25 Years 25 Games 22: Secret of Evermore

Secret of Evermore is a Squaresoft SNES game that is largely forgotten when talking about the 16-bit RPG giant’s output. It’s not Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger or even Secret of Mana. Though Secret of Mana is part of the reason the game is remembered by those who do remember it. Secret of Evermore is the first and only game developed by Squaresoft USA. It plays much like Secret of Mana and got a bad rep largely for supposedly preventing us in the USA from getting Secret of Mana’s real sequel. That loss appears to have more to do with Squaresoft’s falling out with Nintendo and the difficulties in compressing the dialogue to fit onto an American cartridge. Still, while the game is not actually connected to the Mana series, Evermore is built along the same lines.

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For better or worse, Secret of Evermore does feel “American.” It weird, but it is weird in a somewhat familiar way. The protagonist is an everyday kid that gets sucked into an alternate reality with his dog. The closest thing he has to a personality is that he loves what sound like terrible science fiction movies. His dog has more going on, if only because the dog changes form in each area of the game, going from a monstrous cave dog to a sleek greyhound to a fancy poodle to a jet power toaster. It is something at least.

The game starts with the main character getting sucked into a prehistoric world and movies through a few different realms before ending in a science fiction world. Each world is the creation of one of the people who were originally involved in an alternate reality experiment, and each one created a world to their liking. The game plays out a little like Chrono Trigger, moving from one setting to a completely different one every handful of hours. The game looks good, though not great. The music, though, is pretty great. It does play a lot like Secret of Mana. It has that same hit and wait battle system, with a meter at the bottom that must charge before you can effectively attack again. It has the ring menus for choosing spells and weapons. There are some changes to how spells work, but the game is definitely a sibling of Secret of Mana.

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There are two things that stop the game from being one of the SNES’s greats. The first is one of those changes from Secret of Mana, the differences in the magic system. Magic in Secret of Mana was already a low point, since you had to level it up by repeatedly casting spells. That seems to be somewhat alleviated by having only one character in Secret of Evermore, but something new added to what in Secret of Evermore is called Alchemy makes it even more tedious. In order to alchemy, you have to have the spell ingredients. That means you have to scour levels with dog to find invisible ingredients or spend all of your money stocking up on ingredients so you can cast the magic. Plus, you still have to level up each spell individually. So you cast the spell repeatedly to level up so it is strong enough to be useful, but then you run out of ingredients so you can’t actually cast it. It really makes you want to stick with some magic you learn early in the game, assuming you stocked up on enough spell ingredients to keep casting the high level versions of it. Without checking a guide there is no way of knowing which spells are actually worth using, other than leveling them up some and comparing, but that leads to even more ingredient hunting.

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The problem with alchemy is connected to the game’s other big problem: it is horribly balanced. One area will be super tough, but it will be followed by one that is super easy. One boss will be little more than a speed bump, but the next one might be a game ending obstacle. One spell you get fairly early (Crush) is super powerful, but the effectiveness of alchemy is all around a crap shoot. The whole game just feels super uneven.

That unevenness is not particularly surprising given that this was a rookie team making their first game. It feels like a rookie effort. There are quite a few good ideas here and a lot to like, but the game also feels kind haphazard. It is a good game, but there are a lot of good action-rpgs on the SNES. Games like Illusion of Gaia or A Link to the Past. Secret of Evermore doesn’t belong in the upper echelon of SNES games, but it is a worthy addition to the system’s library and still decently fun to play today.

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25 Years 25 Games 21: Uncharted Waters: New Horizons

This is going to be the second game I didn’t complete. With Lufia I just got bored and couldn’t force myself to keep with it at the time. I don’t feel the same way with Uncharted Waters: New Horizons; it may in fact be a masterpiece. With this game I am drowning. There is just too much. It is a detailed and complex game with little in the way of tutorial or explanations. It is just the sort of game I would have spent months when I was younger, now I just don’t have the time to devote what could be hundreds of hours to learning the ins and outs of this game.

