Sunday, September 23, 2007

Virtual Console Releases - August 20

Ah, so this is what it's like to actually get enough sleep! I have all this...what it called? Oh,! Wow. That's fun.

Now that I can have a productive weekend for once, I think it's time to hack away at my endless list of Virtual Console reviews. I tell myself that if I stay current, and catch up on at least one or two per week, I'll be competely caught up in no time. Well, that's the plan, at least. It's a big of work putting these together, as you all know. I actually sit down and spend time playing each game that I write about, just so my feelings and impressions are current. I don't want to advise you to spend money on my personal memories, only to find out that the nostalgia has overtaken the reality. There are too many mediocre VC titles to just throw your money away. You need to be smart with the credit cards.

Fortunately, August 20 is one of the best weeks in the VC arsenal. You may be easily tempted to shell out the bones for all three. I can't blame you; if it weren't for my emulation collection, I'd be snapping these games just as fast as you. Let's take a look at the lineup....

Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master - Sega, for Genesis - 9/10

Shinobi is one of Sega's most celebrated heroes. The arcade original was a smashing success, building upon the foundation of Namco's Rolling Thunder (an early example of the long-running Sega/Namco rivalry), and adding in a ninja theme. Most of the home versions were pretty weak by comparison, but you didn't mind too terribly as long as there was a Shinobi down at the local arcade.

For the Genesis, Sega turned to its ninja master with one of the greatest videogame sequels ever made, Revenge of Shinobi. That game was arguably the first killer ap on the Genesis (although some would argue for Ghouls 'N Ghosts), and stands today as a masterpiece of the action-platform style. Another arcade sequel appeared, dubbed Shadow Dancer, but neither it nor the Genesis port (which was an almost entirely different game) managed to reach that earlier peak. So Sega turned back to their roots once more as the Genesis was winding down.

The result is Super Shinobi 2, or known in the West as Shinobi 3: Return of the Ninja Master. In both cases, the title makes it clear that this is the follow-up to Revenge of Shinobi, and that's plainly obvious at the very start. Thankfully, Sega creates a masterful sequel that builds upon the gameplay conceits of the original Genesis classic, offering a brilliant example of gameplay and design, and pushing the console's graphics powers to their limit.

I think these two titles were the only time anyone came close to matching the brilliance Tecmo achieved with Ninja Gaiden on the NES. Amazing, then, that with so many ninja games in the early '90s, nobody could reach that high peak. No one except Sega.

One thing Shinobi 3 has in spades is a sense of speed. It's a much faster game. Joe Musashi, the series hero, has a variety of new moves, including a sprint dash, the ability to climb on ceilings, and an assortment of attacks, both with his sword and his shurikens. The exciting thing is that it's equally fun to play both ways; in fact, I really wish there were an option to remove shurikens from the game entirely, and just go it with sword slashes and kicks.

Level design, likewise, throws out all the stops. Playing through this game is like taking a sightseeing tour of the Genesis' finest moments. You have assaults through the forest, stealth through underground caves, an attack on a military base, a vertical climb over falling rocks in a valley, one chase on horseback, another chase on surfboard....yadda yadda. Add in a series of challenging, thrilling boss battles that show off every visual effect mastered by Genesis, and you have a platformer almost without peer.

If you asked me which Shinobi title was the better one, I don't know what I'd say. Most probably I'd still go with Revenge of Shinobi, if just because of its immense impact on the early Genesis scene, and its towering stature at the time. Shinobi 3 is more of a 1993 refinement of that standard, albeit with all the bells and whistles you can ask for. Oh, and there is the music. Yuzo Koshiro's music for Revenge is among the finest you'll ever hear. Shinobi 3's music is standard action fare, probably the game's only letdown.

Sadly, Shinobi became another casualty of Sega's tragic fall at the close of the 16-bit era. The name was revivied a few years ago, instead as a 3D polygon series. But the Playstation 2 incarnation was a different beast entirely, and nowhere near as compelling. Like most 3D platformers, the tight structure and skillful design of the 2D sprite-graphics era is mostly lost. For these kind of fast-paced action games, you just can't beat the old school.

Neutopia - Hudson for Turbografx - 8/10

Neutopia was one of the standout titles for the poor, battered Turbo, which felt the squeeze of Sega's arcade hits from one side, and Nintendo's licensing monopoly from the other. There's a reason most of the PC Engine's best moments were kept away from Western eyes. Thankfully, this little gem managed to make the trip across the ocean.

On first glance, Neutopia appears to be a somewhat shameless Zelda clone. On second, third, fourth, fifth? Yep. Zelda knockoff. But is that really a bad thing? For many years, many developers tried to copy Nintendo's classic adventure formula, usually falling flat on their faces. Only a small handful of games remained compelling on their own - Golvellius on the Master System, for instance, was really great - a fact which only makes you appreciate Hudson's efforts all the more.

