Spyro the Dragon (PS1) – Retro Game Reviews

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Spyro the Dragon is one the classic Playstation series I never got a chance to play growing up. With the upcoming remake, now seemed like a perfect time to see if the beloved series holds up without the benefit of nostalgia, and as for the first entry in the series, well it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

Spyro fits firmly in the collect-a-thon genre. The main collectible are gems which are scattered throughout the world and can also be gained by defeating enemies and opening chests. Additionally, you can collect dragon eggs by chasing down quick-moving Blue Thieves, and free dragons that have been turned into statues.

When you free a dragon, you are treated to a brief cutscene that will often give you hints about the game or a humorous exchange with Spyro, but some only say “Thank you for releasing me” which is a bit disappointing. Freed dragons act as checkpoints and allow you to save your game.

Spyro’s movement is limited to 8 directions which makes him awkward to control at times. (I found that switching from passive to active camera helped.) However, collecting gems is made easier thanks to Spyro being accompanied by Sparx the Dragonfly who will collect gems near you so you only need to get close to gems instead of running straight into them. This is a great addition, but Sparx makes a really annoying sound every time he collects a gem and I definitely could have done without it (especially considering that the background music courtesy of  The Police’s Stuart Copeland is really good).

Sparx also acts as you health meter, changing color as you take damage. You can take three hits before Sparx disappears, leaving you with one last hit point and forcing you to collect gems with Spyro directly. You can refill Sparx’s health with butterflies that are released by attacking sheep and other animals.

Spyro has two main attacks. He can shoot fire by pressing Circle or charge enemies by pressing Square, with certain enemies only being vulnerable to one attack or the other. Your fire breath has a very limited range and it’s sometimes hard to tell whether you’re close enough to hit enemies. The charge attack moves the camera behind Spyro and increases his movement speed and given the limited controls sometimes it’s hard to aim at enemies, which becomes especially annoying with enemies that can only be defeated by the charge attack and fire projectiles at you.

You can also get a powered-up fire breath from fairies in the game allowing you to take down enemies that are otherwise invincible or only able to be defeated with the charge attack and open certain doors and treasure chests. This is the only power-up in the game and only appears on a couple levels, so it would have been nice to have a bit more variety in the moveset.

Spyro can also glide by pressing X a second time after jumping, allowing you to reach far away areas. This is a pretty fun addition, especially considering the game’s impressive draw-distance for the era. Unlike other 3D games of the time, there is no fog hiding far away areas, and it’s really satisfying to see an area far in the distance and be able to glide right to it provided you have enough height. One minor quibble I have with the gliding is that you’ll keep gliding until hit something unless you press Triangle to cancel it. I always found myself holding down X to glide and releasing it when I wanted to land, so using Triangle took some getting used to.

The hub worlds are really nicely done. Instead of just a basic level select, each of them is like their own mini-level, complete with enemies, collectibles and unlockable areas. I occasionally had some difficulty finding the entrance to a level, but since each world has the same number of levels, it’s easy to know if you missed one. The transitions between the hub world and levels are really nice too. Spyro flies into the gateway to each level then seemlessly lands at the beginning of the level after a brief loading. It’s a small thing, but it’s a nice touch.

I really liked the enemy design in Spyro. There’s a good bit of variety and they have a lot of humor and personality. Some enemy types will even mow down others before you get to them, which is pretty entertaining. However, the bosses are a bit of a let down. They aren’t difficult (mosty your standard keep your distance while they attack and wait for them to become vulnerable) but each time you hit them, they’ll jump away to another platform and you’ll have to follow them and it just feels like padding. Apart from the final boss, they’re entirely optional too. When you defeat them, you only get the same gems scattered everywhere, and sure you get a lot of them but it’s still a bit anti-climatic.

Which brings me to my next point, collecting gems gets really boring after a while. You need a certain number of gems (or sometimes dragon eggs or freed dragons) to unlock the next world, but other than that they don’t do anything. It’d be nice if you could buy upgrades or something with them. The bigger problem is because the same gems are scattered everywhere, there’s not much incentive to pull off tricky moves to get to hard-to-reach places. Each level has a locked treasure test that you need to find the key for (usually in an out-of-the-way or hard to reach location) and then travel back to, but all for your hard work are more damn gems, so unless you’re going for 100%, what’s even the point?

