Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past Review

Whenever the question of what the best Zelda games are comes up, I immediately think of Zelda 3. That's what everyone knew it as before it had an official name. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is not a sequel to Zelda II, but it is the 3rd Zelda game. It's more of a sequel to a game that had not been made yet, Ocarina of Time (we used to call that Zelda 64). It was first released on the Super Famicom in Japan in late 1991, and later on SNES in NA in Spring 1992. LttP was a return to form for the series after Zelda II, the first 16-bit Zelda game, and one of the most influential games of all time. It has been the template for most Zelda games since it was released almost 28 years ago.

A Link to the Past takes place in the “Hero is Defeated” timeline. Best timeline? Best timeline. In this branch, Link is defeated by Ganon in the final battle of Ocarina of Time, Ganon unifies the Triforce, and Zelda and the Seven Sages seal Ganon and the Triforce in the Sacred Realm (AKA the Dark Word). In A Link to the Past, Ganon is still sealed in the Dark World, so he creates an avatar in Hyrule to help him break the seal, the evil wizard Agahnim (priest in Japan). Agahnim kills the king of Hyrule, throws Zelda in a dungeon cell, takes over the throne, and uses his army to capture the descendants of the Seven Sages, which he plans to sacrifice to break the seal preventing Ganon from escaping the Dark World and invading Hyrule.

It's pretty amazing how well LttP works with the story of a game that wouldn't come out for another 7 years. The only thing missing is the Kokiri, Zora, and Goron descendants of the sages. Out of all the Zelda games that are directly related to another game in the series, this one works the best.

So what makes LttP one of the best games of all time? It's not just one thing. Everything just comes together so well. I don't think everything about the game is perfect, but I do think everything in the game works together perfectly. The graphics compliment the world design, the music does a great job setting the mood for each area, the world opens up as you get new items and learn the rules of the game at a great pace, and the difficulty always feels just right.

LttP also strikes a great balance between telling you where to go and letting you discover things on your own. The first few hours of the game are a perfect example of this. The game starts with Zelda telepathically talking to Link and telling him where to go. When you step out of Link's house, Royal guards are blocking all paths except the one to the castle. You're free to explore the castle, just like any other dungeon, but there is only one way out. Once you make it out of the castle, Zelda marks where you need to go on the map, but you're free to explore wherever the few items you have can take you. As you progress through the game, you get less hints and directions, because you don't need them then.

Since this game’s progression is so much more story-driven and dependent on acquired items than Zelda I, overworld exploration does feel much more linear and restricted, especially in the Dark World. There wasn't much keeping you from exploring nearly the whole game world right off the bat in Zelda I. You can still spend a lot of time running around exploring in between dungeons, though. Before you even step foot in the first dungeon; there’s items and heart containers to find, minigames, and Kakariko villagers who’ll tell you stories that flesh out the world. I love just running around after each dungeon and seeing what I can find with my new items.

The Dark World (not to be confused with Lorule from LBW) is the corrupted version of the Sacred Realm. It looks like a postapocalyptic version of Hyrule, but it's more like a parallel dimension. The general layout of the map is nearly identical to Hyrule, but there are new obstacles blocking your path. Some of them require you to use Dark World dungeon items, and others require you to switch between worlds to get past them. You can get to some spots in one world that you can't in the other world, so these puzzles are all about figuring out when to switch to the other. There are some 2 part world switching puzzles in which you have to figure out how to switch back so you end up on the other side of an obstacle, but they are very few. You can't simply switch to the Dark World by using an item, like you can to go back to Hyrule, so it feels like they could never get too creative with these puzzles. Both worlds are always reset when you switch, too, so these puzzles are rarely about doing something in one world which affects something in the other, like the past and future in Ocarina of Time. The Dark World was a cool idea, but it feels like it wasn't used to its full potential, and was done better in OoT. The best part about it isn't the puzzles, it's the fact that it gives you another overworld to explore and 8 more dungeons.

A Link to the Past has some of the best 2D Zelda dungeons in the series. I feel like the rate at which their difficulty and complexity ramps up is perfectly balanced. You start out with fairly straightforward and linear dungeons. They have simple torch lighting puzzles, a few locked doors you need to find keys for, and they don't require a lot of exploration because they're pretty small. Things really start getting crazy in the Dark World, though. Dungeons get much bigger, with lots of floors, layers of elevation, mazes, clever puzzles, and of course, tougher enemies. I found myself having to take a minute to plan out exactly how I was going to tackle some of the rooms in the last few dungeons because they have strict timing requirements and the enemies are relentless. I also love how LttP makes you think about the dungeon like a real 3D space. It's not just about the room you're in and the 4 rooms around it. You also have to think about what's above and below you.

