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.

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