Final Fantasy Adventure (Game Boy) – Retro Game Reviews

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When talking about great Final Fantasy spinoff games, Final Fantasy Adventure is a title that gets brought up a lot. Adventure is actually the first game in the Mana series, and if you’re a fan of Secret of Mana or Final Fantasy, it’s a gem worth picking up.

Adventure is an action-RPG in the vein of the original Legend of Zelda, but with more traditional RPG mechanics like gaining XP by defeating enemies, buying weapons and armor from shops, etc. When leveling up, you get an extra point to increase your Power, Stamina (HP), Wisdom (MP) or Will, which gives the game some replay value and facilitates different play styles.

Different classes of weapons have different attack ranges and some have extra functions to help you get around obstacles, like using axes to chop down trees or flails to grab onto poles and swing across gaps. Each weapon type also has a different special attack that can be activated when the special bar at the bottom of the screen fills up. How quickly the bar fills up is determined by your Will. Every time you attack, use an item or use magic the bar resets to zero, so you need to wait if you want launch the special. Most of these specials give you extra range or allow you to launch your weapon at enemies. The special attack for swords however launches your character back and forth across the screen, and I found this more annoying than helpful, especially late in the game when the will bar fills up relatively quickly.

Another annoying thing about the game is how often you need to go through the menu to change magic and items. The A button acts as your main attack and any spell or item can be mapped to the B button but you can only have one at a time. Given the limited buttons on the original Game Boy, I can’t really blame the developers but it’s still a hassle. Luckily, the menu can be opened and navigated pretty quickly so it doesn’t slow the game down too much.

Your inventory space is very limited, which can be a pain because you need to carry around matlocks and keys to navigate dungeons. Both can be purchased at item shops and some enemies also drop matlocks but not keys. The same keys work in all dungeons, so make sure you always have a few packs before entering a new one. Matlocks are used to demolish certain obstacles and open secret entrances in walls. (When you strike a wall you can break through with your weapon, it makes a unique sound.)

The morning star is by far the best weapon in the game. Not only does it break through walls, eliminating the need for matlocks, but when you attack, you swing it around you hitting any enemy near you. Some enemies can only be harmed by certain weapons or with magic, but the star takes out pretty much anything. Even when I had other weapons with far greater attack power, I still used the morning star for everything except for boss battles.

There’s a wide variety of enemies with different attacks to encounter, so I never got bored fighting the same enemies over and over like in some other game. You’ll also get a few companions to help you at different parts of the game, who have abilities like restoring your HP or MP or helping you attack enemies.

Adventure is very well balanced. There are one or two bosses I felt were overpowered, but apart from them I never felt the need to level grind or felt the game was too easy either. When you level up, your HP and MP are restored, so if you’re running low on health sometimes the best strategy is to kill as many enemies as possible. It adds a nice risk-reward element to the combat.

The story is pretty standard RPG fare. You play as Sumo, a knight who must help a mysterious girl named Fuji to protect the Tree of Mana from the Dark Lord and his minions. If you’re an RPG veteran, there’s not much you haven’t seen before, but the story is well told and there are enough memorable moments to make it enjoyable.

The graphics are about what you’d expect from a Game Boy release. Nothing mind-blowing, but not bad either. The music is a mixed bag. Some tracks are really nice, but others loop too frequently and become aggravating.

This is a game where you’ll want to have a strategy guide handy. It’s never explained in game what certain items do, and while most puzzles aren’t too difficult, there’s one in particular where the clue is extremely ambiguous. (Minor spoiler: in the town called Jadd, you’ll meet a boy who will give you a clue on how to open the next dungeon: “Palm trees and an 8.” You need to leave town, find two specific palm trees and walk around them in a figure eight until the dungeon entrance appears. How is anyone supposed to figure that out?) Late in the game you have access to the entire overworld and have to do quite a bit of backtracking, and it’s extremely easy to get lost without a guide.

There’s nothing really innovative about Final Fantasy Adventure, but what it does, it does very well. If you like action-RPGs, it definitely worth the 10 hours or so it takes to complete.

