Super Mario Bros. 2

I have a reputation for being “anti-Nintendo” and “anti-Retro.” Neither is true. The reality is Nintendo was as important to my gaming upbringing as it was to any slobbering fanboy. The Nintendo 64 I got on my 9th birthday in July, 1998 is what solidified gaming as my passion. I think that’s a bit profound, especially given that it wasn’t the first game console I wanted for an important holiday. The first time I asked for anything gaming related, it was the original PlayStation over a year earlier. I loved my PlayStation, but I didn’t truly love gaming until Nintendo became part of my life. What a hater I am.

As for retro-gaming, fine, I’ve probably earned the “anti” perception, even if it’s not true of me. But, in my defense, I’m 29-years-old. I grew up in the 32 bit/64 bit era. The games of the past were just old games to me, nothing more. By time I took interest in gaming’s history, I had developed epilepsy. Those older games relied heavily on strobe effects, which is my specific trigger. But, that really has nothing to do with my opinions on classic games. It’s more about how people from generations before me tend to put them on a pedestal based not on gameplay merit but on what the titles meant to their childhood. It’s something my generation doesn’t really do. Then again, I grew up in the early 3D era. It was a time full of games destined to age as badly as Lindsay Lohan.

Before we continue, shout out to Nintendo. They removed the dangerous strobe effects from the games in the Switch Online NES library. Now, when you die in Zelda II, the screen turns pink instead of trying to give players a seizure as punishment for not surviving their shitty, unplayable, prohibitively difficult Zelda sequel. Why pink you ask? Well, I can explain. You see, when you’re making love to your husband and then hear the horrifying sound of a “snap” commonly associated with a broken condom, you have to pee on a stick to find out whether or not you have to pay a visit to Dr. Coathanger. If the strip on the stick turns pink instead of blue, it means you’re not pregnant. Not pregnant means no life. See, it makes perfect sense!

I’ve always done my best to separate games I consider the best ever with games that are my personal favorites. I would never argue that WarioWare Inc.: Mega MicroGame$ for the Game Boy Advance is the best game of all-time. It’s not. If pinned into a corner, I’d probably say Tetris or Portal have to be up there because I can literally find no fault with them and they happen to be insanely fun. I think the drama mostly comes from people who truly believe that their childhood favorites like Super Mario 1 or the original Legend of Zelda are still the best games of all time and have never been topped. Which is just absurd. They’ve been topped many times. What hasn’t been topped is the blood-dopamine levels your per-pebesecant body generated when you played these for the first time. Your adult body isn’t even capable of naturally creating that much dopamine now. Hence, no game can ever match-up to how those games made you feel. I’m not making that up. That’s the actual science behind it. Well, unless you’re self-aware enough to realize that gaming is better now than it was during your childhood. For all the bitching we do about microtransactions and pay-to-win or too much DLC, gaming today is better than it was then. There is something for everyone now, at affordable prices to boot.

Take a deep breath, classic gamers: it’s alright for some of your childhood favorites to have aged badly. Almost all of mine did! Crash Bandicoot? Unplayable today. My entire 3D Nintendo 64 library? How did I never notice how shitty this frame rate was? Like seriously, who replaced my copy of Goldeneye, a game that gave me hundreds of hours of top-rate multiplayer mayhem with this slow, buggy, low-frame-rate, unbalanced biowaste dumpster fire?

Oh wait, nobody did. Goldeneye was cutting-edge back then. That’s why we never noticed. Games didn’t get more advanced at the time. They’re way more advanced now. That’s why those technical hitches stick out so much more today.

While playing Kid Icarus on Switch Online, I triggered slowdown as the result of having too many characters on-screen no less than five times during the first stage alone. To hell with “true to the originals” emulation. Can’t they patch this shit out?

Here’s the thing about the test of time: it’s gaming’s most unfair testing standard. Developers of the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, or 2010s mostly didn’t have it in mind. They wanted to sell product and make money then. Most major, tentole releases were based on the tastes and trends of the moment. It’s our industry’s version of a pop quiz. Nobody prepares for it, and yet we should have all known it was coming eventually.

Here’s another thing about the test of time: it’s gaming’s most cruel testing standard. You can factor in historical context or popularity or importance to culture all you want. It won’t change a single thing about how good a game is today.

One more thing about the test of time: whether you like it or not, it does exist and surviving it should be rare. It wouldn’t be special otherwise. And really, the vast majority of games don’t do it. Some games that are considered all-timers are just plain not fun today. It’s a major issue for retro gamers to come to terms with: that their childhood favorites aren’t fun anymore.

I don’t really think Super Mario 1 is fun at all. The same exact formula has been done better so many times. I didn’t like New Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo DS either, and I got that the day it came out. I thought it was really boring. But I’d much rather play that installment in the franchise than the 1985 Super Mario. It controls better, has more stuff to do, has better level design, more replay value, and just is better on its own merit than Super Mario Bros. 1. It’s not even close, really. For those 80s gamers reading this and feeling their blood pressure spiking, I don’t know what else to tell you. It’s true. Old games were not made to be good thirty years later. Yes, it’s unfair to think they could hold up, but it’s downright delusional to think they should hold up.

Here’s one that retro fans SWEAR holds up. Well, change that. They swear Tecmo SUPER Bowl holds up. But we won’t see that one again anytime soon because it costs something like two trillion dollars to license the term “Super Bowl.” That’s why so many people call it “The Big Game” in advertising or other works. But, let’s face it, “Tecmo Big Game” sounds lame as fuck. My suggestion: Tecmo can just change the S to a D and re-release it on Switch online. Seriously, would anyone care if they called it “Tecmo Duper Bowl” instead. Wait.. really? You would? It’s literally the same game with a different name. Oh wait, I forgot you retro types lose your shit over having Mr. Dream in Punch-Out!! instead of Mike Tyson.

But there are some exceptions.

Take Super Mario Bros. 2. It’s still, to this day, my favorite 2D Mario game. Kind of. You see, up until this last week, I’d never played the NES port of it. I first played it in 2001 when a steroided up version of it, Super Mario Advance, was a launch title for the Game Boy Advance. And really, that version of it is the version that I hold up as my personal favorite 2D installment in the Mario franchise. Now cue the inevitable know-it-all fanboys who want to show off how deeply knowledgeable they are by pointing out that it’s not a real Mario game. Yes, yes, we all know about Doki Doki Panic. Yes, we all know there’s a different Super Mario 2 in Japan. Well, Japan sent the real Super Mario 2 to Nintendo of America. NOA said “this sucks, give us a better game.” Case closed: US Super Mario 2 is the real Super Mario 2. You fanboys can have your unplayable, anti-fun ROM hack of Mario 1. It’s all yours.

Super Mario 2 is a genuine gaming rarity: it’s every bit as fun today as it was in 1988. No matter your gaming background. No matter what order you play the Mario series in. Age does not factor in at all. Maybe the port you play does matter, but having just played the vastly inferior NES version, a major step backwards from the remake I played when I was 12, yeah, no, it’s still fun regardless. Besides, Mario Advance is actually just as much a port itself from the Mario 2 in Super Mario All-Stars. And ideas like having more hidden stuff or the bosses taunting you was borrowed from BS Super Mario USA Power Challenge, a game for the Super Famicom Satellaview. Have a look.

The step backwards from Mario Advance to Mario 2 isn’t merely graphical. There’s no score. There’s no super coins to find. There’s no Yoshi eggs. Instead of a Robo-Birdo for the boss of the World 3, it’s just a pallet-swapped Mouser (in fact, Doki Doki has a third Mouser as the boss of world 5 instead of Clawgrip the crab). The most consequential change is if you die on a stage, you’re committed to using the character you just failed with instead of getting to re-pick. That’s brutal. I had buyer’s remorse selecting Luigi in level 5 – 1, but I was stuck. And finally, you can actually see the reels of the slot machines and use timing to win the lives. In the NES version it really is just luck. But using the Switch Online platform, I didn’t need luck. Just save states. I’m guessing that strategy wouldn’t work at a real casino. “Uh.. hey guys. Pause. Load state. I want to try that hand again. Let’s start at the flop. I checked when I should have raised. Give everyone the same hands as before. Now remember everyone, pretend like what just happened after the flop didn’t happen. Why are you calling security?”

There’s no point in doing a traditional review of Super Mario Bros. 2. It’s older than I am. It’s gotten its feedback. But, I’ve been a bit obsessed with it as of late. It seemed like a game that defied conventional wisdom. It should have aged as badly as every other NES game, because it has a lot wrong with it. There’s blind jumps that are completely unfair. Luigi is grossly over-powered to the point that you can bypass large sections of stages just by using his charge jump. Peach is nearly as bad, though at the cost of her being significantly slower at picking things up. A running Luigi jump clears as many blocks. A big part of why these balance issues exist is because Doki Doki Panic didn’t have a run button. Levels weren’t designed around running jumps. That’s why you can circumvent large sections of the game. So why did they add such a feature? Because you could hold B to run in Super Mario 1, and they wanted at least one mechanic from the original Super Mario Bros to carry over to the not-sequel that became the sequel. B-Running was chosen, and in doing so, they inadvertently nerfed nearly half the game.

The flash from the bombs is gone in Super Mario 2 as well. Thankfully when I tweeted about this the majority of classic gaming fans were happy for me and didn’t go all Star Wars fandom “rape my childhood” for Nintendo having done a couple very minor graphical changes that most non-epileptics didn’t like anyway. I think one person complained about the “slippery slope” of changing graphics in a game that came into existence by changing a previous game’s graphics.

And yet, Mario 2 is still a masterpiece. I’m writing these words over thirty-years after the game released in the United States. How the fuck did Mario 2 escape Father Time? I spent over a week studying the levels and the history of the game. I talked with fans who were around at the time it came out. For most Mario fans, Mario World is the one they still hold in the highest esteem, with Mario 3 close by it and Mario 2 left completely in the dust. And I get that. Mario 1 was probably the game that made them want an NES in the first place, and Mario 3 was the first direct-sequel to it. It took the franchise back its roots with question mark blocks, power-ups, end-goals at the end of levels instead of killing a Birdo and walking through the door. It’s what they wanted Mario 2 to be. Mario World doesn’t have as wide a variety of power-ups, but it makes up for that with (mostly) superior level-design, better innovations (Yoshi and the idea of having an item on reserve), and better balancing.