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There is a lot to love about this game. The graphics are not the most impressive on the SNES, but while the characters are squat, they are sufficiently detailed to get things across. It actually looks a lot like Final Fantasy IV, a game that was released three years before Uncharted Waters: New Horizons was. Still, the look of the game is more simple than unappealing. It manages to convey a lot of information with a small number of sprites. The trading and exploration systems are fairly deep, especially for a 16-bit game.

Where the game trips me up is just how much there is to do in this game. There are eight protagonists to choose from, exploration, trading and combat to sort through as well as a metric ton of other factors to take into consideration. Each of the characters has their own storyline and their own focus. Otto and Catalina are focused more on combat, being a privateer and a pirate respectively. Then there is Ernst and Pietro, who have stories mostly about exploration. There is also Ali, who is a straight up merchant. And finally Joao, who does a bit of everything. I tried Catalina, Ernst and Joao and was able to make a little bit of progress as each of them. But the game is big, and I never really felt like I knew what I was doing or making any real progress.

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The game starts with a brief story segment outlining each character’s goals. Then you outfit a ship, guessing blindly at first at exactly how to make that happen, and set sail. You can fire on other ships, though there isn’t really any explanation on how combat works you’ll have to figure it out on your own, or stop at other towns to buy or sell goods. You do have to keep track of your supplies, like food and water as well. There are just so many things you could do, with little to no in game explanation on how or why you would do those things that the game makes me feel as though I am drowning. I am doing things, but I am not sure I am making progress or even treading water.

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I’ve tried to read FAQs and watch videos to get a better idea of how to play the game and what I’ve learned is that I need to play the game a lot more than I have time for. I have enjoyed what I’ve played so far, but this game is too much of an undertaking for me to really complete. Still, from the dozen or so hours I put into the game it is clear that there is something here. I just don’t have the time or inclination to plumb its depths and find its treasures.

25 Games 25 Years 20: DoReMi Fantasy

I included this game, DoReMi Fantasy: Milon no DokiDoki Daibouken (Milon’s Heart-Pounding Adventure) because I mysteriously appeared on Virtual Console in the middle of the Wii’s life. It wasn’t the earliest import title on the service, but it came fairly early in that initiative and seemed like an odd choice. There were definitely more high profile releases that never made the trip to America, like Secret of Mana’s sequel Seiken Densetsu 3, or games that already had an English translation, like Terranigma. Instead we go this little known sequel to a not particularly good or well-remembered NES game. It was a little intriguing and a little baffling, especially given that the limited coverage of it was fairly positive. Playing it for the first time a few weeks ago I was shocked. DoReMi Fantasy is not just a solid little platformer, it is one of the best platform games on the SNES.

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DoReMi Fantasy is the story of a little boy, Milon, whose fairy friend Alis has been kidnapped by the evil wizard Amon. So he sets off on an adventure to rescue her and restore music to his forest home. Milon has to find the five magical instruments and find the magic stars to restore their powers. While Milon himself looks like a cutesy Link from Legend of Zelda, the game is much more in the Mario mold. The game is primarily a run and jump adventure, with Milon eventually getting a small number of other abilities as he goes along, most notably he can make a magical set of stairs out of musical notes. Otherwise, it is largely the same as Mario or Donkey Kong. Milon doesn’t kill enemies by jumping on them, which merely stuns them. Instead he must catch them in a bubble that he blows with what appears to be a straw.

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It starts out fairly easy but by the end the difficulty has ramped up to something approaching hard, though it never gets particularly difficult. It begins at a Kirby level, but ends near late Mario game difficulty. Milon can take 3 hits before dying and life restoring items are plentiful. The level design ranges from devious to delightful, never unfair but sometimes a little frustrating with well-placed enemies.  None of them are particularly hard, but few are cakewalks.

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Really, the game just does everything right. The graphics are bright and clear, with expressive, colorful sprites and some well-designed worlds to go along with standards like forest, ice and lava worlds. The controls are pitch perfect and the music is more environmental than most SNES games but it works really well. It is also just damn charming. The cutscenes are goofy fun. One has Milon choosing between Bombermen to help him get past an obstacle, one of which blows Milon up. One boss isn’t an ally of the enemy, merely a rapscallion blocking the way. It all makes for a game that is just a joy to play.

