flaw so much as it is a convention of the medium.

Closing

So does Alex Kidd in Miracle World hold up? While the game may have gotten some very favorable reviews back in the day and also spawned a series that ran for around half a dozen games, I’ve unfortunately gotta say that I wasn’t the biggest fan of this one. 


I don’t think it’s a bad game, by any stretch of the word, and in the context of where gaming was a medium in 1986, it’s actually quite good. But 35 years later, it does come across as a little clunky and underdeveloped. 

And honestly, that’s my main takeaway from playing this. Alex Kidd in Miracle World is an alright game with good music, passable visuals, and a special place in my heart for it’s spotin the history of Sega, as well as in gaming as a whole. However, due to some clunky gameplay and boss battles that feel more like mini-games than anything else, I find myself stopping just short of recommending this one. It just hasn’t aged all that well.


Still, I did find myself having fun with it, so I can’t completely disavow this title. If anything, I think my lukewarm response to the game is proof that the game did need a remake, and I actually am really curious about how it’s soon-to-be-released reimagining is going to turn out.


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Retro Review: The Death and Return of Superman (SNES) – NichePlays

Before superhero games allowed you to fairly accurately recreate your commute to your old job in NYC, they allowed you to experience a sparknotes version of one of the most controversial comic book stories of all time.

Ya know, the death of a Superman.

Released in 1994 for the Super Nintendo, The Death and Return of Superman is a single player beat em up that recounts the 90’s DC comic of Superman’s infamous battle with Doomsday, his apparent death/resurrection, and how he grew a killer mullet in the process.

It was developed by Blizzard, of Warcraft fame, and was published by Sunsoft, who had previously published several other licensed games involving properties such as Batman, Superman, and The Looney Tunes, among many others. Around a year after it’s release on the SNES, The Death and Return of Superman was also released on the Sega Genesis and was ostensibly the same game, albeit slightly rougher around the edges, with a smaller color palette, and with what looks like a slightly higher resolution.

Now I’ve always been a bit of a Superman fan; I grew up watching Superman: The Animated Series, the revolutionary Fleischer Superman cartoons from the 1940s, and I’m also a fan of his various live action film and television incarnations, especially 1977’s Richard Donner’s Superman movie and it’s various sequels. He’s probably my favorite DC superhero and Christopher Reeve’s incarnation of the character is the first thing I think of when I think of superheroes.

So you could say that I actually had some pretty high hopes for this one and was pretty excited to get to play it, especially because the only standalone Superman game I’ve properly played before this one is Superman 64.

And while that sounds like a relatively low bar for this game to clear, I’m gonna be honest with you and say that it isn’t because I kinda like Superman 64. Granted, that’s mostly for nostalgia sake and for the kind of reasons why someone might love a movie that’s played on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 though.

But, is The Death and Return of Superman worth playing? Because, at the risk of spoiling my own review, The Death and Return of Superman is a perfectly fine and playable game, but that doesn’t always necessarily lend itself towards being memorable or even worth a cursory glance.

Gameplay

The Death and Return of Superman takes place across 10 levels, which are traversed by one of five playable supermen, mirroring how several heroes appeared after Superman’s death to try and replace him. These characters are Superman, Superboy, a clone of Clark Kent, Cyborg Superman, who claims to be exactly who his name implies he is and unsurprisingly isn’t, The Last Son of Krypton, who’s also known as The Eradicator, and Steel, who’s ostensibly a Superman version of Iron Man.

Each of them play about the same, with there potentially being some differences between them in terms of their speed and damage, but nothing particularly noticeable outside of them having different special attacks, and the fact that Steel has the most range out of all of them due to his hammer. From there, it’s pretty standard, if not fairly simple, beat em up fare, with the occasional schmup-style level getting tossed into the mix to break up the action. It’s par-for-the-course, but feels pretty good in practice, in part due to the fact that, despite being functionally similar, each of the characters have different animations for their various attacks. Basically, you just go from left to right and mow down hordes of enemies that range from robots, to some demon looking guys, other Supermen, Superman 3 style, and gang members. Normal, non-super, gang members. Against freaking Superman.

Some of the levels also feature hazards that you’re supposed to avoid, such as land mines, falling debris, or a wrecking ball. What’s nice about these hazards is that you can actually use them against some of the game’s bosses, which honestly comes in handy due to how simple the combat feels.

Let’s just get something right out of the way, Streets of Rage, this is not. While that series offers tons of fun and unique combos for each of its characters and gives you an incentive to want to play as one character over another, The Death and Return of Superman makes no attempts to diversify its action out of their special attacks and a few different throws each of the different characters have. The most you get out of this game is the ability to fly at will, which makes disposing of some enemies in the later levels a bit easier, however even that mechanic doesn’t really feel fleshed out.

