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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Top 10 Games 2016

Before I get to the actual Top 10 list, I have some other business to attend to, some honorable mentions and games left off the list for various reasons. First is that it should be noted that I really only played new games on 3DS and WiiU this year. I don’t have a PS4 or Xbox1 and I don’t have any concrete plans to get either. (The Last Guardian, Final Fantasy XV, the Final Fantasy XII remake, Yakuza 0, 6 and Kiwami and Persona 5 are actually getting pretty close to forcing my hand about picking up a PS4, but I’m not there until at least after Christmas) While the WiiU sputtered into an early grave, the 3DS had a hell of a year. There were more good 3DS games than I could reasonably play. I didn’t end up with time to play Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse or River City Tokyo Rumble enough to accurately rate them. The same goes for Return to Popolocrois and Final Fantasy Explorers, but judging on my limited time with each neither seemed likely to make my Top 10 list.

Now on to the honorable mentions, of which I have four. The first three are all remakes and compilations. I didn’t play much of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD since I just played it not that long ago, but what I’ve seen it seems to a fine update of what was already a very good game. It doesn’t appear to be as ambitious a remake as Wind Waker or the 3DS versions of the N64 games, but it is still a good game. Then there is the Sega 3D Classics Collection and Mega Man Legacy Collection. They are great games, or collections of great games, but they are not new games. The Mega Man Legacy Collection, especially, is an impressive collection of old games. That is a game that does it all right, bringing together some perfectly recreated old games with tons of the packaging and boxing of those games. It does an amazing job of preserving not just the games, but the ephemera around the games.

The last of my honorable mentions is Yakuza 5. It is hands down the best game I played this year. It is also a game that was released in December of last year and 2012 in Japan. If I had managed to play it last year, it would have been my number one. I was tempted to fudge things to make it this year’s number one. No other game I played this year had anywhere close to as many fist fights with bears.

Now, on with the list, with links to any posts I’ve written about these games. (Last minute edit: I’ve spent the last two weeks or so suddenly being enthralled by Monster Hunter Generations which forced me to find a place for it on the list, but I didn’t want to take anything off. So now the last two tie for tenth place)

sf02(tie) 10: Star Fox 0 – I called Star Fox 0 a damn fine game, but not a great one and I stand by that. It is a game that flashes the greatness of this series one truly excellent entry, but the rest of it is full of Nintendo experimentation. The game on the whole is a messy; not all of the new things work and it does more to show what doesn’t work than what does, but it doesn’t stop the whole package from being a lot of fun.

mlpj4(tie) 10: Mario & Luigi Paper Jam – I might be giving this a little boost over some game competition (notably Bravely Second End Layer) thanks to it being the only dose of Mario and company I had this year, but that doesn’t stop it from being a solid game. The further I get away from it, the less the somewhat tedious endgame dominates my memory of the game, like it did when I wrote it up earlier this year.

dq739: Dragon Quest VII – This is among my least favorite of the numbered Dragon Quest games, but like the rest of the series it overflows with charm and humor. Clearly, I do like the game, but for every fun bit with Maribel or Ruff there is a baffling decision like hiding the job system for the first half of the game. DQVII is a great 40 hour game that takes about 70 hours to beat. Still, the good 40 hours more than outweighs the bloat that has creeped in.

mhg8: Monster Hunter Generations – More has changed with this game from MH4U than it first initially appears, especially since graphics aren’t really one of the things that are different.  Still, the new hunter styles give every weapon even more flexibility than it already had there is so much good content that you could place this game for a year and not run out of things to do.

tms47: Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE – This isn’t even close to what I expected from a SMT/FE crossover, but the finished product was a pretty enjoyable JRPG. It is the Persona game people have been waiting for since Persona 4 came out, with just a dash of Fire Emblem thrown in. It is all pastels and nonsense, but shockingly enjoyable.

bbb6: BoxBoxBoy – BoxBoy was simple perfection and the sequel is more of the same. It is the puzzle platformer distilled to its essence and is all the more enjoyable for it. It keeps the same simple concepts of the original, but with a few new wrinkles.

shgh5: Shantae: ½ Genie Hero – Not the best game I’ve Kickstarted, which would be Shovel Knight, but it is in the same league. It has beautiful graphics and it fulfills the promise that was the original GBC Shantae. It uses the same set tools as that game, but fixes all of little problems that crept in thanks to the limited nature of the system it was on. This is a great platform game with solid physics and a great sense of empowerment. It is just so good.

