Breath of Fire (SNES) – Retro Game Reviews

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Breath of Fire is one of the more notable RPG series released on the Super Nintendo, but unfortunately it really doesn’t hold up to modern standards. If you’ve ever played a turn-based JRPG before, you know what to expect from the gameplay. Breath of Fire does try to do a couple unique things, with day-night cycles and hunting animals on the overworld, but other than that it’s really basic.

Random battles are an annoyance for every RPG fan and it feels like you can’t go more than five steps without getting sucked into one. There is an item you can use to avoid them for a while, and an auto-battle feature that helps speed things along, but even by SNES RPG standards they’re way too frequent.

What worse is that weak enemies from early in the game will keep showing up in later areas, giving you almost no XP or gold and just being an annoying waste of time. Other times, you’ll run into enemies with overpowered attacks that can wipe out your entire party in a single attack.

The whole game is very poorly balanced and this extends to the boss fights as well. None of them are too difficult, but some are complete pushovers and are really unsatisfying to beat. The HP meters of enemies are usually visible when you attack, but for bosses once their HP drops to zero, they get a second wind and there’s no indication for how much HP they have. Most RPGs don’t display enemy health so it’s not a big deal, but why even include an HP meter for boss fights if it doesn’t really mean anything?

The dungeons aren’t that great either. Their layout is fine, though not very memorable, but there’s not much incentive to explore since most chests only contain contain weak healing items that can be cheaply purchased in shops or armor and weapons that were usually weaker than what I already had. Occasionally you will find more powerful healing items that are available in shops, but after about the hundredth time I opened a chest to find nothing but an Herb, I just started rushing through the dungeons’ main path without exploring.

The most important element in any RPG is the story, and in this respect Breath of Fire again falls flat. Your main character is Ryu the last survivor of the Dragon Clan whose town gets destroyed by the evil Dark Dragons. Most of the characters are fairly unmemorable takes on standard RPG tropes, and there isn’t much that veteran RPG fans haven’t seen done much better elsewhere. The dialogue is really bland too, but this might just be the translation. There are a couple nice set pieces, like exploring a giant stone robot who then sacrifices himself in a volcano, but these are few and far between.

There’s one moment in the game that is so annoying that it deserves special mention. When you reach the town of Bleak, an NPC will request a Gold Nugget, the most expensive item in the game, in exchange for a key item needed to progress. If you know ahead of time you need save up for it, it’s not too hard, but there’s no indication this is coming, so I ended up spending all my money on new equipment right before, and had to use a cheat to buy the gold nugget to avoid grinding potentially for hours just to afford it. There’s another character who asks for another gold nugget later on, but you’ll be able to find one in a chest before then, so isn’t quite as egregious. The first time however you have no choice but to buy one from a shop. I imagine a lot of players gave up on the game right there.

One area where Breath of Fire does hold up is the visuals. Everything from the sprites to the backgrounds is great and there are some unique enemy designs. The music, while not as memorable as something like Final Fantasy, is really nice too. However, neither of these is my opinion are enough to make up for the games many flaws.

Turn-based JRPGs are notorious for aging poorly, and Breath of Fire doesn’t do much to challenge that reputation. It’s not terrible, but it has some deep flaws in its design and given the time commitment required, I really can’t recommend it unless you’re RPG fanatic who’s just looking for something familiar to kill time. From what I hear, the later titles in the series are a lot better, so I’ll have to check them out sometime and let you know if I like them anymore.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5

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

Shining Force (Sega Genesis) – Retro Game Reviews

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While Super Nintendo owners back in the day had a smorgasbord of some of the best RPGs ever made to choose from, RPG fans with a Sega Genesis had very slim pickings. When I first played Shining Force as a kid, I didn’t even know what an RPG was, but I was instantly hooked. The fantasy setting, the wide cast of characters, and a plot far more complex than anything I’d encountered in a video game before, it all blew me away. But returning to the game now as a far more experienced gamer, I’m sad to report it just doesn’t hold up to modern standards. It’s not a bad game, especially for one that came out so early in the Genesis’ lifespan, but everything about it is very bare bones.

The story is standard RPG fare. A villain named Darksol wants to harness the power of the Ancients to take over the world and it’s up to you and the titular Shining Force to stop him. You travel from town to town fighting Darksol’s minions and recruiting new members to your party (30 in total including hidden characters). Each party member has their own backstory and reasons for joining the Shining Force. They’re pretty much all just fantasy cliches, but it’s still a nice touch. Unfortunately, once they join your party, none of the characters get any more development.

If you’ve ever played a tactical RPG before (think Final Fantasy Tactics or Advanced Wars), you know what to expect from the combat.  Characters take turns moving around a grid attacking one another. There are archers, mages, healers, even a couple of flying characters, but everything is very barebones. The enemy AI is completely braindead. Most of them don’t even move until you get into attack range and then they walk up to the nearest character attack and repeat.

Even using an emulator with a fast-forward feature, the battles take forever. Each time you or an enemy attacks, the view switches to a one-on-one fight. The sprite art is genuinely really nice for these parts, which is good because you are going to be seeing these same animations over and over and over again. There’s no way to turn them off either.

If your main character, Max, dies in battle you get sent back to the nearest priest (who acts as the savepoint) but on the plus side you get to keep all your experience and gold. If any of your other party members die in battle they can be revived by the priest for 10 gold times their level. I always had way more gold than I needed so that wasn’t ever a problem. In addition to saving and reviving your party members, the priest can also remove status ailments and upgrade your characters’ classes when they reach a high enough level.

Each character can hold up to four items including weapons and other equipables. You have buy items from shops one at a time and select which character to give them to, so stocking up on supplies takes forever. You can also find items in chests, but you can only open them if Max has a free item slot. You’ll want Max to have some healing items since he’s the only character who needs to survive in battle, but every time you find a chest, you’ll need to open the menu and give his items to someone else just to open it.

Each party member as well as some major NPCs have their own animated portraits for when they’re speaking or when you select them in the menu and these are all really well done. However the rest of the sprite work in the game is really basic. The same five or six NPC sprites are used over and over in every town without so much as a pallet-swap. Even some supporting characters have the same NPC sprites as random townsfolk.

Repeating art is one thing, but the same music is used over and over as well. In battle, anytime a character attacks it switches to a short attack theme and then the main battle music starts over from the beginning when the attack is finished. Every. Single. Time. If you’re going to play this game, I recommend muting it and listening to something else.

Shining Force isn’t a terrible game, especially for the time, and it still has a lot of charm. (I love how whenever you sell something to a merchant he says “It’s mine, all mine.”) However, its age really shows. Shining Force received a number of sequels as well as a GBA remake, which hopefully fix the problem I had with this one. There’s a really good game buried somewhere in Shining Force; it just needs a little polish to bring it out. Shining Force will always hold a special place in my heart as the first RPG I ever played, but even with the benefit of nostalgia, I really can’t recommend it when there are so many other tactical RPGs out there more worthy of your time.

Final Rating: 3/5

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