Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Milon's Secrets Revealed!

I was digging through some of my old notebooks, and found this gem hidden in the back of one of them...

The real secret is why it says "Garland?" on the top of this page.
This, of course, is the map for Milon's Secret Castle on the NES, complete with the locations of every item, the prices for each one, the seven bonus stages, and even the instruments you'll earn by completing them. I couldn't tell you exactly when I drew this; I suspect that it was somewhere between 1988, when I first got a Nintendo Entertainment System, and 1993, which was when I drew the rest of the artwork in the notebook. We'll split the difference and say this was from... 1990.

My most vivid (if not fond) memory of Milon's Secret Castle was playing it for three straight hours, since the game didn't have any battery saves or even a password feature. Even continuing was needlessly difficult, requiring an arcane combination of buttons. I was determined to beat it, though, and sat in a leather recliner for a large part of a sweltering afternoon, collecting all the items, making notes of where they were hidden, and rescuing the princess after killing the two pretenders to her throne. By the time I was done, I had to peel myself out of the chair, a challenge in itself.

It's funny looking back at Milon's Secret Castle in hindsight. In 1989, it seemed like a decent enough title; unpolished and obtuse in that grand NES tradition, but at least worth the rental. However, the internet was not nearly as kind in its assessment of the game. It's generally regarded as terrible on the Talking Time forums, and that sentiment is echoed in the majority of reviews on GameFAQs. In the game's defense... well, it's pretty hard to defend when compared to the more endearing and accessible Super NES sequel, Do-Re-Mi Fantasy. Still, there's a great deal of content in Milon's Secret Castle, with tons of stages and over a dozen hidden items. I can't say I'm chomping at the bit to return to it after twenty-odd years, but I might take a stab at the more player-friendly port of Milon's Secret Castle on the original GameBoy.

Well, maybe some day.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Awaiting Instructions: Yoshi's Island for the Game Boy Advance

As you may know (and if you don't, you will soon!), I had an operation a couple of weeks ago to deal with some serious digestive issues. I had to spend a week at the hospital to recover from the surgery, and decided that this downtime would be a perfect chance to get reacquainted with my Game Boy Advance. I purchased a handful of games on eBay in preparation for my week long vacation, including this one:

Sadly, Yoshi's Island didn't arrive in time... I had to make do with the original Super Mario World, along with a dozen other games already in my collection. (Gee, poor me!) That's fine, though, because this not only gave me a chance to work my way through Mario's first Super NES adventure, but it gave me something to look forward to when I returned home.

As it turns out, there was a lot I had to look forward to! The cartridge included two welcome surprises, including Mario vs. Donkey Kong (best described as a sequel to Donkey Kong '94 on the original Game Boy) and the Yoshi's Island instruction manual. Game Boy Advance games were shipped in flimsy cardboard boxes, so the boxes and manuals can be hard to come by. I thought I'd share my good fortune with the rest of you by posting a few pages from the manual right here. By the way, any resemblance this has to The Gay Gamer's Manual Stimulation series is purely coincidental. (Yeah, right.)

By now, you're probably already familiar with the story of Yoshi's Island. Turtle magician Kamek looks into his crystal ball and discovers that Mario will eventually be a major pain in the Koopa kingdom's collective keister, so he sends his lackeys to kidnap the child and his twin brother Luigi. Fortunately, a herd of wild Yoshis intervenes, rescuing the tyke before Kamek can get his hands on him. Now it's up to the Yoshis to free baby Luigi from Kamek's clutches and set time on its proper course.

You'll notice that Kamek is computer rendered in these pictures, which hints at Nintendo's original plans for Yoshi's Island. CGI was hot at the time thanks to films like Jurassic Park, and Nintendo wanted to capitalize on it by giving the game the same plastic sheen that defined the Donkey Kong Country games. Lead developer Shigeru Miyamoto detested the idea, and deliberately gave the game a childish, hand-drawn look to spite his corporate masters. Fortunately, that act of defiance paid off... Yoshi's Island is still considered a classic twenty years later, while many of its contemporaries that hopped aboard the CGI train were quickly forgotten. (Ask Sega how well Sonic 3D Blast or Vectorman worked out for them.)