psm24: Pokémon Moon – A strong year for the 3DS kept what is one of the strongest Pokémon games from landing even higher on my list. It keeps the foundations of the series in place, but shakes up many of the series’ traditions. It makes for a fresh feel to a familiar experience. And since the basics of Pokémon are so well constructed it works very well.

aasoj43: Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney Spirit of Justice – I can’t say that the series has really been wandering in the wilderness for most of the last decade; the last few games have all been solid, but Spirit of Justice is easily the strongest this series has been since Trials and Tribulations. It does everything this series does so well.

kpr12: Kirby Planet Robobot – I don’t think Nintendo has a series quite as consistent as Kirby. Yeah, it alternates between normal platform games and oddball titles like Rainbow Curse, but those platform games are all excellent. Planet Robobot is a Kirby game; that is really all you need to know about it. There are lots of powers to absorb. Tons of levels that are easy to beat, but somewhat difficult to master. It is simply a very well made game.

ffex1: Fire Emblem Fates – I am rolling all three versions of this game – Birthright, Conquest and Revelations – together as one title. It is essentially three paths through one game, though those paths share very little other than the same game world. I don’t think this is my favorite Fire Emblem, none of the three paths feels exactly right to me, but I can’t deny the sheer amount of enjoyment I got from this supersized package.

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.

Pokémon Sun & Moon

Checking my posts about previous Pokémon games, I am confident say that this game is my favorite in the series since Black & White. Maybe since all the way back to Red and Blue. Pokémon Moon is a phenomenal game. While I found Alpha Sapphire tedious, just like I found Sapphire tedious, I did like X & Y and Black & White 2, they didn’t quite grasp me like the game’s I’ve truly loved have. White grabbed my attention with its collection of all new Pokémon. There was no finding the same old monsters you’ve been seeing since 1998; throughout the main game all that could be found were new monsters. Y, which didn’t grab me the same way, tried to differentiate itself by finally moving the series into 3D polygonal graphics. It was a good and necessary change, but it wasn’t enough on its own to get me to love the game. Moon keeps the graphical improvements from Y, but also shakes of the series usual progression in some fun and interesting ways.

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Pokémon Moon may be the most plot heavy games in the series. There is more than just the usual 8 gym badges interspersed with showdowns with the local Team Rocket equivalent. In fact, there are no gyms at all. The evil team stuff does take a bit of a step forward, but their plans are less world dominating maniacal and more street punks on a rampage. This is mixed with a plot about Pokémon from another dimension crossing over into this one. Replacing the gym leaders are Trial Captains and Kahunas, which are essentially the same thing, except instead of a gym they have trials for the player to complete. This works into the expanded story parts by letting the Captains and Kahunas show up more often on the adventure. Some are just the guys you see in the one scene where you fight them, others are encountered all over the island helping the player out. Each of the game’s four islands has a Kahuna, chosen by the island’s guardian Pokémon, who appoints the Captains to test people before they battle the Kahuna. A big part of the game is the local Pokémon Professor going around trying to set up an elite 4 like in the other regions. All of these different elements come together to make a game that is much more about the story of this area than previous games and a little less about the player’s quest to be the Champion. It isn’t a huge change, but it is a big enough one to make Pokémon Moon seem fresh compared to the previous generation.

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There have also been rather significant to the gameplay. The big one is dumping HMs. Hidden Moves, or HMs, were a gameplay element that let the player use moves on the world map. The series relied on these for environmental puzzles in previous generations. They were also on the whole not terribly useful moves that were impossible to get rid of. It lead to most players carting around one Pokémon whose only skill was the ability to learn 3 or 4 of those moves. Sun & Moon have eliminated them in favor of several Pokémon that can be called to solve those puzzles and are gradually unlocked as the game progresses. I was never a big detractor of HMs. There were occasionally a chore, but the series has scaled them back since Diamond & Pearl and they weren’t much of a hassle. Still, I can’t claim losing them isn’t an improvement. The solution keeps the basic functionality without clogging up the player’s team.

Instead of filling up the Pokedex with tons of new monsters, the highlight of each new generation and something that is quickly becoming untenable as the number of Pokémon approached 1000, Sun & Moon adds a ton of new forms for old Pokémon. It works with an idea that has already exists, region variants that look different from others of the same kind of Pokémon, except now they can have new types. Stuff like adding dark type to Rattata. It essentially takes old Pokémon and makes them new Pokémon, but in a more interesting way than X&Y’s Mega Evolutions.