For most of the game though, you’ll be using the same basic punch combo or grabs on enemies. This wouldn’t really be much of a problem though, if the bosses weren’t so unnecessarily difficult. And the worst part here is that their difficulty isn’t really tied to any fair metric of challenge, either, as they usually do little more than stand over you and spam a standard attack. Instead, their difficulty stems from how easy it is to get you stunlocked due to the lack of invincibility frames in the game. Which is kinda weird when you think about it, seeing as one of Superman’s most well known powers is the superhero equivalent to having a ton of invincibility frames. It really isn’t even a problem outside of the boss battles either, as none of the other enemies in the game even begin to act as aggressively towards you as the bosses do.

For most of the boss battles in this game, all you can really do is brace yourself and spam punches or your special attacks and hope you can make contact with your opponent before he can hit you first.

As far as the difficulty level goes though, The Death and Return of Superman is actually a pretty hard game. Enemies are never that much of a challenge to take down, even in packs, but the games levels tend to drag a bit, which can lead to your lives getting whittled down and you getting a game over just before, or during, one of the boss battles.

While this is somewhat to be expected from the genre, it hardly makes for fair or engaging game design, and leads to the game taking a lot longer to beat than it should. I kid you not, I think I could’ve beaten this game in a third of the time it actually took me had the game just been a bit more liberal with the extra lives and had the game been just a bit easier.

Along your journey, you can recover your health and special attacks by collecting different colored Superman crests scattered throughout each of the stages. Superman’s classic red and yellow crest refills your special attacks, while a blue one lets you regain some of your health. You can also get an extra life through the ever-so-well-labelled 1-up pickup, and each of these can be found either in a part of the stage itself, or hidden behind some of the environment that you can throw enemies into. 

In fact, by the end of the game, I actually found myself throwing enemies against the wall of every area I could, because of how badly I needed those extra resources. The game’s design feels like a total war of attrition because of how many enemies it likes to throw at you towards the end of it. You’re expected to go through several screens that have multiple waves of enemies to take on with only a few health pickups along the way and, frankly, it’s fairly demoralizing. If it weren’t for the fact that I wanted to review this game, I likely would’ve turned it off because of that reason alone. Like, yeah, Cyborg Superman’s gone berserk and is gonna destroy the- yada yada yada. There’s a literal Brady Bunch intro of other Super-people out there, ask one of them to figure it out. I’m tired of constantly needing to fight this megolomaniac-Terminator-wannabe and I need a vacation from it all. I don’t have anything against hard games or games with long levels, but after a while I just felt like the game wasn’t doing enough to keep me engaged.

I should probably take a step back here and clarify though since it might sound like I didn’t enjoy this game. I actually did, and had a pretty good time playing it; it’s just that I think that there are some issues with the game that prevent me from having as good a time as I could with it otherwise. For example, even though it’s also a convention found in multiple other beat em ups, the inability to sprint here really slows down the action. As opposed to being able to quickly dart from one side of the screen to the other and, you know, feel powerful as you clothesline an enemy or something, we’re instead stuck doing this smug walk that looks like it’s straight out of The Office.

Likewise, while there are also really fun schmup-style levels in the game, I only remember one of them having a boss battle in it, which even then was fairly lackluster. And that’s a shame because these levels are genuinely a lot of fun and do a good job of breaking up the main style of gameplay, so despite the fact that half the boss battles in this game are already with Cyborg Superman, I actually would’ve loved to see a boss battle or level that revolved around chasing and battling with him in the sky.

Visuals/Presentation

When it comes to visuals and presentation, The Death and Return of Superman receives relatively solid marks, despite some obvious room for improvement. What’s on display here is all quite well done and clearly represents what it needs to, but also feels a little plain for my liking. The game’s color palette features a number of different shades and tones for detail, as well as some dithering here and there to get even more mileage out of the hardware, but stops short of being what I’d consider to be “vibrant.” While this was probably an artistic decision to bring the game more in line with the colors used in your average Superman comic or to make it look a little more realistic, it doesn’t particularly work for me and comes across as being a little dull. There also isn’t much, if any, use of some of the Super Nintendo’s sprite rotation and scaling effects which feels like a missed opportunity. 