Here's the control scheme for Yoshi's Island, which is... a bit of a handful if you're used to previous Mario games. Yoshi plays a lot differently than he did in Super Mario World, with a "flutter jump" that lets him briefly bend the laws of gravity and the ability to fling eggs at his enemies. I've always had trouble aiming eggs; the way the cursor turns on an axis always leaves me feeling like I'm not in complete control of my shots.

Ah yes, the famous Baby Mario scream. He starts crying when he's been knocked off Yoshi's back, which is an understandable reaction but nevertheless rubs most players the wrong way. I'd argue that Mario's squeals aren't any more irritating than Charles Martinet's cries of "Oh! Mama Mia!" in the previous Super Mario Advance games, but whatever.

All of these new abilities make Yoshi's Island a little intimidating to newcomers. I never really understood why Yoshi transforms into different vehicles, aside from giving Nintendo the chance to show off some nifty morphing effects. Also, you've got to ask yourself, "What's stopping Kamek from snatching Baby Mario while Yoshi is out joyriding as a helicopter?" Man, I just don't get it.

Also included on the cartridge, as was the case with every other Super Mario Advance game, is a loose conversion of the original Mario Bros. that's entertaining for maybe ten minutes. Why did Nintendo insist on putting this in four (wait, was it in Mario and Luigi as well? Make that five) different cartridges? You'd think people would have been plenty sick of it after playing it once. Anyway, it's here, and ready for you if you find yourself having too much fun with Yoshi's Island.

I can't think of anything else worth sharing from the Yoshi's Island instruction booklet, so here's a couple of fake advertisements from Valiant's Super Mario Bros. comic to round things out. This is a parody of the cola wars that raged in the 1980s. Bowser's hard sell (Koopa Kola or a painful death? Let me think about that for a while...) is really not much different from what Pepsi did with its Pepsi challenge, asking people to choose between their cola and a flat, warm glass of the competition.

And here's an ad for the similarly "appealing" Koopatone sunscreen. Evidently Bowser's got tanlines, even though this is the first time I've ever seen him in speedos. (Must be a bitch getting those on with that shell in the way.)

Judging from the single issue I've got, the Valiant Super Mario Bros. comic is a pretty good read... unfathomably corny, yes, but it does a better job of fleshing out the characters than Nintendo usually does. One of the stories in this issue has Wendy O. Koopa violently spurning the affections of a lovesick fish, and I honestly can't imagine her doing anything else.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Convalescing in Style: A Week at the Hospital with the Game Boy Advance

Welcome back to the land of the living! I've returned from my latest surgery, and I'm happy to say there were no major complications.  However, I'm less thrilled with the foot long trail of metal staples cascading down my stomach. Confession time: I have a tough time dealing with physical imperfections. Like, Seinfeld with his latest date tough. If someone's got a blemish or some other unusual feature, my eyes instantly snap to it. (It's not an endearing trait, but it is what it is.) Now I've got a zipper down the front of me that makes me look like a cast-off Godzilla monster, and it takes every ounce of my will to keep my eyes from it. Somewhere, Rod Serling is flashing a wicked smile as a camera slowly pans into the heavens...

Anyway. When I went to Grand Rapids for my (horrible, disfiguring) surgery, I had the foresight to take along my trusty Game Boy Micro and a stack of my favorite titles. Bryan Ochalla declared this to be the year of the Game Boy- the original white brick from the early 1990s- but in my opinion, it's the system's high-tech successor that deserves all the praise. Come on, it's got a huge library of Super NES quality (and beyond) games and the form factor of a Milky Way bar. Is it even possible to make a better handheld game system? No, of course it isn't. If you tried, the universe would collapse under the weight of all that awesome. It's a scientific fact. Just ask Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

"I've got better things to do than get involved in this stupid fight. Also, is that a zipper on your stomach?"

Shut up, Neil.

Here's a few of the games I was playing while recovering from my surgery. You'll learn pretty quickly about my gaming preferences from these short reviews, and you'll also notice how uncannily the Game Boy Advance caters to my personal tastes. I swear, there couldn't be a better game system for me if I had designed the thing myself!

King of Fighters EX 2: Howling Blood

Loosely based on the Neo-Geo game King of Fighters 2000, Howling Blood is very nearly the best fighting game on the Game Boy Advance and very definitely the best title SNK made for the system. 