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I really didn’t care for Mega Evolution. I found them goofy and not especially fun. Most of the Mega Evolutions went to Pokémon who were already strong, making them largely unnecessary. Sun & Moon add Z moves, a similar concept that just works better. They are powered by an item the Pokémon holds, and any Pokémon with the appropriate attack type can use them. Plus, they are accompanied by a goofy dance the trainer does. Instead of making one Pokémon super powerful, it gives a Pokémon on superpowered move. It is better balanced and more easy to customize to the player’s team.

I really liked Pokémon Moon. I enjoyed it enough that I am thinking of spending some significant time with the post-game. Usually I make a token effort before putting the game in my get back to pile and never getting back to it. (The big exception to this was Pokémon Pearl, which I put nearly 400 hours on.) Much like the second generation on the DS, the second 3DS generation really feels like it got things right. I again feel excited to play whatever the series has coming next. Maybe I’ll finally get around to downloading one of the original games on my 3DS.

Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations

It is not quite accurate to say that the Ace Attorney series is what made the DS for me, but it is not exactly inaccurate either. There are too many great games on the DS to credit its legacy to any one game or series. From a cartload of Dragon Quest and Pokemon games to quirkier stuff like Professor Layton or Trauma Center, the DS library is stuffed with great games. No game did more to sell me the system than the original Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. The series kept me enthralled throughout the life of the system, even if they never quite recaptured the magic after the original trilogy. The final game in that original set of games, Trials and Tribulations is the glorious culmination of the series to that point.

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I refrained from calling any of these games the best in the series as I’ve played through them, but having finished Trials and Tribulations I am confident calling it the best. It has the strongest set of cases and an excellent finale that brings the whole trilogy full circle. It starts with the strongest intro case, one starring Mia Fey as a rookie defending a hapless college age Phoenix. It not only introduces gameplay concepts, it also introduces all relevant characters and sets the stage for the big finale.

What sets this game apart is how strongly its central theme comes through. It is a game about identity. The first case has Phoenix’s girlfriend, Dahlia, playing an obviously fake role. At least, it is obvious to everyone save Phoenix. The next case has a dual layered secret identity, with two people claiming to be a famous thief and establish their alibi. The third case brings in a fake Phoenix. The prosecutor in this game, Godot, is a complete unknown. When the game finally builds to its epic final case, they whole thing is a mix of secret identities and hidden agendas. None of the other games use an idea repeatedly like hidden identities are used in Trials and Tribulations. It don’t know what, if anything, the game is trying to say with them, other than a general quest for the truth. Phoenix is constantly faced with chameleons in this game, and each time he is able to untwist their lies and false faces to get to the truth.

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The last case in particular is a triumph. It is the perfect conclusion to this trilogy. It’s completely ridiculous, but in a completely Ace Attorney way, managing to combine Phoenix’s story from this game with the trilogy long story about the Fey family to create a story that ties up nearly everything in a complete bow. That case also somehow has time to put something on a capper of the stories and Edgeworth and Franziska von Karma as well. That is a case is personal for everyone involved, concluding with the series trademark tragedy-tinged optimism.

Coming out of this game I can see why Capcom chose to move on from Phoenix after this game. His story was over; they were not going to top this. The obvious next step, which ended up as something of a side-step, would have been games starring Myles Edgeworth. He was still a character with plenty of stories to tell. The route they took with Apollo Justice was probably the worst possible one. They didn’t go back to Phoenix for inevitably diminished returns, nor did they go for a clean break. Instead they brought back Phoenix in a smaller role that all but ignored these three games. The fact that Maya is not a part of that game is telling as to how far wrong it gets Phoenix.

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There are no weak cases in this game. As I’ve already written, the first and last cases are excellent, but the middle two and a half are also good. The second case is likely the weakest, if only for that whiff of missed opportunity. Its two connected cases and complex blackmail schemes are fine, but none of its characters leave a strong impression. Mostly because they aren’t given the opportunity to. The game spends a lot of time with the client and the culprit, but other characters are kind of left by the wayside. The next is a complex puzzle that happens to feature this game’s embarrassing stereotype. Still, it is an altogether excellent case. After that is a return to Mia and the origin of the villain from the opening case, it exists solely to set the case for the finale.