However, the in-game sprites and environments are all fairly detailed and are easy to decipher. Each of the Supermen also have well designed sprites and different animations, which helps give them some defining characteristics. It also certainly helps that each of these characters were well designed in their source material to begin with too, as they all unmistakably look somewhat like Superman, but also look like their own characters at the same time. Except for Steel, due to him being a man in a mechanical suit that looks nothing like Superman, and for Cyborg Superman because he’s a straight up imposter. 


Anyway, I’m also a fan of the cutscenes in the game that play between each level. While they obviously compress the events of the Death of Superman  and the subsequent Reign of the Supermen story arcs from the comics, they do a good job of keeping the player in the loop about what’s happening and are pretty detailed from an art point of view. I can’t give them too much credit though as the character portraits for each of the characters get recycled multiple times, which cheapens their effect a bit. On some level, I think going with in-game cutscenes with text boxes similar to how RPG’s handle things would’ve worked better here, but whatever.

Overall, The Death and Return of Superman’s visuals get the job done. While they don’t do much that I’d consider out and out impressive, the game clearly illustrates its environment and characters and the inclusion of cutscenes between each level is appreciated. I know I said I’d have preferred for the game to be more colorful and stuff, but that’s just honestly just my preference for how I like my depictions of Superman to begin with, so it hardly factors into my thoughts on what’s objectively on display here. 

Music/Sound

And the same goes for the games music, which is mostly solid if not a little bland. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the music of The Death and Return of Superman by any stretch of the word, it’s just not the best superhero soundtrack on the console. In fact, it actually sounds more like something you’d hear on the Sega Genesis, if I’m being honest. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but something about the specific soundfont and the different tones being used in the game just feels like it fits in better with the Genesis’ typically grungier sound palette.

While the music lacks some of the Superman punchiness that one might expect thanks to the Christopher Reeve movies and some of the other popular media for the character, what’s available here is appropriate for the visuals, gets the job done, and definitely works. It’s not the games fault that it’s adapting a darker story in the Superman saga to begin with and that the bright and triumphant John Williams’ Superman fanfare is so synonymous with the character. Plus what’s available here is good, even if it doesn’t do a particularly great job of conjuring images of the Man of Steel. It just would’ve been cool to hear the characters iconic fanfare, or potentially even cooler to give each of the different Supermen a theme that tried to feel like royalty free knockoffs of the song. That actually would’ve been pretty fun in execution, I think, seeing as each of the Supermen in the game were ostensibly the RC Cola version of Superman to begin with. 

Closing

So does The Death and Return of Superman hold up? While it might sound like I didn’t like this game and don’t consider it worth anybody’s time, I actually totally recommend it! There may be a number of better 16-bit entries in the genre, but I still think that this is a fun, relatively short, game and honestly holds up as one of the best Superman titles to date. It’s got detailed graphics, a decent soundtrack, and a seemingly endless horde of enemies that are mostly Cyborg Superman for you to take down. And despite the fact that the game has its fair share of things I would’ve preferred were done a bit differently, what’s on display here is all solid and a lot of fun to play through.

Is it the best Superman game I’ve ever played? Probably, but like I said earlier, I have a weird relationship with Superman 64 that I might have to cover in a future video. What I can say though is that this game is absolutely worth a look, even if a loose copy can go for a bit more than I think it’s personally worth. Still, if you’re a Superman fan, you can’t go wrong with picking this one up for your Super Nintendo.


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Opinion: No, Earthbound hasn’t been added to Nintendo Switch Online yet. Yes, the world will continue to turn.

Nintendo recently announced the latest slate of free NES and SNES games to come to Nintendo Switch Online, the company’s online subscription service, which include games such as Joe and Mac, Magical Drop II (which looks especially fun), and Spanky’s Question. And, quite naturally/to nobody’s surprise, this led to Earthbound (also known as Mother 2 in Japan) trending on Twitter. As usual.

It feels like Earthbound trends on Twitter at least once a month, either due to fans clamoring for Mother 3 to finally get localized, or due to fans begging Nintendo to at least make the game available on the Nintendo Switch. And, while I can’t blame fans for wanting these games to be made accessible on what could easily become Nintendo’s best selling console of all time, I honestly am starting to feel oddly exhausted by their constant requests.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I would love to play Earthbound on the Switch. Part of what’s keeping me from picking it up for my Wii U or simply emulating it is the prospect of being able to play it on handheld mode/on my TV at a moments notice. But there’s something about the way people online react to any new NSO games that simply bums me out.

Taking a look at Nintendo’s YouTube upload that announces these new games, you can see that (approximately 12 hours after it’s been posted), the video has already received more dislikes than likes on it. And while I’m perfectly fine with people speaking their mind about these new releases and (especially as a person whose day job is in tech) think that’s is actually really important that we tell companies how we feel about their product decisions, I also can’t help but roll my eyes at how many of the negative comments on this video/Nintendo’s tweets about the new games are squarely about Earthbound.