There are some timed flying stages for a little variety. In these you’ll stay airborne the entire time, which flying through obstacles and destroying enemies and treasure chests in order to extend your time. They suffer from the same stiff controls as the rest of the game and if you bump into anything, you fall into the water and the level ends (though you don’t lose any lives which is nice). There are eight of each obstacle per stages and you need get all eight of the same type in order to receive any reward, and by reward, you guessed it, more gems. I never needed to complex any of them to have enough gems to progress so I mostly just skipped them.

Just like the other bosses, the final battle against Gnasty Gnorc isn’t that great. First you need to chase down two Blue Thieves with keys running in a circle, then chase down Gnorc himself and hit him with your fire breath, after which he’ll run away and you’ll need to do some platforming over lava as the platforms recede into the walls. Hit Gnorc a second time and you beat the game. You’ll need to do this all in one go and there are a lot of sharp turns while chasing the thieves and Gnorc where it’s easy to run off the stage while charging. I enjoyed the Blue Thieves as a quick challenge in other levels, but running in circles over and over again isn’t my idea of a good time, and having the final boss running away from you the whole time isn’t exactly an epic showdown either.

For all its faults, Spyro the Dragon does a lot of things rights. While it’s not the most exciting game in the world, the first Spyro lays down a very good foundation for the rest of the trilogy to build off of. With a bit of tweaking and some added complexity and variety, Spyro is a little dragon with a lot of potential and I’m eager to see what the sequels have in store.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Bucky O’Hare (NES) – Retro Game Reviews

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Bucky O’Hare is another great licensed game from the classic Konami library. You play as the titular Jazz Jackrabbit Bucky O’Hare who must rescue his crew from Toad Empire.  The game features many similarities to Capcom’s Mega Man. At the start of the game, you can choose between four planets that can be played in any order, each of which has a different member of Bucky’s crew. Once rescued, you can switch between different crew members at any time by pressing the Select button. After rescuing all four members, the crew takes on the Toad mothership, with an additional four levels.

The controls are very tight, which is a good thing since the levels can be very challenging, especially once you get on the Toad mothership. However, one very annoying thing about the game is that if you are hit while in midair, your jump is cancelled and you fall straight down. This wasn’t a huge problem for me and didn’t ruin my enjoyment, but it can be very frustrating at points.

Each of the five characters have different primary weapons and special moves that can be activated by holding down the B button. This can take some getting used to. Bucky’s special move is a high jump, so I always found myself wanting to hold down the jump button instead. Most of the characters also go into a crouch when charging their special moves, but if you are crouching while holding down the B button, they don’t work.

Each level has power-ups you can collect to upgrade your characters’ life bar and power meter to increase the strength of your special moves. Often these are found in out the way areas with trickier platforming, so there’s a nice risk/reward element. Each character shares the same life bar but have their own power meters that must be upgraded individually. However, upgrades carry over between levels, so it’s not too difficult to max out every character.

While you can select any of the four planets at the start of your game, the Blue Planet can’t actually be completed unless you rescue Blinky from the Green Planet first. The Blue Planet is also the game’s ice level and slipperiness is even worse here than it is in most platformers, making it one of the most frustrating levels in the game. It’s always great in Mega Man when your acquired weapons allow you to access additional areas or power-ups, but allowing players to choose the order of levels and then making one of them impossible if played in the wrong order is bad game design.

There is quite a bit of die-and-memorize gameplay on some levels, such as the Red Planet where you have to outrun one-hit death lava and you don’t have time to outrun it without memorizing the path ahead of time (and even then it’s still pretty hard). However, the graphics in Bucky O’Hare are really nice and soundtrack is great, so even when it gets frustrating, it’s still pretty enjoyable.

One area where Bucky beats Mega Man is in the boss battles. There is a lot of a variety and most of the bosses have pretty interesting designs. There’s one level where you have to cross lava by riding on giant green balls only for one of the balls to turn into a robot you have to have to fight to finish the level.