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While the game breaks no new ground, it does everything it wants with precision. It doesn’t quite stand up to Super Mario World, but I wouldn’t put any other SNES platform game much higher than it. I’ve said it before going through this project, but this is just the sort of game I hoped to find doing this.

25 Years 25 Games 19: Wild Guns

I’m not finishing this series this year, that is becoming increasingly obvious, but that is not going to stop me from trying. So on with Wild Guns, a simple and delightful game from Natsume. Wild Guns is a shooting gallery game. Your character stands at the front of the screen and shoots enemies in the background. That is just about all there is to it. Still, Wild Guns remains a delight, as much due to its simplicity as despite it.

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The game gives the player two characters to choose from, Annie or Clint, obviously named for Annie Oakley and Clint Eastwood. The story is that Annie hires space cowboy Clint to help her get revenge on the bad guy (who I am sure has a name but I can’t find it for the life of me) for the death of her family. The characters look initially like they came straight out of a western, but the world is full of robots and other science fiction stuff. The setting is one of the game’s greatest strengths. The Western and Sci-Fi themes mesh surprisingly well. The big, colorful graphics that flesh out this old west filled with killer robots is the stuff that all 16-bit games aspire to.

While the game is exceedingly difficult, it is rather simple to control. The d-pad controls both the character and the shooting reticule. The character moves around the foreground, shooting at targets in the background. You start with a pea shooter, but that can be upgraded to a shotgun or machine gun, as well as a few others. There is also a secondary weapon of a lasso that momentarily stuns the enemies you with it. You also have a screen clearing bomb and a melee attack for the handful of enemies that come into the foreground. At times bad guys will also toss dynamite at the player which can be tossed back at the bad guys. There is quite a bit the player can do for being stuck on a flat plane, but it all comes intuitively. Which is good, considering how ridiculously hard this game is.

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I played this game on the WiiU VC, with its rudimentary save state. Even with that considerable crutch, I found the game nearly impossible to complete. On easy difficulty. While the game is only about an hour or so long, it is not a game designed to be beaten in just an hour. Wild Guns requires the player to learn the game. There are a lot of enemies and a lot of bullets coming at the player. Knowing where to move and where to shoot is vitally important. I guess it is technically possible to react fast enough to clear many of the games hurdles, that is essentially what I did with my save state aides to get me through when my reflexes failed me, but this is a game that requires some learning if not explicit memorization. But that learning is how you play this sort of game, it is no different from Star Fox or Contra 3.

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Wild Guns is the definition of cult classic. It isn’t a great game, not is it a game designed to pull in a large number of devoted followers. It does what it does exceptionally well, but this kind of shooting gallery game is always going to be something of a niche interest.

25 Years 25 Games 18: Skyblazer

Sony Imagesoft’s game output isn’t exactly well regarded. Most of the games they put out during their brief existence, which lasted from 1989 to 1995, were tepid movie tie-ins. The did make Solstice and Equinox, as well as publish Super Dodge Ball and Game Freak’s (of Pokémon fame) Smart Ball, but mostly it was a lot of junk. Near the end of their existence they put out Skyblazer, a surprisingly good action platformer.

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Skyblazer bears similarities to classic games like Castlevania, Mega Man and Demon’s Crest. It especially shares a lot with the last two. The protagonist, Sky, can cling to walls and climb around levels that way. It gives the player a lot of mobility, especially in the tight confines of the fortress stages. He is just a fun character move around. The game also looks good, with big colorful sprites and sounds good, with some classic SNES tunes. It is all an around well-made game, though not a flawless one.

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The biggest problem with the game is that the levels only barely seem designed rather than just haphazardly assembled. There are a lot of stages and they are usually very short. With a protagonist as mobile as Sky it can be easy to skip the vast majority of obstacles with judicious use of his special skills. There are lots of little short cuts that don’t seem to be there intentionally, that only seem to exist because the level designers didn’t take into account just how acrobatic that player can be. It doesn’t help that a lot of the stages are super short while the fortress stages can be rather long. It makes for an uneven experience at times.