I’m not hating on Mario 3 or Mario World like I do Mario 1. In fact, I’d put them in the pantheon on platformers. They’re so good that it’s a no-brainer, really. But both have felt the ravages of time a lot more than Mario 2 has. Mario 3 has a lot of cheap design, under-utilizes some of the more fun power-ups (especially the Hammer Bros. suit), and most damning: a few of the worlds are actively boring (especially world 2, the desert) or just plain crappy (world 6, where the ice stages are). Mario World is a lot better, but also gets interrupted somewhat frequently with more basic, bland stages that feel like filler. And I think the auto-scrolling areas of both Mario 3 & World can go fuck themselves. With the exception of one incredibly cheap blind fall in Mario 2, its flaws have a lot less impact. It didn’t just age better. It practically didn’t age at all.

Of all the memorable moments in Super Mario 2, this is my personal favorite. It was just so unexpected. “Holy shit, the door is trying to kill me now!” My personal choice for the best surprise boss fight in gaming history.

And I know why: because it was never done again. The original Mario formula has had multiple chances to be re-worked. Super Mario 3, World, New Super Mario, and so forth. Not to mention the countless games that Super Mario 1 inspired. On the other hand, Mario 2 was pretty much never done again. The closest any game apparently ever came to it was an unlicensed game based on Bible characters for the NES. Sure, it was remade, but that’s different from being completely rebuilt. We’ve seen lots of games built on the foundation Mario 1 poured. But, thirty years later, there’s still only one Mario 2. It never got a direct sequel. Its primary mechanics never carried over to another major game. It defies aging on the basis of never having been attempted again. And that’s strange, because we’re talking about one of the single most important games ever made. Even StarTropics got a sequel, for fuck’s sake. Kid Icarus got a couple! Excitebike got a 3D remake! Mario 2 outsold them all combined and was still a one-off. Some of its characters became Mario staples, but its gameplay never resurfaced again. Even though almost everyone likes it, if not loves it. Weird.

So actually, Mario 2 is even more exceptional than you first realized. Think about it: the NES was scorching hot in 1988, when it released. Fans were clamoring for the sequel to Super Mario Bros. As popular as the NES was, it wasn’t quite solidified yet. For all the world knew, it was a brief resurgence of an otherwise passed fad: video games. If Mario 2 had sucked, or had outright bombed, it absolutely could have cooled Nintendo’s jets and put a grinding halt to their momentum.

And then gamers get Mario 2, and it’s so fucking weird. A complete departure from the original. No question mark blocks. No fire flowers. No Goombas or Koopas or Bowser or any enemies from Mario 1. No flagpole. No killing enemies by jumping on them. The coins work completely different and aren’t just scattered around stages. Everything is built around picking up and throwing stuff, with only a few cursory nods to the original, like the star or the mushroom. It’s a Mario game in name only, with westerners mostly oblivious to its origins as a reskinning of a completely unrelated game based on mascots for a glorified Japanese state fair being put on by a television station.

You kill Wart by feeding him vegetables. He hates vegetables. Which is why he placed a fucking vegetable generator in his throne room. Like, seriously, have we considered he never returned because he’s too dumb to sign the contract?

Everyone knows the story of Nintendo risking everything when they launched the NES in North America, offering an insane no-risk deal to stores in order to get them to carry the console. That move deserves the recognition it gets, but I wonder why nobody looks at Super Mario Bros. 2 in the same light. Because it certainly was a huge risk for Nintendo. If fans had rejected Super Mario 2, imagine what a catastrophe it would have been. Especially considering that Zelda II: The Adventure of Link released around the same time and was an even more polarizing departure from the original game in its series. Early Nintendo adopters could very easily have decided that Nintendo wasn’t giving them the type of games they were asking for and moved on to other things. It seems absurd now, but it was definitely on the table back then.

Thankfully, Super Mario 2 was so good on its own merit that it continued to sell even after word-of-mouth that it was nothing like Super Mario 1 had a chance to take hold. Ten million copies on the NES were sold. You don’t get sales like that on name value alone. And Super Mario 2 as an entity onto itself was so viable that a remake of it was chosen to be the Mario launch game for the Game Boy Advance. It was thirteen years later. Thirteen! Thirteen years ago today, George W. Bush was still President and nobody knew who Barack Obama was. That’s how fast the world changes, and yet, Super Mario 2, thirteen years-old, was still good enough to be a flagship launch game for a major platform. I’d never argue against Super Mario Bros. being the reason there was so many Nintendo Entertainment Systems in households in the 80s. But in major way, Super Mario Bros. 2 is what assured there would continue to be Nintendo devices in American households into the 90s and beyond. Yes, it’s the “weird one” in the series. But it’s the one that I most tip my hat to. Against all odds, it holds up better than any “real” Mario game. To paraphrase an old adage: man fears time. But time fears Super Mario 2.

Super Mario Bros. 2 was developed by Nintendo
Free to Play with a Switch Online Subscription

Interested in Super Mario Bros 2? Boss Fight Books has a book detailing its history by Jon Irwin. Check it out here for $4.99.

indie-gamer-chick-approvedSuper Mario Bros 2. is Chick-Approved, but as a non-indie is not ranked on the IGC Leaderboard.

 

SNK 40th Anniversary Collection v Capcom Arcade Cabinet (IGC Retro Bowl II)

I really should have started off the IGC Retro Bowl concept with SNK 40th Anniversary Collection v Capcom Arcade Cabinet. The two companies are already linked through some fighting game crossovers. And both these sets are sort of unique among retro compilations because they specifically cover each company’s early efforts before they found real success and notoriety. Also, I’d never played any of these games before I got these sets. Just the NES port of Ghosts ‘N Goblins, which isn’t included. But the real reason I should have led with this match-up is because just how damn similar so many of these games are. It’s truly remarkable. It literally made me feel uncomfortable. Playing these two sets next to each-other was like watching someone actively peaking at a fellow student’s test answers, and you’re the only one who sees it and wonders if they should say something. So, sorry Sega Genesis Collection. You’re going to have to wait. We have a grudge match to settle.

IN THIS CORNER
SNK 40th Anniversary Collection
$39.99 for Nintendo Switch (coming to PS4 in March)
23 Arcade Games and 9 NES games released between 1979 and 1990
Game purchased by me.

IN THE OTHER CORNER
Capcom Arcade Cabinet
$4.99 for Starter Pack (required), $24.99 for “All-in-One” pack (all remaining games) $3.99 for each individual game, or $9.99 for packs of multiple games sorted by year for Xbox One via Xbox 360 backwards compatibility.
17 Arcade Games released between 1984 and 1987
Game supplied by fan.

Before getting started, I want to point out how stupidly convoluted getting some of these games for IGC Retro Bowl has been. To purchase backwards-compatible Xbox 360 games on your Xbox One, you can’t actually use your account’s existing balance. Xbox 360 games require you to have a credit card on record. That is so stupid. I understand it has to do with the agreements made with third-parties for how Microsoft would handle the transition from one console to the next. But I didn’t know that until after a fan had already attempted to purchase Capcom Arcade Cabinet for me while it was on sale. This will actually come into play for more upcoming IGC Retro Bowl games like Rare Replay (which features backwards compatible Xbox 360 ports of N64 games) and Midway Origins (another backwards compatible collection).

ORIGINALITY

Now look, I’m not naive. I know the game industry is a gigantic match of “monkey see, monkey do” done with a series of 1s and 0s. It’s been that way literally from Pong onward. But it’s sort of amazing how many games in SNK’s collection are eerily similar to stuff Capcom already made. Commando came out about seven months before Ikari Warriors. Street Fighter (not included in this set) came out two years before Street Smart. Ghosts N’ Goblins was a smash, and then Athena was shat out by SNK (which I pronounced as SINK for the longest time). But the truly amazing thing is how rare it is that the later SNK versions improve upon the stuff they were aping. Only Psycho Solider, which borrows heavily from Capcom’s SonSon, feels like lots of effort was made to ramp-up the formula. Of course, that came out three years after the game it was, ahem, inspired by. I hope it would be better after that long.

To be honest, even with Psycho Soldier putting in a bigger effort, I liked SonSon more. But, I didn’t enjoy either game so that’s damning praise. Most fans of Psycho Soldier.. that’s apparently a thing that exists.. remember it more for its music than it’s gameplay. I played both sets muted for the most part and no siren call is going to convince me that game of all games isn’t just fucking boring.

Not that Capcom are saints in this category. Pirate Ship Higemaru is basically their version of Sega’s 1982 arcade anti-classic Pengo. And there they somehow made a shitty game even worse with some of the most crappy, unresponsive controls I’ve seen in a game like it. The issue is more that at least some of the Capcom games feel like they were taking existing concepts and trying to evolve them. You don’t get that sense with any of SNK’s 23 primary games, with one exception: Crystalis. Which can be summed up as “SNK’s version of Zelda.” It retains the action-RPG concept of the original Legend of Zelda but throws in actual leveling-up mechanics and other role-playing conventions. Yes, Zelda II did that as well, but that’s a side-scroller. Crystalis feels like a sci-fi version of the game most Zelda fans were hoping Adventure of Link would be and wasn’t.

But that’s the lone exception, and even then, it feels like they’re playing follow-the-leader. All the games in SNK 40th Anniversary can be comfortably described as “SNK’s version of..” fill-in-the-blank. Fantasy is SNK’s version of Donkey Kong. Ozma Wars is SNK’s version of Space Invaders. Sasuke vs Commander is their version of Galaxian or Galaga. The most original game is Paddle Mania, and it really sucks. Capcom wasn’t exactly inventing new genres, but at least it feels like they were building onto them instead of just xeroxing them.
Edge: Capcom Arcade Cabinet

Vanguard is both an example of everything right and wrong with the SNK set. It’s actually one of the more fun games to play, but it’s so generic and so derivative that it’s no wonder it was completely lost to history.

