Friday, June 30, 2023

Double Dragon (NES) Review

Developer: Technos
Publisher: Tradewest, Arc System Works
Platforms: NES, NSO NES, Double Dragon & Kunio-Kun Retro Brawler Bundle (PS4, NS)
Version Played: NSO NES, Double Dragon & Kunio-Kun Retro Brawler Bundle (NS)

Calling the NES version of Double Dragon an arcade port would be a bit misleading. The Genesis version is an arcade port. This is more like a reimagining. Unlike most other home versions, Double Dragon on NES isn't trying to replicate the arcade game, it's only using it as a guideline. This version alters the story, it has a leveling system, completely new areas, and even a VS mode. It's more like the game that bridges the Kunio-Kun and Double Dragon series' than anything else.

Double Dragon takes place in a post apocalyptic world that looks like 80s action movies meet Fist of the North Star. Some of the backgrounds look like New York City, some like the Coliseum in Rome, and characters have big boots, shoulder pads, and bracers on their forearms. The arcade game has Billy's girlfriend, Marian, get kidnapped by a gang led by a machine gun-wielding thug named Willy, but the NES version makes Billy's brother, Jimmy, the leader instead. The NES version doesn't have co-op, so I guess they just wanted to include him somehow. That must have made Double Dragon II awkward for them.
The NES version of DD was ahead of its time. It has experience points and you learn new moves as you level up. That's the kind of stuff I expect to see in modern action games. This even predates the Japanese version of River City Ransom by a year. Different moves give you different amounts of XP, and every 1,000 points, you get a new move until level 7. You start off with simple punches and kicks, a headbutt, and a jump that isn't even an attack. As you level up, you learn uppercuts and roundhouses to finish your combos, jump kicks, throws, and of course, the most powerful move in the game, the elbow smash. Enemies also level up and become more aggressive, so simply leveling up as fast as possible isn't necessarily the best strategy.
The combat in this game is, honestly, kind of bad, especially when compared to games that came only a year later, like Final Fight and TMNT. The punch has terrible reach, the spin kick combo finisher always gets dodged, and I don't even know what the headbutt is for besides tripping you up when you accidentally double tap forward. Part of the strategy to the game is literally avoiding doing some of these moves. At least the game doesn't make you press a specific button to jump kick in a specific direction, like in the arcade game. There is a certain kind of fun to be had in learning how to deal with each enemy, though. Getting all the strategies down and beating the game with only 3 lives still feels great.
This game also has some pretty infamous side scrolling and platforming sections. The perspective switches from the usual belt scrolling style to a more traditional 2D side view, and you have to avoid hazards and jump on platforms. These sections have you avoiding falling stalactites in caves, jumping on moving platforms and over chasms, and climbing up and down ladders while fighting enemies. I guess they just felt this was the kind of stuff you should do in a game on a system with Castlevania, Mega Man, and Mario on it. I used to have a lot of trouble with these when I was a kid, but I don't find them nearly as hard now.
Another very un-beat ‘em up-like thing about this game is its lives system. Unlike in other versions, you have to restart from a checkpoint after dying. You also don’t get any continues. You just have to restart from the beginning if you die. You can’t even get more lives by getting high scores. It’s pretty brutal, but we have save states to help with this style of punishing structure now.
I used to play a lot of the VS mode back in the day, but it really isn't very good. You only have 1 stage, you can only do mirror matches, and the game kicks you back to the title screen after every match. The combat is much more limited than in the regular game, too. If you want to check out a much better game doing this Beat 'em up fighting game style, check out Street Smart. The only interesting thing about this mode is the unique sprites the characters get because they're drawn in a completely different style from the main game.
Double Dragon's soundtrack is one of my favorite NES soundtracks of all time. Sometimes I wake up in the morning with it stuck in my head without even having played the game recently. Yeah, it's the arcade game's soundtrack with NES instrumentation, but I like it better this way. This is what NES games sound like in my mind. I just love the 80s pop rock sound after going through the NES filter.

