Posts tagged “video games”

After 24 years, Seiken Densetsu 3 has finally been released in English

June 12th, 2019

The early games of the Mana series, known in Japan as Seiken Densetsu (“Legend of the Holy Sword”) had a strange journey to the West. The first game was released in English as Final Fantasy Adventure, presumably to capitalize on the familiarity of the Final Fantasy name. The second was released as Secret of Mana, known as one of the great SNES action RPGs. But the third game was never officially released outside of Japan, eventually becoming the subject of a notable early fan translation.

In 2017, Seiken Densetsu Collection was released for the Nintendo Switch in Japan, compiling all three titles into a single release. It would have been the perfect opportunity for Square Enix to give Seiken Densetsu 3 its first official English release, but after two years with no word about a potential Western release, I’d written the idea off entirely.

So imagine my surprise when Nintendo announced at E3 this week that not only was the collection being released in English (as Collection of Mana, with Seiken Densetsu 3 now dubbed Trials of Mana), but that it would be available to purchase digitally that very same day (it’s already out as I write this). Additionally, there will be a physical release in August (for which I am personally holding out).

Bit Brigade in concert

January 16th, 2018

A few friends and I saw an awesome show last week: Bit Brigade. Their gimmick is that they have a video game player onstage speedrunning an NES game with the music muted, while the band plays a live rock version of the soundtrack.

We saw them do Batman, Castlevania, and DuckTales last year, and it was a fun show. This time, they did The Legend of Zelda, which was an interesting choice for a couple of reasons. First, because the game is much longer than the others. The game typically takes days or weeks to play through, and while of course I would expect a speedrun to cut that time down significantly, I was curious to see by how much. A lot of open-ended adventure games can be completed quickly by expert players by skipping certain levels or items, but I remembered that Zelda wouldn’t even allow the player to enter the final stage without having beaten all the previous ones. I assume there are a bunch of Zelda speedruns out there, but I intentionally avoided watching any so I could be surprised during the show.

Link and Ganon

The second reason is that the game doesn’t actually have that much different music in it. Besides the title screen and ending credits, the only major pieces of music are the main overworld theme, the dungeon theme (which is used for the first eight of the game’s nine dungeon levels), and the final dungeon theme (which is different than the one used for the preceding levels). That music is great, especially the main theme, but wouldn’t it get repetitive after a while?

The answer to the first question is that the game can be completed in about 45 minutes. That’s about how long the speedrunner took to complete the game. He obviously knew the game inside and out, and didn’t exactly take his time, but he did indeed play through every level in the game, albeit sometimes out of the intended order. It was impressive.

The most interesting thing about the show was the band’s approach to solving the second problem: In a departure from the original game, they played a different song for each dungeon, and for each venture into the overworld. The beginning of the game was accompanied by the traditional Zelda overworld main theme, and the first dungeon by its usual music, but subsequent selections were culled from the next three Zelda games (for the NES, Super NES, and Game Boy), and were thematically appropriate. I especially enjoyed their performance of “Tal Tal Heights” from Link’s Awakening during one overworld sequence, and A Link to the Past’s “Dark Golden Land” and “Hyrule Castle” during the overworld and a dungeon level, respectively. You can view (and listen to!) the entire playlist on Bit Brigade’s Bandcamp page.

It was a really fun show with impressive gaming, outstanding music, and a generally fun atmosphere. There was also an opening performance by a silly local band named Shark Attack!!, which was also enjoyable.

I recommend seeing Bit Brigade live if you get the chance.

The Super NES Classic Edition midnight release

September 29th, 2017

Today marks the release of the Super NES Classic Edition. I’ve been excited about the console, and determined to get my hands on one on release day, but have had trouble determining just how hard they’d be to come by. Nintendo has announced that they’re manufacturing them in greater numbers than last year’s extremely scarce NES Classic, and I called a few local stores, none of whom seemed to be expected anyone to line up or camp out overnight or anything. But there was a lot of hype surrounding the release and I’d seen a fair amount of chatter online about people camping out early for one.

My local Wal-mart is open 24 hours, and told me when I called earlier this week that they would begin selling the SNES Classic at midnight. I would have considered going there straight after work yesterday, but my company’s kickball team was playing in the league finals. (We won!) So I headed to Wal-mart straight from the kickball field and ended up arriving at about 10 o’clock to find myself 24th in line. (I would find out later that the first person in line had arrived at 6 o’clock, about the same time I’d have shown up had I come straight from work.) I asked the one of the employees manning the electronics department how many consoles they had available, and he couldn’t give me an exact number but assured me I had arrived in time to get one. Two more people showed up within minutes of my arrival, whereupon an employee started counting the number of people in line and suggested that all of the store’s available consoles were accounted for. He still didn’t seem certain about the exact number, but told us there were “about 25.” Two more people arrived together and got in line, though at this point the new arrivals were becoming anxious about the store actually having sufficient stock for them to get one.

I and a few others in line had been keeping an eye on BrickSeek to monitor store inventory. Most Wal-marts in the area were listed as having 20–30 SNES Classics in stock, but strangely this Wal-mart did not appear in BrickSeek’s listing at all. People started speculating about how the consoles were shipped to stores, and how that would affect the available quantity. Someone said that they arrived from the distributor in boxes of four, so “about 25” probably meant that there were 24 or 28 available. But someone else thought it was boxes of six, which meant 24 or 30. But BrickSeek showed some local stores has having an odd number of consoles in stock, so maybe the shipping configuration wasn’t really a factor. Basically, no one knew what that status was and there was a lot of confusion about availability, especially among those around my position as the 24th in line.