Bucky O’Hare certainly has its flaws, but for fans of NES platformers, particularly Mega Man, it’s still a lot of fun.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5

Donkey Kong Country (SNES) – Retro Game Reviews

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I played Donkey Kong Country a few times as a kid, but I never cared for it. The game was too hard for me then, and the art style didn’t appeal to me. (The bee enemies really scared me for some reason.) Revisiting it now, it still wouldn’t rank among my favorite platformers, but I have a lot more respect for it.

Before Donkey Kong Country, the DK franchise was effectively dead. Rareware effectively rebuilt the series from the ground up, changing the gameplay completely, adding what at the time were cutting edge graphics, and injecting some 90s attitude into the aging franchise.

From the opening cutscene, this game screams “This ain’t yo’ daddy’s Donkey Kong.” The original DK is relegated to the role of Cranky Kong, with a grown-up Donkey Kong Jr. taking center stage, surrounded by a cast of new characters. DKC is fully of personality, from Cranky’s hilarious insults right down to DK and Diddy’s idle animations.

For the most part, the art has aged really well. The early 3D reminds me a lot of claymation, and the enemies and backgrounds are nice and colorful. Obviously, everything is a bit pixelated, but that’s to be expected. The only model I really had a problem with was DK himself, who just looks like a brown blob a lot of time. Maybe that’s just me, but considering how DK was removed as main character from the sequels, perhaps someone at Rare shared my criticism.

Donkey Kong Country is famous for its tight controls, and while the game is challenging, it’s nowhere near as hard as I remembered. There’s still some trial and error, especially on the later levels, with enemies appearing without giving you time to react, but it never gets to the point where frustration ruined the experience or made me want to quit.

David Wise’s score is rightly lauded as one of the best soundtracks on SNES if not in the entire history of gaming. From upbeat tracks like “Jungle Groove” to the soothing “Aquatic Ambiance”, DKC shows the heights the SNES sound chip is capable of, and it’s worth playing for the music alone.

Another thing Donkey Kong Country is famous for is its hidden areas and bonus stages. I’ve never been the type of gamer that feels the need to find every secret, but if you are, DKC has a ton of replay value (which is good since the main game can be completed in only a couple of hours).

DKC isn’t without its problems though. The slippery controls in ice levels are atrocious. Ice levels are a bane to most gamers at the best of time, and given DKC’s difficulty, I’m sure they resulted in quite a few broken controllers back in the day. “Stop and Go Station” (where you have to hit barrels to stop invincible enemies from moving for a short time) and “Loopy Lights” (where the same mechanic is used to keep the stage lit up) are cool ideas in theory, but the barrels don’t last for a consistent length of time, making them needlessly frustrating.

By far the worst level in the game is “Torchlight Trouble”. This level is entirely dark, apart from a flashlight being held by a parrot (one of several animal companions in the game). The level itself isn’t bad, but every time you turn around, the parrot swings his flashlight, and the screen flashes completely white for a moment. It only took about ten seconds for this to start giving me a headache, though thankfully there are no other levels employing this gimmick.

It’s easy to see why Donkey Kong Country is favorite game for completionists and speedrunners. It’s a game that rewards repeated playthroughs and mastery of the controls. This has never been what I personally look for in a game and I’ll never be a DKC superfan, but I enjoyed my experience a lot more than I expected, and I could see myself revisiting it from time to time in the future.

Final Score: 4/5

Adventure Island IV (Famicom) – Retro Game Reviews

Adventure Island IV (Japan)

Before I started this series of reviews, I was completely unaware that there even was a fourth 8-bit Adventure Island game, which isn’t very surprising since it’s never been released outside of Japan.

Adventure Island IV features a lot of changes to the standard Adventure Island formula. Instead of a straight platformer, AI4 takes place in a Metroidvania-style open world. The witch doctor kidnaps your five dinosaur pals and later your girlfriend and you must travel through six zones collecting new weapons and items and defeating bosses to rescue your friends.

Higgins (technically Takahashi, I suppose) controls similarly to previous games, except that your can no longer hold B to run and the height of your jumps is no longer determined by your speed. One-hit deaths are gone too. Instead you start with two hit points and more can be added by finding heart containers. Your primary weapon is throwing bones, which function the same way as axes in previous games (axes can be unlocked later and do more damage), but you also have a wide variety of other weapons and items which are unlocked by defeating bosses and can be swapped at any time via the pause menu.