Nintendo fans have long been passionate about the company’s IPs. After all, Nintendo has played a huge part in the history of gaming and has, for the most part, remained one of the first things people associate with the industry. But something about the discourse that comes to a boil whenever Nintendo does anything for NSO that isn’t releasing Earthbound for SNES online feels entitled at best, and kinda toxic at worst. It often feels like, anytime someone tries to defend Nintendo’s decision not to re-release the game, they’re often ratio’d in the comments and are repeatedly and, at least a little ironically, referred to as “Nintendrones” that blindly love anything the company does.

I get being passionate about Earthbound and wanting to make sure Nintendo does right by the series, but something about how that’s actually been going in practice just rubs me the wrong way. As I mentioned earlier, I’d actually love to see Earthbound make its way to the Nintendo Switch, either through Nintendo Switch Online or even through a “definitive” rerelease on the eShop that adds a few quality of life improvements and such. It’s one of their seminal games and, poor sales history aside, deserves the same attention that some of Nintendo’s other franchises gets. Point blank, that’s not really up for debate. It’s just that so much of the vitriol that seeps into the Nintendo-fandom anytime Nintendo doesn’t re-release the game comes across as childish and lessens the impact of the genuinely well articulated conversation online about how much people would love to play the game on their Switches.

On top of that, Earthbound isn’t even the the only seminal/iconic game to go without a much-needed re-release. Take Sonic 3 & Knuckles for instance; that game has gone without a meaningful rerelease in what has to be at least 10 years now, due to licensing issues over it’s music. Despite arguably being the best Sonic game and being one of the hallmark/best selling/most important releases on the Sega Genesis, it’s basically been ignored by Sega on any of their recent compilations or mini-consoles. In fact, Sega has only just seemingly gotten their act together about rereleasing the game if rumors of a new Sonic compilation are to be believed. And much like with Sonic 3, which is at least still available via an emulated PC release on Steam, there are at least other ways to play Earthbound, such as on the Wii U or New Nintendo 3DS Virtual Consoles, and via emulation.

Unfortunately, Nintendo doesn’t really owe us anything here. The company is free to rerelease whatever games they choose to, just as they’re free to hold off on localizing Mother 3, delist Mario anniversary titles, and shut down fan projects. It sucks and is potentially a little anti-consumer, but they are well within their rights here.

I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with being upset about all of these things, but I do draw the line at being a dick about it online, especially when some of us are pretty psyched about some of the games Nintendo is adding to the service. While none of these new games are iconic 90’s classics, by any stretch of the word, I’m actually pretty excited to give Joe and Mac a shot. I’ve heard pretty decent things about it over the years and playing it on my Switch is just the push I needed to actually give it a shot. I also think that Magical Drop II also looks pretty fun, especially because I’ve been on a serious puzzle game spree lately.

I, perhaps naively, look at Nintendo Switch Online’s retro offerings as a bit like going to a restaurant for the first time. I may not be familiar with everything on the menu and may not find the particular dish that I’m looking for, but there are some old standby’s like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Mario World available for me when I’m feeling less adventurous, as well as a bunch of more obscure things that I might enjoy if I give them a chance. And much like a restaurant that doesn’t cater to my particular palette or adhere to my dietary restrictions, I’m also free to leave at any time.

At the end of the day, Nintendo really should get to adding Earthbound to the Switch in some way, shape, or form. There’s no denying that and I’ve even joked about it on my post about why the Nintendo Switch is my favorite console of all time. And while I see/understand how frustrated we all are about it, in no small part due to how infuriatingly vocal Twitter gets about it without getting much of any sort of acknowledgement from Nintendo themselves, I just think we should reassess the way we make our feelings heard on the subject. Because what a lot of us are currently doing, which feels more like huffing, puffing, and stopping short of a temper tantrum clearly isn’t working.


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Retro Review: Shantae (Game Boy Color) – Does It Hold Up?

Released in 2002, Shantae is a metroidvania with side-scrolling platformer elements for the Game Boy Color. It was developed by Wayforward and published by Capcom, and features a story that chronicles the titular half-genie Shantae’s journey to stop the dreaded pirate Risky Boots and her gang The Tinkerbats from collecting 4 elemental stones to fuel a steam powered weapon of mass destruction. Despite the fact that the plot feels like a riff on Avengers: Infinity War, Shantae is an extremely playful and cartoony experience that’s considered by many to be a bit of the swan song for the Game Boy Color. Having come out a year into the lifespan of the Gameboy Advance, it’s since garnered an exorbitantly high price and is currently looked at as a cult classic as well as has received a number of sequels over the years. 