EXTRAS

Gameplay is king. That has been my mantra at IGC since day one. But the special features for SNK 40th are so jaw-droppingly awesomeballs that it almost overrides the actual games. I’m such a hardliner for gameplay over bells and whistles that my friends and family literally can’t believe I’d even have to stop and think about it. SNK has a museum menu with tons of information, sort of like a guided tour. Tiny little factoids, even for dozens of games not included in the set. And there are cabinets and flyers and promotional art assets and concept art. It’s all well sourced, cleaned up, and easy to access. None of it is locked (though the museum stuff did seem to cause my game to crash a lot, like 20+ times since December). More than I can say about Capcom’s set, where everything is locked and what little I was able to get wasn’t remotely impressive. Some of the extra-extra features require putting in as much as 25 hours combined on the 17 games here. If they had aged particularly well, maybe they can justify that. They didn’t, and so Capcom can’t. My friend Garrett was supplying me with more factoids and trivia than they did. They should have just packaged him with every copy.

Apparently the files for Yosaku are mostly lost, and a good dump of it doesn’t exist, or so I’ve been told. As the collection notes, it’s one of the most rare arcade games out there. There’s not TONS of information for each game included with SNK 40th. It feels like a coffee table book in video game form.

That’s enough right there for SNK to win, but they spiked the ball by including the ability to rewind games so that you can undo your mistakes, an increasingly common feature I’d like to see more of in the future. But even that wasn’t enough. SNK 40th has the single coolest feature of any classic set ever made. All the arcade games (along with NES-exclusives Crystalis and Iron Tank) allow players to watch a video of someone (possibly tool-assisted AI) making a perfect run at each game. Now, are you ready to have your mind blown? You can actually stop the video at any time and take over the controls from there out, in the exact same spot the video was at. You really have to see it to believe how cool it is.

This, ladies and gentleman, better be a regular feature in classic collections going forward. If it’s not, I can’t be held responsible for my actions.
Major Edge: SNK 40th Anniversary Collection

BEST GAME

1943 Kai is probably the best overall game from either set. I can already hear Crystalis fans reaching for their keyboards to complain. Well, actually I think the best game in SNK is one I’d never even heard of before buying it. It’s called SAR: Search and Rescue. It’s an early blood-and-guts shooter. The original arcade machine, like several SNK shooters, used a special rotary joystick that allowed you to move in one direction and shoot in another without the need of a second stick (like Robotron used). Without that specialized input, SNK 40th converted the titles to twin-stick shooters for this collection. This is actually a positive, as fans of the era told me the twin stick step-up is less clunky and more intuitive. And SAR is genuinely riveting in a time capsule type of way. It’s just so.. gory. I wasn’t expecting that. Despite being a bit slower than I prefer such a game, it never got boring, plays great with two players, and really feels like they were trying to grab attention. If it had actually been given a decent name, maybe it would have taken off. Search and Rescue for a sci-fi game like this? Lesson learned, kiddies: put more than two seconds thought into your names.

That’s a lot of red stuff for a game that came into the world the same year I did.

Meanwhile, 1943 Kai is a moderately upgraded version of 1943, itself a sequel to 1942. The 19XX series is to gaming what the Fast and Furious franchise is to movies. It initially tried to stay somewhat grounded in reality, but by the third installment they were just out of fucks to give. Kai changes the plane and gives it lasers and other futuristic power-ups. Consequently, it feels more modern and, gasp, fun. Neither compilation has a particularly strong lineup, and I don’t know what it says that I wasn’t truly in love with anything from either set. But if I had to choose one game to play for the rest of my life, I think I’d rather play Kai.
Slight Edge: Capcom Arcade Cabinet

I don’t think this is historically accurate.

WHAT’S MISSING THE LEAST?

Both sets focus on the formative years of the respective companies and both are missing a lot of games. In the case of SNK, the initial release was missing a lot more, but an update added 11 titles. That still leaves several no-shows. Games like Atom Smasher, Satan of Saturn, Lasso, Marvin’s Maze, Vanguard II, Gladiator, Jumping Cross, Main Event, Canvas Croquis, Hal 21, Touch Down Fever, Fighting Golf, Fighting Soccer, Mechanized Attack, Baseball Stars, Sky Adventure, or Touch Down Fever II. Now, I won’t pretend like I’m some kind of SNK aficionado. I’d never heard about most of these games until I read about them. But I did just read about their existence.. in SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, where they are displayed prominently in the game’s museum. While I’m sure it would have been time and resource consuming to port all those as well, the fact that there’s so many of the games missing with no word of more DLC coming, free or otherwise, makes this set feel very incomplete.

None of the games listed in this screenshot from the complete SNK timeline included in the collection are present in the game. That kind of sucks. I thought Vanguard was interesting and now want to play the sequel. Game companies that put these sets out might inadvertently send gamers rushing to MAME to check out the stuff left on the table. It makes me wonder if they would have been better off waiting to release the collection in November of 2019 in order to include more games. But then again, SNK 41st Anniversary Collection doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Capcom’s heavy hitters can’t be satisfactorily explained away either. Yes, more complete Capcom sets (Capcom Classics Collection Vol 1 & 2) were released for the PS2 and original Xbox. Well, this isn’t those consoles. There’s no original Street Fighter. Or Final Fight. Or Bionic Commando. Or Mercs. Or Tiger Road. Or Forgotten Roads. And yea, some of the games did get a separate release in Capcom Beat-Em Up Bundle. But again, this is actually a backwards compatible game from a previous generation. They didn’t plan the Beat-Em Up set yet. So skipping those games here feels very lazy. What we did get feels like a dumping ground of games nobody in their right mind would actually want as anything but part of a collection. I don’t think that’s true of SNK. Even with so many missing games, I don’t feel anything that is definitively SNK is missing from that compilation. There’s no truly iconic Capcom game in a Capcom collection, and that’s just plain baffling.
Edge: SNK 40th Anniversary Collection

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE

The following is an indisputable fact: the Capcom that exists today is, for better or worse, the same linear company that made the games featured in this set. You can’t say the same about SNK. The SNK that published the games in this collection.. well.. died. And that makes perfect sense. I’m guessing diehard fans of the company that are older than me won’t want to hear it, but I always looked at SNK like a cover band that made inferior versions of more popular work. They were making the Dollar Store, off-brand also-ran fighters that didn’t sniff 1/10th the success or reverence Street Fighter II did. I’m sure there are people out there that will swear on a stack of Bibles that King of Fighters or Samurai Showdown were better games than Street Fighter II and its twenty-two billion special editions. But they weren’t making terrible movies with Jean-Claude Van Damme based on King of Fighters. For my generation, we mostly know SNK from generic, red arcade cabinets containing four generic games from franchises they don’t make new games for (mostly) today.

Before buying SNK 40th, the only time I heard of any of the games included in it were from people talking about how bad they were. Like the Angry Game Nerd riffing on the NES version of Ikari Warriors (included in this collection, and yes indeed, it’s truly horrible). Prehistoric Isle is probably the third best game of the set. Not great or anything, but genuinely fun. Good use of theme. But it’s not exactly the type of game that comes up often in casual conversations with Golden Agers. That’s the SNK set in a nutshell: okay games you’ve never heard of and probably will never play again once you finish them once.

But, the issue is none of either company’s truly iconic franchises are here. And trust me, while you’re sitting there stewing that some hateful millennial said tons of mean things about your favorite classic games, I’ve been sitting here for hours positively stumped about how I quantify the historic value of the games we actually have in the set. Ghosts ‘N Goblins is probably the most overall famous title of anything featured today. But it’s famous for all the wrong reasons. It’s not so much a “good ole days” game as much as it was a “games were harder back in the day” crowing point that blowhards point to. Almost none of whom actually beat these games on the developer’s terms. They needed save states or Game Genies or any other laundry list of help to make anything resembling progress. Ghosts ‘N Goblins is famous because it’s a terrible game that lots of kids really wanted to like and actually didn’t. Everything else in the Capcom set barely qualifies as a footnote in gaming history. And the one game that most gamers do remember and still talk about, they talk about in the same tone that they talk about their old high-school friend they reconnected with on Facebook only to find out he’s since become a holocaust denier.

Maybe you can say the same thing about the SNK set, but this is where the extra features provide an assist. Because the games in that collection are framed in a way where the hateful millennial you’re still pissed off at gets education on why these games mattered, and how they laid the groundwork for the company that SNK would become. I didn’t know their first arcade game had intended to use interchangeable cartridges, and even if that game isn’t present here, I think that shit is neat. Like, wow, they actually had something like Neo Geo in mind right from the very foundation of their existence in the 1970s. That’s swell. Maybe Capcom wouldn’t have lasted if they hadn’t found moderate successful with games like Side Arms or Vulgus, but what we do have feels almost unimportant. The games in SNK’s set are displayed with such care and love that it makes them feel more important to our community’s history than they probably are. Plus they included NES ports of the games, as if to say “well if you think Ikari Warriors was shitty in arcades, you should see what people at home had to suffer through.” Both sets feel light on importance, but..
Slight Edge: SNK 40th Anniversary Collection

“Maybe if we just throw all the game artwork into a big pile and use that for a menu, nobody will notice the complete lack of star-power in our set.” Oh, and you can only get Vulgus and 1943 Kai if you buy every other game in the set. They can’t be purchased separately and are “bonus games.” Kai is the best game in the collection and Vulgus is at least decent enough to not be painful. You really dicked fans with this one, Capcom.

PLAY VALUE TODAY

Probably the biggest issue with Capcom Arcade Cabinet is just how maddening the games are. I adjusted every game’s difficulty to easy and I still was losing virtual quarters in under a minute to most of the games. Gun.Smoke I lasted 35 seconds my first attempt. Of course, for Fantasy on the SNK collection, my first play took me 2.3 seconds of actual game-time to lose all my lives. Yes, you read that right: 2.3 seconds. If I had been a teenager in 1981, I’d probably have been arrested for punching out the screen. It’d been my final Fantasy if you catch my drift.