I love the art style that the Master System, Game Boy, and NES versions share. The characters kind of look like something in between Kunio-Kun and the Double Dragon arcade characters, which looked like a cross between Renegade and Fist of the North Star characters. I also love how the game uses the NES color palette and the awesome backgrounds. I especially love Mission 4, which must be inspired by the Colosseum in Rome, where the fight between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris took place in Way of the Dragon.
The original version of the game has a lot of technical issues, though. Parts of characters' bodies flicker on and off, parts of the screen wobble in an almost psychedelic way, and there's tons of slowdown and input lag when there's more than one enemy on screen. That's probably why the game doesn't have co-op. It couldn't have handled it. The Double Dragon & Kunio-Kun Retro Brawler Bundle version has a "Quality Up" version that fixes these issues, but it also introduces a tiny bit of input lag, which is present at all times. I'm sure some people would take that trade-off, but I still prefer the original. That version doesn't have rewind, like the NSO version does, anyway.
Double Dragon is one of the NES games I played the most of as a kid, but it's not something I'd recommend to just anyone. I love it, but I know a lot of other people won't. It's a bit of an acquired taste. But if you're into beat 'em ups and want to learn about how they started, then yeah, check DD on NES out.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Review

Developer - Nintendo EPD
Publisher - Nintendo
Platform - Nintendo Switch
Price - $69.99

When I heard Tears of the Kingdom would use the same map as Breath of the Wild, I wasn't sure what to think. Would it be as different as the Dark World in A Link To The Past, or would it be the same as I left it at the end of Breath of the Wild? Neither of those was right. A Dark World comparison doesn't do it justice, and I think this version of Hyrule differs even more than A Link Between Worlds' Hyrule did from A Link to the Past's. In a lot of ways, TotK feels very familiar. It’s still that open world Zelda with a lot of RPG influence, but at the same time, it’s a very different game filled to the brim with new content.

