Thursday, August 29, 2013

Shantae: Risky's Revenge (Nintendo DSiWare) Review

It's been five years since Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, the last proper "Metroidvania" adventure, came out and boy have I missed my Metroidvania. A lot. I miss my big goofy weapons, my ridiculous magic spells, my melodramatic Dracula stories, wickedly cool heroes and heroines like Alucard, Nathan Graves, Soma Cruz, and Shanoa, giant, crazy enemies and bosses, beautiful 2D art, fantastic soundtracks, and most of all, I miss the item/ability-based exploration of labyrinthine environments. With Konami recently embracing an entirely new Castlevania universe and delivering a high fantasy, God of War-esque, 3D action experience much removed from the humble 2D Metroidvania formula with its Lords of Shadow series, and also with Nintendo flat-out ignoring its brilliant Metroid series since Other M came out and underwhelmed most of us with its poorly-written, cutscene-bloated, linear adventure, it doesn't look like my new Metroidvania is anywhere on the horizon.

Luckily, Shantae: Risky's Revenge has come along to fill this gaping hole in my gaming life...well, maybe not fill it completely, but at least gave it an oh-so-tasty treat to savor.

After learning that the original Shantae had been released for the 3DS Virtual Console (I've wanted to play these games for a long time, but the Shantae Game Boy Color cart is ridiculously pricey due its rarity), I purchased and downloaded both Shantae and its DSiWare-exclusive (originally) sequel. After finishing the original, I couldn't wait and I immediately booted up the sequel. I played Risky's Revenge all the way through to the end of the first labyrinth, and spent the next several days relishing every moment of this gem.

Risky's back!

Risky's Revenge essentially improves on every little nitpick I had with the original Shantae while also upgrading the visuals and music and everything else the way a sequel that came out eight years later should. After gaining control of Shantae at the beginning of the game, I was immediately struck by just how much better the game feels to play. Perhaps my biggest gripe with the first game, that Shantae's hair whip, her main method of attack, had too short a range and felt handicapped as a result, has been vastly improved. Shantae's hair now has the range of attack that I feel her long, purple ponytail should and it's amazing how this one little change makes RR so much more fun to play than the original. Not only has the range improved, but Shantae can now upgrade her hair so whipping is faster and more efficient. It now feels smooth and satisfying to attack enemies and those enemies don't take five+ hits to kill anymore, so combat is never tedious or out of Shantae's control. Challenge doesn't come from frequent cheap hits this time but from learning how each monster attacks and responding accordingly.

Hair-whipping feels so much better in RR

RR also ditches the cumbersome additional attack skills that could be bought from a shop in the original and replaces the numerous, frivolous consumable subweapons with three permanent magic attacks that Shantae can buy and upgrade throughout the game. Instead of having a limited number of uses, how many times Shantae can shoot fireballs or how long a protective barrier stays active are now determined by a magic meter. An additional upgrade can be bought that makes this meter slowly auto-refill over time. Magic potions and health potions can also be bought to refill magic and life, respectively. What's more, these potions are much more affordable than in the first game.

Shantae can master several magical skills now

Lives have also been done away with in favor of more frequent save points and less cheap deaths due to spikes and bottomless pits, which no longer kill Shantae instantly. All of these tweaks combine to make a much more enjoyable play experience. I died a lot less in Risky's Revenge, but a lot of my deaths in the original felt cheap and frustrating, so I don't really mind the reduced difficulty, which allows me to focus on what I really enjoy about these kinds of games, namely exploring. Besides, the game never felt too easy, and your health will rapidly deplete due to the swarms of monsters that hit hard in this game, so you will die if you don't stock up on potions and watch your hearts carefully. The difficulty just felt more fair this time around.

Risky's Revenge is more than just a few tweaks though; it also feels like a truly enhanced experience, like the sort of leap games saw from their NES iterations to their SNES ones. For starters, RR is a beautiful game with gorgeous 2D art featuring lushly painted backgrounds, crisply animated sprites, and engrossing world design. The fields of Sequin Land are full of vegetation in the foreground and background and dotted with pumpkins and lilacs. The forest is misty and densely packed with flora and the seaside is sun-splashed and colorful. All of the charming characters from the first game return and we also get to meet some new ones. Risky Boots is back to terrorize Shantae again of course (hilariously first appearing riding a giant anchor nonsensically suspended through a building's ceiling) and friends like Sky and Bolo (who seems much more reserved this time) are back. We also get to finally meet the mischievous zombie-girl Rottytops' two brothers, as well as the various quirky Barons, and also my personal favorite side-character, Barracuda Joe. All of these characters are also now accompanied by a large, detailed portrait of themselves whenever they speak.

This guy makes me smile
Shantae is also full of anonymous NPCs with funny, off-beat things to say. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the the game was returning to Scuttle Town and hearing what its wacky NPCs had to say. Something that bugs me in a lot of RPGs and adventure games is when I keep talking to the same NPCs at different points in a game to hear what they have to say and they just keep repeating the same dialogue over and over. I appreciated the fact that throughout the game, the residents of Scuttle Town always had something new and funny to say after I completed a major story event, like a dungeon. One little girl simply says "I'm four!" when you talk to her and then there's a guy who comments on how he wanders around on the roof of the town shop all day and also a guard who is always standing in the same place who talks about how he enjoys standing and looking. There are just so many clever little gags if the player takes the time to talk to the NPCs. A fisherman says something about "that dopey kid" tossing an interesting item he caught back into the ocean. If you chat to a nearby kid, he hilariously and illogically blurts out: "I'm a dopey kid!" I just burst out laughing at this. Both the main story and the world at large are littered with funny moments like this.

In addition to the beautiful, artistic visuals in RR, the music has also gotten a boost. I liked the music in the original Shantae and respect the originality and quality of that game's soundtrack, but Jake Kaufman really outdid himself in Risky's Revenge. The soundtrack combines wonderful remixes and excellent new tracks to form a spectacular OST and one of the better ones I've heard in a while. There isn't a bad piece in the entire game and every song is either perfectly atmosphericappropriately catchy, or just upbeat and a joy to listen to.