But nothing else in the SNK set fucked me to the degree Fantasy did. And while most of the games underwhelmed me in both sets, the issue with Capcom Arcade Cabinet is how samey it is. Most of the games are some form of a shmup, and all the ones that aren’t I found to be terrible. Ghosts ‘N Goblins? Terrible. Gun.Smoke? Terrible. Avengers? No, not that Avengers. No, not one either. No, an original game called Avengers. It sucks. Trojan and Black Tiger seemed like they could be fun, but even on easy the enemies drained health too fast and the overall design seemed like it was based around taking quarters with little regard for giving players value. I started a life in Black Tiger and in under 30 seconds, I opened a treasure chest that caused an instakill. It’d be like if the old man in Zelda said “it’s dangerous to go alone, take this” and then pulled out a glock and capped Link. Game Over. I somehow doubt Zelda goes down in history as an all-timer if it pulls that stunt.

The most interesting game in Capcom by far was Speed Rumbler, a game so lost to history that it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page. It plays like a primitive form of the old 2D Grand Theft Auto games and might have been fun. But again, prohibitive difficulty and unresponsive controls sort of make it hard to appreciate that it might have been the unstated inspiration for one of the biggest franchises in gaming history. Or, as a friend pointed out, it might have inspired the NES Roger Rabbit game. (Hey, why not both?) Two games in Capcom’s set I could unambiguously say I enjoyed: Side Arms and 1943 Kai. Out of seventeen games. The rest are either broken, boring, or so underwhelming that my saying “it’s alright” would immediately be followed with a yawn.

Speed Rumbler also suffers from extreme difficulty. It makes me wonder if the “easy” options are purely decorative.

With SNK 40th Anniversary, nothing blew my mind. Both the games that had the highest potential to do so (Crystalis and SAR) have something so wrong with them that it mutes my enthusiasm for further playtime with them. Crystalis controls too loosely and the primary weapon feels weak and unsatisfying to stab stuff with. SAR simply plays too slow and lacks enough wacky weapons to make it truly the spectacle I suspect it was trying to be. The best game with the fewest problems, Prehistoric Isle, is really just another fucking shmup that happens to have an interesting theme and little more going for it. To be clear: these are good games. But, the rest of the set can say what Capcom can’t: the games are playable and never feel demoralizing. Maybe I was underwhelmed with Ikari Warriors 2, but it hardly sucks. Bermuda Triangle isn’t mind-blowing, but it wasn’t worthless either. The two best games in Capcom are probably better than anything in SNK’s set, but SNK has more stuff worth looking at. Gameplay is king, and you just plain get more with SNK.
Edge: SNK 40th Anniversary Collection

WINNER
SNK 40TH ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION

And that makes me happy for one primary reason: Capcom’s set feels like a cynical cash-grab. I’m surprised the emulator isn’t constantly shitting the bed with it. It’s that half-assed and that rushed. It’s such a lazy, uninspired set of games. If they were excluded from a real Capcom’s greatest hits set, I don’t think anyone would actually miss 80% of them. The irony is that SNK’s games all felt about as original as an Asylum film, but there’s nothing about SNK 40th Anniversary Collection that feels soulless or like a cash grab. It’s a labor of love. I can’t imagine this particular collection of games would sell a lot. I’ve even seen people who came close to buying it only to change their minds when they found out Neo Geo era games weren’t along for the ride. Given that none of these games, even Crystalis, are exactly legends, it wouldn’t be reasonable to think a compilation like this would ever grace a top-sellers chart. This seems like a bad investment for SNK to make. And yet, it exists, and it’s actually really beautiful. SNK 40th Anniversary Collection was made as a way for SNK to tell their fans “you know what? We always did appreciate your support.” When do you ever seen that from a major game company anymore? I didn’t even like most of the games in it, but I’d recommend it in a heartbeat to anyone who wants to take a stroll down memory lane with someone who deserves to take that journey with you. And from what I’ve seen here, SNK absolutely should be that company.

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy v Sega Genesis Classics (IGC Retro Bowl I)

Welcome to the first IGC Retro Bowl. Here’s the idea: two classic game collections will be pitted head-to-head with each other in a variety of categories. Whichever game wins the most wins and moves on to face the next challenger. The loser takes their seat somewhere on the IGC Retro Board, which is like the Leaderboard but for Retro Collections instead of indies. That’s coming soon.

By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, this is the first feature in IGC history where I’m not paying for every game featured. These are not indie games, and I really can’t justify buying games that were not remotely aimed at me. Some of these were supplied by fans who wanted me to experience (or suffer) through the games of their childhood. Others have been supplied by the companies themselves. I’ve also bought a few for myself and will continue to buy others if this feature takes off.

What collections to look forward to for IGC Retro Bowl? Here’s what I already have for it, and I expect to get more:

  • Rare Replay
  • Midway Origins
  • SNK 40th Anniversary Collection
  • NES Classic Edition
  • SNES Classic Edition
  • Capcom Arcade Cabinet
  • Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle
  • Atari Flashback Classics (Switch version)
  • Mega Man Legacy Collection
  • Mega Man Legacy Collection 2
  • Disney Afternoon
  • Namco Museum Arcade Pac

And of course, today’s contenders..

IN THIS CORNER
Dragon’s Lair Trilogy
$19.99 for Nintendo Switch
3 arcade games released between 1983 – 1991
Game supplied by a fan.

IN THE OTHER CORNER
Sega Genesis Classics
$29.99 for Switch, PlayStation 4, & Xbox One
53 console games released between 1988 – 1997 (51 on Switch)
Game supplied by Sega.

I hate FMV games. I’m getting that chiseled on my tombstone. Dragon’s Lair wasn’t the first FMV game. Funny enough, Sega barely beat them to the market with Astron Belt, even though work on it was done much sooner than Dragon’s Lair. But while Astron Belt bombed so badly that you’ve probably never heard of it, Dragon’s Lair went on to become a bonafide legend. It’s still fondly remembered today. I had barely played it at all before a fan bought it for me for this feature and really didn’t understand it. But, I go into every game with as open a mind as humanly possible, and this was no exception.

As for the Genesis, it had NOTHING to do with my childhood. My father insisted he did own a Genesis, and eventually we did find one in the attic. It had two games (Altered Beast and Super Monaco GP) and looked like it had barely been touched. My gaming upbringing really didn’t begin until the PlayStation 1 in 1996. Funny enough, the oldest game released in this set came out in North America a year after I got my PS1. Anyway, I’m known for shitting on Sega games, Sonic especially. So imagine my surprise when Sega actually sent me a code (initially from my friend/surrogate little brother Jon). When I finally spoke to them, I was fully open that I wasn’t the biggest fan. But they were smart enough to know that it didn’t matter if I was. Once my fans saw I was playing the set, they’d find out it existed at all and rush out to buy it. And they did. Sega’s message to me was essentially “sock it to us.” Which is pretty much what happened. And my older readers responded by buying the set OUT OF SPITE for me. Sega: they’re smart cookies.

And so, for our first every IGC Retro Bowl, we’re going to pit these two collections featuring games I have no nostalgia for against each other. Which will soar and which will sink?

Yea, this is a tremendous waste of time. Dragon’s Lair has about as much chance as no-armed golfer using his mouth to swing the club at Augusta. But work with me here.

PRESENTATION

Sega Genesis Classics’ menu is themed like a typical 90s child’s bedroom. Well, an idealized, borderline fantasy one. It’s too clean, among other things. Games are displayed on a wooden rack. You can move the games you enjoy into their own section, which is a nice feature. Selecting games sees them inserted into the Genesis. You can even eject the carts afterwards. There’s a huge variety of options to run the emulation too. Of course, it kind of sucks that sometimes the emulator shits the bed, especially displaying text in games like the Phantasy Star and Shining Force titles.

I questioned on Twitter whether children of the 90s really would have a record player. Most people said yea, they would. I still find that hard to believe but they insist. Guess it’s true.

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy has a much fewer options. You can display the games with or without an arcade cabinet. You can turn on and off the movements guides. Turning them off is something only the most sadomasochistic person would ever consider. But really, the most noteworthy aspect is how bad figuring out what’s highlighted on the menus can be. Take a look here and tell me which of the two options is selected?

Believe it or not, CONTINUE is what’s selected right now. I have no clue why they decided to make the duller color the cursor, but they did. And that combines with other issues. There’s no language options, which is weird because you’re watching a movie. I mean, sorta. And while the extra features are nice (more on them later), you can’t skip to different parts of the interview, nor can you rewind or fast forward. You either watch it all at once or not at all. Lame.
Edge: Sega Genesis Classics

HISTORIC IMPORTANCE

Dragon’s Lair is slightly more than a weird anomaly. In 1983, it received the largest order for units in the history of the Chicago Coin convention. It shattered every previous record, by some accounts securing more orders than all other games at the show combined. That order was for $10,000,000. That’s in 1983 dollars, or over $30,000,000 in today’s dollar. For an arcade game. Granted, Dragon’s Lair cost between 3 to 5 times as much as other games did, but still, it’s pretty noteworthy. And that investment did pay off for arcade operators. Arcades were starting to decline, but Dragon’s Lair brought players back and kept them there. Even being the first upright game to charge $0.50 a play didn’t deter gamers.

In a set based on an anomaly, Space Ace is itself an anomaly. Of the three, I think it has the best story and best animation. It certainly has the highest potential to become a property with actual value today. Besides, it’s about emasculating a dude-bro. I heard that’s topical today.