Reusing BotW’s map starts making a lot of sense when you get down to the surface. You simply couldn't do a story about how things have changed if you didn't have BotW as a frame of reference. Seeing how things have changed and getting them back to normal is a huge part of the game. It's literally the ongoing theme all across Hyrule from Rito Village to Eventide Island. There's a sandstorm in the Gerudo Desert, Zora's Domain is covered in mud, pirates have taken over Lurelin Village, and the Yiga Clan has taken over a lot of the Sheikah Clan’s old hangouts. Reclaiming and restoring Hyrule is what this game is all about.
I spent the week before TotK launched playing BotW and I was blown away by how different TotK's Hyrule is. The Upheaval really did a number on the place. It's like a world after a natural disaster. Or in Hyrule's case, every natural disaster. Ground levels have gone up and down, rocks have fallen from the sky, there's huge chasms on the ground, and new caves and tunnels have appeared all over every mountainside. You can go down into every well now, there's more Koroks, some guy needs you to hold up Hudson signs on every road, and a bunch of depots with free wood have sprung up everywhere. You'll be doing a lot of building, so they come in handy. There's a lot more new stuff besides the sky islands.
The sky islands are what we saw the most of in Nintendo Directs before the game's release. There are a lot of them, but they don't cover every inch of Hyrule's sky or anything. Not even close. There’s more islands and more to do up there than in Skyward Sword’s sky, though. The intro area is in the sky, there's a few Zonai labyrinths, some world bosses, 32 shrines, and even a couple of dungeons. The new version of the towers shoot you up to the sky, so you go up there all the time. Sometimes I shot up there with the intent to skydive somewhere on the surface, but saw an island along the way and spent half an hour doing some shrine quest or something. There's both small and big islands, archipelagos, and islands out in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes just getting to an island is a puzzle.
There's one more layer of Hyrule that was kept secret until release, the Depths. This is an underground version of Hyrule, which is completely dark and covered in Gloom, which is just Malice from BotW. I don’t know why they renamed it. And when I say it's dark, I mean it. You can't see anything down there without a light. Thankfully, you can throw pretty much anything in your inventory now, so you can throw little light bulb flowers all over the place. You can also attach them to your arrows and light the place up like that. It's pretty annoying to bring up the inventory, pick the thing, and throw it over and over, but you don't have to do that forever. There's a bunch of "Lightroots" that will permanently light up an area after you reach them. There's a Lightroot for every Shrine on the surface, so that's 120 Lightroots. There is a lot in the Depths, but it really felt like most of what I did there was fumble around in the dark going from Lightroot to Lightroot. I thought it was pretty awful. I just think darkness is one of the most annoying reoccurring level design gimmicks. The story will lead you down into the Depths a few times, so it's not like you can ignore it if you’re playing through it.
You'll be handsomely rewarded if you can put up with the Depths, though. This is the best place to farm Zonite, the ore which is used as currency to upgrade the battery that powers the things you build. Enemies in the Depths can drop Zonite and you can also find it in ore deposits. There's also a bunch of treasure chests containing unique armor pieces down there. Some even have Link costumes from previous games in them, which were amiibo exclusives in BotW. You can also find all the dungeon bosses in the Depths, so you can fight them again and again and get unique materials to fuse and tons of Zonite.
The Sheikah Slate and all the powers you got from it in BotW are gone. Instead, TotK has the Purah Pad, which is basically an upgraded Sheikah Slate. It even looks like a Switch instead of a Wii U GamePad. The only Sheikah Slate powers that are still sort of here are Magnesis and bombs. There's bomb flowers and Zonai Devices you can collect and carry around in your inventory, like in Skyward Sword.
Ultrahand allows you to pick objects up, move them around, and glue them to other objects. It's kind of like an upgraded version of BotW's Magnesis. Ultrahand works with more than just metal, though. You can use it on wood, stone, weapons, Zonai Devices, monster parts, and even food. It's by far the most useful ability in the game. You really only use it to build stuff and move things around, but that's most of what you do in this game.
Ascend allows you to jump up and go through ceilings, like Kitty Pryde. You can't go through floors blocked by some objects, but you can pretty much go through anything above you, as long as the spell can reach it. It doesn't even have to be the ceiling. It could just be an object. One time I put one of those metal balls on top of a board and Ascended through it to reach a treasure chest. It also comes in handy when you want to get out of all these caves and wells.
Fuse allows you to attach items to your shields, arrows, and weapons. It might sound similar to Ultrahand, but it's not the same thing. You can use it to attach things like bombs or fire to your arrows, make your melee weapons stronger, and to add effects to your shields. For example, you can fuse a spiky wall to your shield and do damage while blocking, or fuse a rocket to it and shoot yourself up into the air. Its main use is reinforcing weapons. The Upheaval somehow made every weapon in Hyrule all rusty and weak, but you can make something out of these worthless weapons by fusing them with gems, ore, monster parts, Zonai Devices, and pretty much anything in your inventory. The best fusing items are monster parts, though. You can give your weapons blunt mace-like properties, blades, pointy ends, and even elemental magic, like electricity and fire. It just depends on what item you fuse to it. Tougher monsters drop better parts, so now you have even more reason to fight those Lynels.
Recall rewinds time on a single item. For example, you can cast Recall on a rock flying towards you and send it back to attack whoever threw it. You can do this to rocks that fall from the sky and ride them up to a sky island, too. It can also work as a sort of undo button sometimes. I used Recall to solve a lot of puzzles in shrines, but it was my least used power outside of them.
