Slowly making progress in Zelda 2 on the GBA

Zelda 2 GBA Box

So, I’ve had Zelda 2 on the GBA for ages… and I’ve had a cart of the game for the NES for an embarrassing longer period of time ๐Ÿ˜‰ I didn’t have a NES back in the 80s, so playing Zelda 2 for the first time in 2011 is interesting. I tried getting into it before but didn’t have much luck (I was playing it on the DS in a plane and was lazy, so I couldn’t work out where to start :P). However, Wifey and I were recently doing some traveling that involved some more airtime, so I thought I’d give it another go.

I’m not that far into the game, but I’m impressed that I’ve been making some slow progress ๐Ÿ™‚ There are certainly some interesting hooks in the localisation (I am error!), but once I set my mind on getting somewhere, it’s been coming together.

What strikes me as interesting is how much of a departure it is to the original, and also how much it reminds me of Lord of the Sword on the Sega Master System. Well, Lord of the Sword was clearly Sega’s take on Zelda 2, but that’s the one I played when I was a kid, so that often hits my brain first. The mixture of side-on and top-down perspectives is an interesting mix, and I’m not minding the platformy bits. Because I’m a bit rubbish I tend to get knocked down and die a little too often, but it’s not completely mean-spirited… more often I feel like the fault is mine rather than the game’s.

So… I should take some time to actually finish the sucker. I hate leaving game’s part-finished.

Reviewing… Secret of Evermore (SNES)

Secret of Evermore PAL box

Secret of Evermore is a curious beast. At release it caused a stir amongst the press and the wider gaming community for (a) not being a true sequel to Secret of Mana and (b) taking the role of the scapegoat in light of Seiken Densetsu 3 being skipped for localisation in the West. While time has allow that last point to be corrected, it has also allowed the dust to settle so that the game can be experienced free from the enthusiasm the Seiken Densetsu franchise traditionally emanated (which in itself is a relic given the downward trajectory of the franchise in a post-16-bit world).

Back in 1996 when my younger brother and I finally joined the SNES bandwagon, a handful of games kicked-off the collection – Killer Instinct (no laughing!) and Secret of Mana, closely followed by Super Mario Allstars, Super Mario World then Zelda. Knowing my gaming habits, I would have picked up Secret of Evermore some time between May and September (thanks to Retro Gaming Australia for the reference – Secret of Evermore received a score of 92% in the April 1996 issue of Hyper), given the release date of April-ish (with a few exceptions, back in the mid-90s we didn’t really have release dates) and my historic purchase of a Sega Saturn in September (yes, it’s historic, even if it’s only in my head). After enjoying Secret of Mana (who wouldn’t?), picking up Secret of Evermore was a no-brainer. What eventuated out of that purchase though, was a bit of an anomally. The UI and a large portion of the game mechanics were familiar, but the premise was a little different and the presentation (audio and visuals) was certainly a departure from its namesake prequel.

1996-Sean didn’t really let this bother him – the game in some ways was disappointing, as it lacked a persistent connection with the familiar world of Secret of Mana, lacked polish, didn’t seem quite as broad in scope and the multiplayer was sorely missed. On the flip-side, the music was great, the locales were certainly interesting and some of the mechanics were well-implemented. The story also made a bit more sense, though this is easy to identify retrospectively given it’s now much more common knowledge that Secret of Mana suffered from being abruptly hacked together in light of the Super CD falling by the wayside, and the ongoing issues with space and programming logic inherent to localising 16-bit JRPGs.

From a historical perspective then, the game was enjoyed and appreciated, but ultimately fell shy of filling the impressive shoes left in the wake of Secret of Mana.

So what does 2011-Sean think of the game?

For me, it was an altogether different experience. It had been over 15 years since I last fired up the game, and in that time a lot has happened. Aside from getting older and having less hair on my head, we’ve had the internet come in and fill the gaps around the game’s genesis, development and its place amongst other Square RPGs of the time. Seiken Densetsu 3 has been unofficially translated, which means the blind faithful (like yours truly) can sup at the table Square denied us in 1996. There has been distance gained beyond the various threads spun of rampant fanboyism that only the changing guard of 1996 could have produced.

Perspective, as it is, continues to be an interesting creature, and in the context of this review, has made Secret of Evermore a better game.

The soundtrack continues to impress despite its differences in thematic composition to Kikuta’s soundtrack in Secret of Mana. Especially worthy of note is its progressive implementation of atmospheric noise in place of background music during some key areas (Hardcore Gaming 101’s excellent thoughtpiece lists a few poignant examples). The game looks far less “squishy” now that I can play the game in 60hz, it controls well, the worlds are imaginative, and alchemy is fun when you get your head around it. I even enjoyed the collect-a-thon in the markets, though I admit to seeking some help from GameFAQs on that one to clear things up.