For a few months at least. What Dragon’s Lair really did was attract a crowd to arcades so they could check out the latest titles from other manufacturers. Dragon’s Lair was neat to watch, but players quickly caught on that it wasn’t really interactive. You had no control over Dirk the Daring and once the novelty wore off, so did Dragon Lair’s use. It didn’t help the machines were prone to breaking down. No game from its era displayed “out of order” signs more than Dragon’s Lair. When Space Ace came along, the boom was even briefer. Funny enough, Dragon’s Lair was so uncommon by 1991 that Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp also very briefly caused an arcade resurgence. And once again, the same thing happened: fans quickly caught on that it was a horrible game and moved on to other things. Still, people do remember it for reasons other than being shitty, and that counts for something. I had a gamer from that era tell me that Dragon’s Lair was like a bright, beautiful shooting star. Look away for even a second and you miss it completely, but everyone who saw it will never forget it.

But the historical significance of Dragon’s Lair pales in comparison to the Genesis. They’re polar opposites in terms of their trajectories. Dragon’s Lair made a major impact immediately and then fizzled out quickly. The Genny arrived with little fanfare and support. Gamers of the time wanted to wait on the next new Nintendo console. But then an incredible marketing campaign (Genesis Does What NintenDon’t), an aggressive free-game for early adopters program, competitive pricing and the arrival of Sonic T. Hedgehog turned around the fortunes of the console. By time the SNES launched, the Genesis was legitimate competition for it, and that carried on for the entire generation. The Master System flopped. The Saturn flopped. The Dreamcast, regretfully, flopped. Sega still carries clout and reverence to this day, and the main reason for that is the Genesis.
Major Edge: Sega Genesis Classics

 

Oh my God, Genny fans will hate me for this: I actually liked Toejam & Earl 2 more than the original, which I didn’t like at all. I think the idea for TJ&E was great and this was a case of being ahead of its time. “The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak” type of deal based on the limitations of the Genesis. That’s why I’m excited for the upcoming reboot. It’s going to be what the original wanted to be and wasn’t.

BEST AND WORST GAMES

I blitzed through all fifty-one games in the Switch port of Genny Classics over a two-day period. Twenty of those games got a more in-depth look from me afterwards. But during that initial blitz, only one of the games had me so sucked in that I couldn’t put it down until the credits rolled. That game was Gunstar Heroes. I’d heard the stories of course, but most titles from that era that carry the legend of John Henry’s hammer never live up to their towering reputation. With Gunstar, I was so awed by the marvelous gameplay that I literally started to cry in euphoric elation. It was so fun. I couldn’t believe a game that good was in a collection that had so underwhelmed me up to that point. Not only does it hold up today, but it should be studied by all game design students. It drops all the bullshit and focuses on fun, tight shooting gameplay. It’s one of the 25 best games ever made, and the best Genesis exclusive from its generation. It’s probably worth $29.99 on its own.

Sometimes the legends live up to their reputation.

As for the stinkers, over half the set has games that couldn’t withstand the test of time, but, nothing really stands out as abysmal. Except Sonic Spinball, which was never good for its day. Riddled with slowdown and technical issues (no surprise, it was made in only two months in order to replace Sonic 3 for a Happy Meal tie-in), the game is almost unplayable. Even then, Sonic Spinball has more gameplay at its worst moment than any of the three games in Dragon’s Lair Trilogy has. FMV games are limited in their capabilities, but I can’t let that be an excuse for just how crushingly unfun these relics are. Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp probably plays the best of the collection. It’s more clear which direction you’re supposed to press, which is something you can’t say about a few rooms in Dragon’s Lair or especially Space Ace. I preferred Space Ace to Dragon’s Lair 1 because it has a little more going on with the energize concept, but none of these anti-classics are really all that playable. Plus, they’re so prohibitively difficult that I think the average gamer will never put more than five minutes at most into any one of the three games even if they want to. They’re putrid.
Major Edge: Sega Genesis Classics

 

Dragon’s Lair II was co-written by an author whose initials are L.S.D. if you catch my drift.

EXTRAS

Hey, congratulations Dragon’s Lair Trilogy! You didn’t get shutout! Due to licensing issues, the Genny collection couldn’t include things a true museum-style collection probably ought to, like the iconic Genesis advertising. I can understand that. What I can’t understand is why things like concept art or interviews weren’t included. You do get online play and leaderboards, but I found the co-op to be laggy. There’s also “challenges” on the Switch version which stand-in for achievements from other ports. It’s a low-effort affair, with the best “special” feature being alternate region versions of games like Streets of Rage that differ sometimes in small ways and sometimes in huge ways. It’s a nice touch, one that a lot of my fans were shocked but very happy to learn about.

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy has a few bonuses. There’s a twenty-minute or so interview with Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and Rick Dyer. It’s not long, but there’s some nice info in it, including plans for a line of thirty (!) FMV games, none of which materialized. An unproduced concept, The Sea Beast and Barnacle Bill, was going to be inspired by vintage Popeye cartoons and even had a promotional flyer made. But, nah, a game based on golden age animation would never succeed.

There’s also the animatics for part of a deleted stage (complete with voice acting) from Dragon’s Lair II, attract screens, and the ability to watch the complete movies without playing them. Those tell you everything you really need to know about Dragon’s Lair: that the best extra feature is the ability to not play the game.
Major Edge: Dragon’s Lair Trilogy

 

The dude in the middle did all the work and got none of the credit. Then he went bankrupt trying to push a Laserdisc-based console. No happy endings here, anyone.

WHAT IS MISSING THE LEAST?

My first exposure to Dragon’s Lair as a franchise came at the age of 13 with the release of Dragon’s Lair 3D: Return to the Lair for Xbox and GameCube (and PS2 if you were in Europe, though I heard it was broken on that platform). When I heard the term “Dragon’s Lair Trilogy”, I honestly thought the third game was going to be that, not Space Ace. It aspired to be what people always wanted to be able to do with the original game: actually play it. With the invention of cel-shaded graphics, it was now possible to take full control over Dirk. Return to the Lair did recreate all the famous set-pieces from the arcade original, and it looked very convincing. But, the game controlled miserably, had a terrible camera, and just still wasn’t very fun. Still, at least it’s a game and not a glorified string of DVD menus. Also missing are more gamey ports of Dragon’s Lair. Data East released one for the SNES. Absolute released Space Ace for the SNES. A Dragon’s Lair III was released on Amiga computers. There’s not even a mention of them here. While getting the rights to these games might have been prohibitive, it’s regretful that there’s nothing here but the three famous laser disc games. Then again, since all these games sucked (the NES Dragon’s Lair is famous for it’s horribleness), we really aren’t missing that much. Thayer’s Quest is probably the biggest omission. It was a conversion kit for Dragon’s Lair and I assume Rick Dyer has to own the rights to it. And at least that has something resembling gameplay and interactivity. But ultimately, nothing important is missing.

The same can’t be said for Sega Genesis Classics. The Genesis was defined by its sports games, but none of those are here. Nor are celebrity games like Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. None of the three Ecco the Dolphin games are included. Sonic & Knuckles isn’t included. Sonic *3* isn’t included (apparently due to music issues). Eternal Champions isn’t included. It’s not as if these are minor omissions. These are first party Sega games that helped define the platform. Maybe they would have bumped the cost of the set up and that’s why a better effort wasn’t made to secure the rights to them. To which I say: I think most Genesis fans would have paid $10 more to have them involved. It’s not a complete set without them. Even stranger: the Switch version specifically is missing the two Wonder Boy games PS4 and XB1 owners got. Bizarre.
Edge: Dragon’s Lair Trilogy

 

Jokes aside, this would probably KILL upon solo re-release today. Someone really should get on it.

PLAY VALUE TODAY

All games are a product of their time, so perhaps the test of time is an unreasonable one. That doesn’t make it any less real. I didn’t grow up in either set’s respective eras. Their play value to me has to exist without historic context. Under those terms, at least the a few of the Sega Genesis Classics hold up reasonable well and can stand on their own merits. Besides Gunstar Heroes, I think the average gamer will still be able to enjoy games like Sonic 1 and 2 (I literally can’t believe I just said that), Alien Solider, the Streets of Rage games, the Shining Force games, and at least two of the three Phantasy Star Games included. There’s something for everyone here. And if you’re a slobbering 90s fanboy, that precious nostalgia dopamine is bound to hit even for stuff that aged especially poorly. You’ll feel like a kid again. And probably act like one too when you read how much younger people hate your childhood favorites.

A priest wants to “investigate” a bunch of children “to make sure nobody is hurt.” Well, if that’s not timeless, I don’t know what is.

I don’t think the same can be said about Dragon’s Lair Trilogy. No matter how fond your memories of it are, playing these games today is the pits. Putting aside how beautiful Don Bluth’s animation is, they have to also hold up as video games, and they don’t at all. They basically didn’t from the moment they launched. They’re frustrating, quarter-snatching slogs. Even by the low standards of FMV games, badly designed too. I can’t tell you how many times the on-screen indicator was placed in a way where it wasn’t clear if you’re supposed to move one direction or another. It forces you to use a guide that was added to this set in order to know what you’re supposed to do. The greatest irony of Dragon’s Lair and its ilk is that excelling at playing them can only be done by paying as little attention to the artwork and the storylines as possible. Only when you ignore the only possible reason you’d want to play them can they be played well. And that, above all else, makes them some of the absolute worst games ever made.
Major Edge: Sega Genesis Classics

 

WINNER
SEGA GENESIS CLASSICS

And let’s face it: it wasn’t even a fair battle. I had never played Space Ace or Dragon’s Lair II before I got this set, but having spent five minutes previously with a BluRay of Dragon’s Lair, I sort of had. I’m not taking anything away from what these games accomplished. But it’s pretty telling that most of the fondest memories from Golden Agers are not of actually playing Dragon’s Lair itself, but watching others play it on a second monitor most cabinets came with. I’m sure the visuals were mindblowing for their time. It’s not their time anymore. It stopped being their time long ago. Really, did any game lose its relevance faster during that era than Dragon’s Lair?

Sega Genesis Classics is hardly a flawless set. The lack of extras, frequent emulation issues, laggy online play, and perplexing omissions frustrate for sure. But there are games here that have value today, in 2019. More than one. I think there’s even games that initially were shit on, like Sonic 3D Blast, that are actually better than anyone gave them credit for being. Genesis Does indeed.