While LttP's controls are a gigantic step forwards from Zelda I's, I feel like the SNES controller was not used to its full potential. I like that Link can now move in 8 directions instead of only 4, his normal sword attack is a 90° slash instead of a stab, the new spin attack is great for dealing damage, and that the Pegasus Boot's dash is always available on the A button, but L and R are only used to toggle between the full and zoomed in view of the map. They're not used for anything during gameplay. I would love to be able to put some items on those buttons, like the C buttons in OoT. There's a lot of going to the menu to switch items in the last few dungeons, and the final phase of the Ganon battle is all about switching between the fire rod and the bow, too. It seems weird to me that L and R aren't put to better use.

LttP's graphics were never technically impressive. They use a lot of flat colors and low detail sprites, and the framerate often dips when there's too much going on. But they stand the test of time because their simple style works perfectly with the light-hearted tone of the game. I feel like this may have been overlooked or forgotten over time, but this game is very humorous. There is a cartoon logic to the animations and situations in the game that's really funny when you stop and think about it. Link's icon on the map has his hand pointing downwards as if to say “you are here”, Royal guards flutter in the air before they fall off a ledge, enemies die in a skull shaped puff of smoke, and Link's face turns red and he gasps for air when pushing an object he can't move. Apples fall off trees when you run into them, Link talks to Zelda and Sahasrahla through what's basically and intercom, and there's a bunch of fake Master Swords all over the Lost Woods. This game feels like a comedy at times.

So why is Link's hair pink? Someone asked Miyamoto once, and he didn't remember. I guess it's just for readability. Link's skin is pretty tanned, and the brim of his hat is dark orange, so brownish blonde hair, like he had in the artwork at the time, would have probably been too close to one of those colors to use on such a low resolution sprite. That's probably why the red tunic has a purple hat instead of a red one, too. Pink is just too close to red.

I think the soundtrack is amazing, but I'm not exactly going to listen to it in my car or anything. All of these tunes have been orchestrated and re-recorded so many times, it kind of takes the punch out of the originals. I do think this soundtrack does a great job of building atmosphere in the game, though. From the mysterious and mischievous Lost Woods theme, to the tense violins of the dungeon theme, to the wonderful new remix of the classic Hyrule overworld theme. They all set the tone just right for what you're doing in each environment.

This game is a masterpiece. If you've never played it, you should do that. It's on all Virtual Consoles and on the SNES Classic. But is it the greatest Zelda of all time (GZOAT?)? It's really tough for me to pick a favorite Zelda. If you asked me what my favorite was back in 2002, right after I played it on GBA, I would have said LttP without question. Now, I'm not so sure. I really love A Link Between Worlds, and I think I have to replay Link's Awakening and Ocarina of Time to refresh my memory. I'll let you know.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest Review

A lot of the classic video game series that started in the NES days have a few black sheep in the family; Metroid II, Zelda II, Super Mario Bros. 2 (both of them). Castlevania has a whole herd of them, but most people probably think of Castlevania II as the odd one of the bunch. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest was first released in 1987 on the Famicom Disk System, about 11 months after the original Castlevania, and like a lot of those sequels I mentioned, it was a pretty big departure from the first game.

Simon's Quest ditched the linear level-based structure, floating candles, and action platformer level design of the first Castlevania in favor of a more Zelda-like action adventure structure. Simon's Quest is just as much about gathering clues and collecting items to progress as it is about platforming and killing monsters. It introduced an inventory screen, towns, dungeons, nonsensical puzzles, a day and night system, leveling, and persistent upgrades to the series. It was a Metroidvania 10 years before Symphony of the Night.

Simon still controls exactly like he did in the first game. You have the same whipping attacks, slow walk, and rigid jumps. Everything regarding subweapons and whip upgrades is different, though. Since there are no candles anymore, you buy whip upgrades from the vendors in towns. Your whip is also not downgraded when you die, so it’s not like you have to keep buying upgrades. You can buy a couple of the subweapons, but most are either found around the game world or are dropped by bosses. There's 3 daggers, which work just like daggers in the first game, each with increasing travel distance; the holy water, which no longer spreads on the ground, but does break some stone blocks; a fire magic spell, and the diamond, which bounces all over the screen, like in SotN.