I’m not saying the game isn’t flawed – it is, but it doesn’t mean the game is any less endearing. The writing is a little hokey, but at least it isn’t the fragmented mess that was Secret of Mana and there are some nice (predictable) spins in the narrative. The graphics teeter between very good and drab depending on the world you’re playing in – world three is an example of the good, while the swamps in world one float the other way. Multiplayer continues to be a sticking point, but I appreciated the functionality offered by the dog in tracking down ingredients this time, rather than sulking about the lack of multiplayer.

Even the game length was well balanced. There are a few spaces where tedium kicked in (such as the dessert in world 2 or the grinding required when levelling up your weapons), but it wasn’t enough to present a roadblock to progress. Being time-poor these days, it took about a month or so of casual play during weekends to finish up the game, which was perfect for me. The 60+ hour marathons common in later generations was thankfully absent, which for me is also part of the appeal of 16-bit JRPGs. Interestingly, the game length seemed pretty reasonable from 1996-Sean’s perspective, despite the price of entry – I don’t have the docket, but I’m pretty sure my (now-defunct) local independent game store charged $89 for the game, which equates to $128.23 today. Despite this, I don’t recall ever feeling short-changed by the game.

So, Secret of Evermore – flawed and often misunderstood, but ultimately a very solid game.

Reviewing… Story of Thor (Sega Mega Drive)


I actually meant to get started on these reviews a while ago… better late than never!

My copy of Story of Thor and I go way back to 1994, when I was lucky enough to be given it for Christmas. I’d read the reviews from Sega-stalwart Sega Megazone and was just starting to get into anime (this interest would be fully realised as Robotech replayed over the summer holidays on Agro’s Cartoon Connection and when I saw 3×3 Eyes Part 2 at a friend’s place a few months later), so it seemed like a good combination. Ancient, and by extension Yuzo Koshiro (who rocked my gaming world with Streets of Rage 2 the year previous), helmed the game’s design and it gave me a chance to play a Zelda-like adventure game without having to swallow my pride and invest in a SNES (this would come 18 months later, but that’s another story). These are all very important points to a 12 year old boy you understand, so it’s important to irrationally preface this review accordingly.

I adored the game back in the day – it was an amazing feat for the humble Mega Drive and a fun game in its own right. When I went back to play it recently (“recently” being last year or the year before), I was still confident that the game would hold up well. Turns out I was right.

Visually I still think it’s fantastic – the Mega Drive’s colour palette is used sensibly (as it needs to be – only 64 of those colours can be on-screen simultaneously [or 183 in shadow/highlight mode – thanks Wikipedia]), sprites are large and well-animated (despite later enemies simply being palette-swaps) and there’s plenty of variety in the scenery. As a bonus, the game features a little sprite scaling when you fall down holes or gaping chasms. It’s all typical of Japanese game aesthetics of the era – clean, well-defined and charming with great attention to detail.

The fanboy wants to decry it the audio as an example of technical mastery for the system, and to a degree it is. The problem is that it hasn’t necessarily aged too well – Koshiro’s deft use of the Mega Drive’s audio chipset for the music is actually very good – it’s the garbled sampled audio that lets it down. Back when I was playing this on an old 51cm TV in my bedroom (complete with RF input and 80s faux-wood panelling contact over the MDF), I actually used to run the Mega Drive through my mini HiFi stereo and remember being impressed by the use of the stereo channels to simulate a surround-sound effect with the waterfalls in the palace. The effect’s still prolific, but the sample noise is a little rough on ears now. It was certainly ambitious, and was by no means unpleasant; today, it’s just a bit rough.

Another peculiarity is with the cartridge’s hardware itself and how it interacts with the Mega Drive. I normally run my Mega Drive games in 60hz, but the PAL Story of Thor cart is a bit of an anomaly with the way it handles the different refresh rates. When booted in 60hz it gives the usual region protection error, which isn’t uncommon – why it’s interesting is that when you try the usual trick to get around it (boot in 50hz, then swap to 60hz), the game slows to a halt and the image rolls. The only other games where I’ve seen the same thing happen are Streets of Rage 1 and 2, both of which also happen to be games by Ancient and involve Yuzo Koshiro. My only theory is that Koshiro is using either some unique hardware in the cart (I haven’t popped the cart open to have a look), or the oscillator that provides the refresh rate is tied to the way the game handles video timing, the Z80 audio CPU or other programmable variables. On the upside though, the PAL version of the game is surprisingly well-optimised for PAL TVs, including stretching the image so that it virtually covers the entire screen. I didn’t take notice of this back in the day (it wasn’t until the Saturn era that I became aware of PAL optimisation of games and the joys of 60hz), but it’s a nice touch looking back at it now.

It didn’t take me too long to plough through the game – my memory was surprisingly good and the game really isn’t too tough. There’s no excess padding with enough optional treasure hunting to get the balance just right (though I still didn’t manage to find all the hidden gems this time around!). I think it took up maybe… 5 or 6 hours? That’s a good time frame for me these days, as I’m time-poor given the realities of life typical of someone my age. Playing through games that last over 60 hours is a long slog when I only have a couple of hours each week (if that) to get in some gaming, so it meant Story of Thor was the perfect length to knock out in a couple of weekends.

