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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Opinion: Is Secret of Mana (SNES) too long for it’s own good?

Released in 1993 for the SNES/Super Famicom, Secret of Mana is arguably one of the greatest games of all time. It follows a sprawling and charming story, features addictive three player multiplayer gameplay, and has one of the greatest soundtracks to ever grace a video game. Simply put, I think Secret of Mana is fantastic and has aged particularly well. Sure, it’s a fairly buggy game with a very simple story and gameplay loop, but it’s extremely fun to hop into and play through nonetheless.

However, I recently came to a conclusion about this classic JRPG that I feel needs to be explored. And, don’t get me wrong, I say this with the utmost respect and love for the game and feel like I’m about to commit a warcrime with this simple suggestion, but hear me out:

Secret of Mana (also known as Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan) might be too damn long.

I picked up Secret of Mana last spring and begun to play through it on my Nintendo Switch via the wonderful Chronicles of Mana collection. And, after booting it up for the first time, I immediately fell in love with the game. Everything about it jumped out at me as being extremely playful and whimsical, and it quickly earned a spot amongst my favorite SNES games.

But something happened to me along the way. The further I got into the game, the more I begun to feel fatigued by my adventure. Now I’m no stranger to RPG burnout; I am very familiar with getting worn down by how long games in this genre usually are. It’s why I haven’t beaten games like Fallout: New Vegas or Persona 4 yet. Hell, it’s why it took me close to 6 months to beat Final Fantasy IX for the first time last year, despite it being my favorite game of all time. These adventures tend to take place within drawn out and meticulously detailed narratives. While I’m usually somewhat deterred from the genre due to how long these games are, I’m often happy with the games I do end up playing because of how their extended playtimes encourage deep theming and a comprehensive lore.

Which brings me back to Secret of Mana. As a real-time action RPG, it has a lot more flair to it than it’s contemporary turn-based adventures. This results in the game feeling a lot more action packed and, generally faster paced than those adventures too. However, Secret of Mana also has the same length issue that I have with other roleplaying games despite this, having an adventure that is approximately 30 hours long for most players. Sure, it’s shorter than something like Final Fantasy IV or the SNES’s Dragon Quest installments, but I can’t help but feel like it somehow feels longer. This may be due to Secret of Mana being a decidedly simpler and easier to pick up experience that, especially when compared to the aforementioned RPGs, doesn’t really concern itself with its storytelling or trying to give its characters all that much depth.

While I don’t have anything against the game choosing to keep things accessible in that regard, quite the contrary honestly as I picked SoM up expecting this/initially picked it up as an in-between game for after I had completed Final Fantasy IX last year, I do think that the adventure being as long as it is doesn’t do the plot any favors (and vice versa).

Once games start to pass the 15 hour mark, I usually begin to need a reason to want to stick around for the rest of the adventure. Whether it be due to enjoying the plot itself and wanting to see how it unfolds, being attached to the characters, or being offered any other sort of compelling reason to keep playing, there needs to be something that justifies that length.

And, unfortunately, I simply don’t think Secret of Mana has that. At about 15 hours into the adventure, the game goes from being a linear experience to being more open world after you get the ability to call Flammie; while this is a huge sign of progression in the game and does technically shake things up. Only, the game opening itself up and becoming more exploratory doesn’t really do it any favors for me; I was perfectly content being told where to go and following a linear path to that location. Being told to now fly and navigate an open world (without an in-game map) just doesn’t click for me, because so much of the adventure up to this point revolved around combat and following the story. And while the game has really fun combat, I just didn’t see myself wanting to troubleshoot my way to the next dungeon/story beat in order to fight new enemies to face up against.

At the end of the day, I love Secret of Mana. I can’t say that enough. But I also need to be honest with myself when I say that it lost my attention due to how long it is. And unfortunately, this also extends to it’s sequel, Trials of Mana, which runs into nearly the same exact problem halfway through that adventure. Both Secret and Trials of Mana (specifically the remake for the latter of the two) were two of my favorite games that I played in 2020. In the time of a worldwide pandemic and suffering through chronic illness, I found refuge from the stresses of the world in both of these titles. And while I have nothing but love and affection for them/look back at my time playing both of these games rather fondly, I just don’t see myself coming back to them to finish those adventures.

At least not for a while…


Thinking of buying this game and want to help support TallyhoGaming in the process? Feel free to use these Amazon affiliate links to pick up Secret of Mana for the Nintendo Switch! I’d also highly recommend the remake of it’s sequel, Trials of Mana!

Collection of Mana – Nintendo Switch

Trials of Mana – Nintendo Switch


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Retro Review: Jackie Chan Stuntmaster (Playstation) – Is It Worth Playing?

What do you get when you combine the overworld models from Final Fantasy VII with Double Dragon style action, an international kung fu star, and the guys that made Mario is Missing?

Well, for starters, you get a seriously chonky case of whiplash.

Jackie Chan Stuntmaster is a single player beat-em-up that was released in 2000 for the Playstation 1 exclusively in America and Europe. Developed by Radical Entertainment and distributed by Midway, the game follows action-star Jackie Chan on a mission to save his Grandfather from what I’m assuming are gangsters of some kind after he’s been kidnapped in New York City. The game features the voice and likeness of Jackie Chan, who was involved in its development and performed his in-game character actions through the use of motion capture. And what results from this is an fun and charming game, albeit one that is also fairly generic and flawed, titular star aside

Even at the time of its release, Jackie Chan Stuntmaster received some fairly middling reviews; nobody really went as far as to suggest that it was a bad game or anything, but you generally got the sense that it was looked at as a fairly adequate late era PlayStation game and not much else, especially when put up against next gen titles getting released alongside it. You gotta remember, we’re talking about the year 2000 over here, the year that the Playstation 2 came out and basically laid waste to any and all competition to it on the market. In fact, this game came out a few weeks after the PS2 launched in the US, as well as 6 months after the Sega Dreamcast, so players and journalists alike were probably pretty underwhelmed by this decidedly last gen release. 