NES Remix

No, it’s not an indie.  But, I’m not exactly known as someone with a particular fondness for NES “classics” that grew stale before I was even born.  When Nintendo surprised everyone Wednesday by debuting NES Remix and announcing it was out right now, it was bizarre.  Almost as if they had no confidence in it.  But, it looked vaguely like the 9-Volt stages in Wario Ware, which is pretty much my favorite game ever.  And my Wii U was starting to get dusty again after I finished Super Mario 3D World.  So, $15 later, I was going to see what this game Nintendo was so nervous about hyping for more than a few minutes was all about.

NES Remix is made up of micro-sections of sixteen early first-party NES games, most of which are no fucking good today and probably wouldn’t have been all that fun even back in the day.  Look, I appreciate the historical significance of the original Donkey Kong, Super Mario, and Legend of Zelda.  But the same franchises have been done better so many times since the 80s.  To pretend otherwise seems kind of crazy.  Meanwhile, the majority of the games in NES Remix really just aren’t any good at all.  Baseball, Pinball, Tennis, Urban Champion, and Golf should be locked in a box and thrown in the middle of the ocean.  And Ice Climber?  I swear to God, I think it might legitimately be the worst game Nintendo ever made.  Not only does it control like it was designed by someone who hates video games, but it also has a tendency to have players fall through the platforms because you’re “too close to the edge.”  Even though you’re more than a full character-length on the platform.  If there’s a worst first-party game Nintendo has ever put out, I haven’t played it.

Funny enough, it's actually easier to do the bouncy-turtles shell-lives trick in Super Mario 3D World.

Funny enough, it’s actually easier to do the bouncy-turtles shell-lives trick in Super Mario 3D World.

So, a collection of sixteen games that I either hate or am totally indifferent too?  Games which have not been blessed with the gift of graceful aging?  Games which I would never pay the price for off Nintendo’s Virtual Console if they were sold alone?  Obviously, we’re talking a real game of the year contender, right?

Well, actually.. yeah.

NES Remix utterly owned me.  I got it Wednesday morning, and I played it so much that I ran out the battery on my Wii U pad three times in a single day.  Never mind how pitiful it is that a console could have the battery run out that much in a single day.  I also will try not to focus too much on how there is absolutely no reason why NES Remix has to be exclusive to the Wii U, or that Nintendo unquestionably lost out in millions in revenue this week alone by not having a 3DS version launch alongside it.  Okay, so that’s a lie.  It’s kind of the elephant in the room and it requires scrutiny.  Nintendo fanboys are saying it’s because Wii U needs exclusive software to justify owning it.  That’s a fucking cop-out excuse if I’ve ever heard one.  NES Remix is the perfect portable game.  Pick-up-and-play mechanics, small goals, a large variety of gameplay styles, and no consequences if you think you have time to kill, turn on your device, then suddenly become busy and have to turn it off.  Tethering this diamond to the Wii U would be like hiring Michael Jordan to be on your golf team.  I’m sure he’s a damn fine golfer, probably better than your average schmo, but wouldn’t he better suited on your basketball team?  And NES Remix would be better suited on the 3DS.  It just would be.

But, the decision was made, and NES Remix is slumming it on the wrong console.  Fine.  It doesn’t change the quality of the game at all.  NES Remix is, as of this moment, the best digital-exclusive Nintendo has ever produced.  Like Wario Ware, Nintendo has taken gameplay, stripped out most of the bullshit, then weaponized what was left into the most potently addictive micro-gaming chunks seen since, well, the original Wario Ware.  This is gaming in its purest form.  Scoring and/or speed based, no frills, white-knuckle gaming.  And I love it.

Sorry to disappoint white supremacists , but the game is called "Clu-Clu Land". With a "C". Just go back to playing Uncharted.

Sorry to disappoint white supremacists , but the game is called “Clu-Clu Land”. With a “C”. Just go back to playing Uncharted.

The NES games are divided into sections by game, which have anywhere between seven to over twenty levels per game, though I don’t believe every game has its own unique stage selection.  Baseball, Tennis, Urban Champion, and Donkey Kong 3 seem to have drawn the short straw and don’t have their own sections, and that’s just fine with me.  There’s also fifty “remix” stages that do something wacky with the gameplay or graphics, plus twenty-five “bonus stages” that seem more like deleted scenes, cut from the game for a reason.  Each stage is scored on a scale from one-star to three-stars, plus if you do really good, a meaningless rainbow star thing appears that doesn’t seem to unlock anything.

The remix stages are treated like the meat of the game, but really, I enjoyed all the non-psychedelic challenges presented here.  Stuff like trying to catch 1-up mushrooms in Super Mario, or fighting bosses in Legend of Zelda, one ten-second stage at a time, was hugely satisfying.  It even managed to make games like Golf and Balloon Fight more than enjoyable, something I never imagined was possible.  I knocked out most of those before I ever started on the Remix stages, which were often pretty cool too.  You might have to play a full stage in Super Mario where the game auto-runs for you.  As it turns out, Super Mario makes a great auto-runner.  Who would have thunk it?  Other challenges might be related to the presentation, like having the camera pull back, showing multiple, progressively smaller screens.  When I played these stages, I would then look away from the Wii U pad, where my room now seemed to be pulling back and shrinking.  It was trippy.  And awesome.

Not all the remix stages were well conceived.  A couple of them involve you playing Donkey Kong using Link.  No, you can’t use your sword for some fucking stupid reason.  Also, you can’t jump.  Ever tried to beat the first stage in Donkey Kong without jumping?  It’s way tougher than it sounds.  You’re basically left up to the whims of fate, hoping against hope that the barrels don’t go down the ladders you’re about to cross, since you have no way of defending yourself or otherwise avoiding them.  My gut instinct tells me they originally planned to let you use the sword for these sections (since it makes no fucking sense to have Link in Donkey Kong and not be able to swing your sword) but they couldn’t do it right (it’s really just a ROM hack, with Link painted over Mario), so they just left it the way it was.  Of course, the whole ROM hack theory doesn’t explain why you can’t jump.  Other ill-thought-out stages include Pinball (a crap game on its own, like most of the games in this collection) where the flippers are invisible, an Ice Climber stage where the only hook is the graphics become Game Boy-like (and this one screws up sometimes by having the mono-Gameboy sound be present during the NES part, and vice versa), or fighting “imposters” in Balloon fight that are the exact same enemies you already take on, re-skinned to look like you.  Really, some of them are just plain lazy.  But this is the same company that has put out roughly fifty-billion ports of the 75% complete NES version of Donkey Kong.  I’m almost convinced that Nintendo is the Japanese word for half-assed.

The biggest problem with NES Remix is these are the exact same games that they’ve always been, only broken down into microscopic chunks.  Although this makes some of the games more palatable, all their original control flaws are still present.  I mentioned Ice Climber above, which is probably Nintendo’s most broken controlling game.  But actually, the original Mario Bros. is nearly as crippled.  The jumping physics are horrible, requiring you to build up momentum to make a jump.  Only sometimes this doesn’t seem to work.  Plus, landing on a platform above you requires you to land perfectly flush on it.  If a micro-pixel isn’t on, you fall through the platform.  In games scored entirely around timing, shit like this is fucking maddening.  Additionally, Baseball, Tennis, and especially Clu Clu Land (my buddy Cyril’s choice for Nintendo’s worst first-party game) control the same as they always have: like shit.

One of the Zelda stages (not the one pictured) required me to use the candle to burn a tree down and reveal a hidden staircase. As God as my witness, I burned every God damned tree on the screen at least three times each and the staircase never appeared. I restarted the stage and the next time the very first tree I torched revealed the staircase. I'm not sure if it was a glitch or not. I never bothered to replay it after that. I had already ripped out enough of my hair by that point that my scalp was bleeding.

One of the Zelda stages (not the one pictured) required me to use the candle to burn a tree down and reveal a hidden staircase. As God as my witness, I burned every God damned tree on the screen at least three times each and the staircase never appeared. I restarted the stage and the next time the very first tree I torched revealed the staircase. I’m not sure if it was a glitch or not. I never bothered to replay it after that. I had already ripped out enough of my hair by that point that my scalp was bleeding.

Another issue, which is kind of minor, is that the difficulty of each challenge, in terms of what will give you a three-star rating and what won’t, varies wildly.  In one of the Super Mario levels that is divided into three sub-stages, the object is to enter a warp pipe.  The target time for three stars was 30 seconds.  Getting this required near-perfect runs.  I twice finished at 30.1 seconds because I had trouble lining up in the under-water pipe or something.  Eventually, I did get the three-star rating I had coveted, clocking in at 29.6.  No rainbow stars though, and I’ll be damned if I can guess where I could possibly make up the time for it.  Edit: Oh my God, I am such a fucking idiot.  I thought I had attempted to enter all the pipes in the second stage. It turns out there was a much, much closer pipe I could have entered than the one I was going into.  I just finished in 24 seconds and rainbowed.  I suck But then I would play multiple other stages where I could die three or four times and still score three-stars with rainbows even though my performance could best be summed up as “pitiful.”  There was no consistency from one stage to the next, and it takes the oomph out of the sense of accomplishment I sometimes felt.

Despite those issues, NES Remix is honest-to-God my new favorite Wii U game.  Certainly Nintendo’s best digital-exclusive in their history.  I was utterly hooked for three solid days on it.  It even did the impossible and made Urban Champion fun for like five seconds, which by my count, is three seconds longer than Wario Ware accomplished.  Although I have no fucking clu-clu why this is exclusive to Wii U, this is a must own.  At least, I think it is.  Opinions are hugely divided here.  One trend I’ve noticed: older gamers that played the originals to death in the 80s seem to like this a lot less than myself and younger gamers have.  I’m guessing if you’ve played the original Super Mario Bros. once a week for the last thirty years, you probably would be bored by some of the “challenges” here, like playing level 3-3 with all the platforms invisible.  See though, I don’t have every nuisance of these games committed to memory, and probably for that reason, this could very well end up being my Game of the Year.  So a word of advice to the younger Nintendo fanboys out there: don’t schedule a monthly play-through of New Super Mario Bros. or Pikmin 3, or else when Wii U Remix comes out in 2043 for the Nintendo Wii UeuPrince logo.svgmI3, you’ll be sorry.