Hanging out with Rotty

I compared the original Shantae to Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, but Risky's Revenge ditches that formula (as neat as I still think it is if done well) and feels much closer in structure to a Metroidvania game. The overworld is one giant map and is set up like one big labyrinth to explore (although not quite as intricate as in Metroid and Castlevania games). The action is all in 2D, but the game plays with the idea of multiple, layered 2D planes that Shantae can travel between. For example, in the forest area, you can see faded objects in the background and enemies walking around. By utilizing certain "jump pads", Shantae can leap into the background and explore a new plane. Shantae travels in this way through the multiple planes of the foreground and background. It's a really interesting idea that brings Donkey Kong Country Returns (which also plays with the idea of traveling between the foreground and background) to mind. This plane-switching mechanic is sadly underutilized in RR, but hopefully the planned 3DS sequel returns to the idea, as it would be a perfect fit for the 3DS's unique 3D depth capabilities.

The world map is a little confusing to take in at first

The landscape of Sequin Land is dotted with hidden caves, secret discoveries, and interesting people to talk to. There are few things more satisfying in adventure games for me than acquiring a cool new ability and then retracing my steps and discovering new places that this new ability allows me to reach. This aspect is a staple of Metroidvania and Zelda games, and part of why I adore them so much. For example, after acquiring the ability to turn into an elephant (like in the first game), I was dying to re-explore the forest to smash open all those mysterious rocks and blockades and see what they were hiding.

Like in the original, Shantae has the ability to use her magic belly-dancing to transform into different creatures and gain new abilities. I was a little disappointed, however, that the actual act of dancing has been greatly downplayed in Risky's Revenge. In the original, dancing required multiple button inputs and had six unique dance animations. This process has been greatly streamlined in RR. Now, Shantae will start dancing if the player merely holds down a single button, and unfortunately her dances are not accompanied by any music or little ditties for each move like in the first game. Shantae automatically cycles through three dance moves and depending on which move the player releases the button on, she will transform into one of the three creatures that are unlocked at different points in the game. I appreciate the fact that transforming is much quicker and easier and it makes exploring and using the multiple forms a much faster and more streamlined process, but the detailed dance system was one of my favorite aspects of the original, so it's definitely missed here.

Shantae discovering a secret cave within another cave!

So with beautiful art, wonderful music, improved gameplay, a well-designed world to explore and puzzle-filled labyrinths to solve, is Risky's Revenge a perfect sequel? Well, unfortunately no. RR is dripping with quality but I have one big issue with the's just too short. I'm not usually one to complain about a game's length, and I favor a short, focused experience in place of a long, bloated one padded out with tedious nonsense. I thought the original Shantae was a great length for what it was; it had no filler and didn't feel too short or too long. But Risky's Revenge is about half the length of the original and more importantly, it feels short. There are only two dungeons as opposed to four like in the first game, and the second dungeon is replaced by the "Battle Tower", which is essentially just an enemy rush that must be completed in a time limit. This sort of thing would be fine for an optional side-mission, but isn't a suitable replacement for a full-fledged dungeon.

The world, though well-designed, also feels a bit small and could have used maybe one or two more regions to explore, in addition to about two more labyrinths to conquer. Risky's Revenge also features what some might call padding in the form of several fairly brief, but mandatory, fetch quests. I never found these errands, such as "find a coffeemaker, coffee beans, and an egg" or "find three baby squids" to be too problematic, as I actually found these items by accident just by naturally exploring the world. These quests always follow the acquiring of a new power and basically task the player with using this new skill to explore previously unreachable areas. I naturally do this kind of thing anyway in a game like RR, so these missions never bothered me, but they feel like they're here to make short game longer.

Boss time!

Risky's Revenge was originally going to be split up into multiple episodic releases, but this idea was scrapped and the game was released as a stand-alone sequel. As part of a series of chapters, RR's length would have been acceptable (although I'm not a fan of episodic games), but as a stand-alone sequel to the original Shantae, it just feels incomplete. What's present is a very high-quality adventure, but it simply left me wanting more, especially with its semi-cliff-hanger ending. RR is a cheap, downloadable title originally only available on the DSiWare service, so this is of course the main reason for its brevity. I also wouldn't say I didn't get my money's worth because the game is a blast and from what I've heard, it's actually lengthy for a DSiWare game. I just wish that WayForward would have been able to make a full-fledged, retail sequel to the original Shantae like the game deserved.

Thankfully, I hopefully won't have to wait long for my next Shantae fix as the third game in the series, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse (note: there are spoilers for the ending of Risky's Revenge in this video), which is supposed to be twice as large as Risky's Revenge, is supposed to arrive on the 3DS eShop sometime this year. I'm a bit skeptical though because the year is almost over and there hasn't really been any news on this game outside of its initial reveal in the now extinct Nintendo Power's November issue of last year. I hope the game still shows up this year, but in the mean time, if you haven't played or heard of the Shantae games, run to 3DS eShop now (if you own the system). They can both be downloaded for under $20 (Risky's Revenge is also available on iOS) and if you enjoy Metroidvania-style games, Zelda-style games, or just quality 2D action-adventures, you own it to yourself to play these games. The Shantae series takes one of my favorite adventure game formulas and builds on it with a unique world and cast of characters and style unlike anything else, and gosh dang it, I just love it!

Shantae will return in Shantae and the Pirate's Curse!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Shantae (Game Boy Color) Review

I've always thought that the infamous Castlevania II: Simon's Quest was a good idea, but one that was poorly executed. I liked the idea of a sprawling 2D world full of branching paths and dotted with towns and dungeons, but in the end the game just turned out to be pretty boring. There were several factors that weighed the game down: tedious grinding in place of actual challenge, bland dungeons with boring design, and just other silliness like the slow text boxes marking day and night transitions. The idea of having one seamless, explorable 2D world was later translated into the Metroidvania formula made famous by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on the PS1 and later perfected (in my own humble opinion) in the Aria and Dawn of Sorrow titles. But we never really got another game quite like Simon's Quest. Zelda II (which was released before Castlevania II) comes to mind, but Zelda II features an overhead world map and various separated 2D action environments instead of one continuous 2D world. For the record, Zelda II is also just a much better video game than Simon's Quest on every level. The concept of a 2D scrolling world that eventually loops with townsfolk to talk to and dungeons to explore is a game concept that sadly seemed to have died with Simon's Quest's flawed execution of the concept.

Until Shantae was released for the Game Boy Color in 2002 (and FINALLY re-released for the 3DS Virtual Console about a month ago, meaning I don't have to shell out over $200 to play the game anymore).