While all of the main characters get plenty of development, none grow more in this game than Mia. Due to the unfortunate murder in the first game, Mia was never more than a small presence in the game. She was a character that quite literally didn’t have a life outside of the case. In Trials and Tribulations she truly develops into a character worth caring about.

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That is the beauty of the Ace Attorney series. A positive development like learning more about Mia is tinged with sadness because she is already dead. It is true in characters like Pearl, whose cheerful innocence belies the tragedy of her upbringing and situation. Trials and Tribulations is only possible because of the games that came before it, but it is a wholly satisfying conclusion to Phoenix Wright’s story.

Now Playing in February 2016

I spent a lot of time with my 3DS in February, but not so much with either of my home consoles. It looks to be the same for the next few months with the wealth of 3DS rpgs hitting now or in the near future. I am also happily surprised with myself that I am staying on top of my SNES deep dive.

Beaten

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam – see here.

The Death and Return of Superman – see here.

Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninjas – see here.

Prince of Persia –

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I initially intended to have a full post about this game, but in the end I don’t think I actually had that much to say about the game. I wanted to like it, but it has some pretty glaring flaws. Like how the story ends completely unresolved. It actually ends up being something of a shaggy dog story, albeit one that is fun to play. Fun, but far from perfect. For about the first half of the game I thought it was suffering from some bad input lag, and then I learned how the game worked. It isn’t really an action game; it is more of a rhythm game. There are only four possible actions to take and the intricate looking platforming is just recognizing which button you need to press. The game will play out that action when it is necessary, which isn’t always immediately. Until how it works clicks it can be frustrating. When things are going well it looks great, but it really isn’t that engaging to play. It just sort of goes with minimal player input. Maybe the old Prince of Persia games were the same, but this one was somehow everything I wanted and still largely unsatisfying.

Ongoing

Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright –

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I don’t want to go on too long about this game, since I am currently writing up a full blog post about it, but there are some things worth mentioning. In that post I’ll go on longer about how excellent the localization is. The fact that Treehouse’s work here has come under fire is frankly ridiculous. Nintendo excising some embarrassing otaku wankbait from their own game is not censorship, and by all reputable accounts they have done a marvelous job polishing a pretty pedestrian story. Also, there was some struggle for me to decide with version to buy, because I thought it made more sense to start with the easier game and learn this entry’s particulars than to do that with the hard one. I was always going to play both or all three, I guess. Lastly, this game is really good. The disappointing DS game seems so long ago now.

Codename STEAM – see here. This one is likely going on the shelf for a while, because my 3DS looks to be pretty busy for the next few months.

Final Fantasy Explorers –

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This has all the ingredients of something I would really like. I’m a big fan of Monster Hunter and of the Crystal Chronicles games, both of which have similarities to this. And while I didn’t play this enough to give it a fair and complete judgement, through the first three hours it just feels sloppy. The Final Fantasy nostalgia does not appear to have been applied with much though, it’s just kind of there. It’s got the names and the look, but not the feel of Final Fantasy. The gameplay is structured like MH, but it is loose and unsatisfying. The bosses don’t feel like dangerous obstacles to overcome, but inert damage sponges that just take way too long to kill. I might have more to say if I ever find more time to play this, but it has been put at the bottom of a very long list.

Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations – I played through the first two cases of this Phoenix Wright finale. It has just as much verve and energy as I remembered. I really need to go reread what I said about the first two games, but this one really starts with a bang. The first case is especially tight, introducing this game’s central players while also quickly teaching new players how to play the game. I’ve actually forgotten most of the details of these cases, so it is almost like experiencing them for the first time again. On an unrelated note, I hope a miracle occurs and we get the Sherlock Ace Attorney game. It seems unlikely, but a man can dream.

Lufia and the Fortress of Doom – The more I play this the less I feel like it was something I missed back in the day. I don’t want to damn it, especially when I am only through the first quarter or so of the game, but so far there is little here to recommend this game over any of the classic SNES JRPGs. It seems to be the very definition of a by the books jrpg, like a Dragon Quest game with the charm drained out of it. It still isn’t quite bad, but spectacularly unspectacular.

Yakuza 5 – I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but already system improvements from the previous PS3 games are evident. It also does the smart thing and starts the player as Kazuma. I like splitting the game up among a handful of protagonists, but Yakuza 4 kept Kazuma out of it for way too long. I’ve barely played this enough to get a handle on the what the game is going to be about, but this series never disappoints.