Final Rating: 4/5

The Adventures of Batman & Robin (SNES) – Retro Game Reviews

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Given Konami’s current reputation, it’s hard to believe they used to be one of the most respected publishers in the industry, and one of the things they were most known for were their awesome licensed games. The Adventures of Batman & Robin lives up to that reputation and is without a doubt one of the best looking games on the Super Nintendo.

Based on Batman: The Animated Series, everything from the character sprites and backgrounds to the sound design and even the dialogue perfectly captures the feel of the cartoon. They even have the show’s signature title cards before each stage. There are eight stages in total, with each stage acting like mini-episodes of the TV series. The first seven focus on different villains, with the eighth stage being a boss rush, half of which are repeats and the other half being new villains.

But despite how good the game looks and sounds, there are two major drawbacks to the game: its length and its frustrating difficulty. If you’re good enough, the game can be completed in just over an hour, and while I don’t inherently mind hard games, in this case the crushing difficulty feels like its only there to artificially extend the length of the game. I’m not ashamed to admit I cheated my way through a lot of the game. On your first playthrough I recommend using an infinite lives cheat at the very least.

Each stage begins with a brief cutscene explaining your current mission and allowing Batman to select which gear to take with him, including his signature batarangs  and grappling gun (which can be used unlimitedly) as well as smoke bombs, shurikens, paralysis spray and plastic explosives (of which you have a limited supply). There is also a flashlight, gas mask, and infrared goggles, which you can take with you on every stage but are only useful in the Penguin, Scarecrow and Riddler stage respectively. It’s a nice gimmick, but since there’s no penalty for taking everything other than it taking longer to cycle through your weapons, it feels underutilized.

Despite the title, Robin isn’t playable and only has a very small role as a supporting character. If you’re a fan of the character, it’s a bit of let down, but given how small a role Robin played in the cartoon most of the time, I suppose it isn’t very surprising.

The combat system is decent. You can stun or disarm thugs by hitting them with a batarang or grab them by the collar and throw them into other enemies. It’s very well animated and a lot of fun. However, the same three henchmen are used over and over in every level, so by the end I just crouch-rolled past them most of the time.

The levels themselves for the most part aren’t too difficult. Most levels consist of beating up henchmen and some light platforming (sometimes assisted by your grappling gun ) before encountering the boss. There is some variation, like investigating a museum in the Penguin stage or the Riddler stage being a giant maze. The Catwoman stage featuring a rooftop chase lit by police searchlights was the high point of the game for me.

The fifth stage takes place entirely in the Batmobile, which sounds cool but the controls are incredibly clunky and you’re placed under an insanely strict time limit. The Batmobile is equipped with guns like in the Tim Burton movies and you can blow up civilian cars without any penalty. This is the only part of the game I consider outright bad and if you skip it, you won’t be missing anything.

All of the bosses are way too overpowered. Many of them are faster and have larger attack ranges than Batman with very little wind up to signal their attacks and some of them feature instant death via bottomless pits.One really frustrating thing is that in some boss fights if you get too close, Batman will auto-grab the villain and they will kick you away without any chance for you to avoid them. Even the bosses that aren’t too hard have so much health that the fights drag on forever. You end up feeling like a wimp after punching the villain a dozen or so times and them just getting back up for more, and that’s the last thing you want in a Batman game.

The Adventures of Batman & Robin is a bit of a mixed bag. If you are a fan of Batman: The Animated Series or just Batman in general, it’s definitely worth checking out, but the gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. If you don’t mind grueling difficulty or aren’t opposed to using cheats, it’s a decent afternoon’s worth of entertaining.

Final Rating: 3.5/5

One Piece (Game Boy Advance) – Retro Game Reviews

Image result for one piece gbaI’m a big fan of the One Piece anime, but there sadly aren’t a lot of retro One Piece games that are accessible to English speakers. One Piece GBA is by no means an amazing game but there is still a lot here for fans of the anime to like. The game is a platformer/beat ’em up and retells the story from the beginning of the series through Luffy’s fight against Smoker.