Simon's Quest takes place in 1698, 7 years after the original Castlevania. Simon Belmont is visited by a woman who tells him that Dracula put a curse on him with one of the wounds he inflicted on him. Maybe this game should have been called Dracula's Curse instead. This curse will eat Simon's body away and kill him, resurrecting Dracula when he dies. The only way for Simon to save himself is to gather the 5 scattered remains of Dracula, take them to the ruins of Castlevania, and burn them. Of course, Dracula is resurrected as soon as Simon throws everything into the fire, and you have to fight him again. Which makes me wonder if that woman was one of Dracula's minions, like Carmilla, or maybe just another lying NPC.

A lot of the weirdness of Simon's Quest stems directly from the towns and its NPCs. Towns are filled with helpful and not so helpful villagers. There's villagers who sell and trade, a priest who will heal you at the church, and villagers who give you hints and clues to help you on your quest. Of course, since there is no in-game map, it's hard to tell what people are talking about, even when they're being helpful. Then there are villagers who are trying to mislead you. They lie to you, say off the wall things, or just don't make any sense. The horrible translation doesn't help matters either. Things only get weirder the further you get into the game. At some point, vendors start hiding under floors and behind walls, and you have to break the stones with holy water to find them. Trapping yourself in a room with no windows or doors probably isn't great for business, but what do I know. And to top it all off, you have to wait until day time to heal or buy whatever you need, giving the game a little bit of a Shenmue flavor.

There were games with day and night levels before Castlevania II, but I had never seen anything like Simon's Quest's day and night cycle before. Simon's Quest has a day and night cycle that actually affects gameplay. Around every minute and a half, day turns into night, and after about 3 minutes, night turns into day. It definitely is horrible to have a curse with these long nights. During the day, villagers are out and about in towns and you can go inside buildings. During nighttime, towns are overrun by zombies, NPCs are nowhere to be seen, and the monsters in the wilderness take twice as much damage to kill, but drop hearts twice as big as they do during the day. The game also keeps a count of the in-game days it takes you to beat the game, and gives you 1 of 3 different endings depending on how long it takes you to beat the game. For whatever reason, this timer freezes while inside the mansions, so that's the perfect time to farm experience points.

The leveling system in Castlevania II is also pretty weird, and very similar to Zelda II's. In Castlevania I, you found hearts inside candles and they were only used as subweapon ammo. In Castlevania II; however, they drop from enemies, give you both experience points and money, and are used as ammo for some of the subweapons. You can collect up to 256 hearts for money, but XP has different restrictions. Hearts won't give you any XP if you outlevel the monster they dropped from. You can only get XP from hearts that monsters in areas at or above your level drop, so there's a hard limit to how many levels you can gain. Leveling up increases your attack power, HP, and defense. It's important to keep gaining levels as you go from mansion to mansion because monsters also get stronger as the game goes on. Both your money and the XP you've gained towards the next level are reset to zero whenever you get a game over, so farming to make sure you level up before you go to a higher level area where you could easily die is a good strategy.

The mansions are the dungeons of Simon’s Quest. Their design mixes elements of Castlevania I with a little bit of Zelda, but they really don't play like Zelda II or any Castlevania. They have a little bit of Classicvania platforming, and a lot of stairs, but the level design is so cluttered and abstract, they don't feel like Castlevania levels at all. Every mansion has exactly the same 2 obstacles, too. First you have to find some wall to pass through, without any kind of visual hint letting you know you which one, and then you have to find a vendor to buy a wooden steak from which you then have to use to break open the container in which that mansion's Dracula part is in. Half of the mansions don't even have a boss. Most of the challenge of these mansions comes from just trying to find the wall you can pass through and collecting the 50 hearts to buy the wooden steak without getting a game over. You always continue close to or right where you died, even after a game over, and you don't lose your steak when you die, so none of the enemies, pits, or obstacles are that big of a threat after you get your steak. You even continue right inside boss rooms, so even when there are bosses, they're not too much trouble at all.