NES Remix LogoNES Remix was developed by Nintendo

Seal of Approval Large$14.99 said “the game just fucking came out, so stop talking about sequels already you annoying fucking fanboys” in the making of this review.

NES Remix is Chick-Approved, but not remotely Leaderboard eligible (non-Indie)

Centipede (PlayStation Home Arcade), Centipede & Millipede (XBLA), Centipede Origins (iOS), and Bad Caterpillar (XBLIG)

Probably the biggest misconception about me as a gamer is that I’m anti-retro or anti-old games.  I’m not.  I’m simply of the opinion that some games age better than others.  I wouldn’t want to play Space Invaders or Pac-Man as they existed back in the day.  I’m perfectly fine with modern remakes of them, like Space Invaders Extreme or Pac-Man Championship Edition.  On the other hand, some of those older games have aged pretty gracefully.  Centipede is one such game.  In fact, it’s one of the few golden age coin-ops that I feel blends in perfectly with the current generation.  Its twitchy, fast-paced gameplay lends itself perfectly to ten minute portable sessions.  It released recently on the Vita’s Home Arcade platform, and I snagged it for $1.49 in preparation for today’s review.  That’s about what I would have spent to last 15 minutes on the coin-op if I had been alive in 1983.  Did I mention I really suck at it?

Centipede on PlayStation Home Arcade (Vita)

Centipede on PlayStation Home Arcade (Vita)

So what do I think of Home Arcade?  Um, hmmmm.. you know, in the four years its been around, I never have really used PlayStation Home too much.  I would rather just be able to launch games straight off my Vita’s dashboard without having to open Home Arcade.  The interface is clunky and half the time I’ll be stabbing the ever-loving shit out of the “your games” button and nothing happens.  Having said that, the prices are pretty good ($1.49 each) and it has the advantage of being portable and on the coolest gaming gizmo in years.  I don’t even have Home installed on my PS3, and I don’t plan on it, but you don’t need it to use Home Arcade.  I can’t speak for the rest of the games (get back to me the next time an Asteroids clone hits XBLIG) but Centipede controls well.  I guess you can’t ask for more.  Which is a good thing, because what you get is a bare-bones port of the arcade original.  They could have thrown in ports of the Atari home versions, but hey, it’s called making a lazy dollar.

I picked up Centipede on Vita because I wanted to compare it to Bad Caterpillar, a new Xbox Live Indie Game from Kris Steele.  I like Kris, but the dude fucking aggravates me to no end.   His games always have something glaringly off about them.  Volchaos would have been fun if the movement physics weren’t so damn loose.  The same goes for Hypership: Out of Control on XBLIG.  If a gnat so much as farts in the direction of the analog stick, it sends your ship flying.  In a game that involves lining up your character to shoot smaller targets, precision control is kind of needed.  Hypership is actually sublime on iPhone, and very addictive.  Of course, that has the advantage of having drag-the-ship touch controls for extra-accurate firing.  His track record of acceptable controls on XBLIG is about as good as THQ’s record with bankruptcy avoidance.  Considering that Bad Caterpillar looked really close to Centipede, a game which requires precision movement so much that the arcade original used a trackball, I braced for the worst.

Bad Caterpillar on Xbox Live Indie Games.

Bad Caterpillar on Xbox Live Indie Games.

As it turns out, my worries were misplaced.  Bad Caterpillar handles pretty well.  Not perfect.  No joystick-based Centipede can possibly be perfect.  But, I can honestly say that it plays better than any other version of Centipede I played today.  That’s a lot of versions.  For the sake of comparison, I also bought Centipede & Millipede, a 2-for-1 Xbox Live Arcade port of the arcade games.  Movement for these is too loose to be acceptable.  I’ve always had a difficult time in Centipede lining up shots correctly, especially when the last segments of the Centipede are near the bottom of the screen.  That’s not a huge problem in Bad Caterpillar.  It’s a fucking chore in the XBLA arcade ports.  If it was any looser, it would hang out on dimly-lit street corners and be considered a bio-hazard.

The "evolved" version of Centipede & Millipede on Xbox Live Arcade.

The “evolved” version of Centipede & Millipede on Xbox Live Arcade.

The biggest disappointment with the XBLA ports (besides the awful controls) is how the “modern” versions are really just the same old Centipede with some new (re: 15 year-old) special effects added.  On the flip side, Bad Caterpillar looks old, but it features some nifty new ideas such as power-ups and bombs.  Should probably clear this up: by new, I meant “new for Centipede.”  My problem here is that they don’t get spit out often enough.  I played full games where the item drops were nothing but points.  The game should go nuts with them.  I mean, I can already play a Centipede-like game that doesn’t offer power-ups.  It’s called Centipede.

Centipede Origins on iPhone.

Centipede Origins on iPhone.

I guess I should bring up that I also played the iOS update, called Centipede Origins.  It’s a micro-transaction oriented shooter that tries to controls like Kris Steele’s Hypership does on iPhone.  But I found the drag-the-shooter controls to be too glitchy, with the cursor being unable to keep up with my finger, even as I dragged it slowly across the screen.  Only played it for like five minutes, would never want to play it again.  I also dug around and found my copy of Centipede for the Sega Dreamcast, but decided against spending any time digging around for the actual machine to play it on.  Honestly, I’m all Cenipeded out.  So what are my thoughts?  Well, the Vita version is a worthy use of money for a solid portable version of a masterpiece.  The iOS version is just about the worst thing to happen to iPhone since Siri.  The XBLA ports of Centipede & Millipede come across like quick, effortless cash-ins and should be avoided like the clap.  Finally, the XBLIG update Bad Caterpillar is actually a decent game with a few problems.  The moths are unfair, there’s no online leaderboards, and the heavy metal soundtrack is so out-of-place.  It would be like going to Ozzfest to listen to country music.  But I do recommend it, because it’s the best (and cheapest) version of Centipede you’ll get on your Xbox.  Kind of sad that an XBLIG port made by a guy I consider to be a bit of a twat completely slays the official versions of Centipede.  Just kidding, Kris.

xboxboxartIGC_ApprovedBad Caterpillar was developed by Fun Infused Games (80 Microsoft Points don’t think Kris is a bit of a twat)

Centipede & Millipede were developed by Stainless Games Ltd. (340 Microsoft Points think throttle monkey sounds like something found in the Kama Sutra)

Centipede Origins was developed by Atari (Free, except all the stuff that cost money in it)

Centipede on PlayStation Home Arcade was developed by Atari ($1.49)

Bad Caterpillar and Centipede on PlayStation Home Arcade are Chick Approved, and Bad Caterpillar is ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Manic Miner 360

Let’s travel back to 1983.  It was a dark time in the world.  A time when people lived in fear of communism, nuclear annihilation, and Walter Mondale.  A time when kids had to play their Ataris in three feet of snow, and do their math homework using solar-powered calculators like savages instead of their cell phones.  A time when the most high-tech consoles had “vision” in them instead of “box” or “station.”  A time when “playing with your Wii” sounded like a shameful act, as opposed to today where.. nevermind.  Most importantly to me, it was a time where I wasn’t born yet.  Thus, I’m not particularly nostalgic for what the early 80s had to offer.

Party like it’s 1983! Let’s all freebase cocaine and watch Knight Rider!

So Manic Miner 360, an XBLIG port of a 1983 ZX Spectrum game, isn’t something that would make me get all warm and gushy.  My reader base might feel otherwise.  Oddly enough, the average reader of Indie Gamer Chick tends to be about ten years older than I am.  In a way, I’m tickled pink over that.  I mean, it’s pretty cool that so many older people are interested in what I, some snooty little shit who wasn’t weened on Space Invaders and text-based RPGs, thinks about gaming.  On the other hand, it can be a bit of a curse at times, especially when it comes to nostalgic releases like this.  When I started to complain about the flaky controls and unforgiving design, I was immediately hit with several “it was good back in the day” tweets.  Somehow, I’m guessing a response of “this isn’t back in the day!  It’s today!” won’t be a sufficient explanation for why I’m not having fun.

I guess there’s no point in debating whether people who liked this game thirty years ago will still enjoy it today.  They obviously do.  I do question whether they really enjoy it on the same level they did as kids.  You mean to tell me that all the evolution gaming has gone through in 30 years doesn’t change your perception of Manic Miner?  Look, I can’t see things your way on this.  Without the perspective of nostalgia, I kind of have to take games like this on face value.  It controls like shit.  Movement and jumping are very stiff.  The levels are frustrating.  The game centers around “gotcha” game design, where you can’t possibly know about a hidden trap until it activates.  Manic Miner isn’t really a platformer or a punisher.  It’s a trial-and-error memory test.  Each level typically has one specific path that you have to follow, and enemies have predictable patterns that you have to memorize.  Once you have that shit down, it’s just a matter of keeping it all together and fighting with the abysmal controls.  Some people liked it.  A few people told me they knew of people who could beat it without the infinite lives cheat (which is thankfully built-in and optional).  Yea, that is impressive.  So is being able to fart the Star-Spangled Banner on command, but I don’t want to take the time to learn how to do it.

Mind you, I’m told this is a truly faithful port, so if you loved the broken controls and restrictive design thirty years ago, nothing has changed here.  Same graphics, same sound effects, same clunky jumping, same dick-moves.  For some people, that’s all they want.  This is a game made for them.  Can a new audience from my generation get behind this game?  Some weirdos might, in the same way there are people my age that have Pac-Man tattoos and dress like Don Johnson.  I’m not saying everything from the 80s was terrible.  I can’t think of anything that wasn’t off the top of my head, but I’m sure there’s something from that decade didn’t suck.