Even though I’m a lifelong Jackie Chan fan and own a ton of his movies on everything from VHS to VCD, DVD and Blu Ray, I actually only played this game for the first time a couple of years ago after picking up a loose copy of it for relatively cheap. And while I really enjoyed the game and how delightfully dated it is, I also found it to be more fascinating and unique than it is objectively good. There’s just something really cool about the idea of Jackie Chan having his own video game, even though he’s actual had a ton of them over the years. Like, a lot more than you’d expect him to have. 

In fact, he was even a spokesman for a Chinese Famiclone console called the Subor, whose company only just filed for bankruptcy in late 2020. But I’m getting off on a tangent over here…

Anyway, instead of asking whether or not Jackie Chan Stuntmaster holds up, I’m gonna use today’s review to ask: Is Jackie Chan Stuntmaster worth playing? Because, to be blunt, while Jackie Chan Stuntmaster is a mostly fine game, it’s also a title that seems to be a bit hard to get working on an emulator and has steadily been rising in price over the years. 

Gameplay

Jackie Chan Stuntmaster takes place across 15 levels, which are divided into 5 sets of 3 stages. Each of these sets of stages follow a particular theme that range from stuff like chinatown or a waterfront to things like rooftops or a sewer. At the end of the last level for that particular location, you’re then tasked with fighting a boss that is a significantly tougher opponent than the stock goons that you’ve been put up against to that point. 

All in all, it’s a relatively standard gameplay loop that has you fighting hordes of enemies, performing simple platforming challenges, and solving the lightest of puzzles. And I really do mean the lightest of puzzles, when I say that, as the puzzles in question tend to be as simple as pushing a box from one location to another so that you can use it to access a previously inaccessible area. The combat itself is pretty alright though. You can make Jackie throw a punch by hitting the square button, make him kick by pressing triangle or grapple an enemy by hitting circle. You can also jump, roll, and dodge to avoid getting hit by your opponents. That dodge is pretty awful  though and looks more like a calculated lean or dance move, than it does something that would stop you from getting kicked in the face.

For the most part, things feel relatively responsive and the combat is pretty fun, despite being relatively simple. You can mix things up by trying out different combinations of punches and kicks, by holding either square or triangle for stronger or stunning special moves, or by picking up nearby items to use in combat though. I especially like the fact that this is an option to begin because, while it’s a relatively standard feature in beat em ups, it’s also totally compatible with how Jackie Chan fights in many of his movies. Although, it’s far from being fully realized, as you’re restricted to kicking trashcans, picking up sticks, or using stuff like brooms to fight your opponents. But I guess it’s just hard not to wish for more as a Jackie Chan fan; I would’ve loved to improvise using a bicycle like in Project A, or kick around stuff like a refrigerator and pinball machine like in Rumble in the Bronx.  Like, yeah, we definitely wouldn’t have been able to get that dynamic with things if they were in the game, but it would’ve been cool to see more fan service in the form of some quicktime events or something nonetheless. 

And those platforming challenges I mentioned? Well, they’re… they’re not great. In fact, I’d say they border on being completely broken and ruining the game for me. Given the fact that this is a beat em up, I wasn’t really expecting much from these segments to begin with, but I still can’t help but consider them to have been executed pretty terribly. Jumping feels relatively stiff, as does grabbing onto ledges. There are even moments where Jackie can get stuck against objects that you can barely see. I’d say that these issues wouldn’t be that bad in a more traditional beat em up, but because this game really starts to emphasize platforming as early as the second set of levels, it becomes a pretty big problem. It doesn’t help that the camera placement can lead to some serious depth perception issues too, which will often lead to embarrassing deaths. And this is all somewhat compounded by the lack of analog control here, which prevents you from feelings completely in control of your movements. 

And that knockback. Oh God, that knockback. There are several moments in the game where you’re expected to roll under obstacles and messing this up will often lead to you getting flung off the map and to your death. While it’s pretty funny the first few times that it happens to you, due to it looking like a classic Jackie Chan blooper, it gets old pretty fast and just feels a bit unfair.

There are also several instances of the game switching perspectives on you and or forcing you to avoid obstacles that are headed your way. Those platforming issues I mentioned earlier are especially bad in these segments though, particularly in the third sewer level, where you’re expected to balance dodging obstacles with fighting enemies and hopping between subway cars without falling to your death. If I’m being honest, they kinda remind me of Crash Bandicoot a bit and make me wonder why this game wasn’t a straight up Crash clone as opposed to a platformer/beat em up hybrid. Because, as is, this game really feels like a project that the devs wanted to make a platformer with a simple combat system, that was heavily constrained and dampened by using a game engine that’s more suited to beat em ups.

An yet, I still kinda just consider Jackie Chan Stuntmaster a fairly standard game that, outside of it’s platforming, is mostly inoffesnive. That’s not to say that it still isn’t a lot of fun though; just that it derives a lot of it’s entertainment value from the fact that it’s a game starring Jackie Chan. For example, the game features a number of one liners spoken by Chan that get played throughout the game. They’re usually really cheesy and borderline cringy jokes, but are also a ton of fun to listen to because of the context of the game itself.

That charm also comes up in the form of the health pickups available to you in the game, which are split between bowls of rice and a carton of milk. The bowl of rice is nothing to write home about and is just the typical representation of Asian culture that I’d expect from a game like this, but that carton of milk just strikes me as being a little funny. Again, it’s mostly amusing to me because of how novel it is to imagine Jackie Chan rummaging through a trash can, finding, and then drinking a carton of milk. It’s equal parts absurd and weirdly in character for a guy who has made a career out of being “Mr. Nice Guy.”

The game more or less plays fine enough,  clunky platforming aside. The combat feels alright,  and the level designs are mostly tolerable, despite some recycled segments. I just wish that some more work was put into the camera placement and the way that the platforming feels, as in its current state, it feels really half baked.