This video actually marks the first time that I’ve played Shantae. While it’s always been relatively easy to get a hold of this game via emulation or something like the Virtual Console for the 3DS, I honestly never found myself interested in giving it a shot. 

In fact, the only other time I’ve played a Shantae game before was last year when one of them was given away on Games with Gold for the Xbox One. And while I enjoyed that game quite a bit, I fell off of it pretty hard. And honestly, I can even begin to tell you why. It just sorta happened, I guess. 

(Okay, it’s because Catherine: Full Body came out on the Switch.)

Anyway, I’ve been feeling really nostalgic for the gameboy line of consoles lately. For the longest time I’d even have gone as far as to say that the Game Boy Advance was even my favorite console of all time, and even then, that’s only just been usurped by the Nintendo Switch. Because of this nostalgia, I was pretty excited when I found out that Wayforward was bringing Shantae over to the Switch, with a physical edition also made available by Limited Run Games. And could you blame me? It was a gem from one of my favorite families of consoles, being brought over to my current console of choice. Plus, ModernVintageGamer was even the lead developer for this port and that’s just awesome!

Because while Shantae is considered a gem that’s achieved cult status and spawned multiple sequels, it’s also still a late era Game Boy Color game and, as such, is running on some fairly limited hardware. And even when playing the Gameboy Advance enhanced version, which is what I did for this review, there’s no denying that parts of this game are held back by the hardware it’s running on.

Gameplay

Shantae takes place in the fictional world of Sequin Land, which infinitely loops like the background of a Hanna Barbera cartoon.

Shantae takes place in the fictional world of sequin land, where you’re tasked with navigating through an overworld to enter four different dungeons and collect the elemental macguffin before Risky Boots can get to it first. Once you’ve completed the fourth dungeon, you’re then tasked with throwing down with Risky Boots in a final confrontation to end the game.

Because of this basic Metroidvania structure, Shantae specifically reminds me of something like Castlevania II for the NES. Like that game, it expects you to memorize the lay of the land and to rely on exchanges had with other characters in towns in order to figure out where you need to go. It also features towns where your character can purchase combat upgrades, as well as disposable items which are even used by holding up on the attack button like in Castlevania. However, unlike Castlevania II, Shantae is a lot more descriptive in it’s instructions which makes it relatively hard to get lost while on your journey. There were a few moments when I needed walkthroughs help in order to figure out where I needed to go for sure, but those were likely due to me not paying attention as opposed to being due to the game being oblique.

While generally regarded as a Metroidvania due to emphasizing exploration during dungeons and offering permanent power ups that help you traverse the world of Sequin Land, Shantae also carries a relatively linear structure that somewhat dulls and simplifies some of the genre’s hallmarks. In other words, the game leans more towards titles such as Metroid Fusion than it does something like Super Metroid.

I genuinely don’t consider that a bad thing though, especially because of this game originally being developed for the Game Boy Color. If anything, this sort of game design makes it perfect for pick up and play sessions and helps prevent players from feeling like they need to draw a map on graph paper to properly navigate the world.

Oh yeah, this game doesn’t include a map. It’s honestly not that bad though, as each of the parts of the world that you visit are all designed pretty uniquely and include everything from a desert area, to a field, a swap, or waterfalls. It also helps that Sequin land is a pretty small place that endlessly loops, which makes it easier to travel through 

Along your journey, you’ll come up against a wide variety of enemies that change from area to area, and in order to defeat them, you’ll need to rely on the items/powerups you’ve bought in shops or a whipping attack that you can perform with your hair. I genuinely don’t care for this attack though, as it’s range just feels pitiful. You have to get pretty close to your opponent to make contact with them and, for whatever reason, the hit detection doesn’t always feel particularly accurate. While you can pick up some additional attacks from the shop in Water Town, I felt like the hitboxes in Shantae were still just a bit far from reliable.

Because of this, navigating from one dungeon to another doesn’t feel particularly fun to me. It’s not terrible, by any stretch of the word, and you can unlock the ability to fast travel between locations by collecting these super adorable warp squids in each dungeon, but it just never quite clicked for me. When travelling from one dungeon to another, I’d usually just try to avoid combat entirely and try to get from point A to B as quickly as possible. But, not that quickly, as the game suffers from some screen crunch that can make running into enemies at full speed pretty easy. It can also just as easily lead to Shantae falling into a bottomless pit or a spike that will instantly kill you and take away a life.

