Friday, December 22, 2006

Virtual Console Releases - Christmas Edition

Hooray! Thanks to Nintendo's generosity, we're able to see what games will await us on Virtual Console this Christmas Day! I'm sure many of you will be away for the holidays, so I wanted to post the weekly review a few days early.

This is an excellent week for classic gamers; possibly the best yet. We're seeing a record five games across four of the five current platforms. There still hasn't been any more releases for the Nintendo 64, but I'm sure more will be coming in the next year. After Christmas, there is only one more VC Monday for 2006; and wouldn't ya know it, it's going to stink. We won't get grouchy just yet. We can speculate on the next year later, when we're nursing New Years' hangovers. Now, let's open our presents.

Super Mario Brothers - Nintendo for NES - 10/10

I dunno, perhaps Nintendo has been sticking us with their early NES games - among their very worst - to remind us just how revolutionary Super Mario Brothers was when it was new. It truly was the next breakthrough in games. It heralded a new era, a new way of making videogames. Like all great breakthroughs, it built upon earlier efforts, compiling them together, and adding that extra push into the unknown. Nintendo and videogames would never be the same.

I think it's easy to say that Super Mario was the best game ever made in 1985. It may still hold that honor today, if you consider its influence. Every 2D game from that point forward stole from Mario. Many of its design elements, things like game worlds, power-ups and hidden secrets, are as common as joysticks and high score tables.

There's really two game worlds at play here. There's the game that you see, and then there's the unseen world, just hiding beneath the surface. This is the reason Mario was so great, and nobody else could really top that. It's all about exploring and wandering around. Goofing off. The later Super Mario games would elevate this to an art form.

Super Mario Bros might seem a little tame today, a little straightforward. The series expanded and grew, and took the games industry with it. But you've got to start somewhere, and few great game series start out as complete and perfected as the original Super Mario Bros. There's a reason Nintendo has been repackaging and reselling it for 20 years: it's the best damn game they ever made.

Castlevania 4 - Konami for Super NES - 9/10

No, I am not going to put that stupid "Super" prefix on Castlevania 4. The first four Castlevania games are kinda like the first four Black Sabbath albums. Menacing, powerful, and oh-so close to perfection. This is the last time you got a new Castlevania, before the series turned inward and cannibalized itself.

The early Castlevania games were among the tightest, toughest action-platformers ever made. They've never really been surpassed, and no one at the time really even tried. They were too intimidated, I guess. Maybe I'm just thinking of Sabbath again. Whatever. The bottom line is this - if your knowledge of this series consists purely of Symphony of the Night, which managed to reinvent Castlevania by not resembling it at all - then you're in for a shock. You're about to have your asses handed to you.

This game was always among my favorites on the SNES. Let me illuminate. After the first wave of Nintendo games (Super Mario World, F-Zero, Sim City), the Super Nintendo was struggling. Games were far and few between, and all of the third-party efforts were terrible. The console was a slow and groggy mess against the Sega Genesis, thanks to Sonic and Streets of Rage and Toejam & Earl. Too much hype and too many disappointments.

Then Konami rolls in with a Castlevania that finally shows just what the Super NES can do. The graphics are terrific, bright, and sharper than anything. Characters are large, environments are varied and moody. And that music! Such wonderful music! The Super NES' sound chip could sample real instruments, so Konami experimented with a wide palette of sounds. Horns, flutes, pianos, bases. The music veers from moody to contemplative to jazzy from one level to the next.

True story: when I was living in the dorms at St. Scholastica, I was playing Castlevania 4 while my roommate was sleeping. I was playing the waterfall scene, with the somber piano and strings music. My roommate later told me the song gave him nightmares.

Street Fighter 2: The World Warrior - Capcom for Super NES - 9/10

And now, another crucical game that really saved Nintendo's bacon. In fact, I'd say Street Fighter 2 was the most important game in the console's lifespan. Without it, The SNES would have been irretreviably hammered by Sega. Not only did Capcom deliver a nearly-perfect rendition of the arcade game, it remained a SNES exclusive for two years.

You have to remember that SF2 was a sensation. It was the first arcade game that drew in numbers not seen since the glory days of Pac-Man, of Asteroids, of Space Invaders. This baby was huge. Another interesting thing happened; the home version of SF2 played so close to the coin-op, kids were using it as practice for the competitive matches at the arcades. We still kept throwing quarters into the machine, just to challenge one another.

It helped that Capcom soon released SF2: Champion Edition, which to my mind perfected the whole formula, and started that endless run of upgrades and spin-offs for the better part of a decade. For a time, that really damaged Capcom's reputation, especially when they kept insisting on our paying $70 for another Street Fighter cartridge at home.

Whatever. The question here, today, is whether The World Warrior still holds up. Thankfully, it still does. I'd much rather have SF2 Turbo on the SNES, or SF2 Special Champion Edition on Genesis, make an appearance on the Virtual Console. Until then, I'm perfectly happy to blister my thumbs, one more time. Too bad the arcades went extinct.

Toejam & Earl - Sega for Genesis - 9/10

Toejam came out in 1991 on the heels of Sonic, and I'm sure there are a few who would actually insist it was the better game. It's always been a favorite of fans, thanks to its goofy humor and quirky sense of charm. Toejam, strangely, became one of those Sega franchises that got away, lost in the haze. Clearly, Sega never understood how to preserve its best characters nearly as well as Nintendo.

Can you believe there was a time when Sega held a whole stable of great games? Sonic, Toejam, Ecco, Streets of Rage, Shinobi, Technosoft's games, Treasure's games, Joe Montana Football...what happened to them?

As for Toejam & Earl, the original was given a sequel that is disliked by fans, mainly because is was a side-scrolling action game (at the behest of marketing), instead of the overhead, sprawling quest. It's not nearly as bad as everyone thinks it is; Panic on Funkotron is pretty good, actually. It just can't hold a candle to the original.

This game's best feature - no, not the hip-hop jamming mode - is the randomly generated levels. It's a new game every time. That's one of the design ideas from the home computer era, and it's pretty much lost now. Memory is no longer a restraint like it once was. You really had to squeeze those bytes in to make it all fit. Today, everything is just bloated.

Oh, and two can play at the same time, too. Did'ja know that? One of Sega's very best. Enjoy.

R-Type - Irem for Turbografx - 9/10

Finally, another quality release for the Turbografx, another one of its best. Heck, let's be generous. This is the best Turbo game released so far, maybe the best ever if you're a fan of R-Type.

Here's another example of great classic games that simply aren't being made anymore. One reason for that is the sheer saturation shoot-em-ups endured by the end of the 16-bit era. There's really not much left to be done, creatively, and the best shooters were always kind of hard. If you're not quick on the reflexes, you're going to get hurt a lot.

And, lookie lookie, R-Type is one of those classic hard arcade games. One of the ones that takes a quarter out of your pocket every 30 seconds. I don't know if today's XBox kid could handle it. GameFAQs can't help you here, son. You're on your own.

Anyway, R-Type is one of the most influential shooters ever made. It pretty much defines the whole side-scrolling shooter genre, and it's still arguably the best. There's a cleanness, a clarity, to its level design. You aren't overwhelmed with firepower, just a few basic weapons that have all become iconic to the genre, and endless parades of H.R. Giger-inspired alien designs.

The Turbo version is as close to the arcade as you can get, and it's the perfect use for that multifire switch. Those switches were a godsend back then. We needed all the help we could get. Correction: you're going to need all the help you can get. Is it just me, or do the older games seem a lot harder? Oy, vey.

No comments: