Monday, April 27, 2015

Dreaming in Black and White, Part I

The original Game Boy was never my cup of tea, but I've decided to give the system another chance after all these years. I've discovered that it has the peculiar power to entertain in spite of its many handicaps... possibly because its limited hardware encouraged developers to think outside the front-loading grey box and try new ideas, rather than lean on the scroll/boss formula that was so common on the NES. Here now are four such games, along with a sequel to an early Nintendo release that goes a long way toward improving the original.

By the way, these reviews are a little more... spirited than usual. If you were wondering about the change in tone, you can thank Mike and his hard lemonade for that.


That thing on the top of the screen
is a seagull. I think.
I was looking forward to this one when it was first announced in GamePro, and frankly, I'm convinced that I was the only teenager who was. The initial descriptions made it sound like a revival of the clever Intellivision game Shark! Shark!, where you were a tiny guppy that gobbled up smaller fish to grow in size, eventually gaining the girth to take on more threatening prey. It was kind of like Katamari Damacy, except underwater and more pixelated. 

Anyway, Fish Dude is NOT the Shark! Shark! revival it appeared to be in those advertisements, but a lame aquatic take on Pac-Man, where you have to chase tiny fish and hammer the fire button to chew them. While you're hunting for dinner, larger, balloon-shaped fish will be hunting for you, and have a disconcerting habit of catching you while you're attempting to digest minnows. Forget about turning the tables on these apex predators, because you won't grow in size no matter how many fish you eat. You will get bored in a hurry, and you will want to throw your GameBoy into a river when you hear the tiresome jingle that plays each time you're given a new life, or start a new stage, or the game catches you scratching your nose. To quote Alex Winter in Freaked, "Boo, dude!"

EDIT: I learned (from a VGJunk review I hadn't even realized I read!) that your fish dude DOES grow in size after about three stages. You have to eat 45 fish to get that far, while in Shark! Shark!, your fish started growing after munching three or four of them. It will take the patience of Job and the willpower of mighty Hercules to stay interested in Fish Dude long enough for the lead character to get any larger.

FCI/Pony Canyon

Nothing can kill the ghost.
EVERYTHING can kill the bubble.
I'd heard positive things about this game, but refused to believe them, because it was released by Pony Canyon. You know, the same company that published NES games which were somehow more primitive than their Atari 2600 counterparts. Unbelievably, Bubble Ghost actually IS pretty good, calling my whole perception of reality into question. Black is white! Right is left! Dogs and cats, living together! Bill Murray playing Garfield in a movie after complaining that his character in the Ghostbusters cartoon sounded too much like Garfield! A Diet Dr. Pepper that really does taste like regular Dr. Pepper!

Well, life no longer makes sense, but at least I can take solace in Bubble Ghost, a fun puzzle game that's like nothing else on the Game Boy. You're a small spirit who's acquired Patrick Swayze powers, and can move corporeal objects around with sheer force of will. Usually that means blowing a bubble through tight corridors filled with sharp objects, but you can also blow out candles and scare serpents into submission by blowing into trumpets. The take home is that if Kirby sucks, the star of Bubble Ghost blows. The physics in the game are a little suspect- blowing on the bubble immediately changes its direction, which is not how things would work in real life- but the game is perfectly playable despite this. Also, be warned... that ridiculously catchy theme music is gonna bore its way into your brain and never leave. Tell Rick Astley to make some room.


Still not sure what that black stuff
is supposed to be.
I'll be honest with you folks... I don't like Kid Icarus much. Never have, really. I didn't even like Kid Icarus: Uprising, because after an initial honeymoon, it tied my fingers into knots with its ridiculous touchscreen-dependent control scheme. (If you're wondering, I'm typing this review with my nose right now.) Would it really have been too much to ask to build the 3DS with a second analog thumbstick, Nintendo? Oh wait, you needed to add that to a later model, so you could make more money off your own shortsightedness. All righty, then!

You could knock me over with a wax-coated feather when I played Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters and DIDN'T hate the experience. It's similar to the old NES game, but more merciful, thanks to a more handheld-friendly design but also because the developers learned some important lessons from the extremely flawed original. The action is a bit slower this time, and enemies aren't quite as numerous or aggressive, letting you power through each stage with a minimum of profanity and torn out clumps of hair. The game still strikes me as weirdly cryptic (what on earth are those hammers for, anyway?), but I'd rather play this than the NES game, with or without color.


Out of Gas bears a weird resemblance to another
unappreciated game, Fun House for the NES.
Miracle of miracles, it's another FCI game that doesn't suck! But to be fair, this was developed by Realtime Associates, a team of experienced developers that used to make games for the ancient Intellivision. (Shame they weren't hired to work on Fish Dude.) As you might have guessed, Out of Gas is full of old-school flavor, playing a lot like Atari's Asteroids. You use your thrusters to zip across each maze-like stage, bouncing off walls and blasting fuel icons. Some of these icons are numbered and must be shot in sequence, which means a lot of backtracking and careful navigation through deadly obstacles.

This game would have been easy to miss back in the day, but it's surprisingly entertaining in 2015, with smooth animation and surefooted control. There's even a bit of humor in the opener, with a futuristic cartoon character trying to score with his girlfriend... and failing miserably. Sorry, George Jetson... your rocket is going to have to stay in the launch bay.


I don't know how cacti can live that close
to ice, but okay!
I thought for sure Ochalla was gonna get around to reviewing this! Oh well... more for me!

Anyway, Astro Rabby is best described as an overhead view Super Mario Bros, or a caveman ancestor of the underrated Playstation launch title Jumping Flash. You're a robot rabbit, and it's your mission to recover the ten power-up parts stolen by the Dortoise Army. (Yeah, they've got a tortoise and hare thing going on in this game. Whatever greases the wheels of the plot, I guess!) You'll find the parts by stomping on question blocks scattered through a series of vertically scrolling levels. As a bunny, Rabby's got one hell of a jump, but falling into pits or colliding with Dortoise soldiers instantly spells his doom. You've also got a time limit, so if you don't find the part before time runs out, you can kiss your cotton tail goodbye.

Astro Rabby is a pretty decent game... nothing memorable, but competently designed and plenty original. What stands out the most is the bonus game, where Rabby must match pairs of blocks by stomping on them and listening to their audio cues. Expect to lose this one a lot unless you're fast and musically inclined.

More to come!


  1. I look forward to more on the Game Boy. As a gamer I was primarily raised on handhelds - to this day most games I play are on my 3DS and earlier handhelds - I still find consoles to occasionally be a bit daunting, so it is good to see an alternative take from someone who finds handhelds - or at least the Game Boy - to be a bit on the off side.

    1. Don't get me wrong... I like handheld systems. The original brick GameBoy just struck me as a little wimpy, even for the time. When I was growing up, I desperately wanted to get an Atari Lynx instead, as it seemed like the Rolls Royce of portable game systems. A color screen! Tons of buttons! Hardware tricks like scaling and rotation! When I finally got that Lynx, it was okay. Fun for sure, but it couldn't possibly measure up to the unrealistic expectations I had for it as a kid.

    2. I have a Lynx - if it had some really, properly good games that took full advantage of its capabilities or just played well, it might've sold quite a bit more. Alas, a mix of arcade games, arcade rip-offs and very little truly original content combined with bulky design, overly-large size, high price, and the name Atari stuck to it... well, nails, meet coffin.

      In this era of modern graphics trying to play the GameBoy is just painful. The lack of a backlight is just awful - but it had such a wide variety of games and so many of them are so very good. Especially considering how underpowered the system is.

  2. OK, I love that you refer to me as "Ochalla" here, Jess. It's like I'm back in high school! (Everyone called me "Ochalla" in high school. Ha!). Anyway, I've actually been meaning to write about Astro Rabby and Bubble Ghost for ages. I've had CIB copies of both games for a couple of years now, I think, but you know how things go. I'll do my best to write about them soon. Maybe I'll go play both now in preparation...

    1. I figured you'd appreciate that more than the other nickname I could have used... B.O. =D

      Anyway, I thought I'd mention that I have one of those brighter Game Boy Advance SPs now, with another one coming in the mail. This one I bought from Goodwill doesn't have a charger, but let's just say that I've... convinced it to run without one. (Puts out electrical fire) The real bugger about having two AGS-101s is that now I can play Game Boy and Game Boy Color games, but I didn't bother to bring any of mine with me. D'oh.

    2. B.J., B.O., there are all sorts of nicknames you can use on me. I'd probably prefer B.J. to B.O., though, for obvious reasons :)

      Congrats on getting a couple of the brighter SPs, BTW! I've yet to nab one myself. I'll do it someday, though. For the time being, my original SP, micro and DSes will have to do...