You play as Luffy, and it’s a lot of fun to try out his signature moves in 16-bit glory. There’s a pretty wide moveset, including the Gum-Gum Pistol, Gatling Gun, Bell and Rocket. As you progress through the game you can also unlock the Gum-Gum Balloon and Spear. However, the game never explains how to use each move, so you’re going to want to consult a strategy guide. You have a special meter that can be charged by damaging enemies, and when filled be used to activate the Gum-Gum Bazooka or Axe. As the story progresses, you recruit the other members of the Straw Hat crew and can switch to having them jump in with their own special attacks instead. The other Straw Hats are scattered around each level and you need to find them each time to use their moves.

The combat is your standard repetitive beat ’em up fare, with you fighting the same enemies over and over again in each stage. The game totals how many of each enemy type you defeated in the stage and it’s not uncommon to defeat the same enemy more than 50 times in a single stage. Sometimes one of the major henchmen from the anime show up and you get a bonus for defeating them, but they just attack a few times and then jump off screen, so it’s very difficult to take them down before they leave and they end up just being annoying most of the time.

The platforming is very basic early on but gets better as the game progresses. One incredibly annoying thing is how many bottomless pits there are in this game. There are a lot of leaps of faith too, so I lost a ton of lives jumping into pits thinking there’d be a platform below. Enemy attacks can also knock you into pits, which everyone always loves. In addition to finding the other Straw Hats, there are also a number of coins scattered throughout each level. There isn’t any reward for collecting them, but they do add some replay value for completionists.

There are six acts in the game, matching the six story arcs of the East Blue Saga and each act is divided into three stages. The second stage of each act ends with a miniboss fight with the third act serving as the main boss fight. The bosses are a mixed bag. Some of them are pretty fun (particularly Jango and Don Krieg), but every single one of them is a damage sponge and the fights drag on for way too long.

Most of bosses are pretty tough too. Luffy gets can’t move when he attacks or cancel his attacks, so if you miss the boss, you’re a sitting duck while you wait for the attack animation to finish. If that wasn’t bad enough, a lot of the bosses become invincible during their attacks, so if you start attacking at the wrong time, it’s nearly impossible to avoid them.

The Buggy fight in this game is notoriously difficult. If you land a hit anywhere but his head, he breaks up and becomes invincible so the only move that works on him is the jump kick which causes hardly any damage. All of his attacks take huge chunks of your life and have a long range to boot. Despite only being the second boss in the game, he is by far the hardest. I ended up just cheating to get past him.

If there’s one reason to play One Piece GBA, it’s the impressive sprite work. Luffy’s attacks are all nicely animated and the game manages to capture the feel of the anime very well. There are a lot of nice little touches like how Luffy holds onto his hat to keep it from flying off when he runs or how his arm stretches when you jump down to grab a rope. Most of the major supporting characters get cameos, and it’s great to see 16-bit versions of Luffy and his pals.

The game is based on the 4Kids dub of the anime and was never released outside of North America, but apart from a couple name changes and Sanji’s cigarettes being replaced by lollipops, it’s pretty faithful to the original story. (Interestingly, Smoker’s cigars managed to slip past the censors.)

The music is pretty catchy in some stages, but don’t expect to hear any of the iconic music from the original anime. On the plus side, there’s no “Pirate Rap” either.

Whether or not One Piece GBA is worth playing all comes down to how big a fan you are of the anime. The gameplay certainly isn’t going to blow you away, but for a licensed game, it’s not half bad, and One Piece fans should definitely give it a shot.

Final Rating: 2.5/5

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS1) – Retro Game Reviews

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When approaching a game like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, there’s always the worry that it won’t live up to the hype. Despite selling poorly upon initial release, SOTN’s reputation quickly spread through word of mouth, and now it frequently appears on lists of the greatest video games ever made. Coming out early in the PS1 lifespan when most games were experimenting with clunky 3D, SOTN instead takes pixel art to a level previous consoles simply weren’t capable of. Add to that CD quality sound and a huge map full of unique enemies and it’s not hard to see why gamers back in 1997 were blown away, and for me at least, Symphony of the Night completely holds up.