The fact that this game has lives and bottomless pits honestly doesn’t sit well with me, as placing platformer conventions in a metroidvania just doesn’t feel right. If anything, the inclusion of both of these elements feel like they’re there with little other purpose than trying to justify why it’s counterpart is there to begin with. Lives feel like they’re there to justify there being bottomless pits, while bottomless pits feel like they’re there to justify a lives system.

I’m actually kinda conflicted about this too, because I do ultimately like the fact that the game has lives, as it allows your character to respawn in the room you died in (without resetting all of the enemies you’ve defeated/the damage you’ve inflicted on bosses) as opposed to automatically getting a game over and starting from your last save point. 

Anyway, back to traversing the world. Like I said, it isn’t terrible, combat aside and it does reward you with things like health bonuses if you’re willing to stray off the beaten path and do some old fashioned exploring. Similar to other metroidvanias, you can use the powerups you’ve attained in dungeons in order to access previously unavailable areas, either by destroying an obstacle or by gaining a skill that allows you to climb or straight up fly past a barrier. In the case of Shantae, your powerups come in the form of dances that can be performed in order to transform into one of several different animals. While I personally found the dances a bit harder to do than I thought they’d be, I really enjoyed this mechanic and would have loved to see more of it in the game. I honestly don’t feel like there were enough moments in Shantae that had me trying to balance using more than one form at a time, and it feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity. I would’ve much preferred to have unlocked all of Shantae’s skills early in the game and then have each of the dungeons emphasize a particular skill, while also encouraging you to use all of them to progress, sorta like how Breath of the Wild handles Link’s abilities. I mean, yeah, the final dungeon of the game makes you do this a bit, but that’s really about it. More often than not, you use one of your transformations for a little while, unlock a new one in a dungeon, and promptly forget that the previous transformations in your arsenal even existed. 

The real brunt of Shantae’s fun for me comes in the form of it’s four dungeons. Each of them have distinct gimmicks and color palettes that make them feel unique. On top of that, they have the aforementioned transformations that shake up the gameplay in each location further, and also have boss battles that are never that difficult, but are pretty fun nonetheless. They’re actually a really good take on the formula of a Zelda dungeon and, if I’m being frank, playing through the game really makes me wish that Nintendo would give making a side-scrolling Zelda game another shot, because Shantae proves that there’s a lot of fun to be had here!

All in all, Shantae plays really well. The combination of platforming segments and the relatively small screen real estate provided on a Game Boy Color screen are a bit frustrating for sure, but are made up for with what I consider to be some pretty fun dungeons. The combat also isn’t particularly great either, but I found it pretty easy to avoid getting into fights when travelling throughout the overworld. While some may find the linear nature of this game a bit of a turnoff, I thought that it suited this games intended platform just fine and honestly found myself enjoying the adventure for what it was.

Visuals/Presentation

Shantae pushes the Game Boy Color to it’s limits, and features visuals that are more becoming of a title on much stronger hardware.

And now, onto the visuals. Shantae is frickin’ gorgeous, and represents everything there is to love about 8-bit graphics. While many games such as Shovel Knight or the more recent Yacht Club Games release Cyber Shadow have tried to replicate the charm of an 8-bit adventure to admittedly awesome results, I genuinely think that Shantae still manages to blow them out of the water. This is especially impressive due to the game actually belonging to an 8-bit console and, as such, actually needing to be able to run on that hardware.

While I played through the GBA enhanced version of the game, which expands the game’s color palette, the base game honestly doesn’t even look that different from its enhanced counterpart. Regardless of which version of Shantae you end up playing though, you’re in for an amazing looking game.

Seriously though, the game has a really bright and vibrant color palette and is extremely well animated for the Game Boy Color. Everything just feels alive and detailed here, from the overworld segments, to the menu and game over screens, as well as to the towns you can visit which look like something that should belong on the freaking Super Nintendo and not an 8-bit handheld. And some of the details in this game are actually really subtle; for example, in one of the earlier dungeons Shantae’s color palette actually adjusts and changes to be a bit darker when you walk closer to a circular passageway that’s further away from the area’s key light.

I really can’t sing my praises about this game’s visuals enough. Like I said earlier, I’ve been feeling particularly nostalgic for the Game Boy lately and was not disappointed by what was on display here, especially when playing the game on handheld mode on my Nintendo Switch. I also played this game on a 1440p monitor with an mClassic plugged into it and it really holds up and is extremely easy on the eyes, especially when you consider the fact that it was never intended to be looked at from such a high fidelity and large screen.