Upcoming

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD – I’ve got this on preorder, but I just played the game last year, so I might not be that quick to jump into it. Damn that amazon prime preorder discount. Still, I am pretty excited to argue with people about Zelda after this release and some games’ reputations shift. (I’ll still be repping Skyward Sword as one of the top games in the series) The WiiU has quietly become quite the Zelda playing machine. If only it had downloadable versions of the DS games.

Return to Popolocrois – Again with the Amazon Prime discount. I played through most of the PSP Popolocrois game and found it charming if dated. This one, which is a Harvest Moon Story of Seasons crossover game, looks to keep the charm and hopefully lose some of the oldness. It does have the misfortune to come out in the midst of a deluge of 3DS RPGs of sorts, having to compete with the likes of FE Fates, Bravely Second, Mario & Luigi Paper Jam and Hyrule Warriors. Not all of those are straight RPGs (and it’s probably really stretching to include Hyrule Warriors) but it does make for some pretty crowded territory for Popolocrois. I hope it finds an audience.

Fire Emblem Fates Conquest & Revelations – There are two more paths in this game. The first one already took me about 40 hours to beat; I can’t wait to spend another 80 with it. I took the easy path first, which was good because it took me a long time to grasp the changed pair up mechanic.

Mega Man Legacy Collection – I’m not intending to spend a lot of time playing this, I mostly bought to support a worthy venture. This is how more people should do classic game compilations. I am happy to have a near pixel perfect version of some of the best games ever to play on the go.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West – I picked this up on a PSN sale. It looks great. I don’t know if I’ll actually have time to get to it, but hope springs eternal.

Super Mario RPG – This is the next game for my SNES project, after I finish with Lufia. Then I’ll be forced to get into the shooters before coming back for some more RPGs. This is probably the most well-known game I’m playing for this SNES celebration, but somehow I’ve never found the time to put much time into it.

25 SNES #5: The Death and Return of Superman

The plan was for the next entry in this series to be an RPG, either the fairly lengthy one I am no halfway through (Lufia) or the relatively brief one I’ve queued up next (Super Mario RPG), but by the two thirds point of the month it was clear that wasn’t going to work out, so instead I switched to another brief game; The Death and Return of Superman

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When I went searching for some SNES deep cuts to help get me to twenty-five games for the year, the one really surprising game I occasionally saw on best of lists was The Death and Return of Superman.  Most of the others I was familiar with even if I hadn’t had the chance to play them. This was a licensed title that had completely slipped past me. Usually that sort of thing does bode well, but Death and Return of Superman is a perfectly fine game.  It is very much of a product of the 90’s and hasn’t aged particularly well, but there is plenty of interest here and the game plays just fine.

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Like the majority of licensed games in this era, Death and Return of Superman is a beat-em-up. Superman goes left to right and punches dudes until he gets to a boss; repeat as necessary. It has some of the usual flaws with this sort of game.  The levels aren’t particularly interesting and there simply aren’t enough enemy types.  It eventually gets old traveling through similar looking enemies punching the same 5 guys in the face.  Still, there is something satisfying about it as well. The best sorts of beat-em-ups don’t overstay their welcome, being both fairly brief and fast paced.  The Death and Return of Superman’s levels tend to go on a little too long, but the game itself is about the right length.

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In some ways it feels designed with home consoles in mind, in some ways it feels like the worst sort of quarter munching arcade game. One point against it is that it is single player only.   Likely a concession to making it play well on the SNES.  There isn’t much slowdown and the sprites look good. As I said earlier, the game could do with more enemy types, but the ones here look pretty nice.  The game also has five different playable characters, giving some variety to the game.  Unfortunately, the different characters all play just about the same.  They have the same basic set of moves and there doesn’t appear to be any difference in their strength or speed.  It mostly just ends up being different sprites.  Another problem is just how repetitive the bosses can be.  They can level the player in a few hits and don’t really do anything interesting.