Still, that doesn’t derail what is otherwise a great experience. The bosses are big and good looking, as well as being a solid mix of challenge and fun. While some of the stages are bit awkwardly set up, they are still mostly fun to play through. There is a story, but only barely. The evil Ashura kidnaps the Princess Arianna, so the valiant young Sky must rescue her. That’s about it.

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I don’t really have a lot to say about this game. It is an above average action game. I wouldn’t quite put it up there with the other game’s I’ve already mentioned, Mega Man X, Castlevania or Demon’s Crest, but it is definitely well made. Nothing it does, however, inspires much comment in me. It’s good, but that’s about it. Maybe I’m just making these games seem like work by forcing myself to play them. If that was the case it wasn’t enough to derail this experience completely. I’m still going to finish the last seven games, even if there is not chance I do so before February. I’ll have another one ready in a week or two on Wild Guns or Secret of Evermore.

25 Years 25 Games 17: Legend of the Mystical Ninja

Legend of the Mystical Ninja is a weird little game that I have been somewhat fascinated with for a long time. My cousin had the game, but I rarely had the chance to play. I saw it played, I spent twenty of thirty minutes with it, but I never really got to dig in and enjoy it. Still, its strange sense of humor was evident even from my brief encounters with it. I heard of N64 sequels and ones that were Japan only of the SNES, but again they kind of evaded me. The virtual console gave a method to finally play this game, even if I didn’t exercise it until recently.

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Legend of the Mystical Ninja is not quite the game I thought it was. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I built it up in my mind as something akin to River City Ransom, which is among my favorite games of all time, but while it has some superficial similarities, it is not the same. The stages are kind of a free roaming brawler with enemies that drop coins when defeated. But River City Ransom has some strong RPG elements, where the money is used to build up the player character’s skills and abilities. The food you buy increases you stats and the books give permanent abilities. In Legend of the Mystical Ninja, power ups are temporary and food merely refills health. The free roaming parts of stages give way to straight platformer levels at the end. And there are actually stages. River City Ransom allows the player to travel freely around its rather small world, Legend of the Mystical Ninja is much larger but more restrictive, with hard breaks between levels.

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While it isn’t exactly what I thought it would be, Legend of the Mystical Ninja is still a lot of fun. The action is straightforward, with tight controls and clear objectives. Each level starts with a goal and the player (or players) explore the level to find the location of the boss, then deal with it. There are a good variety of enemies and a decent array of attacks. There are some annoyances. Goemon (or Kid Ying) as three levels of weapon: a small pipe, a bigger pipe, and a yoyo looking weapon. Collecting small cats that some enemies drop level the weapon up, but each hit the player takes drops it a level. The same goes for sandals the player can buy. They speed the player up, but disappear with each hit. It makes enemies that have ranged attacks, particularly attacks with odd angles, especially annoying to deal with. The biggest struggle in the game (at least when you are abusing save states like me) comes from getting to the boss with a decent method of attack. Still, there is a money consuming sub-weapon. The player can toss coins at bad guys for an effective, if expensive, ranged attack. In all, it is a lot of fun.

Then there is the game’s off kilter sense of humor. It is a sense of humor that survives a hatchet job of a localization. Goemon is something of a Japanese Robin Hood, with his own cast of merry men. In bringing the game to America, Konami changed just about everything. Goemon became Kid Ying, his buddy Ebisumaru Dr. Yang. I guess it is in keeping with the games wacky tone, but they are no more American than Goemon. It is not like the game can hide the humor. Most of the houses you find in the free roaming areas are filled with goofy minigames. One is a quiz game with an opponent that likes to answer before the question is complete, though he is usually wrong. Others are straight up levels of other Konami games or first person mazes. A lot of it is just a waste of time, but some of them are quite a bit of fun.

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Legend of the Mystical Ninja is a near classic. It does everything so well that the spots where is gets annoying stand out all the more. Still, despite the annoyances the game is a lot of fun to play.