There are a wide variety of game worlds, and the usual number of large dungeons. Everything is patterned on the original Legend of Zelda, so don't expect the level of sophistication and depth from Zelda: A Link to the Past. But I never remember anyone complaining back then, and I'm not complaining today. It would have been nice to see, gee, I new idea. But what can ya do? As a genre exercise, this is an excellent trip. Perhaps Sega's Golvellius on the Master System beats it, but that's really the only one.

What Neutopia had in its favor was the graphics power of the Turbo, which offered bright colors and larger character sprites which bounce and dance about. It remained an early example of the future that awaited the post-NES world, one determined to be nowhere near as dreary and drab. This game just looks terrific. It also sounds excellent, too; the audio is probably the Turbografx's best asset, as other titles like Devil's Crush and Dungeon Explorer can attest. There's just something about that deep, rich stereo tones that have never been matched anywhere else. The Genesis and Super Nintendo had their own, unique vibe. Ah, the good old days when videogame consoles were actually different. They occupied different worlds. Today, it seems as though all developers use the same standard toolkits. Little wonder, then, why everything looks so similar, so lifeless. Aren't you getting tired of the plastic dolls yet?

Well, I hold no illusions that classics venues like Virtual Console of Live Arcade will overtake conemporary games, just as I know that vinyl records will always remain a small, exclusive club. But these little clubs of ours are growing at a steady clip. Those in the know should start paying attention and taking notes. And Turbografx fans have another bright feather to put in their cap.

Super Metroid - Nintendo for Super NES - 10/10

Name the best game ever made for the Super NES. For some, it's Super Mario World or Zelda 3. Others, Super Mario Kart. A number will point to Final Fantasy 3, which was how it was named here in the States). And a lot of you will insist that it's really Super Metroid.

You may be right. This might very well be the SNES' finest hour.

I think some part of the mystique about Super Metroid is the fact that the game remained alone, without any sequels or follow-ups, for so many years. While Mario and Zelda and the rest continued with newer games on the Super NES and Nintendo 64, Metroid held back, alone in its own little world. It really wasn't until 2002, eight years later, that a new installment finally arrived, and even then, gamers were surprised to discover a 3D shooter that was closer to Quake and Doom then their beloved Metroid.

And, in the meantime, Konami completely reinvents its old Castlevania franchise by aping the gameplay structure of Super Metroid. The forgotten classic was becoming a legend, influencing others. Goodness knows Konami sure loved that game, enough to shamelessly steal from it for every 2D Castlevania game ever since.

Oh, yeah, sure, Nintendo eventually figured things out, and returned to their roots with a pair of Metroid titles on the Game Boy Advance. But let's be honest here. Those games weren't any good. The first one, especially was a clunker. The second, Zero Mission? Eh, better, but, again, it just felt like a dumbed-down kiddie version of the 1994 masterpiece. Remember those Atari 2600 games that had the child-friendly mode with the teddy bear icon? Yeah, that's exactly what Zero Mission was all about. A Metroid that holds you by the hand, when not stumbling into Miyazaki's Ohmus.

What comes to mind when I think of Super Metroid? Dark, moody, mysterious. This is just about the heaviest game Nintendo ever made - heavy in that late-'60s, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple sense. The whole enterprise just breathes in a dark, misty atmosphere, this strange alien landscape, this mishmash of different cultures. This world that Samus Aran finds herself in, this is a world with a history. You can almost trace that history as you progress through the game, spotting the places where some poor fool vainly tried to civilize the place. You can see the corpses for yourself to see how that turned out.

Modern videogames, if they really can be called "games" anymore, shove narrative down your throat. They think story can only be conveyed by scripted movie scenes. But a good game, all of the best ones, can tell a story without these tired cliches. Story, setting, mood, character - all can be shown by the actions and environment of the game itself. That's one of the things that makes Super Metroid a masterpiece. It's a very story-driven game at heart, but one that lets your imagination roam.

The only other exploration game that captures that same sense of mood and mystery, to my mind, is Todd's Adventures in Slime World on the Atari Lynx. And that game was created back in 1990. How's that? In many ways, Slime World serves as a foundation for the expansive game world Super Metroid builds upon. It seems impossible to keep the two seperate in my mind; the original Metroid serves as the original starting point, but this sequel stretches and expands and builds so far beyond those first boundaries that they become almost unrecognizable.

So that's what I take out of the experience. The dark, underground world, teeming with life and teeming with secrets. And the whole enterprise is hard. Real hard. In this game, Nintendo drops you into a cave, in the middle of nowhere, and just leaves you. No goofy sidekicks pointing the way out of the maze. No cheap icons to hold you by the hand and make things easy. In this life, things are much harder than in the afterlife. In this're on your own.

Forget about that first Metroid. It's a good game, but it's too dated to really hold your affections. This is the real version, the one that carries all the mystique. This is the moment which all future Metroids struggle to recapture. They'll struggle in vain. You'll probably never see a better action/adventure no matter how many years you'll live.

1 comment:

fatherkrishna said...

Yet more stunning reviews! I've only just hooked my Wii up for download potential, but so far I've only got Comix Zone and zelda Ocarina of time... Will be getting Shinobi on your reccomendation however...