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Still, it is an enjoyable experience if a flawed on.  I really liked how the game actually tried to tell a story.  In fact, I prefer this telling to the comics.  While the comic story this is based on is a famous one, it is not a very good one.  It is a better idea for a story than an actual story.  That is why the player changes character so frequently.  You start as Superman, who runs through a couple of levels before fighting Doomsday and dying.  Then four replacement Supermen show up to try to take his place: Cyborg Superman, Superboy, The Eradicator and Steel.  The comic played it as a mystery of just who was the real Superman, only for none of them to turn out to be.  The game runs through the plot in a handful of levels, with the player taking the role over whatever Superman is necessary at the time.  It works, and makes for an interesting set up.  It also helps that Superman feels like Superman. He may go down like a chump to the bosses, but he flies and punches with power and has his heat vision.

It is a good game.  A run through of takes no more than an hour and a half to two hours and it is decently entertaining the whole time.  It could really do with a two player mode, but I don’t have a second player to play with anyway.  It might be the best Superman game, but that says more about the other games to bear his name than anything about this one.  The Death and Return of Superman is a serviceable beat-em-up that at least appears to be trying to do something interesting even if it doesn’t completely succeed.

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam

The Mario RPGs, both of Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi sub-brands, tend toward being tedious at times. I love them, but there is no denying it. The Mario & Luigi games tend toward condescending tutorializing and Paper Marios tend to feature funny bits that are just a chore to play. Those are blemishes on otherwise very good games, though the degree to which those flaws derail the experience varies. Nintendo combining the two series was on it’s a terrific idea; it had the potential to be one of the best games of the year, but it also runs the risk of flaws compounding to make one of the most frustrating game experiences imaginable. While Mario & Luigi Paper Jam is not quite the best case scenario, it luckily strays far from the worst case scenario.

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Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is not really a combination of the different stands of Mario RPGs, it is just a Mario & Luigi game with the Paper Mario characters tossed in. That in itself is one of the better gimmicks in the series, less tiresome that Partners in Time’s babies or Dream Team’s dreams. The Paper Mario stuff is just a flavoring added on to the usual M&L goofiness. They didn’t go quite far enough with the paper stuff, but they got some good use out of the paper doppelgangers. It clearly made it easier to come up with enemies, since they could double up on the Mario staples and have to lean less on new, and generally less interesting, original baddies. I would say that the lack of original characters is a flaw, but the only truly interesting character this series has ever come up with is Fawful. Instead, the game just lets the slightly different Bowsers and Peaches play off each other for some really fun scenes.

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Comedy has always been a big part of these games’ appeal. That is true of both Paper Mario and M&L. True comedies are rare in games, and even rarer among RPGs. That fact that these games have been consistently funny over almost ten games. While not all of them have been great games to play, they’ve all brought the same sense of wacky irreverence. The two series combined are maybe funniest yet. This is quite an accomplishment for a games with three protagonists, none of which talk. The best bits are the Bowser parts and the seeing the two Peaches outwit the two Bowser Jrs. It never really strays from the conventional Mario cast, but it does really good work with them. Really, the Paper Mario stuff helps sand down the flaws of the previous M&L game. Dream Team, while not a bad game, was interminable with the tutorials and not especially funny chatter. That is cut down quite a bit in this one. There are still some annoying minigames, but they are less frequent and less onerous.

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Despite all that this game does well, I still can’t quite say that I love it. I’m not really sure why; it addresses almost all of the problems I had with the previous game. It also brings some much needed challenge to the bosses. They might actually go a little too far into difficult. The story doesn’t do anything special, but it is funny and fast moving. It might just be that the addition of Paper Mario to the team is just too much for me to handle. I can’t manage three separate characters as once. Really, it is just as fun as the game is from moment to moment, it all feels belabored and pointless in the end. What Mario is actually doing is never particularly interesting; he is just going through the motions that make up a Mario game; except this time the gameplay is not as outrageously good as it is in the platform games. When it stops being funny it starts being a drag. Still, those moments are relatively few. Mostly the game is a joy.

25 SNES #4: Joe and Mac

The Joe and Mac series is one of those small blips that litter video game history. They were moderately popular for a few years before disappearing without a trace and without much thought to where they went. They are not unlike Gex or Onimusha. Not bad games necessarily (I have a lot of good things to say about Onimusha someday), but not the most memorable one either. I only know Data East’s Joe and Mac because I had a friend in grade school that swore by and I heard about it on Retronauts. Having never played it, I added it to my list for this SNES explorative endeavor. I almost wish I hadn’t.

