Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Virtual Console Releases - July 2

I tell myself to sit down and actually write one of these damned things. Perhaps it would be better if I just slapped something cliched together in ten minutes, just like all the other sites and blogs do. But, oh, no - I have to actually spend time playing through every one of these games. That can be a pain if, say, you're dealing with a really long game, one that requires a good deal of time to progress through. Sometimes a good videogame only reveals itself after a period of time, not immediately.

Oh, and if the game really, really stinks? Yuck. Still gotta play through, take screenshots, yadda yadda. Ugh. Really, though, the bulk of games are neither great nor terrible, just deeply mediocre. I think that's the real turn-off for me. Life's too short to deal with mediocrity. Heck, I'm supposed to be playing outside instead of writing about videogames! Put down the controller, kids! Go play outside! Don't make me pull out the fuses from the fuse box!

Anyway, here are the VC games for the week of July 2.

Super Mario Bros. 2 - Nintendo for NES - 6/10

Bleh. Bleh? Yes, that's right. Bleh.

This is the weakest of all the Super Mario games. We can agree on this, yes? And yet, it keeps reappearing again and again. Why is this? It's no mystery to anyone that this game isn't even a proper Mario game at all, but a Famicom disk game called Doki Doki Panic, with the Mario characters cut and pasted.

This was a fun game in 1988, and ovbiously was a great success, coming as the "official" sequel to the immensely popular Super Mario Bros. I remember Andy Eddy giving it glowing marks in an early issue of Video Games & Computer Entertainment, and it's always stayed with me. We all respected Nintendo for giving us a sequel that was very, very different from the original. Yes, sequel clones were as much a problem then as now, but occasionally you'd see titles that veered off into new directions. Not very often, but it did happen.

And I should say, in all fairness, that Super Mario 2 played perfectly. The choice of four different characters, each with their own style, was a novel choice at the time. The environments were brighter, more Arabian, a good deal of clever enemies that dottered the landscape. Pulling vegetables out of the ground, instead of pounding blocks, was great fun. And the POW block made a welcome return from the original Mario Bros.

Super Mario 2 has the one quality that really does make it a classic, and it's this - the very best ending in all the Mario games. Ever. The entire game is revealed to be one long, lucid dream in Mario's head.

So why do I share so little affection for the game now? It couldn't be its uniqueness, could it? Every other Mario game follows the same formula, pretty much. It couldn't be that it wasn't a true Shigeru Miyamoto Mario game, either. That was common knowledge in the late '80s. So what's the deal? Why is this game such a crushing bore? I think I have an idea.

No secrets.

There really aren't any secrets in the game, certainly not to the insane degree of the original Super Mario. And that's really what Mario is all about, isn't he? He's the guy who wanders off and always finds a new surprise around the corner. There's always that sense of wonder, of mystery. You really don't know just what will happen next.

Super Mario 2 doesn't really have any of that. It's a solid, challenging platformer. The chemist beaker can open up secret doors to a shadow side of the screen, but there's never anything to be found, beyond a couple coins and maybe a mushroom, if you need it. Oh, and there are a couple warp points, which can get you to the end pretty quickly. But what else is there?

Perhaps I'm just being greedy. A solid, challenging platformer should be enough for most anyone to be satisfied. But...dammit, this is a Mario game. And it's sandwiched between two platforming masterpieces on the NES. I think I expect something better when that guy is on the box. It's like seeing Kurosawa or Orson Welles' name on a movie poster. You're expecting a certain level of quality for a reason.

I can see that Nintendo is being thourough, having released Super Mario 1, Super Mario World, and Super Mario 64. I would have expected them to release this game after all the others were out. We're still waiting for the inevitable Virtual Console release of Super Mario 3 and Yoshi's Island. Get me out of the hot tub when those arrive. You can keep your damned onions.