25 Year 25 Games 16: Super Mario RPG

I long thought that Super Mario RPG was a game that passed me by. It is exactly the sort of game I like, but somehow I never managed to play. I love Mario games, I love JRPGs, I love SNES games, I love Nintendo and Squaresoft; it was perfect confluence of my interests in 16-bit gaming. The commercial for this game, as terrible as it may be, was one of the first I remember that really got me excited to play a game. Despite spending all of my time, and money, on SNES JRPGs, though, I never ended up playing Super Mario RPG at the time. I had a few chances to play it over the years. It was one of a handful of SNES game’s at my aunt’s house, but my only chance to play them involved staying at her place in the summer, doing farm chores and eating stale cheerios with weevils in them for breakfast. So that didn’t really work out. Neither did when it first came to the Virtual Console or any of the many chances I’ve had to emulate it. It was just a game I missed out on. Until this year.

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Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is a great example of a Squaresoft SNES JRPG and a Mario game, but it doesn’t really meld them. It does a good job of turning Mario mechanics into RPG mechanics, but there is a fairly clear delineation between the Squaresoft stuff and the Mario stuff. I think that has a lot to do with why characters like Geno and Mallow have rarely appeared after this game. There are likely some rights problems, but the bigger problem is that they just don’t fit in with Mario crew. They stand out as something clearly different. That is not to say they don’t work in this game, this game itself is something different. And something great.

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Squaresoft did a great job of making Mario into an RPG. They kept the heart of the character by focusing on platforming like challenges and a timing based attack system. It manages to feel like a Mario game despite the awkward perspective. Really, the games it great but it biggest flaw is that isometric perspective, which makes a lot of jumps harder to judge than they should be. It is clearly a Mario world, inhabited by Mario characters. Honestly, though I am coming to it late, it is clear that it helped set some of the details of Mario’s Universe. Those details were further codified in Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi, as well as the sports games, but this one did some work as well.

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Despite having a lot of Mario touches, though, this more accurately captures the feel of a 16-bit Squaresoft game. The Mario stuff is window dressing; this is the guys behind Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI at it again. (I know it is not literally the same guys) No one was better at making SNES JRPGs than Squaresoft. Those two games I mentioned are among my favorites of all time. I’ve played a lot of mediocre 16-bit games chasing the experience of playing those games for the first time. Some get close, like Breath of Fire 2, but most just feel like games. There is something indescribable about Squaresoft’s best games at the time; they felt like they were taking full and perfect advantage of the system. Great music, well balanced battle systems and stories that were just deep enough. While I wouldn’t put it quite with Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI, once Super Mario RPG gets going it is right there on the next rung down.

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I really wish I had played this game back in the day. It would likely be among that select group of games that I try to replay every couple of years: CT, FF6, Earthbound and Suikoden 2. As it is, I finally understand why so many people consider it one of the best games on the system. It was the first full collaboration between Squaresoft and Nintendo one of the last games Squaresoft released for a Nintendo system for nearly a decade. At least they split on top.

25 Years 25 Games 15: Space Megaforce

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The SNES was not the go to system for shoot ’em ups. It had its fair share, UN Squadron is a personal favorite, but the system wasn’t really known for blazing fast action games. The lack is mostly due to the SNES’s tendency to bog down when more than five or six sprites appeared on the screen. See Gradius III for a prime example. The other shoot ’em ups on the system are what makes Space Megaforce so astounding.

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I don’t know that Space Megaforce is a great game. It is too hard for me, which isn’t really a point against it considering my limited shmup skills, but it is a barrier to my ability to enjoy and judge the game. It is, however, quite an achievement, running as fast and as smooth as it does on the SNES. Space Megaforce, which is the terrible American title of Super Aleste, is an SNES shmup with no, or little, slowdown. It is hectic and challenging and most of all fast. It is unlike any other game on the system. Space Megaforce was made by Compile, a company known for its excellent shooters and Puyo Puyo before it died and was reborn as Compile Heart, which is known for churning out terrible JRPGs. Whatever wizardry Compile employed to get Space Megaforce to run as smoothly as it does has, as far as I know, never been replicated.