There are six zones in the game, each having a miniboss to unlock a weapon or item to help you progress (hammers can be used to smash rocks, torches can light up dark areas, etc.) and a main boss that will unlock an additional item and free one of your dinosaurs. Once you free a dinosaur you can go to a ranch near Higgins’ house to bring one them with you, and you can switch between riding your dinosaur or using your normal weapons with the pause menu. However, if you get hit while riding your dinosaur, it’ll disappear, and you’ll have to go all the way back to the ranch to get it back.

If you lose all your hearts, you’ll be sent back to Higgins’ house (where you can also rest to restore your hearts and get a save-password at any time) but you’re given a teleportation egg at the beginning of the game that you can place on pedestals throughout the world to create a warp point, so you don’t need to replay the same area over again.

You can only access one zone to start with, with additional zones being unlocked in order after you defeat the previous zone’s boss, so there’s no opportunity for sequence breaking. However, you can revisit previously unlocked zones at any time to search for heart containers that weren’t accessible your first time through.

There are a number of minigames that can be found throughout the game. Some of them are mandatory to progress, while others let you win various items to restore your health or a compass that will tell you which direction to go, though navigation is still pretty easy without it.

Thankfully, Adventure Island IV ditches the geometric art style and frustrating level design of the third game, and builds off what the previous games (particularly the second one) did right to create something familiar to fans but at the same time unique to the series. Of the four 8-bit Adventure Island games, it’s probably the easiest thanks having multiple hit points, but there’s still plenty of challenge, especially in boss fights.

If you’re a purist, the game is for the most part playable for non-Japanese speakers, but I still recommend downloading the English-patched version which can easily be found online.

Adventure Island IV is my second-favorite entry in the series so far. Adventure Island II is still the best one, but if you’re a fan of series and have never picked this one up, give it a shot because it’s a lot of fun.

Final Rating: 4/5

Adventure Island III (NES) – Retro Game Reviews

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I really enjoyed Adventure Island II so I was eager to hop into the third entry in the series, but unfortunately, Adventure Island III feels a step backwards from the previous game in a lot of ways. The basic mechanics are nearly identical to the second game, a few small additions. There a few more enemy types, you get a fifth dinosaur buddy (a triceratops), and in addition to your standard throwing axes, you now also can find boomerangs. You have to wait for your boomerang to return to you before you can throw it again, whereas you can throw multiple axes in quick succession, so you’re better off just sticking with them. You can also duck now, which can be very helpful in defeating small enemies and avoiding attacks.

But some features have been removed, most notably that the screen can no longer scroll backwards. Similar to the first Super Mario Bros., the screen locks behind you as you progress. As a consequence, the levels where you ascend vertically while going left and right to reach higher platforms have been scrubbed. These were some of my favorite levels in the second game, and it’s really disappointing that they didn’t return.

The art style isn’t as good as the second game either. All of the backgrounds have blocky, polygonal style that is just ugly in my opinion, and some of the levels are made up almost entirely of a few shades of the same color. Even the first Adventure Island had better art direction. Some of the returning enemies have received new sprites and in nearly every case, they’re more generic looking than their Adventure Island II counterparts.

But the level design is the biggest step backwards. There are so many times in this game when you’ll jump over an obstacle or to collect a fruit and an enemy will jump out of nowhere right where you’re going to land without giving you time to maneuver. This happened so often that it had to be intentional, and it’s extremely frustrating. You still have your stamina bar steadily ticking down, so proceeding through the level carefully to avoid these traps often isn’t an option. You just need to die and memorize them for next time. I get that they wanted to make the sequel more challenging, but this is not the way to do it. I don’t want to feel like the designers are intentionally punishing me for playing their game.

Adventure Island III isn’t terrible, but you’re much better off sticking with the second entry in the series. The few modest improvements don’t make up all the things the previous game got right which are removed. I can see myself revisiting Adventure Island II every through years for another playthrough, but I’ll probably never play Adventure Island III again.