After beating a level that featured things that were certainly not Pac-Man, I entered a stage that featured something that was definitely not Donkey Kong.

I know it’s aggravating for older people to have to listen to people my age say intolerant, obviously erroneous statements like “everything from the 80s sucked.”  The 80s probably didn’t suck any more or less than the 90s or whatever the fuck the last decade was called.  Did anyone ever come to a consensus on the name for the last decade?  If not, may I suggest the Goobers.  No reason why, I just think that would be funny.  My point is, nostalgia is whatever you make of it.  Like any form of entertainment, one Indie Gamer Chick’s trash is another geriatric’s treasure.  Maybe people my age need re-releases like Manic Miner to show us whippersnappers just how lucky we are.  Lucky that we didn’t grow up in an era where games had bad control inputs, shoddy design level design, load times of six minutes, install times upwards of hours and, uh, nevermind.

Manic Miner 360 was developed by Elite Systems

240 Microsoft Points should have probably been 80 Microsoft Points instead in the making of this review.

Adventures of Lolo, Aesop’s Garden, and Crystal Hunters

Update: Crystal Hunters is now 80 Microsoft Points.

For the first time, I’m doing a multi-review with games from different developers.  This is because both of today’s titles, Aesop’s Garden and Crystal Hunters, are new takes on a classic NES game called The Adventures of Lolo, a game 82 days older than me.  It actually was released on the Wii’s Virtual Console back in 2007, but I was in the middle of a World of Warcraft bender that year and missed it.  I’ve dealt with a lot of clones over the last month, and my attempt at playing a game that I had no reference point on (Boulder Dash clone Gems N Rocks) left me feeling a bit weird.  Yes, I do believe a game should be able to stand on its own, but if a game sets out to pay tribute to a classic, you should also measure it against the original.  Was True Grit a fantastic movie because it was a remake, or in spite of it?  Would anyone have known how truly awful Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes was without the Charlton Heston original?  Would New Coke have caught on if people didn’t have the classic formula to compare it to?

In that spirit, let’s compare these three games.

Concept

All three games are action-logic puzzlers where you must collect a set number of things in a room that open an exit.  In Lolo, it’s hearts.  In Aesop, it’s weeds.  In Crystal Hunters, it’s crystals.  In Lolo and Crystal, the items are in plain sight, and it’s up to you to figure out how to safely reach them.  In Aesop, the weeds have not yet sprouted.  You have to first turn on a sprinkler.  This is because the rival of the main character wanted to ruin his chances of winning some kind of gardening contest, so he went around planting weeds.  Good lord, that’s spiteful.  I mean, it could have been more so.  The guy could have salted the ground so that nothing would ever grow back.  Besides that, there’s 50 levels in this game, so how big exactly is this plot of property that Aesop has?  It’s hard to feel bad for the guy when he owns so much land that you can almost call it a kingdom.  At least it beats “guy just wants to get a lot of crystals” or “monster kidnaps girlfriend, presumably so he can fuck her.”  What do all these evil monsters want with princesses?  With all the inbreeding that takes place among royalty, they can’t be THAT good in the sack.

Aesop’s Garden

Game Play

Lolo and its offspring play like more actiony-versions of Sokoban, the crate-shoving puzzle genre that has been reviewed a few times here at Indie Gamer Chick with titles such as Puzzled Rabbit or HACOTAMA.  The difference in these games are the addition of enemies, firepower, and environment-based puzzles.  In Lolo, there’s a handful of enemies that are all carefully integrated into each level.  Some of them chase you, some of them shoot fireballs at you, and others remain stationary but kill you if you cross their path.  These are called “Medusas” and they are also found in both Aesop’s Garden and Crystal Hunters, albeit as scarecrows and evil treasure-chest-things that zap you like you’re a Nazi watching the opening of the Ark of the Convenient.

In Lolo, you often have to use enemies to your advantage.  In some rooms, the hearts you collect give you two shots.  If you shoot an enemy, it turns into an egg for a few moments.  You can then shove it into place and use it as a block, or push it in the water and use it as a temporary bridge.  If you shoot an enemy a second time, it dies, but it will respawn.  In other rooms, you might collect the ability to create a bridge or smash a rock.  Aesop’s Garden has a feature similar to the hammer.   At the halfway point in the game, carrots are introduced to summon hungry rabbits that destroy all walls in whatever line you’re standing in.

Both Lolo and Aesop’s Garden rely much more on trial and error than Crystal Hunters.  In that game, crystals that give you shots are red instead of blue.  In Lolo, only some hearts give you shots, and there is nothing that distinguishes them from normal hearts.  In Aesop, you’re never sure where exactly weeds will sprout up.  It’s never too annoying, and both games allow you to commit suicide with the select button if you fuck up.  If you die in Crystal, it doesn’t take you back to the beginning of the stage, but rather to the last point you were safe, which is a cool feature.  It would have come in handy in Lolo and Aesop for sure.  Fuck ups there usually resulted in me dropping cyanide.  Lame.  If I was the hero in a puzzle game and I had to kill myself, I would totally go with seppuku.

Adventures of Lolo

Playability

This is where all three games stumble, as the control is not so smooth in any title.  It’s never bad enough to be a deal breaker, but it will lead to some very aggravating moments.  Lolo probably plays the best, which is appropriate given that it’s the only game that was made by professionals.  Still, the controls in it felt a little loose.  Whether I was using a standard Wii remote or the classic controller, I would often push blocks one half-space too far, necessitating a suicide.  This led to me heel-toeing it one tap of the D-Pad at a time whenever I moved a block around.  This wasn’t always an option.  If you’re moving an egg, you only have a few seconds before it hatches and whatever enemy you’re pushing is frozen in place.  Or maybe you’re being chased that by an enemy.  Or both.  In the later stages, the game demands precision movement from a controller that is anything but precise.

Aesop’s Garden is even worse.  The controls feel very loose, which is partially to blame on the crappy D-Pad of the Xbox.  Using the stick is no use, because it doesn’t have proper analog control.  I have the silver, transforming D-Pad and even it wasn’t satisfactory.  This led to multiple instances of steering off from a straight line and into the path of a scarecrow, shoving blocks to far, or in boss fights, steering myself right into the path of a projectile.  It never felt quite right, and that did hurt the game.

Crystal Hunters is hurt by the game’s lack of movement parameters.  In Lolo and Aesop, you move one half-space at a time, using the background to guide you.  In Crystal Hunters, it’s not always clear how far you’re moving, because the game doesn’t have a “grid” feel to it like the other two do.  The background doesn’t draw out spaces for you, so you’re kind of left to your own judgement, which can often be unreliable.  I ended up going back to the heel-toe method of block shoving, but like Lolo, that’s not always an option here either.  Sometimes enemies will be chasing you, or sometimes you’ll be moving a tree-stump and have to rush it to the spot it belongs in before it puts its roots down.  In the later stages, this can be maddening.  The lack of parameters also gets annoying as more Wind Waker-like light beam reflecting puzzles are incorporated, all of which require nothing short of perfect movement from an imperfect control scheme.

Puzzle Design

If there was one word I could use to describe all three games, it would be “smart.”  In the case of Lolo, it’s a game made by Hal studios, the guys who later went on to make the Kirby series, Earthbound, and Smash Bros.  They obviously have their shit together.  Aesop’s Garden and Crystal Hunters were developed by amateur game designers, so you wouldn’t expect such a degree of sophistication from them.  Then again, I wouldn’t have expected that from games like Alien Jelly or Escape Goat either.  It never fails to surprise me how clever some Xbox Live Indie Game developers can be.  Both games have absolutely stellar puzzle design, so much so that it actually rivals the game that inspired them.  At times, they can feel a bit sprawling, especially Crystal Hunters, but it never feels like busy work.  The only game I can toss a complaint at is Aesop’s Garden, which throws boss fights into the mix that are annoying, given the crappy control scheme.

What I love best about any puzzle game is that “ta da!” moment where, after staring at the screen for ten minutes, you finally figure out the solution.  The difficulty of all three games here ramps up as you go along (something that Indie Gamer Chick favorite Escape Goat doesn’t do), which leads to many of those moments.  I crave those like a junkie craves smack.  They top an awesome headshot in a shooter, a come-from-behind victory in a sports game, or a leveling-up victory in an RPG.  For my money, nothing else in gaming tops that feeling of achievement.

Crystal Hunters

Conclusion

I know a lot of readers come here for the spectacle of a bad game getting trashed by me.  I realize this wasn’t my funniest of reviews, but don’t worry, I’m sure a crappy zombie game can’t be too far off in the distance.  If you come here looking to read about good games, I’ve got three right here for you.  At 22 years of age, I missed the NES era and never had a chance to play Lolo.  If you’re around my age, you probably missed it too.  Or maybe you were one of those weird families that owned a Sega Master System instead of an NES.  Either way, it’s worth your $5.  For fans of the game already out there, don’t go back and replay it.  Nothing about it has changed in the 23 years since its release.  But, there are two brand new Xbox Live Indie Games that will satisfy your Lolo-cravings.  Both Aesop’s Garden and Crystal Hunters are what you’re looking for, and they’re a bargain and $3 a pop.  Yea, I probably could nit-pick them a little more.  Like how Crystal Hunters has a completely needless time-system tacked on, presumably to add replay value.  Why did they even bother?  The fun in these games comes from solving a puzzle and moving on to the next.  Once it’s solved, it’s done.  You don’t expect replay from crossword puzzle books, so why should you expect replay from a logic puzzle in a video game?  Just finish it and be happy.  Yea, the controls are crippled, but you feel like a genius, so who cares?  It’s just like being Stephen Hawking!

Aesop’s Garden was developed by Excalibur Studios

Crystal Hunters was developed by DreamRoot Studios

The Adventures of Lolo was developed by HAL Laboratory

500 Wii Points (Adventures of Lolo) and 240 Microsoft Points apiece (Aesop’s Garden and Crystal Hunters) had to remind Kairi that getting frustrated and banging her head the coffee table was probably not the best way to keep the amount of brain cells needed to play these games in the making of this review.

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