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Joe and Mac shows its arcade roots. I was expecting something more like Mario, but the game shares more with Contra. There is some light platforming, but most of the game is a prehistoric run and gun. Only a run and gun without good shooting ahem, throwing options. There is a bone, a boomerang and a fireball. All of take more than one hit to kill an enemy. In the time I spent with the game, no more than the hour or so it took to finish it, I was not able to tell if there was a power difference between them. It seemed like it only changed the speed and trajectory of the player’s shots. While the overall it was much like Contra, it lacked that series’ tight levels. Joe and Mac feel sloppy and half formed. More accurately, it feels like an arcade game designed to eat quarters hastily remixed to play decently on a home console. There are a lot of cheap hits and deaths, but the game gives players a life bar and plenty of health pick-ups. That just serves to make a lot of it feel inconsequential. There is little penalty for getting hit.

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What I missed, and what I am sure was the true draw of this game back in the day was the coop. I didn’t have someone to play with and this feels like a game that gets a lot more fun with a little cooperation and/or competition. It isn’t bad single player, but there are so many better games to play on just the SNES that I can’t recommend it. But coop can change things. If there is some fighting you to get to the health refills or to rack up the most points, a lot of the inconsequential stuff can feel more important. But even then, it is not like the SNES is lacking other coop games. I know the system was flooded with beat-em-ups.

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Joe and Mac is a relic of a bygone time. Being forgotten to history is probably a kindness to it. It was never good enough to be called great and time hasn’t done it any favors, but it certainly isn’t bad enough to be worthy of any great scorn. It is just a mediocre arcade port from 1991 and it plays like it.

25 Years 25 Games #3: Super Punch-Out!!

For as big a fan as I am of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, it was kind of shocking to me to find out that there was a sequel on SNES.  This was in 2008, about the same time as Nintendo announced the Wii game.  Somehow, the existence of the SNES game eluded me for nearly 15 years.  I really don’t know how I didn’t know about it. I did buy it on the Virtual Console, but I never got around to playing it.

After beating it, I have to say that I don’t like it as much as the other two Punch-Out!! games I’ve played. A big part of that is how familiar I am with the NES game and how closely the Wii game sticks to it.  Super Punch-Out!! is quite a bit different. It is more complex, with a wider variety of punches and dodges available to the player, and it has a roster of opponents that is mostly unique to this game. (and the arcade games that no one has ever played) I think what really hurt my enjoyment of it, though, is that I don’t really remember how long it took me to get good at Punch-Out!!

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I found playing Super Punch-Out!! very frustrating.  After the first few easy opponents, I started ran into the wall that is learning new fighters.  I got by Piston Hurricane and Bald Bull pretty easily, but Dragon Chan and Masked Muscle was where I started having a lot of trouble.  These fighters have a lot of different moves and tics, and learning those takes time.  Especially when the game doesn’t quite work like I expect it to.  The real problem is how fast I was trying to beat this game.  Now I think of NES Punch-Out!! as a pleasant romp, at least until the last three or four fights.  But it took me a long time playing that game to get that good.  Like playing it off and on for more than 20 years. Compared to that, or to a game that is deliberately as close to that game as possible.  Super Punch-Out!! is trying to push the series forward, and it mostly works, but it frustrates an old pro at the NES game.

None of those problems really have anything to do with what this game actually is.  Although I don’t much like this game, I can’t really claim that it isn’t a good, or maybe even great, game.  The complexity it adds should be counted as a good thing.  I really liked the different super punches that Little Mac has at his disposal.  I never really figured out how the different punches worked, but the options are good.  It will take time to learn when to use which one might take some time, but I like having a more options than just uppercut.

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I’m of two minds about the new boxers in this game.  I really like some them; they work.  What I don’t like is how far they start to get away from being, you know, boxers.  Masked Muscle is fine; his luchador shtick doesn’t interfere with him being a boxer.  His one extra move is to spit in the player’s eyes, an illegal move but not a crazy one.  Likewise with Heike Kagero and his hair whip.  But Dragon Chan and his kicks or How Quarlow and his stick are just a step too far for me.

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Super Punch-Out!! is a great looking game.  No one can argue with that. Just like the original was one of the best looking games on the NES, this one has some of the best looking sprites on the SNES. The music is also a highlight.  Really, there is no part of this game that isn’t well made; I just don’t like it as much as the previous game. Nintendo rarely misses and they were really on the top of their game in the SNES days.  While Super Punch-Out!! doesn’t quite have the reputation of some their best games, like Super Metroid or Yoshi’s Island, but it really shows how the mastered this hardware.