The Dracula parts you get from each mansion do have some abilities tied to them, but you have to equip them first, and they’re completely optional during normal gameplay. Their true purpose is to be the key to the final battle. None of them give you a double jump or any traversal ability that a subweapon doesn't provide. Dracula's rib can be used as a shield that reflects fireballs, Dracula's eyeball reveals hint books hidden inside breakable blocks, Dracula's nail gives your whip the block breaking ability the holy water has, Dracula's heart will get the ferryman to take you across the lake on his boat, and the ring doesn't do anything. They’re more than a little Zelda II.

The art direction in Simon's Quest is one of my favorite things about the game. I love how they made this world with the Castlevania building blocks. The towns have the series’ trademark stairs connecting the walkways made of the familiar stone blocks. The buildings have arched doorways, square window panes, and even though you can't break them, there's still lanterns hanging all around town. The influence this game had on the graphical style of the series is just as big as the first game's. See Rondo of Blood and Order of Ecclesia for examples. Simon's Quest really helped define what the world of Castlevania looks like outside of Dracula's castle. This game is severely lacking in background variety, though. There's only a handful of environment types, and they're simply re-colored and reused all over the game. The only unique environment in the game is Castlevania itself, and it's not very big or impressive. The game also has pretty bad framerate problems. The game will chug whenever there's more than a couple of enemies on screen.

There aren't a lot of songs in Simon's Quest's soundtrack, but it did give us one of the best and most memorable Castlevania tunes of all time. This was the first game “Bloody Tears” was in. It's the song that plays while you're out in the wilderness during the daytime. The nighttime theme, “Monster Dance” is also really good, but not quite as popular. Aside from “Bloody Tears”, none of these songs became series regulars. Which is kind of strange because it's a really good soundtrack.

Simon's Quest has its fair share of problems, but it's not the worst Castlevania game. It’s worth checking out for Castlevania fans who are interested in seeing where stuff like the ferryman, Dracula parts, and Transylvanian town designs first appeared, at least. It’s no Zelda II or Wonder Boy III, but it holds up better than a lot of other 8-bit games. I think if you go in knowing that the game is actively trying to mislead you, and with a good map of the game world, you’ll have fun with it.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth Review

Back in 2008/2009, Konami had the incredible idea of getting M2 (known for their Virtual Console emulators and Sega Ages Series) to make 3 new retro inspired Konami revival games exclusively for the Nintendo Wii's pre-eShop digital game store, the Wii Shop Channel. One of these games was Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth, a remake of the first Castlevania game released on the Game Boy, and one of the worst Castlevania games ever made, Castlevania: The Adventure. Thankfully, The Adventure ReBirth has very little in common with the 1989 GB original besides the story.

In Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth, you play as Simon Belmont’s ancestor (probably grandfather), Christopher Belmont. It’s set in 1576, 100 years after Castlevania III, and 115 years before the original Castlevania. In this game, Dracula returns 100 years after being killed by Trevor Belmont and is “killed” by Christopher, but it is not until the Game Boy sequel, Belmont’s Revenge (15 years later), that Dracula is killed and stays dead until Castlevania I. There is no elaborate story going on here. Christopher is the current heir to the Vampire Killer whip and must kill Dracula after his scheduled 100 year resurrection.

The original Castlevania: The Adventure was released around 5 months after the launch of the GB in Japan. It was a very rudimentary Castlevania game. The classic monster theme and basic whipping and jumping gameplay were there, but the level design was very simple and repetitive, the graphics were nowhere near as detailed as the NES games, and it had constant slowdown, even when there were no enemies on screen. The music was okay for a GB game, though. Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth is about as far from that game as a remake can be while still being considered a remake.

There's very little about this game that makes me think of the GB original. Some of the enemies that debuted in that game return, but it's not like any of them haven't shown up in other Castlevanias. There are still only 2 whip upgrades, but they're not downgraded every time you get hit. The max whip upgrade still shoots fireballs, but only for a limited time. The bosses are all different except for Dracula, and this final battle is much more like the classic final battle than the GB game's final battle. The level design is completely different, but ReBirth does still have a lot of vertical sections, and the giant spears that come out of the wall and can be used as platforms also make a return here. The cathedral level in ReBirth looks like it's inspired by the final level in the GB game, but the rest of game looks more like a greatest hits of Castlevania than the GB game. You have the courtyard, entrance, caves, clock tower, and the long staircase leading up to Dracula's throne room. It's a lot of the same stuff we see in the original Castlevania and its remakes, Super Castlevania IV and Castlevania Chronicles. This game does that a lot, and I'm perfectly fine with it.