Visuals

So,how does this game look? Well… It ain’t pretty, but it’s beautiful…  As such a late era PS1 game, you’d probably think that this game pushes the Playstation to its limits and that it features visuals that would rank amongst the best that the console has ever seen.

And you’d be wrong.

Make no mistake, I think Jackie Chan Stuntmaster looks great, just not graphically. The game’s character models look flat out goofy and remind me of the thumb-thumbs from the Spy Kids movies, or the character models used outside of battle in Final Fantasy VII. And the faces, I gotta talk about the faces.  They look flat out disturbing. It kinda looks like someone took a PNG of Jackie Chan’s face off of google and just poorly composited it onto the character model of a mannequin.

And yet… I love it.

It certainly doesn’t look good, like at all, but there’s a lot to love about this game’s visuals. I’ve already touched on the character models and how hilariously chonky they are, but their charm also has a lot to do with their animations. Somewhat fascinatingly, Jackie Chan actually performed at least some of his video game counterparts animations in this game via motion capture. And while saying motion capture probably makes you imagine the sort of advanced high quality animation we got in stuff like The Lord of the Rings or, heck, even something like Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace, the results in this game feel almost hilariously under utilized, likely due to the lack of weight in the animations as well as the improper scaling of the character models when compared to the performer. 

Level designs and environments are also similarly chonky, though they do look a lot better than the character models. I’m actually a huge fan of the dithered shadows and the game’s color palette. I also like how several cutscenes actually offer a few easter eggs for Jackie Chan fans in the form of movie references. Overall, what’s on display here is far from revolutionary or notable but is charming and looks pretty great, even if the environments being rendered lean pretty heavily on being generic.

Sound

Which is, coincidentally, how I’d describe this game’s music too. It’s all around solid typical 90’s action music and it gets the job done. Musically, the soundtrack incorporates elements of late 90’s drum and bass, which isn’t really a genre I’m all too familiar with, but do enjoy. It fits the action fairly well and is kinda similar to the sort of music you’d hear in the trailers to some of Jackie Chan’s classic Hong Kong movies after they received an English dub and got re-released by Miramax. Much like everything else in the game, the music is generic but enjoyable.


Stuntmaster also features voice acting, which I had mentioned earlier. It’s a solid touch for the most part, but can overstay its welcome due to Jackie not having enough dialogue to work with. Still, it’s a nice touch and reminds me of a bit of a simpler time in gaming, when celebrities could get a proper licensed console game off their name alone. Also, listening to Jackie Chan spout off one liners is just pretty adorable. 

Closing

So does Jackie Chan’s Stuntmaster Hold Up? Well… No. Not really. 

The game is pretty by the numbers ride that doesn’t have anything going for it outside of it’s Jackie Chan license. While I ultimately had a good time with the game and did enjoy playing through it, I also have to be honest when I say that it simply isn’t worth seeking out. I may have ended up recommending this game if it had better and more responsive platforming, but the lack of analog control here, coupled with the pretty spotty platform detection and the amount of platforming this game expects from you is just too frustrating to overlook. 

And, once you add in the fact that this game is currently going for $35 loose and for $75 with a jewel case, I just can’t justify trying to get a copy of it. As for emulation, if you can get a ISO of this game working, more power to you. I actually ended up buying my loose copy of this game several years ago because I couldn’t get this game working on several playstation emulators, and I only just purchased a reproduction case for it because, well, I wanted one. 

At the end of the day though, Jackie Chan Stuntmaster is fine. It’s inoffensive and fun, but you more or less can get the full experience by watching a lets play or some gameplay online. If you find yourself hankering for some Jackie Chan action, you’re probably better off playing one of his other games, or just booting up any other beat em up while you watch Rumble in the Bronx or Police Story. 


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Opinion: Yes, Tetris 99 and Pac-Man 99 are worth a Nintendo Switch Online subscription.

Tetris 99 and Pac-Man 99 are worth the price of admission for a Nintendo Switch Online subscription.

There, I said it. For the longest time, whenever someone would state that the only game they played on Nintendo’s ill-received online service was Tetris 99 (and now the newly released Pac-man variant), I’d roll my eyes somewhat dismissively. Those statements have always struck me as a little sensationalist, a little butt-hurt, or simply exaggerated; it’s as if the player were stating that there weren’t any other good online experiences to be had on Nintendo’s hybrid console, or as if $20 a year was simply too much for what we got.

Personally, I’ve never subscribed to that idea. In fact, I believe that NSO has a great value proposition for its price point. The ability to play dozens of classic NES and SNES games anywhere I want, while also offering the ability to play modern Nintendo staples like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Super Smash Bros Ultimate, and Splatoon 2 with friends over the internet? How is that not worth a measly $20 a year?

But recently, I’ve begun to view this rhetoric a bit differently. I haven’t changed my position on the value of Nintendo Switch Online though. In fact, I’d say that newer Switch releases like the hugely successful Monster Hunter Rise, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, and the recent port of Apex Legends raise the value of that $20 subscription greatly. What I guess I’m saying though is that I’m beginning to view this statement as less a condemnation of Nintendo Switch Online and more as a compliment towards the service’s free/retro themed Battle Royale games. I’m sure that many of the people saying this do intend this to be a statement made to the detriment of Nintendo Switch Online, but from where I stand, having a Nintendo Switch and paying $20 a year with the specific intention of accessing the current pair of 99 games is actually a good use of that money.

What I’ve found is that both of these games offer a seemingly endless amount of fun within their, admittedly simple, premises and remain constantly engaging over a long period of time. While I use my Nintendo Switch for a lot more than just these two games, or the now delisted Super Mario Bros 35, I also find myself putting a solid hour or so into either of these games almost every night. It’s actually a bit of a ritual for me to boil myself a strong cup of tea, grab some pretzels or popcorn, and put on a comforting show like The Office or Scrubs to listen to while I play Tetris 99. And, ever since Pac-Man 99 hit the scene, that game has also become a staple for that ritual. I’ve spent countless hours trying to win at these games lately and personally find the experience greatly satisfying, even though I’m awful at both of these of these games. And I honestly don’t see that changing anytime soon, as. these games have an extremely simple and addictive gameplay loop.