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Its power up system manages to be robust without being as punishing as something like Gradius. In Gradius, your ship eventually becomes a tornado of destruction filling the screen with projectiles, but when you die it takes forever to build that power back up. It is almost easier to just restart and build up you power during the easier first level than to try to rebuild in the middle of a more difficult section. Space Megaforce does not give the player the same breadth of options as that game, but it is easier to keep going after a death. There are 8 or so weapons, all of which can be powered up by grabbing more of the same power ups. All of them have multiple fire patterns as well. Getting killed sucks, it always does, but you can grab on power up and be back in some form of business.

There are flaws, the biggest I encountered being the uneven length of the stages. Some stages seem endless, just super long and repetitive. The challenge is as much in endurance as it is in skill. Some are short, ephemeral bursts. I don’t know that either choice is wrong, though those long stages are not to my preference, but a middle ground would have worked better. The more I think about it the less sure I am that the stages were excessively long, but they certainly felt that way, which is as big of a problem.

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Space Megaforce is pretty great. It is a stellar example of a genre that wasn’t really the SNES’s forte that somehow just ignores the weaknesses of the system to give a fast, twitchy experience.

25 Years 25 Games 14: Shin Nekketsu Kouha

The next game in my yearlong celebration of the SNES is not one that was on the list when I posted it at the start of the year. This youtube video reminded me that this game exists, which was all the push I needed to actually play it. This game is Shin Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-tachi No Banka, which means something in Japanese; the game is a sequel of sorts to one of my favorite games of all time, River City Ransom, that never came to the USA and is virtually unknown.

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It isn’t a long game, taking no more than 3 or 4 hours the first time through, but that was enough for me to be really disappointed in some parts of the game. Not the music, which is pretty dang awesome. It is clearly along the same lines as the NES Kunio games (River City Ransom, Renegade, World Cup Soccer, Super Dodge-ball, Crash and the Boys Street Challenge) but done in that distinctive and or so enjoyable SNES style. The graphics are sharp as well. The problem is in the very structure of the game.

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Shin Nekketsu Kouha loses me because it really isn’t the game I want it to be. That really isn’t the game’s fault; it isn’t trying to be that game. I wanted a follow up to River City Ransom, but this game is actually a follow up to Renegade. They are both parts of the same diverse, inconsistently localized series, but they are very different games. Renegade is an earlier, much simpler game than RCR was, and Shin Nekketsu Koha mostly sticks to that simpler format. There is no exploration or rpg elements, it is just a straight forward brawler. Really, it is simple even for a brawler. There are barely levels, only small room where you fight 3 or 4 enemies, then go through a door to the next area. Repeat that about three times before you fight a boss. The only things in the game to change things up are some Outrun-esque motorcycle stages. They are fine, if lacking in checkpoints, but aren’t really a draw. And while the combat itself is fine, it does lack variety. There are four playable characters: Kunio, Riki and their respective girlfriends, but their movesets are all similar. They have different special moves, and those are almost all you want to use. It gets repetitive.

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Those areas can be interesting. Kunio and Riki’s quest takes them all over Tokyo. They start in jail, framed for a hit and run they didn’t commit, only to break out and search for answers at their schools, an amusement park, and a nightclub, among other places. The amusement park at least makes an attempt to break up the super simplistic level design, with one area having Kunio fighting on top of an in use Ferris Wheel and another having a Roller Coaster to ride that is nothing more than a novelty, a neat but unnecessary inclusion.

I did like how story based it was. Not that the story was anything great, just the two heroes on a quest to clear their names. It is the sort of thing that would have worked in an 80’s action movie. The twists are largely predictable, but it is enjoyable to watch things play out.

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I don’t have Shin Nekketsu Kouha, it just isn’t the game I want it to be. It is a thoroughly competent brawler, though one that came pretty late to the brawler scene. I think there is a reason that this game has languished in obscurity. It just isn’t great. It hit years too late and followed up a rough draft of a game that was never that good in the first place. I am always eager to see more of Kunio, but that group of characters starred in a wide variety of games with just a wide range of quality. Still, I’ll always have River City Ransom.