Even though this game's subtitle is “The Adventure”, it is not an action adventure game, like Simon's Quest. Castlevania: The Adventure and ReBirth are pure action platformers, or Classicvanias. ReBirth is a little different from the GB, though. ReBirth has branching paths, similarly to Bloodlines, and keys for locked doors, like Rondo of Blood. Keys can be found inside the breakable walls and candles and carried around in the subweapon slot, but if you get a subweapon while carrying a key, you will lose the key. It's okay if you lose it; though, because all things behind locked doors are completely optional. Sometimes you'll find little rooms full of score boost items and 1ups, sometimes it's a much needed whip upgrade, and sometimes it's an alternate path through the level. Not all alternate paths are locked behind these doors, though. These alternate paths sometimes lead you to different midbosses, and usually shave a minute or two off the time it takes to get to the boss, but they always lead you to the same final boss of the level.

As far as controls go, ReBirth feels like it was modeled after Castlevania Chronicles. Christopher walks like a guy looking for a fight, kind of like Simon in Chronicles, but his walking speed is faster, and his walk cycle has more frames of animation. He has air control very similar to Simon in Chronicles, and can't turn around and whip behind him, like Richter can in Rondo of Blood. Christopher can also hit enemies behind him with the windup frames of his whip attack, like John Morris in Bloodlines. There are no ropes to climb in ReBirth, like in the GB game, but it does have stairs, like most Castlevanias, which you can't jump on or off them, like in Rondo of Blood. There is a “Classic” option that gives you rigid jumps, takes away most subweapons and back whip hits, and downgrades your fireball whip if you get hit, if that's your thing, but it doesn't feel like the game is really designed for that. Classic feels more like an optional difficulty setting that is supposed to make the game feel more like the GB game, but doesn't go all the way.

The Game Boy game didn't have subweapons, but ReBirth brings the classic ones from the earlier games back. The dagger, axe, pocket watch, holy water, and cross are all here, and they work exactly the same way they do in the NES games. There's nothing like an Item Crash or super move in this game, though.

Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth is the most technically advanced 2D Castlevania by default. It is the last mainline Castlevania ever made after all. The backgrounds aren't as detailed as in the DS games, or as varied as Symphony of the Night's, but they are completely original and drawn in real 640x480 resolution. It's not scaled up like a SNES game on Wii VC. It also runs at a constant 60 FPS. I think all the enemy sprites are just touched up versions of sprites from Rondo of Blood - Order of Ecclesia, but most of the bosses and Christopher use new sprites, and they look really nice. This game doesn't look like a long lost SNES or PS1 game, it's at least Dreamcast quality!

The thing that kind of ruins the graphics is that they are pre-squished horizontally. Unlike nearly all 8-bit and 16-bit games, this game was made with the way old TVs stretched pixels horizontally into rectangles in mind, so if you're playing on a widescreen TV, that can't replicate the CRT 4:3 stretch, everything is going to look a bit thinner and narrower than it was meant to look. There are options to adjust how wide the image is, but the game automatically puts an ugly smoothing filter on as soon as you start messing with that. It also cuts off the sides of the image if you have your Wii/Wii U set to a 4:3 aspect ratio. The game also automatically turns the smoothing filter on if you have your system set to 16:9, and there's no way to turn it off, but it at least lets you adjust the image to get the correct aspect ratio without cutting off the sides, so I just played it like that. And in 720p because the Wii U can do that.

The soundtrack is all remixes of classic Castlevania tunes by composer, Manabu Namiki. Reincarnated Soul from Bloodlines is in there, Vampire Killer, Aquarius and Riddle from Castlevania III, Lullaby Sent to the Devil from Haunted Castle, New Messiah from Belmont's Revenge. Lots of great tracks, and not just the usual stuff. Weirdly enough, none of them are from The Adventure on Game Boy.

Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth is all thriller, no filler! Yeah, it only has 6 stages, and the last one is just the Dracula battle, but it's a great Classicvania from beginning to end, and better than the GB original in every way. It was only $10, too. Sadly, you can't buy this game anymore since the Wii Shop Channel closed a while ago. Which is a real shame because not only is this a great game, it's also the last mainline Castlevania ever made. Hopefully, Konami will put this on the upcoming Castlevania collection because this game is definitely in the top 8 of Classicvanias.