Nintendo Switch Online gets a lot of flack for not offering a lot of the features found on Xbox Live or the Playstation Network, and a lot of the criticism it gets is valid. It’s library of bundled games are limited to title that are almost at least 30 years old, it doesn’t get many free games added to it’s library, and the service itself doesn’t offer standard features like voice chat or messaging outside of its companion mobile app that even Nintendo seems to have forgotten even exists in the first place. But at $20, is that really that big of a deal? It’s definitely backwards of Nintendo to still be this hesitant to go all in on this whole internet fad thing, but doesn’t the relatively low price offset how bare bones this is?

I’m all for asking Nintendo to do better, but does the service really not fit the charge? If many of us can agree that the value of a game isn’t decided by the amount of content there is on it or how long the game takes to beat, why are we trying to argue that getting a subscription service to play its killer app is a bad thing? Didn’t the original Xbox only really take off due to the monumental success of Halo? And didn’t many of us or at least someone we know pick up a Wii to play Wii Sports? How is this any different? If anything, due to the amount of tender being exchanged here, this is more like paying for a subscription service like Netflix or Hulu to watch one of our favorites shows than it is spending several hundred dollars on a piece of hardware to play a single game. At the very least, it’s at least similar to the dozens of people I went to high school with who had paid for Xbox Live to seemingly only play Call of Duty or Halo multiplayer with their subscription.

I guess the point I was trying to convey with this article is that there isn’t anything wrong with only having NSO to play either Tetris 99 or Pac-Man 99. So long as you’re having a good time with the software, who cares if it’s attached to Nintendo Switch Online or any other online service? Content is a very subjective thing, so while you may think it’s somewhat bogus to pay $20 a year to play these two games, others may find that it’s actually a great bargain. You do also get access to additional goodies by being a subscriber, so if you’re concerned about whether or not it’s worth the price tag, you could always try playing some of the free retro games Nintendo gives you, or try playing some of your other Switch games online.

If someone held a gun to my head and told me that I had to choose between getting rid of my NSO subscription or continue to stay subscribed but only be allowed to access Tetris 99 and Pac-Man 99 with it, I’d honestly be fine with that. I’d be confused why this guy had a gun to my head, sure, but I wouldn’t be that frustrated about only being allowed to play those games.

Granted, I would also miss being able to play Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s multiplayer and Panel De Pon.


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Retro Review: Vectorman (Sega Genesis) – Does It Hold Up?

What do you call a superhero with a dayjob in graphic design? Vectorman. 

Released in fall 1995 for the Sega Genesis/Megadrive, Vectorman is sidescrolling shooter that was developed by Blue Sky Software and is considered the, by then aging, Sega Genesis’ answer to the Donkey Kong Country series due to its use of pre-rendered 3-D graphics. The game features an eco conscious narrative where Earth has been abandoned by humans due to years of neglect and pollution, leaving behind machines with the sole purpose of cleaning up after them. One of these machines, named Raster, is ultimately driven insane by and fused with a nuclear weapon, becoming a maniacal dictator named Warhead, who wants to kill any and all humans that dare return to Earth. This leads to the games titular hero, Vectorman, beginning a mission to rid the Earth of Warhead and to restore peace to the planet. 

I grew up playing this game a lot as a kid via the Sega Smash Pack on PC. While the emulation on this PC release wasn’t perfect, I logged countless hours onto this game through it, as well as other Sega classics such as Golden Axe and Altered Beast. That’s not to say that I ever did well in any of these games though because I was 4 or 5 and couldn’t even clear the first level of most of these games. It probably also didn’t help that I was probably playing on a keyboard, which just feels like a bad time waiting to happen.

At the time of its release, Vectorman was praised for the incredible mileage it got out of Sega’s 16-bit hardware, with critics almost unanimously concluding that it was a great title and a wonderful swansong for the Genesis. And I’ve gotta agree with the critics on this one.

But… does it hold up? 


While Vectorman was an incredibly impressive and unique 16-bit title back in 1995, there’s no denying that this game is pretty heavily rooted in the 90’s. And much like a lot of things from back then, it’s easy to assume that this game probably hasn’t aged well.

However, you’d be wrong to assume that! Almost 26 years later, Vectorman is still a total blast, with incredible animation and art design, a catchy techno soundtrack and variety of gameplay styles. And it manages to do this in spite of a couple of problems that range from fairly subjective, to a little negligent from the developers.

Gameplay

Vectorman (Sega Genesis)

Vectorman features 16 levels of shooting action, with the vast majority of them taking place in a standard sidescrolling format while also deviating from this style from time to time for a few different types of pseudo-3D inspired levels. In that regard, the game is somewhat like the Traveller’s Tales developed Toy Story, which came out a month later and is also an impressive pseudo 3D sidescroller that incorporates different gameplay styles.

In a standard stage, Vectorman has a relatively simple gameplay loop that revolves around exploring and reaching the end of the stage while disposing of enemies and bosses along the way. To do this, you’ll need to gun down your opponents either with Vectorman’s default gun, or with several other temporary weapons he can procure from TV units scattered across each stage. These power ups come in the form of a shotgun-like spread shot, a machine gun, and this kinda cool twirly ball thing that reminds me of that one weapon that Batman has. I think it’s called a bolo… so yeah, there’s some random trivia for you. There’s also a pretty cool set of power ups that can transform your character into stuff like a drill, a bomb, or a… fish, I guess? Anyway, none of these power ups ever seem to last for too long so, for the majority of your play through, you’ll probably be using your standard attack, which is fine due to it being a semi-automatic weapon. Just be ready for thumb cramps though if you tend to be prone to those things, and maybe consider using a turbo controller or function on an emulator if you are.

