Thursday, October 04, 2007

Virtual Console Releases - August 13

Alright, I know I'm supposed to stay current, but I haven't spent enough time playing some of the games from this week and last week (unless you want yet another games blog offering vague praise of Sin and Punishment without helping you at all). So I decided to crank out another backlogged week. This is the Virtual Console roundup for August 13. After this, I'll get back to the present, so we're all caught up, yadda yadda.

This week's games include another varied bunch. There's the original Metroid, which is kind of a gimmie for Nintendo fans, and another little push for the newest Wii Metroid game, which was just released. And Sega comes in with a Genesis game that I don't think has appeared on any of the compilations. This is a good move. We love our Sonic and Streets of Rage, but we'd be much happier to see the great depth of titles from the Genesis library brought forth. Once again, I point to Hudson as the model, who continue to support the Turbografx-16 with earnest. Good for them, even if this week's release isn't up to standard.

You just know they're going to rock our world with the Turbo/PC Engine CD games. That's really something to look forward to. Anyways, let's get rolling here, shall we?

Metroid - Nintendo for NES - 6/10

Interesting that Metroid and Super Metroid were released on Virtual Console one week apart from the other. Unlike the Mario and Zelda games, which have been more spaced apart, Nintendo was keen to hype the Metroid name for its latest and biggest Wii title. In any event, this is a smart move for gamers. If you're going to reissue the classic franchises, don't dawdle. Bring everything out quickly.

Now here is where I put my foot down and declare my own independence. Every videogames blog and website will offer the usual chirpy praises of the original 1986 Metroid, dump syrup and sugar on top of it all, and basically do Nintendo's marketing job for them. Forget that. What's the point of even writing about these games? Somebody show me a different angle, a new view. Hell, just talk about how things were when you were playing these games on your NES ages ago.

So here's the sober rundown, folks: Metroid the First isn't anywhere near as good as its reputation. The series' mythic status comes from the later games - alright, be honest, Super Metroid. It's all Super Metroid. Metroid 2 on the Gameboy was just a bug hunt. The Gameboy Advance sequels were a terrible letdown. Metroid Prime was a thinking man's Doom, but still trapped in the FPS genre. Metroid Prime Pinball was great, but it aped the classic Devil's Crush far more than any other game. And the original game that started it all, twenty-plus years ago, is a glorified corridor shooter.

The Metroid mystique? That's all Super Metroid. That's the game with the atmosphere, the heaviness, the brood. It's the "Empire Strikes Back" of the series, the "Led Zeppelin IV." You get the idea.

I think for its time, Metroid helped to carve out the new age of adventure platformers, following in the footsteps of Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda. These were the classics that reinvented videogames, pushed them beyond the single-screen arcade caves of the Atari era, and into a new world. But while I believe Mario and Zelda remained compelling games, and their sequels continued to define their genres, poor Metroid was left behind, passed over by more capable adventurers. To think of one example: Master Blaster. Or Simon's Quest.

I think that Metroid was, at heart, still an arcade game. It's a corridor shooter with the screens stretched out. The adventure elements would remain standard for every Metroid to come, and so many other titles - mainly finding stronger power-ups and weapons and suits. It's only benefit is to enable you to fight stronger versions of the same bug aliens. I'm kind of reminded of something Orwell wrote in 1984, that the goal of any war is to be in a stronger position to fight the next war. Metroid is something like that.

I never really was a fan of the first game. By the time I jumped onto the NES bandwagon, there were better versions of the same formula. The graphics style, impressive for 1986, aged very quickly, and became simplistic and surprisingly sterile by the decade's end. A lot of early NES games are like that, actually. Just pull out Golgo 13 sometime and see what that does for ya. Try not to stare at the shoes. Ugh.

But here's the thing that always turned me off with this game. The corridors are too damned long. Those vertical pits just go on forever. And the horizontal rooms go on twice as long. There really are only two different areas in Metroid, the vertical and the horizontal. And I have to keep hopping up on the same patterns of platforms again and again and again and again. And then I enter through a bubble door, only to do it all over again. Only this time with different background graphics. Ugh.

No dice. At least, not for me. The benefit of franchise games that repeat the same formula is that I can play the later, more refined versions. The first game is always a rough practice run, anyway. Heck, this has been Electronic Arts' mantra for the past decade. You know you always a couple years for them to work all the kinks out in their games. Metroid is just like that. It suggests a level of depth and style and sophistication that really isn't there. What we have is a pot of dirt and a bag of seeds. All that's needed, really, are sunshine, water, and plenty of time.

Shining in the Darkness - Climax for Genesis - 7/10

Dungeon crawlers were nothing new back in the day. They were pretty much the standard form of adventure-rpg's on the home computers, while the Japanese created a more iconic, anime and manga style. We got endless trips through darkened corridors against skeletons and wizards armed with ten-sided dice. Japanese kids got Zelda and Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.