Shantae takes everything that made the concept of Simon's Quest interesting: a big scrolling 2D overworld that's filled with monsters and different pathways as well as several towns, but does everything so much better with a charming story full of very memorable characters, interesting and well-designed dungeons, a similar day and night system without the text boxes, and other tweaks like retaining progress even after all lives are lost. The only risk in losing all of your lives in Shantae is being sent back to the nearest save point; all other progress, including all acquired items and gems (the game's currency), sticks.

Shantae, forced into action after pirates cannonball her lighthouse home

But Shantae is much more than just a well-realized execution of Simon's Quest's concepts. Ir's hard not to remember the troubled second chapter in the Castlevania legacy when playing Shantae, but Shantae is also just a damn fine, refreshingly original 2D action adventure in its own right.

You play as Shantae, a "Half-Genie", belly-dancing, transforming, hair-whipping storm of awesomeness. Shantae is the self-appointed guardian genie of a small fishing village called Scuttle Town. The story kicks off when the adorably named, yet incredibly villainous lady-pirate Risky Boots attacks Scuttle Town in order to steal a Steam Engine from Shantae's adopted Uncle, Mimic, named so for his ability to discover and duplicate ancient relics from the old world (in this case, a steam engine). After learning that Risky plans to steal four elemental stones (like a stone that produces an endless stream of water) to help power the machine and fuel her plans for steam-powered conquest, Shantae sets off on a quest across Sequin Land to unearth four labyrinths, find the stones before Risky, and foil the evil pirate's plans.

Shantae is not amused by Risky Boots' antics

It's a very Zelda-ish plot, but one with an entirely unique flavor. Genies protecting fishing villages? Evil pirates using steam-power for world domination? The way Shantae combines so many disparate elements and blends them into this wildy fun (and funny) adventure is big part of the game's charm. And I haven't even mentioned the roaming caravan of friendly, sapient zombies yet!

Shantae's action is split between the large scrolling overworld (which eventually loops around if you go far enough to the right or left, just like in Castlevania II), towns, and dungeons. Town exploration is particularly interesting because while in a town, you view things from a third-person, behind the back perspective and move left and right. This differs from the rest of the game which plays out in a standard 2D side-scrolling fashion. While in a town, you can talk to passing townsfolk and also enter different buildings and shops in the town. One of the main delights of visiting each town is all the weird people walking around, especially at night. Half of these characters barely even look human, and I love how during the nighttime, everyone is wearing dark cloaks and looks super shady. Townsfolk offer advice for your adventure, foreshadow future discoveries, or just offer some funny gossip. All towns have a save room, a bath house (for health recovery), and a shop. Some towns even offer unique mini-games like a dance parlor and a gecko race. Also, living in every town is a friendly, quirky character who will help Shantae on her travels, like her dim-witted sparring partner Bolo who has eyes for Risky Boots, or her old friend Sky, a trainer of "war birds" (whatever those are) who lends her trusty bird Wrench to Shantae (an animal who lives up to his name in a comically literal way).

Hanging out at the dance parlor

In the overworld, Shantae will travel over plains, through forests, across deserts, through swamps, and over mountains. Upon leaving Scuttle Town, players can travel in whichever direction they would like, but they may run into more difficult enemies and puzzling roadblocks if they go a certain way. It's usually pretty clear where to go next, but it's nice that players are still given a choice on which direction to travel in. There's a lot of backtracking involved, but overworld travel is kept engaging by the classic Metroidvania/Zelda formula of finding new abilities that allow Shantae to access new areas and uncover hidden shortcuts and collectables, like heart holders that permanently increase the genie girl's health. Ordinary-looking tree stumps and rocks can be broken apart to find hidden caves, and walls and special surfaces can be climbed to reach new areas. Shantae doesn't find a set of tools or weapons to reach these new ventures though (although a plethora of different subweapons can be bought from shops and used); instead she uses her natural genie abilities to transform into different creatures.

This leads me to one of my favorite features in Shantae which is her ability to use different magical dances to transform into different animals as well as perform other tasks such as warping to the game's various towns. By pressing a button, Shantae will start dancing, and by inputting different buttons in time with a beat, Shantae will perform different dance moves. Throughout the game, players will learn how to use certain combinations of these dance moves to transform into creatures such as a monkey that can cling to and climb walls and an elephant that can smash apart obstacles. Shantae features wonderfully vibrant, detailed graphics and animations, especially for a Game Boy Color game (it was one of the last on the system), and these lively animations are no more apparent than in Shantae's set of slick dance moves.


Shantae's list of dance moves and the act of dancing itself reminds me a lot of using both the Ocarina and the Wind Waker from the Zelda series. Also similar to Zelda, Shantae will acquire a new transformation dance in each dungeon and then use that dance to further her exploration of that dungeon, defeat its boss, and then explore new areas in the overworld. Every dungeon also introduces some kind of interesting new mechanic besides just the animal transformations, such as a magic panel that changes Shantae's color to red or blue, and puzzles are based around being a certain color at a certain time. I enjoyed all the dungeons quite a bit, although I found most of the bosses to be a bit too simplistic and easy. The only exception is the final boss, who is difficult, but in a cheap way that felt broken to me. I would attack the boss repeatedly point-blank with zero results only to attack it again in the same manner later and land a hit. I never quite figured out whether there was some pattern I was missing with this boss or if it really was just a clunky battle in terms of design.

I also want to point out a couple glitches I encountered in the game. I'm not sure if these were present in the original Game Boy Color cart, but both were encountered in the game's second dungeon. One of them involved me picking up one of the labyrinth's "warp squids" (collectables Shantae can find in each dungeon that allow her to learn a dance for warping to towns), after which the game became a mess of colorful lines and froze. Luckily, I was able to pick up the same warp squid without incident after retrying. The next glitch was an odd one that occurred while fighting the second dungeon's boss. First of all, either the boss is really, really easy, or a strange glitch allowed me to defeat it super quickly. Then, after I'd defeated the boss, the screen started to shake and after picking up the elemental stone that appears after each boss, the boss creature briefly reappeared, still in its death animation, before I was transported out of the dungeon. Weird. I'm not sure about the boss glitch, but I read online about the warp squid glitch happening to other people and apparently for them it also erased their save file, which thankfully did not happen to me. If you plan on playing the game on the 3DS Virtual Console (which you should because it's worth your time), you might want to be extra careful while in the game's second labyrinth.