Music


Shantae has the sort of boppy chiptune soundtrack that’s becoming of a late era Game Boy game. While the Game Boy didn’t have the best sound capabilities for its time, something that the Game Boy Advance also fell somewhat victim to, I’ve always been fond of what the hardware was capable of. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s something really nostalgic to a good Game Boy composition and that, thankfully, Shantae is chock full of them. The OST hits it’s beats of sounding adventurous, playful, and outright eerie at the right times, and makes sure to also include some catchy melodies that are sure to get stuck in your head. I’m especially fond of the song that plays whenever you enter a shop or building in a town. It’s just so happy and totally fits the vibe of each of the game’s towns.

While not the best soundtrack on the Game Boy, or even the Game Boy Color specifically, Shantae has a ton of great tunes on it and makes for a great listening experience. It’s not perfect, by any stretch of the word and can even sound a bit generic at times, but it does its job well and provides an accompaniment to the gameplay that always feels appropriate.

Closing

So does Shantae hold up? Thanks to it’s got great dungeon design, impressive 8-bit visuals, and a fairly strong soundtrack, I’ve gotta go with a resounding yes!

While I brought up the fact that the game has what I consider to be a flawed combat system and suffers from some pretty bad screen crunch at points, I still found myself having a lot of fun here and can see myself doing a second, much slower and more comprehensive playthrough of the game in the future. You know, a playthrough where I’d spend more time looking for additional health powerups or trying to upgrade my character with optional power ups and attacks. 

But based off this first playthrough with the game, I totally consider Shantae as being worth picking up, especially since the game is now readily available on the Nintendo Switch, and is still available on the likes of the Nintendo 3DS eShop. Simply put, at $10, and with the ability to play both the original Gameboy Color and the GBA enhanced version, the Nintendo Switch release of Shantae is a great package.


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Reflecting on my love for Retro Gaming after a burglary

Note: Before I begin, let me start by quickly saying that I’m fine. Due to an ongoing 10-month-long fight with Chronic Ebstein Barr Virus/Mononucleosis (yes, the kissing disease; it can lay some people out with fatigue/brain fog/heart palpitations on and off for over a year in some cases), I’ve been staying with family that live in the same town as me.

About two weeks ago, someone broke into my apartment. It happened in a historically safe part of town at approximately 10:00pm and, by all accounts, the burglar may have also tried to break into several apartments on my street that night, and successfully robbed a restaurant just around the corner from my place. He also may or may not have successfully broken into another apartment on my street just a few days later and, as of the time I’m writing this, has yet to be apprehended.

While the burglar didn’t seem to steal anything from my place outside of an unopened set of kitchen knives and a change of clothes (which unfortunately includes a print of the Letters to Cleo shirt that Adam Scott iconically wore on Parks and Recreation), I honestly found myself rather shocked/caught off guard by the experience. Perhaps unsurprisingly, being woken up by the police at 4 am on a weeknight to visit your (then trashed) apartment tends to strike a nerve.

The aforementioned “Ben Wyatt” shirt.

But what I found the night, as I rummaged through my opened shelves and tossed-around belongs, was that I wasn’t simply overcome with feeling a lack of security towards my apartment; I also found that I felt a deep sense of personal insecurity towards what that burglar had seen.

While talking to the police about what the burglar may have been looking for that night, they shared the idea that he was likely a homeless person/drug addict in search of cash or jewelry/valuables that could easily be pawned off. Because of that, this means that he had like gotten a good look at the belongings of my apartment. And that got me thinking, what did he think of all my geeky/retro gaming stuff?

Despite the fact that many of my actual valuables (such as my Macbook Pro, PC, and camera equipment) are at my current residence due to being used for my day job, a decent chunk of my film and retro game collection were still at my apartment. And while this burglar definitely didn’t stop ransacking my home to look at my boxed NES games or Star Wars Trilogy VHS and DVD sets, I still feel weirdly violated and judged for having so much of it to begin with.

Isn’t that weird? In a situation where someone trespassed and illegally entered my home, I kinda feel shy that I didn’t have anything he deemed valuable. Don’t get me wrong, I actually feel very fortunate about the fact that I wasn’t there that night (fun fact: I was actually due to move back in that week before my EBV flared the week before and I decided to wait a while longer), but I also have this pseudo-instinctive feeling that I almost should leave an apology note there for the next would-be burglar who’ll find a camera-themed coffee mug where one might store fine china.