Symphony marks a departure from previous Castlevania games in many ways. Instead of controlling a member of the Belmont clan, you play as Alucard, the son of Dracula and a supporting character from Castlevania III. While previous Castlevania games are fairly linear, SOTN places you in the middle of a large, winding castle to explore at your own discretion. Some areas require power-ups to access, but a large amount of castle is open to you right away provided you can survive the more powerful enemies guarding some segments.

Though often compared with Super Metroid, director Koji Igarashi was instead inspired by the dungeons in the original Legend of Zelda, and there are some key difference between the Metroid and Igarashi-vania games. In Metroid, everything is about conquering your environment with the enemies being just one more obstacle. Most enemies can be taken care of very easily with a few shots from Samus’ trusty arm-cannon or avoided entirely.  In SOTN and its follow-ups however, dispatching enemies is the primary focus. Most rooms have a very basic layout and the challenge comes from memorizing attack patterns and juggling enemies. Avoiding enemies isn’t really an option until you acquire the bat transformation midway through the game, and unlike Metroid, you receive XP for defeating enemies, further incentivizing direct confrontation.

Health pick-ups are rare in SOTN. Instead you’ll spend most of the game slashing through gauntlets of monsters in search of the next save point to restore your HP. This can lead a lot of harrowing moments where you’re one or two hits away from dying and have no idea when you’ll get another chance to save. Enemies respawn when you exit a room, so you’re often left with no choice other than to keep plowing forward and hope for the best.

When you die, not only do you lose all progress since your previous save, but you’ll be greeted with a Game Over and kicked back to the title screen, so it takes several minutes in total before you can reload your save and get back into the game. Some might see this as a design flaw, but it gives death in SOTN an impact it wouldn’t have if you could instantly hop back in right where you left off. (Don’t even get me started on how the fetishization of flow has ruined modern game design.)

The gothic atmosphere is nailed perfectly, from the enemies and the backgrounds to the story and the soundtrack. Each area of the castle is populated with its own unique monsters cribbed from every corner of horror lore, everything from werewolves, demons and haunted suits of armor to Lovecraftian eldergods and of course the notorious Medusa heads. The boss fights don’t disappoint either. Some are so huge they can’t even fit on screen, and between the difficulty and some of the best sprite work in any game ever, they’ll stick in your mind (and haunt your dreams) long after you finish playing.

The gameplay mechanics are polished to near perfection. Alucard is as graceful and deadly as a vampire should be, and you really feel like a badass helping him slash his way through waves of enemies. As you explore the castle and grow more powerful, you go from feeling like an invader surrounded by hostile foes to the master of the house surveying your domain and clearing away pests.

There are a ton of different weapons and power-ups to experiment with and hidden areas to find, giving the game a lot of replay value and facilitating different play styles. Your primary weapon is the sword, but there are also brass knuckles, daggers and rods with different attack rates and ranges. The game fully takes advantage of Alucard’s vampiric nature, allowing you to transform into a bat, a wolf or a cloud of mist (each of which is upgradable) and unlock a number of familiars to help you in combat.

One big annoyance is that it isn’t always clear what different items and power-ups do, so you might want to have a strategy guide handy. And once you have a large number of different items, it can be a pain to scroll through searching for the one you want. There are also spells that can be activated with button combinations, but I found these next-to-impossible to pull off with any consistency. Since none of the spells are necessary for completing the game, I ended up just ignoring them.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is something all gamers owe it to themselves to experience at least once, especially fans of gothic horror. It might not be a perfect game, but it’s pretty damn close. More than two decades after its initial release, it’s aged incredibly well and will likely stand as one of the true masterpieces of gaming for the rest of time.

Final Rating: 5/5 – Must Play