25 Years 25 Games 13: Illusion of Gaia

This is exactly the sort of game I was hoping to come across in my deep dive into the SNES library. This is the sort of game that made the SNES’s reputation. From the big colorful graphics and distinctive sound to the sprawling yet abrupt plotline, this game is vintage SNES. And I loved every second of it. I don’t know that it ranks up in the upper echelon of SNES games, next to A Link to the Past or Chrono Trigger, but at worst it goes on that next step down. Illusion of Gaia is a game that wears its heart on its sleeve, one that aches to instill strong emotions into the player. It occasionally achieves that in its own melodramatic way.

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Essentially, Illusion of Gaia is a Zelda game with all the exploration removed. And all of the tools. It is very simplified compared to A Link to the Past. You play as Will, a young boy with slight psychic abilities and a flute. He can hit things with the flute and spin it around to pull certain objects toward him. He eventually gains other abilities, like a slide and dash attack, but his repertoire stays pretty limited. The other big skill is his ability, at save points, to turn into Freedan, a dark knight who is stronger and tougher than Will. He too gets a few abilities, like a ranged attack, but they play mostly the same. At the very end you get a third form that hits very hard and you get too late to really do anything with. Most of the game is spent switching from Will to Freedan whenever appropriate. Luckily, the dungeons themselves shine. They get to be sprawling mazes that don’t so much have puzzles as just navigation difficulties. It is supremely satisfying, especially combined with the game’s progression mechanic.

In Illusion of Gaia, the player gets stronger, for the most part as there are a few other stat upgrades to be found, by defeating every enemy in a room. That gives a bump to the player’s HP, Attack or Defense. Since enemies don’t respawn, each dungeon sees the player slowly but surely eradicating every enemy to get all of the possible stat increases. It is an addictive, though occasionally tedious, system. As good as the gameplay is, this game would still be something of an also ran if it wasn’t for the real heart of the game, and that is its world spanning story.

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Illusion of Gaia doesn’t have the greatest or most nuanced plot of all time, but its sheer abrupt melodrama is hard to match. It opens with Will meeting a Princess and soon a globe-trotting adventure unfurls. Will is the player character, but he is joined for most of the quest by Kara the Princess, a trio of his school friends named Lance, Eric and Seth, fairy-ish girl Lilly and Will’s cousin Neil. That is quite the big troupe, especially considering that Will does all the work. Still, each town and area allows each of these character’s story to develop a little further. Kara starts out spoiled and impulsive, but by the end of the game she is slightly less spoiled and impulsive. Lilly helps the most early on, using her magic powers to turn into a dandelion and help Will out. When the team is separated by a shipwreck, she tends to Lance, who develops amnesia. Eric, the youngest member of the group tends to stumble into trouble frequently. And Neil makes tools of various efficacy. Sometimes he his plane flies you to your destination, sometimes it crashes into the ocean. The game constantly throws unspeakable tragedies at the player, and the team just bucks up and keeps going, for the most part.

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The only thing really holding the story back is the localization, which if I was feeling generous I would call passable. It is hard for story beats to have the proper impact when they aren’t incomprehensible. I would Seth as an example, if I had a clue about what happened to him. When the team is shipwrecked, he is eaten by the leviathan named Riverson. Only he then becomes Riverson? And later he is dead so his spirit helps the team out? I really don’t know what happened to him. Still enough of it comes through to give the game an overwhelmingly melancholic feel. You find a golden Incan ship, with the skeletons of the Incans trapped inside waiting for their king to return. There is a constant thread of people from everywhere you visit being forced into slavery (but your cousin Neil’s parents apparently). At one point you need to get some animals to travel through the desert, so you play a game like Russian roulette in order to get them. Only it turns out your opponent needed the money to make a new life for him and his pregnant wife. The whole game is full of stuff like that.

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The main plot has to do with a comet possessed by a dark force that is making everyone act strange. It is getting closer to Earth, and only Will can help repel this evil force. It is more weird than interesting. But there is an air of hope throughout all the tragedy. It makes the game something of delight to play. There is nothing to do but keep forging forward. This is exactly the kind of game that I hoped to find playing all these old SNES games. What is sad is that I bought this game at a garage sale more than a decade ago. I should have played this game years ago. Now that I beat it I am very disappointed in myself for not having done so.