Outside a town and inside a dungeon

Besides her transformation abilities and the wide range of subweapons available in the game (which I personally never found much use for), Shantae's main method of attack is whipping foes with her magical ponytail. This attack works fine enough, but it's held back by the attack's annoyingly short range. I found this very jarring and it's one of my few major complaints with Shantae. It's sort of hard to explain, but with a "whip" I expect there to be a certain range of attack and I just feel like I need to get too close to an adversary to land a blow. The whip's less-than-optimal performance is also exacerbated by the fact that many normal enemies roaming the overworld take about a million hits to kill, especially at nighttime when they all get stronger.

Throughout the game, other special attack skills can be purchased from a certain shop but the hair whip always remains the most convenient method of attack and it never gets an upgrade. I found these other skills in the game to be either too cumbersome to use or just downright useless. They either take too long to execute or end up putting Shantae at risk. One "upgrade" makes Shantae perform a forward dash attack. The problem here is that this attack is performed by holding down the "run" button in the game for a second or two to charge it up, which I'm usually constantly pressing. I can't count how many times I'd be standing on ledge, only to accidently charge up this attack and have no choice but to send Shantae flying off a ledge and into a pit of spikes to her death (spikes one-shot Shantae, which can get pretty annoying because they are very, very prominent in the game). This "upgrade" is more of a severe inconvenience than anything else and is also pretty useless in a fight because of how long it takes to charge. The player is seriously better off not buying this skill, and the other ones aren't much better, especially considering how pricey they all are.

Shantae vs. Risky

Other than these few flaws though, Shantae is a fantastic action adventure. It may borrow many concepts from Metroidvania and Zelda, but it melds them into a unique adventure with a sense of style all its own. Also, one of the best parts of Shantae is just how focused and tightly-designed it is; the game has zero filler and feels just the right length. Between Shantae's adorable belly-dancing, unique animal transformations, all the quirky and well-animated enemy designs and NPCs, the unique and catchy soundtrack, and just the funny and whimsical atmosphere this game presents, Shantae is a very memorable experience any player won't soon forget. You'll know what I mean when you compete in a footrace against a Zombie girl named Rottytops.

Moreover, Shantae proves that it's really not that difficult to have an action adventure video game that stars a cool, interesting female protagonist whose main power isn't her ability to grow a pair of gargantuan breasts that would break the back of any normal human female.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Power of Video Games: The Crushing Despair and Subtle Horror of Ecco the Dolphin

Warning: Full spoilers for the entirety of Ecco the Dolphin follow

What do you think of when you look at the artwork above? Perhaps you think of nature shows about marine life, maybe about a trip to Sea World you took, or maybe you think of those colorful Lisa Frank folders you used to have...

You may think about any one of these things when you see the peaceful, calming image above...that is, unless you've actually played Ecco the Dolphin, a game developed by Novotrade International and published by Sega that was originally released in 1992 for the Sega Mega Drive in Europe (and in 1993 for the Sega Genesis in North America). There are several versions of Ecco the Dolphin for different platforms, but I'll be talking about the original Mega Drive/Genesis version.

If you were to ask me what the eeriest, most unsettling video game I've ever played was, you might think I'd refer you to Silent Hill, or perhaps Super Metroid. My actual answer however, is a game far more subtle and less talked about. A game that scarred me as a child with its unexpected twists, lonely atmosphere, and endless feeling of isolation and despair.

Maybe this all sounds like a joke, or an exaggeration, but it is neither: Ecco the Dolphin is one of the most unnerving artistic creations I've ever encountered and it both demonstrates the potential of video games as a unique artistic medium and also their power to be something more than their label would fool you into thinking, something more than simply a "game".

Ecco the Dolphin opens just as you'd expect it to: a tranquil scene of several dolphins swimming through a calming blue ocean as this tranquil music plays in the background. Soon enough, the titular dolphin Ecco pokes his head out of the water, at which point the camera zooms in on a detailed piece of artwork depicting our marine hero, which also doubles as the title screen:

But if you listen to that music closely, you might notice something off about it, like there's more going on than just happy dolphins here. The song's calming melody has a subtle undertone of sadness, but what could be sad about playful little dolphin friends? As the song goes on, it turns to harsher tones that seem to clash with the more peaceful melody. Clearly, there's something more going on here...

The game itself opens with the player gaining control over Ecco as he swims in his home bay with his pod. If you take the time to "talk" to your pod-mates with your sonar, one of them will cryptically remark that the marks on Ecco's head look like "stars in the sky". Another one of Ecco's brethren presents Ecco with the playful challenge of "how high in the sky can you fly?" Taking on this challenge, Ecco, controlled by the player, leaps as high into the air as he can.

Then this happens (skip to around the one minute mark, or simply watch the whole video for the entire introduction to the game).

This scene alone is enough to traumatize any child who had the misfortune of growing up with this game. This scene terrified me as a child and still does today. The game immediately shifts tones. One minute, Ecco is happily playing with his family, and the next everyone and everything he knows and loves is sucked into the sky in a violent storm that is so horrifiying in its suddenness. The shift in music perfectly reflects this change of tone. Left confused and completely alone in a cold, deep ocean, both Ecco and the player must now cope with a sudden isolation and also the question of, "What do I do now?"

The next area combines a bleak, lonely musical piece with a wider, more open area full of creatures that hurt Ecco and cause him to let out a painful squeal when he makes contact with them. There are also some other dolphins who are just as confused as you are and offer little help. A killer whale tells Ecco that he "knows not what has happened to your pod" and that "perhaps the Big Blue can help you"...whatever that means. With only cryptic advice to go on, both the player and Ecco are left completely alone. The music, the big ocean setting, the lack of direction; everything combines to create a feeling of utter helplessness. This is not the happy video game about dolphins that you expected to play after seeing that boxart.

Ecco is thrust into a quest to find his family and the first proper "level" of the game that follows doesn't mess around, immediately throwing our poor little dolpnin into a frightening cave system filled with nothing but things that wants to hurt him: spiny shells, puffer fish, and a gigantic octopus. With its menacing sound and creatures, the "Undercaves" mean business.

Ecco's allies are few and far between. For the most part, everything in the ocean is trying to kill him. If the desperate feelings of isolation weren't enough, Ecco the Dolphin is also widely regarded as one of the most difficult video games ever created. Levels are often labyrinthine, with little to no direction or guidance. Ecco is also incredibly vulnerable, having both a very small life meter as well an equally tiny air meter that must be refreshed constantly.