And, while we’re on the subject of things to look out for, I’d also recommend approaching this game with caution if you’re sensitive to flashing lights, as the game features screen flashing whenever you complete certain actions such as blowing up a TV. While I’m no expert on what is or isn’t broadcast safe, blowing a TV up in the game results in the screen flashing about 7 or 8 times within the span of a second, and that’s actually pretty dangerous if you’re exposed to it for prolonged periods of time. The World Wide Web Consortium states that a flashing image shouldn’t flash more than 3 times in the span of a second and, while that metric almost definitely came about after this game came out in the 90s, it’s something that I do think is worth being aware of. 

Vectorman runs at a blistering 60 frames per second. As a result of this, the game feels buttery smooth in a way that seriously compliments the gameplay. In fact, Vectormans lead programmer Richard Karpp described the games high frame rate, as well as the animation that it allowed for, way better than I ever could. In a delightfully retro interview with GameZero.com, he said: 

“The fact that the animation runs so fast allows the game to respond to controls very quickly. So you don’t get any delay between the time you hit a button and the animation response. Plus, we designed everything so there was minimum delay: there is no “wind-up” animation for shooting. That “wind-up” would take time between the button-press and the response, and I didn’t want that to happen.”

Richard Karpp on the design of Vectorman

Simply put, the game’s controls are as responsive as they get. And that responsiveness, as well as the amount of animation everything has in the game and Vectorman’s sound design result in this game feeling good to play. Despite the lack of force feedback on the Sega Genesis, you can really get a sense for how powerful your character is, especially when you can visually see your enemies recoil as they take damage.

Though, if I’m being honest, I’m not the biggest fan of the rogues gallery that you’re put up against in this game. It’s not that these enemies are poorly designed or anything, it’s just that their characterization does feel somewhat empty and lacking. Although their design isn’t always perfect. While most enemies go down after a flurry of shots make contact with them, others require a bit more strategy, such as by targeting a weak point. However, and this could just be me, I didn’t feel like this was particularly well telegraphed, especially since we’re only talking about one or two enemies here. Aside from that, the games enemies are mostly inoffensive and not all that memorable. Except for these wasp enemies that are everywhere. They go down in one hit but, due to there often being several of them, it can also be easy to get caught off guard and swarmed by them. 

Anyway, Vectorman has some pretty decent level design going for it. I won’t mince my words when I say that it’s nothing to write home about, but it gets the job done and maintains a relatively cozy linear structure for most of the ride. It does deviate from this a bit too much for my liking in the later half of the game though, as the levels begin to grow more maze-like in a way that I don’t necessarily think works all that well. It’s not that I don’t mind non-linearity in games, but I feel like it doesn’t do the player any favors here due to Vectorman also having a time limit on each stage, as well as featuring zero continues. 

Oh yeah, Vectorman doesn’t feature continues. If you run out of lives and get game over, that’s it. Honestly, while some may find this sort of thing endearing or “part of the fun of retro gaming,” I’ve never been all too keen on it. In my opinion, not offering continues to players is usually little more than a way to artificially inflate the difficulty or length of a game. And, because Vectorman features several stages that change the main gameplay style and offer the player little time to figure out what’s going on, I’d hardly call it’s inclusion in this game fair. There were several moments during my play through where I was caught off guard by a different play style and ended up taking unnecessary hits as a result of it.

However thankfully, Vectorman does offer a number of different difficulties that are uh- “charmingly” labeled with nineties vernacular. For first time players, or people who want a bit more of a laid back play through, I recommend going with the games easy mode, which I refuse to acknowledge as being lame. 

While I initially played through this game on easy, I did eventually manage to get through a healthy chunk of the game on it’s standard difficulty, and found it to be a pretty fair and reasonable challenge. And after doing so, I can’t help but conclude that, difficulty wise, Vectorman is honestly just more punishing than it is difficult due to the lack of continues. Still, it’s an extremely playable game with tight gameplay and excellent performance. 

Visuals

Visually, the game is also stunning. As I’ve already said a few times before, Vectorman makes use of 3D style graphics that are somewhat similar to what’s on display in the Donkey Kong Country series. As a result of this, the game’s character and environmental sprites look incredible for something that’s on 16-bit hardware. The game’s backgrounds also feature layers upon layers of parallax scrolling, which help add to the incredible sense of depth in the game. Add to that the fact that things run at a steady 60fps and you’ve got a well animated and detailed game on your hands. 

And that’s before even bringing up the number of straight-up incredible visual effects on display here. There are a number of sprite and background effects in this game that make it look like it should be on the SNES in order to take advantage of its Mode 7 capabilities. If you’ve played Contra Hard Corps before, this game makes use of the same sort of wave warp effects that are all over that game. You can really tell that Blue Sky Software had a total mastery of the hardware that they were working with, what with it being so late into the Genesis’ life-span.

As for the visual style itself, I think the best way that I can describe it is that it looks and feels a lot like the Brandon Lee movie The Crow, after it’s been put in a blender with a bunch of 90’s existentialist sci-fi movies like The Matrix or the ever-so-on-the nose-ly titled Extistenz. Oh, and maybe a hint of Lawnmower Man.

What I guess I’m trying to say is that Vectorman may be just a bit too nineties at points. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the 90’s as much as the next guy, but even I have my limits. And while I can take this game at face value and love it for its grungy aesthetic, I can totally see how that same aesthetic may be a huge turn off for some players. 

Still, I do commend the game on being very visually clear and for having well defined layers and easy to identify color choices to separate objects. 