(If you want to split hairs, this actually wasn't developed by SNK, but its successor Playmore, during that awkward time in the early 2000s when heartless pachinko giant Aruze had driven the company into bankruptcy and left it on the side of the road to die. But, uh, let's not open that wound right now.)

You may recall that the first King of Fighters EX was designed by Artoon, best known for the second most obnoxious bobcat in a video game. You might also remember that the game was horrendous, a pale imitation of the underrated King of Fighters '99. Luckily, Playmore learned from its mistakes and hired Sun-Tec to design the sequel, and that decision paid huge dividends.

Where do I begin? The graphics are stunning by handheld standards, with meaty characters brawling in such locations as a sand-swept desert and an aquarium. The heroes are all armed with their favorite attacks from the Neo-Geo games, and they all spill out from your thumb and onto the screen with little difficulty. Even the sound's not too shabby, although the metallic voices and wimpy hit effects take some of the impact out of each fight.

King of Fighters EX 2 comes out a little bruised in a direct comparison to King of Fighters 2000, and it's a royal pain in the posterior to unlock the "Master Orochi" modes for each character, but it's still a worthwhile fighter as long as you temper your expectations. Its only honest competition on the Game Boy Advance is Street Fighter Alpha 3, and you'd be wise to own them both if you're a fan of this genre.

Pac-Man Collection

Mass Media guffed up the Dreamcast version of Namco Museum pretty badly... shrinky dink characters and an appalling lack of features were the norm in that collection. However, the world discovered that on the more modest Game Boy Advance hardware, they really could do the Pac-Man. (Justice, I mean.)

Pac-Man Collection includes four games on one cartridge. All of them are commendable conversions of the arcade and console originals, but Pac-Attack is a boilerplate puzzle game without much lasting replay value, and Pac-Mania is an early experiment in computer rendering that fizzles out in a hurry once the novelty of the graphics wears off.

The real fun's in Pac-Man and Pac-Man Arrangement. Pac-Man is a razor-sharp conversion of the classic arcade game, and in the scroll mode, the graphics are identical to the original... not sort of similar like they were in Namco Museum for the Dreamcast. Pac-Man Arrangement could very easily have been released on its own cartridge; it's a brilliant late 90's update that's just bursting with life. Dots happily bounce on the playfield, eagerly waiting for you to gobble them up, and a new monster named "Kinky" turns the gameplay on its head, fusing with the other ghosts to create more dangerous hybrids. There are power-ups and speed-boosting arrows and new fruits and all kinds of tweaks to the action to keep it fresh and exciting. Sure, Namco Museum on the Game Boy Advance has a wider variety of games and Ms. Pac-Man, but it doesn't have this.

Super Mario Advance: Super Mario World

I made damned good and sure I had a copy of Super Mario World before I headed out to Grand Rapids for my surgery. After all, it was one of my all-time favorites on the Super NES, and I couldn't think of a better way to spend the week recovering than to plant Mario's big brown workboot in the butts of Bowser and his seven (recently disowned... what the hell, Miyamoto?) children.

I loved Super Mario World when I first played it on a demo kiosk at Wal-Mart back in 1991. I loved it when I first bought my own Super NES and got the game (in the same cartridge with Super Mario All-Stars!) six years later. It's no big surprise that I still love Super Mario World now, although it's gotten easier to notice the tattered edges. It's one of the blander Mario experiences, far removed from the rampant creativity of Super Mario Bros. 3, and it doesn't deliver the impact that a 16-bit game (especially a Super NES launch title!) should. It's like the designers sharpened up the resolution from the NES games, threw in some whoop-de-doo Mode 7 effects, and called it a day.

All that said, Super Mario World has some of the best level design in the series, with devious puzzles and stages that frequently let Mario explore freely in all directions. And while the fights against the Koopalings are kind of lackluster (pushing Iggy off a tilting bridge suspended over lava is a trying experience), that last battle against Bowser and his clown copter is the stuff of legends, using the system's scaling and rotation in a way that's both exciting and earnest. It just feels right, which is something that can't always be said about the Mode 7 in Super NES games.