Zonai Devices are simple premade machines that come in capsules. They go hand in hand with Ultrahand since they're usually the core building blocks of anything you make. There's fans you can use as propellers, sleds, steering sticks, tires, lights, and lots of other stuff. You can make simple carriages and rafts with stone and wood, but if you want to make cars, planes, robots, and hover bikes, you're going to need Zonai Devices. I think they feel more like the replacement for old Zelda items than the Purah Pad powers do because they just seem to fill those roles often. For example, you can fuse a mirror to your shield and have a mirror shield that works just like the one in Ocarina of Time, the flamethrower is obviously good for lighting things on fire, and you can even fuse a bomb to a homing cart and make a sort of Bombchu. There's 27 different devices, and that's not counting the weird stuff you can take out of shrines.
Shrines might actually be my favorite thing to do in the game. There's 152 this time, so I'm in luck. They're still very small, but feel more like old Zelda dungeons than the actual dungeons because they’re mostly about puzzles, and you're only allowed to use the Zonai Devices found in them, so they bring back some of that old structure and item requirement design. They're also much more creative and challenging than in BotW. There's some really cool stuff you only get to do in shrines. There’s also a bunch of shrine quests that bring the shrine puzzles out into the overworld. Sometimes you’ll get a quest to carry a stone to the shrine’s entrance to open it, and getting it there is the shrine’s puzzle. I really enjoyed those.
Yeah, this game has actual temples that are places in the world and have a unique theme, but they're still pretty far from what I'd call "traditional" Zelda dungeons. Unlike Shrines, dungeons don’t have any item or equipment restrictions. You can make any kind of crazy vehicle or climb all over them if you want. These dungeons are basically Skyward Swords' pre-dungeon quests and BotW's Divine Beasts combined. Getting to the dungeons always involves a sequence of quests and battles that feel like they're part of the dungeon. There really isn't much of a difference sometimes, but you will know when you're actually in the dungeon because you'll open up a quick travel point at the entrance. The dungeons themselves are pretty small and straightforward compared to say, Twilight Princess', but they have puzzles, battles, bosses, and lots of awesome story sequences. They're certainly better than BotW's. Since none of the dungeons can be designed around a specific item, like in the old games, they’re designed around environmental hazards and your NPC partners' abilities.
The Sages are the new generation of Hyrulean warriors you met in BotW; Tulin, Yunobo, Sidon, and Riju. They fight alongside you during the entire story sequence in their region. That includes both the pre-dungeon quest and the actual dungeon. They each have some kind of special ability, so that's the key item the dungeons are designed around. For example, Riju has the power of lightning, so you can shoot arrows anywhere in her electric field and she'll hit it with a lightning strike. You can use this as an attack, to power machines, and to blow rocks up. You have to run up to the Sages and press A to activate their powers, though. This becomes a problem during battle because they’ll be running around fighting too. It's a pretty clumsy way to do it, but it’s not like they have any free buttons to map them to.
The Sages will give you their vow when you're done with their dungeon and hang out with you for the rest of the game in a sort of Force ghost form, so you'll always have access to their powers. There isn't a limit to how many you can have out with you, so you can walk around with a gang of people if you want. They fight and take agro away from you, so they're great to have around during fights. It's a lot of people, though. They block your view and you accidentally activate their powers all the time, so I turned most of them off after battles. You have to go into your inventory to do that; though, which gets annoying.
The inventory as a whole is annoying. They did some things to make it easier to deal with, like putting in the popup list for fusing and dropping items, but still. It's a lot of stuff, and you constantly have to go into it to change your clothes, turn off the Sages, or get cooking ingredients out. No step in going into the inventory to put on warm clothes or eat a cold resistance meal is fun. It was annoying in BotW, and there's even more times when you need to do it in this game.
They didn't fix any of the other annoying things either. Breaking weapons, farming mats, and cooking are all still here, and you still can't remap the buttons. No part of dealing with this stuff is fun. There are no fun steps in breaking a weapon and going into your inventory to get another one. Fusing stuff to your weapons restores their durability, but you can't fuse stuff to them twice, and you don't want to use weapons with nothing fused to them because they're all rusty and weak. This stuff needs to go.
TotK's graphics are a small step up from BotW's. The lighting is nicer, there are better effects, and the framerate dips aren't as bad. I wouldn't say there are less framerate dips, they just don't go as low. It's still 30, but I didn't have much of an issue with that. I do have an issue with all the fog, smoke, and sand in the air, though. It's everywhere. Everything is covered in some kind of fog. It makes everything look washed out. It's a little overdone.
I love the new songs in TotK's soundtrack, but at the same time, I'm not too impressed with the soundtrack as a whole. The problem is that the majority of the songs are from BotW. It also has that same style of sound design in which no music plays most of the time. I'm over it. I just want to hear some nice Zelda music while I play.
Tears of the Kingdom has the best story of any Zelda game. It still does the scattered cutscenes all over the world thing, which can be confusing, but the way they tell the history of Hyrule and tie it into BotW/TotK is fantastic. I'm trying not to oversell this, this ain't no Game of Thrones, but we've never seen this kind of emotion out of characters like Ganondorf and Zelda. No other Zelda game has a story this deep. And apparently there's more. I don't think all the questions have been answered. Just take a look at the tapestry of the Calamity again. It makes more sense now, but we still don't have all the pieces. We need the canon Calamity game. I can't wait to see what they do for a sequel or DLC.
Tears of the Kingdom is far from a perfect game, but it's still incredible. I think it might be my favorite Switch game. I'm amazed by how they were able to make a game that feels so fresh and different by continuing to build on top of (and underneath) BotW. I love how the new powers make you think about the environment in completely different ways, I love the story, and the new shrines are even more fun than BotW's. It's a shame they didn't do much of anything to fix the annoying things about the game, though. I know I'm not the only one who doesn't like all the MMO-like crafting and weapon breaking stuff. Hopefully they find a better balance between this style and the classic Zelda style in the future.