Music

And, since I just mentioned how 90s the game looks, I think it’s only fair to bring up how 90’s this game’s soundtrack is at the same time. It’s got a number of really awesome and exciting electronic tracks in it that are genuinely catchy and stand up as being, not just good and appropriate video game music, but solid electronic music to begin with. This is partly due to the Sega Genesis’s sound hardware, which has been criticized over the years for being relatively limited. But in the case of Vectorman, it’s put to good use. The games music is heavy on funky beats, arpeggios, and mixing what sounds like organ sounds with saw synths which are all things that Genesis is quite adept at. 

For those unaware of how sound works on the Sega Genesis, a lot of its games were developed using a sound driver known as GEMS, or Genesis Editor for Music and Sound effects. GEMS was developed to be an easier and more hands on way for Western developers and musicians to wrap their hands generating sound on the FM synth-based hardware in the Genesis. And, unfortunately, while GEMS did a great job at making things easier for developers from a workflow point of view, it often led to games having that patented Sega Genesis “farty” sound.

That isn’t really the case here though, for while Vectorman did use GEMS to create it’s music and sound effects, the devs were clearly comfortable with the technology, and were able to produce arrangements that played to its strengths. If you’re at all curious about how music and sound works on the Genesis, GST Chanel actually made a great video on the subject that I’ll be adding to the end screen for this video.

A lot of this games music works in the same way that the games visuals do for me. They’re undeniably dated, but full of charm because of it. The lofi Genesis instrumentation does an adequate enough job of simulating 90’s synths, while also having this endearing and highly nostalgic quality to them that makes the music fun to listen to. And in that sense, it kinda reminds me of the MIDI music from games like Runescape, or shows like Rugrats.

Closing

So does Vectorman hold up? While I’ve spent a decent amount of this review joking about how utterly 90s this game is, as well as pointing out my personal misgrievences with the lack of continues, I have to say yes, this late Genesis title totally holds up.

It’s got some really addictive and easy to pick up gameplay, wonderful and hardware pushing visuals, and an extremely solid 16 bit soundtrack. While I do think that the game could’ve done with being a bit more accessible, as well as featuring a few less flashing lights, I still found myself having a lot of fun with this one.

I don’t know if I’d go as far as to put this amongst my favorite Genesis games or anything, but Vectorman is still a great title, and a fairly affordable one to boot. If you’re looking for a side scrolling shooter with a healthy mix of fun and different gameplay styles, you really can’t go wrong with picking up Vectorman.


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Retro Review: Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Ages/Sega Genesis) – Does It Hold Up?

How do you replace a B-tier corporate mascot with a character that has somehow become equal parts beloved and derided? 

Well, you start by drawing a needle mouse.

Sonic the Hedgehog was released for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive in June 1991. Created by programmer Yuji Naka and designer Naoto Oshima, the game follows it’s titular character on a quest through six zones to save the animals of South Island from the nefarious Dr. Robotnik, as he tries to collect the six, soon to be retconned to seven, chaos emeralds in order to harness their power for evil.

Upon it’s release, Sonic the Hedgehog would go on to garner massive success and would quickly be established as the flagship title to beat on Sega’s 16-bit hardware. It’s formula would go on to be iterated in sequels released in the following years, it would go on to receive multiple cartoon adaptations in the 1990’s alone, and would even lead to Sonic becoming the first video game character to ever appear in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City, beating out established video game icons like Mario or Pacman, in the process. Simply put, Sonic was everywhere in the early 90’s, and it all started with this very first game.

2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog and, as such, I thought it’d be a great idea to revisit his first game, especially since it’s something near and dear to my heart. While some have come forward over the years saying that the classic Sonic games were never that good, or that Sonic the Hedgehog is an incredibly overrated title, I respectfully disagree.

Call it nostalgia, call it a poor and potentially unrefined taste in games, but I think that Sonic the Hedgehog is a banger. An imperfect and pretty flawed one, yes, but a banger nonetheless and one that has earned its reputation quite well.


I grew up playing Sonic the Hedgehog on my family’s Sega Genesis as a kid and, back then, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. In fact, my affection for the Genesis era Sonic games is pretty well documented. For starters, Sonic is one of the few video game characters that I actually own merch for and is my favorite fictional character of all time. In fact, a couple of years ago, I was tasked with talking about my favorite video game characters of all time for a gaming web series I had secured a screentest for and I basically used it as a jumping off point for an improvised monologue about how much Sonic the Hedgehog means to me as a fictional character. 

So… Yeah, I like Sonic. A lot.

And while there’s no denying my love for Sonic the Hedgehog, or as I like to call him, Sonic the Hedge-boy, I can’t help but wonder whether his inaugural adventure is still worth playing today, not just when compared to his other, both refined and unrefined 2-D adventures, but in general. Because if you ask me, Sonic the Hedgehog is a great game… But does it hold up?

However, because this game has been covered by just about everyone on YouTube already in staggeringly great detail, I’m going to approach this review a little differently than usual. Instead of playing the original Genesis release, I’m going to be focussing on the Sega Ages version for the Nintendo Switch, which is my preferred way to play the game these days. I’m well aware of the incredible mobile port this game got several years ago, but I’ve always preferred my Sonic games in 4:3, as well as love the convenience of being able to easily play this game on a TV. The different versions of the game are all fairly similar though and are all fine ways to play this game; I just prefer the Switch version over the reasons I listed just a second ago, as well as the inclusion of both Sonic’s spin and dropdash, which I’ll dive into a bit of detail over in just a bit.

GAMEPLAY

Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis)

Sonic the Hedgehog is a franchise best known for its speed and, upon entering the iconic Green Hill Zone, it’s easy to see why. The game employs momentum based platforming with incredible results, often allowing players to get launched into the air and bounce off of enemies like they’re springs if you’re moving fast enough. This first area is a literal playground for the player, who can use it as such in order to grow acquainted with the controls and physics. Fixating on this game’s physics for a second, it’s a huge part of what makes the Genesis Sonic games so good. If you compare this game to other mascot platformers that came out around this time, you can see how this game’s incredible sense of motion and weight make it so engaging. For example, a character like Bubsy the Bobcat may be able to move around as fast as Sonic in his games, but does feel as intuitive or fun, whereas here things are a lot smoother, outside of moments of noticeable and soul crushing slow down.