Final Rating: 3/5

Adventure Island II (NES) – Retro Game Reviews

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Adventure Island II is everything a video game sequel should be. It has everything the first game did right, but bigger, better and more polished. The basic mechanics are the same: go right, throw axes at enemies, and collect fruit to refill your stamina bar, but many improvements are made to the formula.

The graphics and music are improved over the first game, as is the level design. There’s a good amount of varieties with some levels focusing on dodging or defeating enemies and others with hardly any foes that are more focused on platforming and making it to the end before your stamina bar depletes, as well as some stages that are mostly vertical and a few underwater stages as well. The levels are much shorter and early ones are a little too easy, but there is a steady difficulty curb as the game progresses.

There are more enemy types this time around and their placement doesn’t feel as random as they sometimes did in the first game, but one really annoying thing is that the same sprites will be used for enemies with different attacks. For example, some snakes will shoot fireballs at you, some will hop at you and some will stand still and do nothing. There’s no indication which behavior each one will have, so you have to stop and wait to see what you’re dealing with while your stamina bar continues to decrease.

In addition to skateboard power-ups from the first game, you now also have four dinosaur buddies you can find in eggs. The dinosaurs give you an extra hitpoint like the skateboard and some of them have unique attacks. The controls while riding the dinosaurs can be a bit slippery though, so on some stages it’s better to just skip them. You still lose your axe when you die, but if you finish a level with an axe or a dinosaur, you can choose to move them to your inventory before starting the next level to stock up for the more difficult levels later on.

One of my biggest gripes with the first game was how the same boss is repeated for every world and thankfully that isn’t the case with with Adventure Island II. The bosses strike a good balance between not too challenging or too easy, but if you die, you have to replay the previous level before facing them again, which is a bit of a pain. (Thank goodness for my ol’ pal, savestates.)

Adventure Island II is not without its flaws, but if you’re a fan of NES platformers, it’s worth checking out.

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Final Rating: 4/5

Adventure Island (NES) – Retro Game Reviews

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Hudson’s Adventure Island is one of the more memorable platforming series on the NES. Originally planned as a port of Wonder Boy, Hudson lost the rights prior to release and instead adapted it into an original property. You play as Master Higgins who must rescue his girlfriend Tina from an evil witch doctor by traveling through 32 stages divided into 8 worlds.

There are a few things that set Adventure Island apart from other platformers. For starters, there’s a health meter that slowly decreases over time and has to be replenished by collecting fruit found throughout the level. This game features one-hit deaths so you have to balance proceeding cautiously so you have time to react to enemies but quickly enough to get to the end of the stage before you run out of health.

You can’t jump on enemies. Instead you attack by throwing a axes, which are found in eggs for some reason. If you finish a level with an axe, it’ll carry over to the next stage, but when you die you lose your axe and some of the later levels are nearly impossible without it. (Adventure Island definitely lives up to the “Nintendo Hard” reputation.) The axes are thrown in an arc, so if enemies are too close, they tend to just fly over their heads

Eggs may also contain fairies that will briefly grant you invincibility, eggplants (described as Higgins’ least favorite food) which will deplete your health faster than normal until they go away, and skateboards. The skateboards are a mixed blessing. They give you more speed and if you hit an enemy, you lose the skateboard instead of dying immediately, but on stages with a lot of precision platforming, you’re better off just avoiding them.

The game also has a pretty unique momentum system. Jumping while running will give you a higher jump than while standing still, which leads to some tricky situations when you don’t have room to maneuver.

Every fourth stage ends with a boss fight but it’s the same boss every time. The boss will move from left to right and back again and occasionally throw fireballs at you. To defeat the boss, simply jump up and throw axes at his head. (Luckily you’re always given an axe power up right before the boss in case you don’t have one.) The only difference in the fights is the sprite used for the boss’s head and how many hits needed to defeat him. It’s really disappointing.

The graphics and music are okay for a game released relatively early in the NES’s lifespan, but they aren’t anything special.

Adventure Island is a pretty good game overall. It doesn’t rank among the best platformers on the system, but if you’ve never played it before, it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon.

Final Rating: 3.5/5