The Game Boy Advance version of Super Mario World is mostly intact, aside from some shrill notes in the soundtrack and Charles Martinet's grating portrayal of Mario. These voice clips are not "just what I needed," and shame on Nintendo for forcing players to suffer through them. Also, the smaller screen of the Game Boy Advance forces the player to either use the L button to adjust the camera or take uncomfortable leaps of faith to progress. I almost feel like I deserve bonus bragging rights for beating this one, but I can't say I regret my time with it.

Ninja Five-0

The running theme for this game is "tough." This obscure Konami release, a pastiche of side-scrolling action titles like Rolling Thunder, Shinobi, and Bionic Commando, is a tough game to beat, but the challenge doesn't end there. It's also a tough game to find and a tough game to afford thanks to its extreme rarity. Konami didn't release many copies of Ninja Five-0 in the United States, making it a holy grail in the Game Boy Advance collection. If you own a copy, cherish it. If you don't, sell a few pints of blood so you can get a copy for yourself.

Anyway, Ninja Five-0 is a rescue mission set across a series of brilliantly designed levels. You'll sneak through warehouses and factories, freeing hostages from the clutches of gunmen, steadily wearing down the defenses of samurai cyborgs, and gracefully swinging over pits of spikes with your hook and chain. Alternately, you might kill a hostage with a mistimed shuriken toss, get fried to a crisp by one of the samurai's firebombs, or take a header into that pit of spikes. Ninja Five-0 is one of those rare games that will make you look masterfully skilled when you do well... and a total klutz when you screw up.

Fire Pro Wrestling

My first taste of this series, Fire Pro Gaiden on the Sega Genesis, was not a flattering one. However, the developers at Human Entertainment (now Spike-Chunsoft) whipped Fire Pro into shape on the Sega Saturn, and it's been the king of console wrestling games ever since. Sure, other titles might be endorsed by classic wrestlers like Dwayne "The Tooth Fairy" Johnson and Hulk "I'll put on my tutu" Hogan, but only Fire Pro delivers with some of the deepest, most customizable, and just plain fun action you'll find in the genre. The outcome of grapples is determined with careful timing, not mad button smashing, and there are plenty of attacks available to you once you've softened up your opponent. You can whip them into the ropes, get the drop on them from a turnbuckle, or even mount their chests and lay into them with a merciless flurry of punches.

The action is authentic to the last detail (focus your strikes on a weak spot and your opponent will start gushing blood, to the horror of the audience) and all the pageantry of the sport is here, from the flashy fighter introductions to driving chiptunes that keep each match nail-bitingly tense. Sure, the graphics aren't fantastic- Fire Pro's always been one step behind the competition in that department- and there's no representation from real-life wrestlers, but it's not like you're going to have a hard time figuring out who Axe Duggan and "Slim" Jim Mr. Mann are supposed to be.

Atari Anniversary Advance

"Have you played Atari today?" With this cartridge and a Game Boy Micro in your pocket, you can always be sure the answer is "yes." Atari Anniversary Advance includes six of Atari's best-known arcade games, hits like Centipede, Tempest, and Asteroids which were brought to the small screen with the magic of "meta-emulation." The developers at Digital Eclipse (now Code Mystics) emulated the logic of the arcade games while having the Game Boy Advance handle the graphics and sound natively, resulting in conversions that are unbelievably close to the originals.

The only sticking point is that the games, in that grand Atari tradition, are kind of dated. Centipede is as good as it ever was (flip your Micro sideways, tap the select button, and prepare to be blown away), but Asteroids is in black and white, and without a dial, the simplistic Super Breakout doesn't hold much interest. Battlezone and Tempest are more cutting edge with their striking color vector graphics, but Battlezone's always been sluggish, and the slightly chunky frame rate of Tempest suggests that the game may have been just beyond the Game Boy Advance's reach. Nevertheless, Atari Anniversary Advance is a satisfying collection for the oldest of old-school gamers.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Genesis DOES! Part 4: Mega Bomberman

Remember that epic list of favorite Genesis games that I was going to post on this blog? Boy am I behind on that! I originally planned to do these reviews in packs of five, but because it's been so long since I've written any, and because this review wound up being so long, I figured I'd post it solo. At the end I'll talk about a few other things, so stay tuned!