I’ve been playing through Green Hill Zone regularly since I was 3 or 4 and, in that time, I’ve never grown tired of it. While other introductory levels in Sonic games have also been a lot of fun (shoutout to Emerald Coast in Sonic Adventure for being my other favorite first level in a Sonic game), nothing beats what’s available on this level. In fact, I may even go as far as to say that Green Hill Zone is the perfect encapsulation of what a Sonic level should be. It’s incredibly spacious and open ended, allowing you to explore the stage and it’s multiple routes without getting trapped in too many samey areas or getting lost. It balances linearity with an opened ended design that encourages the player to put in multiple playthroughs. On top of that, it establishes what I believe is another good precedent for good Sonic level design, a relatively low difficulty level that’ll allow players to complete the level without much fuss if they’re careful, but also allow them to blaze through the level quickly and make things a tiny bit harder in the process.

If it sounds at all like I’m focussing in on Green Hill Zone too much, it’s for good reason, as a number of other reviewers and players have come to the conclusion that it’s basically the high point of this game, and that everything that comes after it is has a noticeable drop in quality. And, unfortunately, they’re right, though not to the extent that I think they make it out to be, especially when you bring the games several upgraded re-releases into account.

Once you beat Green Hill Zone, you’re tasked with clearing Marble Zone and are exposed to what many consider Sonic 1’s crucial flaw. Waiting. The game suddenly shifts from a speed based platformer and becomes a more standard and linear adventure. While it does occasionally return to the more open ended and speed-based design of Green Hill Zone, such as in the delightfully pinballish Spring Yard Zone,  a lot of the game plays out in a more methodical and typical fashion, forcing you to wait for platforms to move, wait for armored and spiked enemies to turn away from you so that you can attack, and avoiding traps that may as well be bottomless pits.

At any rate, the shift in design philosophy is jarring to say the least, but is also fairly tolerable. While I would’ve liked to keep moving through these levels and could’ve done without pushing blocks or riding them through lava, I also kinda understand where Sega was coming from with this. After all, this was the first Sonic game; it’s not like they knew what worked or didn’t yet, and I can’t really blame them for not wanting to fully commit to the design philosophy of something like Green Hill Zone. I mean, I do think that’s kinda weird given how Green Hill Zone is the literal video game manifestation of the addictiveness of nicotine, but I get it. Decades after this games initial release, it’s easy to point at Sonic 2, 3 and Knuckles as being the games to play if you’re looking for all Green Hill design, all the time, Sonic 1 feels more unique because of these slower moments, even if they ultimately hurt the experience. I won’t argue that these moments are great or anything, but I do need to at least acknowledge that, Labyrinth Zone aside, they aren’t that bad. They’re heavy on traditional platformer elements, sure, but Sonic is a platformer and, as such, does need those elements. I do understand how they could’ve just been integrated into the parts of other stages instead of getting their own levels like in the sequels, but I’d also hardly call it a reason to avoid this game outright. Also, I honestly was never that bothered by it during my most recent playthrough, in part due to the quality of life updates that the inclusion of the spin and dropdash make the Sega Ages release. 

You see, the Nintendo Switch’s Sega Ages version of Sonic the Hedgehog adds the ability to perform the spindash from Sonic 2 and the drop dash from Sonic Mania, two abilities that give Sonic the ability to blast off at full speed at nearly any given moment. While the guys over at M2, the company that handled bringing this release to life, probably intended for these moves to be there as a way to bring Sonic 1 up to snuff with his younger counterparts, it also serves as an incredible quality of life update that, at best, makes Sonic 1 funner than ever and, at worst, completely breaks the game and undoes the design of it’s slower levels. For example, knowing where and how to use the spin dash in Marble Zone allows you to skip some of those marble riding segments. And in Labyrinth zone, being able to use the drop dash allows you to clear the underwater segments much faster, and with less fuss than you would otherwise. Labyrinth Zone is still a hassle and by far the low point of the game for me, but being able to parkour your way through it with the spindash does make for an easier experience.

Is that a bad thing? Eh, kinda. It goes against what those levels were designed for and makes them play a bit more like something from Sonic 2 or 3, which is honestly a good thing as, like I mentioned earlier, those games owe a lot more of their structure to the design philosophy of Green Hill zone. On the other hand though, it also makes Sonic 1 feel less unique because, for the longest time, it was the Sonic game that didn’t have Sonic’s signature attack in it. It also goes in the face of the ideas that these stages were originally built around and the philosophy of the game. Still, it’s a welcome quality of life improvement and I’m ultimately happy with this inclusion as it does improve the experience for newcomers and, for those of us returning to this game for the millionth time, gives us a new way to enjoy the adventure and explore these levels. The appeal of these added abilities is somewhat similar to the appeal of the mobile ports being in widescreen, I suppose. That’s another example of a quality of life update being implemented that improves the experience overall, but also somewhat muddles the original design specs of the game. I personally prefer my Sonic games in 4:3 and wasn’t all that titillated by the 16:9 presentation of the mobile remasters, but I do see their appeal. 

One of the other things that I always hear about Sonic 1 is that it’s boss battles are way too easy. While I also consider this to be true about a lot of the boss battles in Sonic 2 or 3, I’ve also never been particularly bothered by this fact. I’ve always looked at boss battles in Sonic games as being more ceremonial than anything and as also being more of a way to vary the gameplay as opposed to being a skill check for your reflexes and problem solving skills. As for the designs of these boss battles, they’re nothing to write home about but are also charming in their own way. This could just be nostalgia talking though, and I won’t refute the fact that it’s kinda hard for me not to factor that in a little bit, so your mileage on this games design philosophy and boss battles may vary.