Funny, then, that the traditional Western role-playing game has all but disappeared, while Final Fantasy clones still drop like leaves in Autumn. Heck, they don't even bother with anything new. I saw one new game for XBox 360 from Japan, a heavily hyped game called Blue Dragon. The year of our Lord 2007, and there we are, yet again, a small group of anime cartoon kids, lined up in a straight line, taking turns lurching at green puddles of slime. Huh.

So perhaps I'm more lenient when I see Shining in the Darkness. This is a real novelty. Heck, it was already a novelty when it arrived on the Genesis over fifteen years ago, already stood out from the creatively stifled pack. And it's really good.

Here's a point of reference. There was a dungeon crawler on the Turbografx called Double Dungeons. It's available now on the Virtual Console. It's terrible. It sucks. Shining in the Darkness beats it almost blindfolded. You could probably turn your back to the television and still know which is the better game. The contest isn't even close.

Climax Entertainment was a smaller development studio from Japan, and this was their first release. They deferred the temptation to run the formula into the ground, and this remains something I greatly respect them for. They continued the Shining name into completely different directions, always innovating, always reaching and pushing themselves. In 1992, they released the strategy classic Shining Force, and the puzzle-fueled adventurer Landstalker.

Like many of their peers, Climax struggled with the move into polygons, and never really recovered past the Saturn era, unless you were a fan of those Dreamcast monster-themed games, Blue Stinger and Illbleed. Their most inspired moments came from those early Shining games on the Genesis. Sega carried the Shining name after that, and all of the various installments.

So much for the history lesson. I'm a fan of those small, creative design teams. Many of the best videogames came from groups like Climax. Their style belongs to the past, as videogames become too big, too bloated, too expensive. You couldn't come up with a Shining in the Darkness of a Shining Force with a 100-man team under constant pressure.

Hmm....Gee, I'd like to play this game for a while, see if I can actually get anywhere. It seems my copy of Gens has completely disappeared from my computer. Now that's weird. Just the main emulator file itself. Wonder what the deal is on that? Now I'll have to get a Wii and download the damned game. I smell a plot.

Cratermaze - Hudson for Turbografx-16 - 5/10

And now, folks, another Turbografx game. Pity it isn't any fun.

Here is a common problem with a lot of videogames. It was a problem in the past, and it's an even worse one today. It's an issue of piggybacking. Someone comes up with a really fun game, and others shamelessly steal from it. Most thefts go nowhere and are quickly forgotten. Some piracies result in new game ideas, and push the medium forward. Cratermaze? It fits into a third type, the games that are serial pirates.

Here is a game that reminds you of Pac-Man, Space Panic, Lode Runner, Bomberman, Sokoban, Adventures of Lolo, Chip's Challenge, Crystal Mines....have I left anything out? It's like those high school lockers you were stuck with. By the end of the year, it's just packed with trash from everywhere. You're better off just keeping the door locked and standing clear.

If you're still curious, Cratermaze is a maze puzzler where you play as a spaceman who collects gold icons in order to clear levels. You are pursued by a pair - that's right, only two - of weird aliens who don't put much effort into chasing you around. If you're too bothered, you can collect enough power-up icons to blast them away effortlessly, or shoot entire rows of holes in the ground, only to bury them mercilessly seconds later.

I remember Atari 2600 games that had a teddy bear icon on the box. That meant that some game variations were set specifically for young children. That was the extra-easy mode. Ms. Pac-Man with only one ghost, for example. Cratermaze is a Teddy Bear Game. If you can't skate your way through the levels, you're really not trying. Maybe this hobby just ain't for you. You're probably better off owning those shoes with velcro instead of shoelaces.

Maybe I'm being a bit hard. Chalk that up to disappointment. I really wanted to like this one. The graphics are bold and colorful, and the music harks back to the classic arcade games of the early '80s. Perhaps it really was intended to be a game for kids. Whatever. All videogames were made for kids back then - don't let anyone fool you otherwise. And a lot of those games were damned hard. The ones you could sleepwalk through were quickly forgotten. They weren't even "rental" games. They were the games you'd play at a friend's house for ten minutes, so you could thank yourself for saving the money for a longer investment. Like bubblegum.

The poor Turbo was so overwhelmed with space shoot-em-ups that anything remotely different was given more attention than it deserved. Cratermaze doesn't deserve your attention. Hell, it doesn't even deserve to be written about or read about now. But I'm in a low and depressed mood after watching a week's worth of World War II documentaries, and I need to find something, anything, to begin to restore my faith in humanity.

Writing about this game doesn't help much, to be honest. But at least it keeps me occupied. And it doesn't result in a mountain of skulls to the moon. I really need some of that bubblegum right about now.

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