Anyway, this got me thinking about retro gaming and the weird stigma that’s attached to collecting old/new video games. Unfortunately, many consider video games/collecting them to be a bit of a childish hobby and is, on some level, looked down. This is patently false and wrong, of course, but it often feels like the general consensus towards the retro gaming scene is that many of the people within it lack basic social skills, are hoarders, and that they’re essentially every “nerd” trope that thrived in pop culture until the Big Bang Theory made being geeky “cool.”

I guess I’ve just haven’t thought about that stigma recently, as I actually only fully got back into gaming just a few months before the start of the pandemic. For the longest time, I felt like I had “outgrown” video games. In reality, I hadn’t so much stopped connecting to games so much as I had stopped finding games that connected with me. And, especially after the pandemic started, that started to change as I began to engage with retro gaming again and rekindled my love for games as a whole. And yet, something about someone being able to go through all of my personal belongs has been really discomforting for me. Part of what I love about retro gaming is the hit of nostalgia that I get out of it; there’s a sense of freedom and unentanglement that I get from the increasingly complex and volatile world we live from playing games made in (what many at least perceive to be) “a simpler time.” Essentially, being able to play Yoshi Story or Donkey Kong Country 64 often reminds me of what it was like to be a young child spending my summer days playing through them with my parents and it almost feels like that burglar’s pressence near my childhood N64 makes it a little harder for me to engage with that nostalgia. It’s almost as if he’s invaded that space and taken away some of what made it “a simpler time” for me.

On some level, I know that’s completely ridiculous that it feels like I almost did something wrong by not having more “traditionally valuable” or “adult” belongings in my apartment to have get stolen. And I also know that it might sound a little ridiculous for me to feel somewhat violated after someone had gone through my belongings and didn’t take anything of personal value to me. In the moment though, it made me worry that I had spent several years of my life suffering through a stage of arrested development; it made feel paranoid that I had stopped growing and maturing as a person at some point and had cognitively slipped into the mindset of a more comfortable age in my life.

I also felt the same way when the police were at my apartment and were watching me go through my stuff. While the officers that went to my apartment were very professional about the job they were doing and while they were nothing but polite and kind to me, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat infantilized by their pressence near me and my personal belongings. There was something disorienting about being the same age as a few of them and them standing over me with a firearm hanging off their hip while I was on my knees checking if my Nintendo 64 was still there. I also felt weird about having a framed picture of my best friend Mike and I photoshopped into Back to the Future III on the side of my living room (a duplicate of a moving present I gave him several years ago) or having a painting of a Gameboy on the wall. It just made me feel a little small or comparatively insignificant, I guess.

I don’t mean for this to sound like a sob story, by the way. The simple fact of the matter is that I was very fortunate to not have that much get taken from my apartment (rough estimates place the stolen clothes/knives at maybe $150-200 at the most). I was also very fortunate to have not been there when it happened, as the state of disarray that the place was left in (coupled with the reports my neighbor made of hearing a lot of doors and drawers being slammed loudly) paint the picture of a potentially violent altercation, had I been there that night. But I couldn’t help but turn inwardly after this all on some level to reflect on how non-gamers look at retro gaming/geek culture, as well as how I feel about it on a subconscious level.

And honestly, I don’t really have a takeaway from all this. I think that, more than anything, the experience was extremely discombobulating for me and that the curiosity it piqued will likely lead to some fun and interesting conversations/articles down the line, but that my feelings towards retro gaming are the same as they’ve always been.

I simply love old video games. I’ve loved them since I was in grade school and would play my friend Ryan’s hand-me-down SNES at his mom’s house; I’ve loved them since I was in high school and started buying retro games at Digital Press in Clifton, New Jersey. I simply love retro video games. Talking about and making videos about video games from when I was in middle school through college is how I learned a lot of the tricks about video editing/production that I know, and it’s still my go-to way to spend my free time.

While what happened seriously sucked, I don’t want it to change or inform how I look at gaming. It would be silly for me to let this random crime shake me to my core on such a fundamental level and I know for a fact that there’s nothing wrong with being into retro gaming/nerd culture; I’m also aware of the fact that I’m an adult with a 9-5 job that pays his bills on time and is free to spend what little disposable income I have on whatever I please, so it’s ridiculous for me to feel judged for not owning things that are “more worth” stealing.

I mean, that’s just cognitive dissonance at it’s finest, isn’t it? What’s next, inviting the burglar back for a candlelit dinner while he makes suggestions on what I should buy for him to steal next time he’s in town? I’ll pass, as tempting as it may be to get my Letters to Cleo shirt back.

Man, I’ll miss my Ben Wyatt shirt.


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