There are also special stages that you can play through in order to score extra continues and one of the six chaos emeralds, which are required to get the game’s good ending. It’s… fine? Special stages in subsequent Sonic games would prove to be a lot more fun but this isn’t all that bad for what it is and showcases a rotating stage gimmick that is equal parts cool and impressive for the Sega Genesis. I also dig the fish design in the background. Yeah, that’s about it.

But overall, this first Sonic game plays quite well, albeit nowhere near as well as I remembered it playing. The game just feels like the first installment in a series at points, suffering from more slowdown and moments of general bugginess than it’s follow ups would. It never got to be that frustrating for me though and is usually pretty funny, but I could see how this could turn some players off from the game. Me personally though, I was more than able to live with the games stranger and somewhat unrefined moments.

VISUALS

But now, onto the visuals. Sonic the Hedgehog has what has to be one of my favorite video game art styles of all time. It was heavily influenced by early CGI, which means that everything feels angular and rigid. The use of color in this game is also stupendous. Being the first game in the series, you can really feel how unrestrained the team was when they came up with locals of South Island. Spring Yard Zone feels like it’s part of  a seedy techno metropolis, and the mountains in the background of the stage make me imagine that it’s located in the middle of a canyon of sorts. Likewise, Green Hill Zone takes place in wide open fields that have a checkerboard design everywhere and harshly polygonal trees. It’s kinda easy to overlook all of this after seeing this stage so many times over the years, but I imagine that this game had to have been really visually striking when it first came out, especially when it comes to Green Hill Zone, which has multiple layers of parallax scrolling and a bright, vibrant color palette. That’s not to say that the other levels don’t look good either, though. Each of the game’s six zones are visually unique and mostly fall in line with that early CGI aesthetic I described earlier, which firmly establishes a strong 80s vibe for the game, which I find really visually appealing. I also like how the game seems to take place over the course of a day, beginning in the morning or middle of the afternoon in Green Hill Zone, and gradually playing out until you’re running through Star Light Zone at night. While it’s a relatively minor detail that I honestly just noticed 20 or so years into playing this game, it makes for a nice bit of world building. And, as for the games character designs, they’re all full of personality and a cutsie 80’s charm that makes them a delight to look at. I really love the enemy designs from Sonic 1 in particular, as everything looks relatively cute and unthreatening in a way that reflects the fact that there are cute innocent animals trapped inside of them that are in need of rescue. Other Sonic games also do this, sure, but there’s something to the enemy designs in this game specifically that really bring this idea home for me. I also think that the game’s reliance on a CGI aesthetic helps bring home this idea that the beautiful scenery of South Island has been distorted and turned astray by Dr. Robotnik’s antics. 

MUSIC

Musically, Sonic the Hedgehog bops. The music was done by Masato Nakamura, the bassist from the 80s and 90s J-pop band Dreams Come True. His contribution to the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise seriously can’t go without enough praise as, and I kid you not, they are loaded with iconic and memorable songs. Outside of the music for Labyrinth Zone, which is only alright, each of the games tracks are top notch 16 bit tunes. They’re so good that just over a year ago, right before the first worldwide lockdowns sprang up due to Covid, I would often listen to his Sonic music, and Dreams Come True, on the way to work in Manhattan each morning. And, because I used to be way too into being active for my own good, that means that I would walk a total of something like 4 or 5 miles listening to Nakamura music. So much of the music for Sonic 1 feels celebratory and joyous to me, especially Starlight Zone. It’s a running gag that Sonic games always have good music in them and, with a first soundtrack as genuinely good and consistent as this one, it’s easy to see why, and I honestly don’t have much that I can say about Sonic music that hasn’t been said already. If you love the soundtrack to Sonic 1 and want to hear more music like it, I highly recommend checking out Dreams Come True. Their music is insanely catchy and you can totally hear shades of Sonic-like music in it, especially in Nakamura’s late 80s and early 90s baselines for the band.

CLOSING

So does Sonic the Hedgehog hold up? I’ve already said it’s a great game and you’ve heard me spend a bit of time gushing about the game, so I think that you already know the answer to that question. 

Of course it does.

It’s one of the most iconic video games of all time for a reason. I’d be crazy not to agree with some of this games detractors from over the years that it’s a little rough around the edges and doesn’t have as much going for it as it’s immediate sequels do, but I still believe that this is a fantastic game with a lot of appeal left in it. You know, outside of Labyrinth Zone, which is no good.

Sonic the Hedgehog’s appeal is apparent from the opening moments of the game. The games use of momentum and physics based platforming is incredibly addictive and fun to goof around with. And while the game deviates from this type of gameplay as early as the second zone, the game does return to it in great effect in acts like Spring Yard and Starlight Zone. Additionally, the presence of the spin dash and drop dash in the Sega Ages port of the game help rectify the issue of slower gameplay, and gives seasoned players new tools to enjoy the game.

While Sonic 2 and 3 certainly refined what this game did right and trimmed some of the fat off of what it did wrong, I highly recommend this game to newcomers of the franchise. Would I recommend it as the first Sonic game to play? Probably not, as Sonic the Hedgehog 2 offers, in my opinion, the definitive vintage Sonic experience. But I do think that this game somehow attained a worse reputation than it deserves over the years and that it represents a very unique moment in Sega’s history. It’s kinda hard to imagine these days, but Sonic the Hedgehog was everywhere back in the day and his games genuinely represented a type of exhilarating gameplay that Mario simply didn’t offer players. There’s also something inherently fun and playful about the character’s bratty do-good nature that I’ve always found insanely appealing.

So if you’ve never played Sonic the Hedgehog before and are thinking of giving his games a go, I highly recommend giving this game a shot at some point. It’s an extremely common game that has been ported, to varying degrees of success, to a number of consoles over the year and is often available for anywhere from $5-10. It also is available for free on mobile in widescreen, albeit with ads. 


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SEGA AGES Sonic The Hedgehog – Nintendo Switch [Digital Code] (Reviewed in this article)

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