Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the category “Retro Games”

EarthBound for the SNES and Virtual Console (Wii U)

EarthBound has a pretty legendary reputation, although along with everyone else in Europe my experience with the game didn’t extend beyond a fondness for Ness in Super Smash Bros. Whenever playing an older game with a reputation like this, I always get a little bit nervous, wondering whether it will have stood the test of time, and live up to its hype. Although it took me a few hours to really ‘get’ it, EarthBound lives up to the hype and more, providing an experience which I just cannot stop thinking about.

Ness, a young boy from the town of Onett, awakens one night to find a meteorite crashed near his house. There, he meets a miniscule alien known as Buzz Buzz who warns Ness that, in the future, an alien force known as Giygas has conquered the Earth, and that Ness must embark on a quest in the present to stop him from becoming too powerful. Ness gains telekinetic abilities, known as PSI powers, and sets out on his bizarre journey, to visit the ‘Eight Sanctuaries’ and record their songs so that he may access the power to stop Giygas. Along the way he meets three other heroes, Paula, a PSI adept and local celebrity, Jeff, a technological genius abandoned by his scientist father, and (ahem) Poo, a warrior prince from the nation of Dalaam.

EarthBound, unlike the traditional fantasy JRPGs of the time, takes place in the modern day, primarily in Eagleland, a parody of America, although there are other locations as well. EarthBound takes place in a setting unlike any other JRPG I’ve played, although the closest may be Pokemon. EarthBound has a lot more fun with its setting though, with countless jokes and digs at America’s expense. I absolutely love seeing how nations familiar to us look through the perspective of one less familiar, and EarthBound is very much a Japanese view of the US. There’s a huge amount of variety in the areas, and the eschewing of a fantasy setting mans that we lose the cliché areas that we’ve all become used to, in favour of areas which feel much more organic and interesting.

The plot is fairly thin, and there’s not an excess of explanation as to just what is going on. It’s difficult to describe what makes EarthBound’s plot so compelling, but I think the key lies in the excellent sense of place this game has, and the incredible writing. A huge amount of credit is due to the translator, providing a script which is frequently hilarious, but also delivering some truly sinister and emotional moments. EarthBound can get very creepy at times, and is a really interesting coming of age story for Ness. If there’s one weakness to the game’s narrative, it’s the lack of character for Ness’ fellow adventurous. Although they’re not silent like Ness, they don’t talk much after they join the party, and it’s a shame as there’s a lot of potential interest in these characters, particularly in Jeff, whose story could have had a real emotional payoff that doesn’t really work. Again, it took a while for my interest in the story to really kick in, but when it does EarthBound is continually striking, bold and interesting, and willing to go to those dark places that Nintendo seems scared of these days.

EarthBound is, from a gameplay perspective, a fairly traditional JRPG, with turn based battles and lots of statistics levelling up etc. The main innovation in the combat over its turn based friends is the sliding health counter; when Ness or his team take damage, the damage counts down rapidly, meaning that mortal damage can be offset with a rapid healing move or a quick defeat of the enemy, lending a frantic pace to the battles which is more effective than any gimmicky button inputs and real time elements can ever be. Enemies do appear on the map, but avoiding them isn’t really an option; however the fight rate is just right and never becomes as irritating as it can be in some games. One of my favourite little quirks is that when Ness encounters a much lower level foe, the battle is skipped, so there’s no need to plough through weak enemies when one encounters you. It’s a tiny thing, but something I cannot believe hasn’t been widely stolen by all JRPGs that followed, they really should have done.

EarthBound just feels good to play, in a way hard to describe. Perhaps it’s the way that with every level up and stronger piece of equipment the characters feel notably tougher, rather than the gradual glide in difficulty more common in JRPGs. That said, the difficulty curve in EarthBound is easily its biggest flaw. When criticising an older game’s difficulty, you usually get a load of people lambasting the writer as soft, because real gamers relish the difficulty in older games. The problem with EarthBound isn’t the difficulty, but the poor difficulty curve; if the first boss is one of the hardest in the game, and requires huge amounts of grinding to beat, you’ve got a problem. Still, once you get over the hurdle of the first couple of hours, things even out very nicely, and the pace settles out. It’s not easy mind you, but it’s challenging for the right reasons, which isn’t the case for the early hours.