I won’t assign a score for this one (or any other reviews for that matter), as I don’t think it’s necessary. What’s more important is the experience, and this one still delivers. The great news is that if you missed it back in the day, it’s available via the Wii’s Virtual Console for a cheap download, and M2’s work on the emulation on the Wii is amazing. It’s also on the Sega Mega Drive Collection (or Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for those in North America) on the PS3 and XB360, but the emulation isn’t anywhere near as precise as M2’s. Still, if that’s all you have access to, it’s worth a go. You even get a trophy/achievement for completing the first dungeon ๐Ÿ™‚

There should be more love for Explodemon out there

I haven’t checked if the internet is a buzz since Explodemon came out, but Curve Studio’s brilliant little platformer deserves accolades and then some.

The game borrows inspiration from Megaman X as its primary influence, but you can see all sorts of tips of the hat to other Japanese platformers (including the hilarious Engrish dialogue from Explodemon), and is imbued with the kind of creative feeling we got from EU devs on the Amiga and Atari ST during the 80s and 90s. This makes perfect sense of course given Curve are based in the UK, and that passion from an era past is omnipresent throughout the production. The visuals look amazing running in 1080p, the soundtrack shines with its chip-tune inspired synth and it controls super-tight, which is essential for a platformer running on a 3D engine, even though it’s only operating on a 2D plane.

If you haven’t given Exlodemon a whirl, go for it – there’s a demo up on PSN and the price for the full version is very reasonable. It’s a great, original title with plenty of charm worthy of your time and moolah.

An ode to Valkyria Chronicles


I realise most current-gen gaming writing on here are for retro-themed games, but I had to break the rule. Valkyria Chronicles is such a good game it deserves it.

Why am I posting this now? After all, the game came out three years ago, but since I’m a bit slow, I’ve only just gotten around to finishing it, and while I know I get carried away with hyperbole at times, I want to mark it up as one of the greatest, if not *the* greatest, gaming experience of this generation.

I should probably justify this, because in many respects, it isn’t exactly ground-breaking given it’s an evolution of so many strat (J)RPGs that have accumulated over the years. But it’s a great mid-point behind pure strategy and some hands-on, meaning there’s a bit more flexibility if you’re a bit retarded when it comes to strat games (like me :P). Even though I relied on YouTube videos towards the end of the game owing to my rubbish skills, the game remained accessible to someone like me who has never been that good at turn-based strategy or RTS games. Thank you Sega ๐Ÿ™‚

So, what else? The scenario’s an alternative-universe Europe during WW2, with all sorts of tips of the hat to actual history, and plenty of silliness to expand it further into the realms of atypically Japanese storytelling. Some found the fantastical nature of some of it rage-inducing, but I found it charming. But I like my anime, so that explains my weakness in this regard. The character interaction was strong, even though it could probably be criticised for playing to stereotypes.

Much of the game reminds me in spirit of the Sakura Taisen games, which I adored on the Saturn and Dreamcast, so I think this also adds to my love of the game. There’s also the handy option to play the game with the original Japanese dubbing, which was a welcomed and crowd-pleasing choice, even though the dubbing was actually really good for the game. In itself, such good localisation of the voicework is unusual given it’s a Sega title, but I’m probably still stuck in the 32-bit era where there were some dreadful dubs, and the DC wasn’t much better to be honest (thankfully, Skies of Arcadia didn’t have too many spoken lines!).

But beyond all these is the atmosphere of the game. I’ve waxed lyrical on this intangible feeling a game can have on the player in other places – I had the same feeling playing Mirror’s Edge and it’s EU-centric vibe reminiscent of EU development in the early 90s. Valkyria Chronicles stirs the kind of empathy and vibe I haven’t felt in a while – it was classical old-school Sega, with dashes of the original Sakura Taisen, Phantasy Star 2 and 4, Panzer Dragoon Saga and Skies of Arcadia.

It was also great to see a game using a military subject matter without dipping into vats of testosterone and inserting expletives all over the place. Yes there’s a place for all of that, I’m just saying it was nice that it didn’t feel it needed to go there. As such, it was a pleasant counter-point to the typical Western approach. It would also explain why the game never reached critical mass with its market, as it lacked the “action movie” factor that colours a lot of other successful games.

Technologically, the CANVAS engine is, in my irrational mind, the most impressive game engine, visually, of this generation. I’m aware there are some gorgeous and flexible engines out there at the moment, but what they achieved with this one was stunning. The frame-rate very rarely dips, it allows for stunning in-game visuals and cut-scenes, the animation is clean and there’s only the occasional bit of screen-tearing, one of my pet-hates of the current generation of gaming. The game deviated from shades of grey and gave amazingly colourful vistas despite its subject matter, but the engine was flexible enough to go with the shades of grey and dirt-brown when the situation called for it.

And critical to a game’s success, the ending brought closure, a feeling of accomplishment and felt incredibly satisfying.

So that’s my call – you’re welcome to disagree of course, but there it is. Now I have to work out which game to sink my teeth into next ๐Ÿ™‚