Ecco is a video game that almost seems designed to instill despair and dread into the player and inevitably make them want to give up. This in turn, is part of what makes it so brilliant. Most video games, no matter how deep or sad or meaningful their narratives are, not matter how well-crafted their atmosphere is, are usually quite fun to play, enjoyable on some level, and therefore are built to satisfy a player and encourage them to reach the end of the game. Super Metroid, for example, is often rightfully praised for its sense of isolation and lonely alien atmosphere. Yet, as bounty hunter Samus Aran, you slowly amass a series of upgrades and fearsome weapons so that as the game goes on, the player doesn't feel helpless or trapped, but powerful and capable of accomplishing any feat. They may get lost at times, but they are constantly gaining new abilities that will inevitably help them to forge a path ahead. In Ecco, you're just a dolphin, with nothing but a pathetic dash move and some sonar waves. And you remain in this state, with no health or air upgrades and very little in the way of new attack upgrades, for the entire game until the very last few levels. But we'll get to those levels later. Trust me, your eventual upgrades mean little in the face of the horrors that await Ecco at the end of his journey.

Ecco depresses the player not by telling them a sad story, but by making them live one. The game throws them straight into a terrifying situation that they experience for themselves, followed by an incredibly potent sense of isolation that they feel themselves. While there is text in the game that furthers the story along, most of the experience will be spent alone and terrified of everything around you. Giant crabs come out of nowhere, toothy aquatic snakes swarm the seas around you, sharks charge you, and almost everything in your environment wants you dead. There's no partner to help you. You don't get any missile upgrades. You are alone. No happy reprieve, no break, no comfort. And this is all accomplished through actual gameplay, through experience, through a powerful combination of haunting music and sound design, bleakly life-like art direction, and an extreme sense of vulnerability.

To quote this article, which I highly suggest you give a read: "When there's a video game that makes the player depressed, that's when the medium might be onto something as an art form...It's easy to like something that makes you feel powerful in its fantasy world, as games generally do. But would anybody play a game that makes him sad?"

Ecco the Dolphin is that game, or at least, one of the progenitors of that kind of game. Almost everything about Ecco makes me uncomfortable. It frightens me and makes me feel lonely and vulnerable. It's not a game I'd go to to have a good time, to let off some stress. Sometimes, I feel like it's a game that I'd just like to forget...yet, Ecco has a certain mystique, a certain quality that, despite how it makes me feel, forces me to return to it in my thoughts time and time again.

There's a certain brilliance in its strangeness and its eeriness that's undeniable.

Then there's the mid-game twist, where Ecco learns the truth about what happened to his pod. Apparently, storms like the one that took Ecco's family have been happening on Earth every 500 years. The cause? Aliens known as the "Vortex" whose home planet has lost the ability to produce food have turned their sights on the Earth for a harvesting ground. Every 500 years, they harvest from the Earth's oceans and with each harvest, the Vortex consume more and more and as the game puts it, "They are getting hungrier!" So not only is Ecco's family missing, but in all likelikehood they have probably already been eaten by hungry aliens.

This is all perhaps a metaphor for the way humans rip sea-life out of the only world the creatures know to be served on a dinner table. Imagine if you were spending a sunny afternoon in the park with your family, when suddenly a horrific storm erupted and lifted everyone you hold near and dear into the sky, leaving you helpless and alone. This is basically Ecco's exact situation.

After helping a god-like being known as the Asterite, the oldest living thing in the ocean, Ecco is granted  the power to fight back against the Vortex aliens: unlimited air and a deadly sonar weapon. After this, the dolphin uses a time machine built by the ancient people of Atlantis (yes, this is a game about a time-travelling dolphin that battles aliens, what of it?) to travel back to the hour of the storm that took his pod. This time, however, Ecco is sucked up into the sky with his pod to take the fight to the Vortex themselves (itself?).

Now we get to those end-game levels; now we get to the stuff that true nightmares are made of.

After the storm, Ecco finds himself in a mechanical tube full of machinery designed to cut up anything that survived the storm. His pod is nowhere to be seen, but all Ecco can do is continuously move upwards towards an unseen destination as he is sucked faster and faster upwards. The eerie and mechanical track that plays here suits the environment perfectly. The Tube is tense build-up; neither the player nor Ecco have any idea what's in store for them ahead. Where will this bizarre, alien passage take them? What horrors await them ahead?

After Ecco makes his way through The Tube, the player is greeted with the ominous words "Welcome to the Machine" and the penultimate level of the game (named after the Pink Floyd song of the same name) follows. Welcome to the Machine is an auto-scrolling nightmare not only considered by many to be one of the most difficult levels in all of video game history, but is the single creepiest environment of any video game in my own personal gaming history, accompanied by the eeriest music I've ever heard in a video game. That song is a masterpiece not only for its uncanny sound, but for just how perfectly fitting is it for the cold, mechanical and utterly alien environment it accompanies. I've come to learn that all this mechanized alien weirdness seems to be inspired by the work of Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger, who happens to be the designer of the iconic Alien from the Ridley Scott film of the same name.

Quite frankly, I am terrified of this level and the music that accompanies it...yet also fascinated by my terror and by the strangeness this whole experience represents. Here is the level in its entirety if you're curious and don't mind spoiling it (of course, if you're reading this, I've already spoiled everything anyway). Watch at your own risk.

If the player does not know the precisely correct path to follow, they will be crushed, and not only that, but the creepy Vortex aliens (whose severed heads split from their bodies after attacked by Ecco and continue to assault the dolphin) themselves finally make an appearance and are constantly hunting Ecco with their only intention being to feed the unfortunate mammal to their hideous queen.

Speaking of which...

The Vortex queen appears in the form of a massive head with beady, black eyes and razor-sharp teeth. The queen constantly inhales and eats everything around her and if she gobbles Ecco up, the player is sent back to The Machine where they have to repeat that nightmare all over again. If anyone made it this far in the game, than they surely gave up at this point as the game doesn't even give you a password for the final boss battle until after it is defeated (unlike every other stage where the password appears at the start of the level).