EarthBound is a charming looking game, colourful and vivid, full of great enemy designs and beautiful areas. There’s an irritating amount of slowdown during more packed scenes, which is inexcusably still present in the Wii U port, but it’s a small price to pay for this beautiful game. The real star of the presentation has to be the music though; EarthBound’s easily soundtrack stands alongside the best of that era. This is a soundtrack to rival Super Mario World, or A Link to the Past, filled with tunes catchy, creepy and downright emotional. The music perfectly conjures the tone of each place you’re in, and ends up being one of the best of parts of this game.

EarthBound is a strange, hilarious and unsettling experience, which refuses cliché and charts a bold path of its own. In some ways it shows its age, and it lacks some of the refinement of modern gaming, but it’s also thoroughly ahead of its time in others. EarthBound is a must play for anyone with a love of JRPGs, an interest in a vital part of Nintendo’s history, or really anyone who enjoys games. Earthbound-Wallpaper

Super Metroid for the SNES and Virtual Console (Wii & Wii U)

Just as reviewing a classic novel feels weird, the same for a classic videogame. I’ve never really played a 2D Metroid game before, although I loved the Metroid Prime series on Gamecube and Wii. Super Metroid is a game generally held as genre defining, and one of the few SNES classics to have passed me by. When it popped up for £0.30 on the Wii U Virtual Console I had no excuse not to give this classic a chance, and see whether it stands the test of time. The result is mixed.

Super Metroid picks up after Samus Aran’s near genocide of the Metroid species at the end of Metroid II. A baby Metroid has imprinted onto Samus, and so she brings this specimen to be examined at a lab, before Ridley, the leader of the Space Pirates, shows up and snatches the baby away to clone more Metroids. Samus follows Ridley back to Zebes, the setting of the original Metroid game, to foil the Space Pirate’s plans.

An area where Super Metroid immediately shines is in its impressive atmosphere. The combination of atmospheric music, beautiful 16 bit graphics and interesting world design makes Zebes a compelling location to explore. It’s somewhat redundant to refer to this game bas eing in the Metroidvania genre, but..er, that’s what it is, and so exploration is an important factor, and trotting of the beaten track and taking the time to look around is almost always rewarded with upgrades and new items. I can absolutely see why Zebes is considered one of the all time greatest videogame locations, and in this element Super Metroid hasn’t aged at all.

The plot is kept nice and minimalist, but it is there, just not spelled out for us. This is how plot in Metroid games should be handled, not with overwrought emotional cutscenes (I’m looking at you Other M). The baby Metroid adds an interestingly personal element to the story, which humanises Samus much better than any ham fisted attempts at romance could ever do.

So, how does Super Metroid play? It’s a sidescrolling platform action game, with lots of jumping and blasting enemies. Samus gains new items along the way to open up previously inaccessible paths, and fights several inventive and interesting bosses. Mechanically, Super Metroid still holds up in most regards; it’s still a lot of fun to play, and still feels smooth. Classic items such as the morph ball and the screw attack add to the fun as things get going, and the gradual addition of cool new moves and weapons offers a compelling reason to carry on. The level design is generally good, but there’s a massive overreliance on the Metroid variation on ‘pixel hunting’, having to find a random piece of floor to shoot to open up new areas in certain rooms. If this was just for side stuff I wouldn’t mind so much, but there were several times I was stuck in the main adventure until I realised I just had to shoot a random piece of floor or wall, visually identical to the rest, to proceed. It strikes me as an artificial way to create challenge and extend the game.

The thing is, they really didn’t need to extend the game of make it more challenging. The actual story may not be that long, but if you take your time to explore and seek out the hidden upgrades, you’ll find a lot more game here. This game is hard too, although the Wii U ‘Restore Point’ feature helps. The idea of having to back track from each save point after failing on a tricky boss battle sounds nightmarish to me, so the ability to create an easy point just before a boss fight or tricky area makes things a lot friendlier.

Super Metroid, whilst feeling very modern and accessible in many ways, still doesn’t lack for flaws. I was unable to beat the final boss of this game due to a poorly signposted point of no return, leaving me underequipped to be able to take on this foe. An ability to go back out into Zebes and gain more upgrades to help me take down the final boss would have been great, but this mindlessly irritating game flaw somewhat tainted the game for me.

The excellent soundtrack, sound effect design and visuals helped numb the irritation, with Super Metroid’s brilliant design standing as one of its crowning achievements.

I finished Super Metroid with mixed feelings; in some ways it’s timeless, but it also shows some infuriatingly poor design choices, the kind of design choices which we tend not to see these days as everyone realised they were a bad idea. Still, on balance, my experience with Super Metroid was a positive one, and I recommend picking it up whilst it’s still on sale. images (4)

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