This was a frustrating choice. I originally planned to put Earthworm Jim 2 in this spot on the list, but a quick run through many of the stages revealed that its design was critically flawed, and that the game didn’t really deserve that honor. My back up, Dynamite Headdy, didn’t hold up under close scrutiny, either. Treasure tried to bring the slower, more methodical gameplay of a Nintendo platformer to the Genesis, but the level design quickly shifts from brilliant to sadistic, and Headdy, try as he might, just doesn’t have the charisma of Kirby, his closest Nintendo equivalent. Just try to argue the point after you listen to him creepily exclaim “Yeeeeees!” after picking up an item or beating a boss.
Step inside a mine cart and
watch your Genesis instantly
turn into a UNIVAC.
So that just leaves us to one option. Congratulations, Mega Bomberman, you’re my bronze medal! I was reluctant to pick this one, because as 99% of Genesis owners don’t know, this is a distressingly inferior port of the Japanese Turbografx-16 title Bomberman ‘94. The graphics don’t pop and the music doesn’t sing like it did in the original game, and slowdown is a constant companion in the later stages. Just hop in a mine cart and you’ll watch the world around you shift into bullet time, which was not an issue in the Turbografx-16 version.
(Tyrone Rodriguez, the founder of indie game studio Nicalis, once told me in a conversation that Mega Bomberman had so much slowdown because the Turbografx-16 had a faster graphics processor, or something. I contend that there’s nothing in the game that should have been beyond the scope of the Genesis, and that Mega Bomberman was a less than perfect port because Hudson Soft didn’t have much experience developing for the system. On top of that, it was de rigueur for Japanese game designers to shit on the Genesis back in the 1990s. But let’s not open that wound right now.)
What's yellow and just isn't right?
A remote-controlled banana.
If you don’t compare Mega Bomberman directly to Bomberman ‘94, and the vast majority of Genesis owners didn’t have that luxury, it’s a pretty good entry in the series. It’s got cleaner graphics and more personality than the Super NES games, with amusing death animations for many of your foes and some hilariously weird boss encounters. Yes, that’s an evil banana, and yes, it’s being remotely controlled by a monkey.
The battle mode is also pretty keen, without any of the nasty slowdown in the story mode and with the addition of Louies, colorful kangaroos that add strategy to the often frantic action. You’ll not only want to hop on one of these mighty marsupials to protect yourself from bomb blasts, but destroy any remaining Louie eggs to keep your opponents from hitching a ride themselves.
So that’s Mega Bomberman. It’s kind of a phone-in compared to the Turbografx-16 version, but since nobody actually played that one, it’s hard to criticize Hudson Soft for it. Besides, Hudson atoned for the game’s shortcomings with Saturn Bomberman, still regarded as the best Bomberman ever and still exclusively on a Sega system. So there.


The neck bone's connected to the... knife hand.
So I finally downloaded all the games mentioned in my last post, plus Civilization: Revolution (hey, it was free!) and a demo of Dragon's Dogma, the action RPG that's considerate enough to use KY jelly, rather than going in dry like Dark Souls. I only played a couple of these titles so far, but I feel obligated to mention this... that remake of Mortal Kombat? INCREDIBLE. Not only does it look fantastic (doesn't every game these days?), but the gameplay has been brought back to the glory days of the series. It's not perfectly faithful to the original trilogy- combos have been shuffled around a bit and the almighty uppercut has moved to a different button- but it's much closer than Deadly Alliance and its misbegotten progeny were. Series creators Ed Boon and John Tobias were also smart enough to bring super moves to the series... and it only took them twenty years! Press A, B, and the right trigger together after you've filled a meter at the bottom of the screen, and you'll shatter your opponent's bones with a series of blows shown from inside their bodies. It's the nastiest anatomy lesson ever!

I also dabbled with Persona 4 Arena, which looks gorgeous but is missing something. I think that something is an arcade joystick... it'd be a better fit for P4A's brand of button-mashing action than the standard Xbox 360 pad. (Then again, most of the games I like would be more fun with a joystick.)

What else...? Oh yeah. I'm going in for surgery in a week, and I'll probably be too busy convalescing to post blog entries for a week after that. Or if something goes wrong, it'll be much longer than that. I'm crossing my fingers for a quick recovery, and uh, not dying.