If Ecco is lucky and brave enough to blow the queen's eyes out of her sockets and rip her jaw off, the creature will fall and Ecco's pod, miraculously still alive somehow, will come flying out of her body, after which our hero and his family swim back down The Tube and back to their home bay on Earth. of Ecco's podmates ominously asks, "Do you think the Vortex are destroyed?" You mean that thing could still be alive?


I don't know if anyone who popped in Ecco the Dolphin back in the early nineties ever expected the eldritch horrors that this game had in store for them. Between its crushing sense of despair and horrifying final stages, Ecco is an experience that bores its way into a poor hapless child like myself's subconscious and stays there. Forever.

Now, perhaps Ecco won't be as frightening for everyone as it is for me (I do know I'm not the only one though). After all, I was subjected to this nightmare when I was very young and therefore the game has a special kind of terrifying quality for me that seeded my mind when I was very young and has only grown since. Also, the game combines two of my biggest long-standing fears: malevolent, scary aliens that want to eat me and the deep, open abyss of the ocean into one specially packaged nightmare that feels tailor-made for me personally.

Also, I must confess that I've never actually played through this whole game. I don't even think I made it past the Undercaves (first proper level) when I was little, but thanks to the magic of passwords, I skipped around to the various levels in the game to see more of the experience, including the traumatizing final stages. Ecco recently creeped back into the forefront of my mind (as it tends to do from time to time) and I decided to watch someone else play through the entirely of the game. After seeing the game in full, I'm not sure I'd ever want to play it myself.

This isn't solely because of the game's lonely and depressing atmosphere, or its sheer terror levels, but more because of just how frustrating and tedious the game actually looks to play. Even if Ecco is a brilliant early example of the power that video games have to be something more than just a fun game with an enjoyable story behind the gameplay, it is far from a flawless experience. Even though the game's atmosphere, build-up and themes are all incredibly well-incorporated, the tediousness of having to push a shell across an undersea cavern with slippery controls just isn't something I'm exactly jumping to experience. Therefore, with some more polish, and perhaps a little more balancing that would make the game a bit more playable, perhaps Ecco could maintain its eerie, unmistakable sense of dread that makes the player want to quit or run away sweaty and terrified, but because of the atmosphere and not because of tediousness.

But I'm also just making excuses, because I'm still downright scared to play this game, even knowing all of its tricks.

Oh, and in regards to that question from the ending above: Are the Vortex really destroyed? Well, it turns out, no, they weren't. As a matter of fact, the queen is still alive and kicking and she follows Ecco back to Earth to make a new nest for herself there. This all happens in the sequel to Ecco the Dolphin entitled Ecco: The Tides of Time, a game which I had much less experience with as a child (rented it once or twice) and one that I also watched a playthrough of recently. While still featuring a timeless soundtrack and a trippy, surreal adventure filled with flying dolphins from the future and a much more heavily sci-fi-focused story, Tides of Times seems to lack the loneliness and isolation of the first game. The game still has plenty of potent atmosphere, just not quite in the same way as the first title. When Tides of Time starts, Ecco is already a hero, and the Vortex are no longer as unknown and mysterious as they used to be. The game doesn't build up to the weirdness, but instead starts with it early on and rolls with it. It's a sci-fi adventure that certainly has its eerie moments, but ultimately has a more inviting, action adventure feel than the first game. You can tell the difference in tone just by listening to the game's opening theme, which does have a melancholic sound, but ultimately feels more adventurous than sad and lonely. All this said, Tides of Time is still something special all its own and is a worthy continuation of the Ecco story.

If you've never played Ecco the Dolphin before, than I encourage you to at least try it (you can get the original cart for cheap online or find it on Steam, XBLA, Virtual Console, iOS, multiple Sega Mega Drive/Genesis collections, etc.; it's all over the place). Try just playing through the opening levels and I think you'll see and feel part of what I've been prattling on about. And if you have played the game, if you ventured into its deep, dark waters in your youth like I did, well, sorry I brought back the bad memories.

I hope the nightmares don't start again for you.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island (SNES) Review

The Super Nintendo was never a big part of my childhood. I remember barely glimpsing games like Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country, but somehow a SNES of my own never fell into my hands. I experienced many SNES classics when I was older (mainly thanks to Game Boy Advance ports and the Wii's Virtual Console, and eventually an original Super Nintendo console of my own), but I've always regretted not having these experiences when I was much younger, as many titles that are incredibly nostalgic for other people from my generation don't mean quite as much for me. I can distinctly recall wanting desperately to play one SNES game in particular: Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island. The colorful graphics and whimsical characters held a big attraction for me. Besides briefly getting to play the game at a childhood friend's house, I didn't get to fully experience Yoshi's Island until years later with the GBA port, and again on an actual Super Nintendo the past week.

Yoshi's Island is a very special video game. It's a work that embodies childhood creativity in its unique art direction, plot, and creative level designs and I ultimately think that it's a game that appeals to just about anyone who is a part of the human race. Visually, Yoshi's Island might be the most beautiful game on the SNES and it still looks fantastic today. It truly hasn't aged a day. The environments, backgrounds, and characters in the game all look like they've been sketched with colored pencils, crayons, and pastels and the result is a whimsical, imaginative paradise. Coupled with the game's great, though small, soundtrack, the game also has a really terrific atmosphere. The game's main level theme is the happiest song on the planet and always puts me in a good mood whenever I hear it. The atmospheric cave theme gives levels an adventurous, spelunking feel. The castle theme might be my favorite castle music in the entire Mario series and finally the world map music might follow suit, as it's such a simple yet catchy melody that adds a new instrument every time the player clears a world, building and building in tempo so one really feels like they are progressing on an adventure.

The level map is simple, but charming

Yoshi's Island may carry the "Super Mario World 2" title, but I'm pretty sure that it is solely there for marketing purposes, as the game is entirely unique in the Mario series (not counting the later seuqels to the game) and a totally different experience than its SNES predecessor. Players control not just one Yoshi, but a variety of different-colored Yoshis as they ferry baby Mario on a quest to reunite the infant with his kidnapped twin brother, Luigi. Yoshi can't technically die, but when he (or she?) gets hit by an enemy, he'll lose baby Mario and a timer will begin counting down as the toddler floats about in a bubble, ceaselessly wailing until Yoshi reacquires him. Baby Mario's crying can become immensely, painfully annoying (more on that later), but it does add a great sense of urgency when Yoshi loses him, as well a punishment for failure. The crying and the beeping of the timer becomes louder and faster as it reaches closer to zero, at which point Kamek's (the Magikoopa villain responsible for kidnapping baby Luigi) minions will come and swoop baby Mario off to join his brother in the Kingdom of Koopa.