Dragon Spirit - Namco for Turbografx - 7/10

The Turbografx-16 continues to solidify its comeback with another quality VC release. Kudos to Hudson for quickly and efficiently plundering the library from this great, lamented game console. Here is another - yet another - good shoot-em-up, this time Namco's arcade title, Dragon Spirit.

The novel approach of Dragon Spirit is that, instead of the usual alien space ships, you control a three-headed dragon, flying through various environments that strike me as a weird balance between the Jurassic Age and Tolkien. This is the one shooter you play while jamming to your old Ronnie James Dio albums.

Dragon Spirit did fairly well in the arcades, and the Turbo version is very solid. It a much better conversion than the NES version, which was frankly terrible. There were about ten million shooters released on this humble console, if you haven't already guessed. By the year 2007, it's something you just have to make your peace with.

Apart from the atmosphere, what else can I say? It's standard shooter fare from the late '80s, trolling patterns of enemies, power-up icons, monsters on the ground that echo back to Xevious (I'm still waiting for the PC Engine version). The turbo switches on the joypad make this game far easier than it ever deserved to be, but, hey, it's your choice. If you want to build up those forearm muscles, you'll have to play the old-fashioned way.

Dragon Spirit was slightly dismissed by most critics at the time, but I'm giving it a 7 out of 10, just to be generous. TG16 fans will want to add this to their collection.

Ecco 2: The Tides of Time - Novotrade for Genesis - 7/10

An odd mystery for me. I was a great fan of Ecco the Dolphin back in 1992. Even managed to write a published review for Electronic Games, which was a tremendous thrill for me. Here was a treasured favorite for the Genesis. And yet the sequel completely evades me. I don't think I hardly ever spent time on this.

I've never really explained it. Most likely it's because Ecco was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. It was thrilling, compelling, and very, very challenging. And once I'd finally reached the end, I put the controller down once and for all. It's one of those experiences you cherish, but don't hope to reenact.

Truth is, Ecco was damned hard. Finishing the game was an act of supreme stubbornness, a willful match of man and machine, to see who blinks. I wouldn't let that damned game machine get the better of me. Also, my girlfriend was somewhat impressed. She liked the dolphin, even if she couldn't get very far. Nobody could.

Sega tried to turn Ecco into a marquee star, with one official sequel, The Tides of Time, and one hideous cash-in for the kiddies called Ecco Jr. that we'll never mention again. There was also a tech demo for a promised 32X version, and then finally a Dreamcast remake many years later. None of those later efforts captured the imagination like the original.

So perhaps I'm just laying out my excuses for not actually sitting down and playing Ecco 2. I probably should at some point. To its credit, it appears that Novotrade pushed out even more colorful, detailed graphics from the Genesis. It truly does rank among the console's finest. And it clearly is meant to be a continuation of the original, a game for the fans. That means, predictably, that it's brutishly difficult, yet oddly compelling.

If there is one thing I genuinely cannot stand about Ecco 2, it's this - the 3D levels. At the very beginning, you're required to travel through a 3D stage en route to the next level, in a behind-the-dolphin view. You must swim through a long series of blue hoops, both underwater and in the air. It is terrible. Remember the bonus stage from Tempest 2000? At least The Yak didn't shut the game down if you couldn't get to the end of those stages. Novotrade actually expects you to finish theirs, and the Genesis wasn't exactly built for 3D scrolling. Now that I think of it, maybe this is the reason I stopped playing.

Just do yourself a favor and get the passwords from, and skip those damn hoop stages. I'm docking the score accordingly - and let that be a lesson to every one of you.

Interesting that this game is released the same week as Super Mario Bros 2. Both games represent opposite paths for game sequels - more of the same, versus something entirely different. You could make those choices in those days, when making a game didn't cost you and a roomful of shareholders $20 million.

So, anyway, let me tell you what you likely already know. If you enjoyed the first Ecco, you'll probably enjoy this one. If you're looking for only one, and must choose....I'd stay with the original. And if the whole action-puzzle dolphin thing never appealed to you, well. You just wasted all this time reading. Sucks to be you.

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