Yoshi feels wonderful to control. He has a springy, fluid feel to his control that Mario lacks, and Yoshi can also perform a flutter jump in order to hover through the air to avoid obstacles and pits. Yoshi doesn't have a run button like in traditional Mario sidescrollers, but he doesn't need one. The game is a slower-paced platformer, and levels aren't designed to be rushed through. Yoshi's speed is just fine anyway, and he begins to run when you simply hold down a directional button, so there's no worrying about having to hold down the B or Y button all the time. Besides the platforming, the main gameplay element in Yoshi's Island is the dinosaur's ability to scoop up just about any creature in his way with his tongue, digest them, and turn them into an egg. There's a certain sadistic pleasure in gobbling up cheery, smiling critters like skipping, singing sunflowers who look like they are doing nothing but enjoying life until...SLURP! Yoshi can store up to six of these eggs and use them as ammunition to throw at bigger enemies, collect objects, find secrets, and solve puzzles.

Yoshi's Island looks gorgeous

Yes, puzzles. You see, Yoshi's Island is a totally different kind of platformer than a traditional Mario sidescroller. Levels are far more intricately designed than those in the original Super Mario World. The levels in Yoshi's Island are huge, sometimes labyrinthine, and are designed to be explored, full of secret items, rooms, areas, etc. Super Mario World also has secrets, but instead of offering tons of secret levels like that game does, Yoshi's Island packs all that content into fewer, but larger and more detailed levels. Some levels aren't necessarily about simply getting to the end, but rather about finding the way to the end (this is especially true of many of the cave levels, which are some of my favorites in the game). The fortresses and castles are especially worthy of note as they feel like true, complex dungeons at times, offering multiple paths, doors, and problems to be overcome. They are probably the most well-designed castles in the entire Mario series; each one feels like a different experience and is very satisfying to fully conquer. The boss fights in the game are all very satisfying and creative as well. Even though most of the bosses are enlarged versions of standard baddies, their giant forms still often have a unique visual design and their battle usually requires finding a weakness and exploiting it, rather than simply jumping on something's head three times. These bosses don't feel lazy like the bosses in the original Donkey Kong Country, which are also gigantic versions of regular enemies, and they also require some level of strategy and feel smarter than your usual Mario boss battle.

Almost every single level in Yoshi's Island offers something new that hasn't been seen yet in the game, like Shy Guys on Stilts! Or the infamous fuzzies that send Yoshi into a hallucinogenic, wobbly state every time he touches or eats one. Yoshi can also gain the ability to temporarily turn into cute little Yoshi vehicles, like a helicopter and a mole tank, in certain levels. Needless to say, there's plenty of variety, unique elements, and interesting level designs that keep the player engaged throughout.


The gameplay in Yoshi's Island is near-perfect, however I do feel that the control for throwing eggs could have been improved, and very simply too. When aiming with an egg, a cursor constantly moves in a semi-circle in front of Yoshi and the egg flys in whatever direction the cursor is in when the player presses the correct button. The cursor can be locked in place to make things easier, but oftentimes when I'd have to aim at a very specific place in a pinch the fact that the cursor can't be freely controlled and instead contantly moves made things needlessly cumbersome sometimes. The cursor's movement could have easily been mapped to Up and Down on the D-pad so that it could be freely controlled instead of in constant motion and I can't think of any reason why this simple alteration wouldn't improve the play control when throwing the eggs.


So everything is cheery, fluttery sunshine when it comes to Yoshi's Island, right? Colorful, imaginative, tons of fun, and well-designed, what could go wrong? Well, there's one big issue I have with this game.

Most levels in the game can be completed by moving through them from start to finish like a traditional platformer, but they are designed to be played at a slower clip, with many, many secret keys, rooms, and places to discover. I actually really like this sort of exploration-based design. In order to complete the game 100%, the player must find the 20 red coins hidden among the normal yellow ones and five flowers in every level, as well as complete each level with 30 stars (number of stars=number of time on the countdown when baby Mario is lost; you can have 30 maximum). The level design encourages the player to achieve this goal, as some levels can be completed fairly simply by just getting through them and avoiding all the goodies, but their true challenge comes from trying to collect everything. This is also where Yoshi's Island goes from being a happy-go-lucky, charming little platformer to a frustrating, grueling venture. And this leads us to my one big issue: at times, Yoshi's Island is one of the most frustrating video games I have ever played.

Yoshi's Island is a special kind of hell, and in order to demonstrate why I'll just provide an example. Sometimes, it feels like the designers purposefully designed the levels to be as annoying and frustrating for the player as possible. On one level, I had to guide Yoshi through a simple-enough straightforward field. This field was adorned with several small pits. Above, a Lakitu riding around in his cloud is throwing spiky balls at me, while behind me, Shy-Guys are endlessly jumping out of a pipe. All the while I'm trying to target a Shy-Guy flying up above holding a red coin, which if I don't hit in a matter of seconds, will fly away with the red coin and never come back, destroying my chances of fully completing the level. In the midst of all this, something inevitably hits Yoshi, at which point baby Mario starts flying away and wailing into my fragile ears. I flutter jump across one of the small pits to claim him, only to be confronted with a stream of bubbles spat from the mouth of a skipping sentient flower creature that pushes Yoshi back and directly into the bottomless pit.

And all the while the incredibly ironic cheery music seems to mock me.

And thus I get sent all the way back to the last checkpoint, which I feel are sometimes too few and far between in the game's long levels. And this is to say nothing of some of the game's secret unlockable stages, which are not designed to merely challenge, but to drive the player into a flaming rage inferno of controller-hurling, TV-punching insanity (one of these special stages involving a dog named Poochy that Yoshi can ride on feels broken as the stage relies on the dog's AI and it just doesn't feel sharp enough). I swear, one moment I'm having the time of my life in Yoshi's Island, flutter-jumping about and exploring the interesting levels with a big grin on my face, and the next I am literally screaming, followed swiftly by rage-quitting. I'm not kidding.

These monkeys will drive you bananas

To be fair, most of this frustration comes from the admittedly optional and very taxing quest to gather all the red coins and flowers, as well as finish each stage with the max 30 stars. Stars can thankfully be restored at the end of the level if the player has a +10 or +20 stars power-up, which are easy to farm for when certain mini-games are permanently unlocked and can then be stored to be used when you need them. And you will need them; if the game didn't have these star power-ups, I never would have had the patience to complete every level with all stars intact, which would mean retaining 30 stars until the end of the level, where one hit right near the goal ring and no way to get any more stars would spell failure (you always have a minimum of ten stars, but above that, stars don't recover on their own if Yoshi gets damaged and stars must be found in each level to get back to 30). All bosses, however, must still be beaten without getting hit once, since these star power-ups are banned in boss fights.

This whole collection process is designed in a "high score" way so that even if you miss one red coin, your final score for that level will be 99/100 and you have to do the entire level over again, and collect everything all over again. Single collectables don't save: it's all or nothing. As I already mentioned, some red coins are carried by flying Shy-Guys (or Fly-Guys), who briefly appear on the screen and fly away a second later. If you miss them, you have to either kill yourself and restart from the last checkpoint or complete the level and then do it all again to get 100%. Having a system like this and having certain collectables be very, very easy to permanently miss either because you couldn't hit a target fast enough or because you moved off-screen too much and completely didn't see the Fly-Guy altogether is so. fricking. cheap. Other times I would reach the goal at the end of a level missing a flower or a coin, and on some levels there is no turning back and not even a way to commit suicide so I could go back to the last checkpoint. I can't even quit out of the level if I haven't finished it yet. I have no choice but to go ahead and finish the level, only to agonizingly see a 99% score and know that I have to waste another twenty minutes going through the whole level again, collecting everything again. Either that or I turn the SNES off in rage. One level right at the end of the game even punished me for being curious and going down a seemingly random pipe in the middle of my path, only to be taken to the end of the level with no way to turn back and collect the one or two things that I missed. After screaming into my hands for a while and taking a few deep breaths, I then did the whole level over again, this time being extra careful to get everything before going down that damn pipe. I wish the designers had been conscious of this sort of situation and added in something like a bottomless pit right near the level's end, so I could at least sacrifice a life to go back to the goal ring and collect what I had missed.

Having to replay levels, re-collect everything, and try over and over again like this just pads out the game. It isn't challenging, fun, or well-designed in my eyes. Just immensely frustrating. And that baby's cries will drive you mad. Again, I do want to stress that this is still all optional, and therefore choosing to finish the game without getting a perfect score on every level is very possible and might even be the better choice. But how can you pass up all those secrets? The levels encourage exploration and I feel like the collectables give an incentive to explore. Despite it being so tedious at times, exploring and striving for 100% in each level is a big part of the game and I feel like one is missing half the experience if they ignore all this. I think this kind of exploring and collecting system can and has been done well in other Mario games and in other platformers in general. For example, in Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Wii, I had a lot of fun returning to completed levels to find hidden puzzle pieces, and after I got a piece, it was saved and I never had to re-collect it again (although the K-O-N-G letters in each level all had to be collected in one go, but I thought this was a fair enough challenge and also distinguished this task from the puzzle pieces. And the letters are also only four collectables instead of twenty red coins and five flowers). Also, the levels in DKCR are more straightforward and that game is a faster-paced platformer overall. Yoshi's Island's levels are long and plodding and there are many collectables that need to be gathered all in one go, so going through everything again can be a pain, even if the levels themselves are well-designed and fun.

The score-card that appears at the end of each level. Miss one thing and you have to do it all over again if you want to get 100 points.

Finishing Yoshi's Island 100% felt more like a relief than an accomplishment. The player can unlock a single bonus stage and a single bonus mini-game for every world they fully complete, but some of the bonus stages, as I already mentioned, are some of the most frustrating levels of them all and must also be completed with all the same collectables in order to fully complete the game, which you get nothing for except six stars on the title screen: one for each world thoroughly completed.

Despite me kicking and screaming my way through a decent portion of this game, the rest of my time with Yoshi's Island (which was the majority) was pure bliss. For every mind-numbingly frustrating level, there were five very interesting and very enjoyable ones. The game's aesthetic appeal alone is enough to recommend it, but behind that is also a very well-crafted platformer full of secrets and interesting levels. Ultimately, the best way to sum up Yoshi's Island comes from a special message that can be found in one of the game's many secret rooms, a brief message from the game's developers that proclaims that they poured their hearts and souls into the game for our enjoyment. And that's what Yoshi's Island is positively overflowing with: heart and soul. It's a Nintendo masterpiece from a time when every new game the company put out may have contained some similar faces, but was an entirely new, wildly creative experience, and oftentimes a genre and industry-defining one. It's from a time when Shigeru Miyamoto was still constantly upping tea-tables, instead of letting his most-beloved series settle for stale-feeling sequels year after year that do little more than add a new cute animal suit and local co-op multiplayer features that would have been revolutionary twenty years ago. These games that Nintendo has been assembly-lining out for the past couple years are fun, but they lack what Yoshi's Island has in droves: heart and soul.

Something many of Nintendo's newer Mario games are definitely lacking

The fact that Nintendo is now adding the "New" moniker to the latest sequel to Yoshi's beloved SNES classic is the ultimate insult to the game's legacy and the perfect example of how Nintendo has recently lost sight of what made them so legendary in the video game sphere back in the late '80s, throughout the '90s, and into the early '00s; that is, boldy creative, exceptionally designed, unique video game experiences that often defined certain genres. Yoshi's New Island looks to be copying and pasting elements from the original and just like the New Super Mario Bros. series, ironically looks to be offering not much actually new.

Yoshi's Island probably isn't a game that I'll go back to as much as Super Mario World or any of the other old-school 2D Mario platformers, and certainly isn't one I'll likely ever attempt to 100% complete again. Its levels are large and intricate, and attempting to fully see and do everything in the game takes a massive level of patience. Super Mario World is a simpler platformer that boils things down to a few essential elements and features pure, elegantly simple level design. I'm not saying one game is really better than the other; they are just very different from each other, and unique and special in their own way. Yoshi's Island can be a deceptively grueling patience-tester, especially if you attempt to see and do everything in the game, but it's also unabashedly fun and creative and full of imaginative spark. It's one of the best platformers I've ever played. It's beautiful, joyous, and embodies a sense of imaginative wonder that only certain video games can deliver.