People continued to line up throughout the night; by the time midnight rolled around, there were at least 50, and probably 60 or 70 people in line. Even without an exact count I assumed most would go home disappointed. I think employees should have started turning people away long before that point, but those in the electronics department had disappeared, presumably to load the SNES Classic consoles onto a cart and prepare them for sale.

When the employees reappeared with a cart of the consoles, they had been stacked neatly such that it was easy to count how many there were: 28. A sign on the cart was unequivocal: “one per customer.” People around me in line started frantically counting again to make sure they knew exactly where they stood. There was even a police officer on hand to keep order, which never became an issue—everyone was polite, friendly, and well-behaved. Only a small number of people abandoned the line even after it became clear that there were far fewer consoles available than people who wanted them. I left the store immediately after purchasing mine, so I don’t know how things went down after they were sold out.

Super NES Classic Edition consoles ready for sale

Obviously I’m happy to have gotten my hands on the SNES Classic, but it’s disappointing that Wal-mart didn’t manage the release better. I would not have been happy to be one of those who waited in line only to be turned away at the last minute (and I was closer to being in that position than I’d have liked). Apparently other stores like Best Buy and Target use a ticketing system that takes the guesswork out of these large-scale releases. A few of the people in line behind me were vocally displeased that Wal-mart didn’t have a similar system in place.

Still, it was actually a fun experience and I enjoyed talking with the people in line around me. There was a group of college-age kids in front of me who were very friendly. Right behind me was a pleasant man who even left the line while we held his spot to get some folding chairs from another area of the store so a few of us could sit while we waited. And behind him was a mother with her two children who was excited to play the games she remembered from her youth and share them with her own children—I was especially glad to see that she was able to get one.

Super NES Classic Edition

Because it was nearly 1 o’clock in the morning by the time I got home with my purchase, I went straight to bed and have not actually played it as of this writing. But I’m looking forward to spending time playing some great games this weekend.

Video game review: Ultra Street Fighter II

August 31st, 2017

Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers, the latest in a long line of revisions to the all-time classic fighting game, was released for the Nintendo Switch earlier this year. Like 2008’s Super Street Fighter II Turbo: HD Remix, Ultra SF2 is based on Super Street Fighter II Turbo, the fifth and final version of Street Fighter II released in 1994 before Capcom finally moved on to Street Fighter III three years later.

Each version of Street Fighter II introduced various gameplay tweaks compared to their predecessors. In additional to general balance adjustments, Super SF2 Turbo specifically added Super Combos, especially powerful special attacks that could be performed only after filling a gauge by performing attacks and receiving damage. Super combos would go on to become a crucial part of subsequent Street Fighter games. It also introduced the secret final boss Akuma, who would become an important recurring character in the franchise.

Capcom brought Street Fighter II into the modern age by hiring Backbone Entertainment to program an updated version of Super SF2 Turbo for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, and UDON Entertainment to completely redraw all the game’s graphics in high definition. The game included the option to play in the original 4:3 aspect ratio, or in 16:9 widescreen mode, mainly by cropping the screen vertically but in such a way that the original gameplay is preserved. It included the options to play with the original character sprites instead of UDON’s new artwork, although the backgrounds, HUD, and other graphical assets remain in their updated versions. It includes both the original soundtrack and a remixed version provided by a variety of artists through Overclocked Remix. And of course it includes online play, via the GGPO netcode.

It also included two different versions of the game. The first is completely faithful to the original arcade release of Super SF2 Turbo in terms of gameplay, although it includes certain interface improvements, such as allowing the player to select the alternate version of a character (as they appeared in Super Street Fighter II, the version which immediately preceded Super SF2 Turbo) via a straightforward menu option rather than having to enter a code. The second has been completely rebalanced, with tons of gameplay changes, some minor, some relatively significant. Lead HD Remix designer David Sirlin even wrote a series of articles thoroughly describing the changes and explaining the reasoning behind them.

Ultra Street Fighter II screenshot

I am not a competitive Street Fighter player, and I understand that the fighting game community has largely forgotten about HD Remix, but for my money, the gameplay tweaks it introduced were almost uniformly an improvement. In particular, I was a huge fan of the easier inputs for most of the difficult-to-perform special attacks. Street Fighter is kind of know for its complicated button inputs, but as Sirlin explained:

Inside Street Fighter, there is a wonderful battle of wits, but many potential players are locked out of experiencing it because they can’t dragon punch or do Fei Long’s flying kicks, or whatever other joystick gymnastics. I’m reversing the trend. There’s only so far I can go with this and still call it SF2, but wherever I could, I turned the knob towards easy execution of moves. Let’s emphasize good decision making—the true core of competitive games—and get rid of artificially difficult commands.

That brings us to Ultra SF2. Again, like HD Remix, it is based on Super SF2 Turbo specifically. But notably, while it repurposes UDON’s HD graphics, it otherwise goes back to the drawing board, and retains none of the other HD Remix updates or changes. Since I mostly liked those changes, I consider Ultra SF2 a downgrade in many respects. Whereas HD Remix segregated its changes in a separate mode, with the original gameplay version selectable from the main menu, Ultra SF2 includes only one main gameplay mode, and while it is mostly faithful to the original incarnation of Super SF2 Turbo, it still includes at least one tweak: the addition of the ability to “tech” throws and avoid the attack. In Super SF2 Turbo, you could “soften” a throw, receiving less damage from the attack and recovering more quickly, but in Ultra SF2 it’s possible to avoid the throw altogether. In practice, I’m finding that this change actually makes throws, traditionally a very powerful attack in Street Fighter II, harder to deal with, not easier, because the window to perform the tech is very small and not as forgiving as Super SF2 Turbo’s softening window.

One major addition is the introduction of two new characters to the roster: Evil Ryu and Violent Ken. These are alternate incarnations of the existing Ryu and Ken characters, borrowed from later Street Fighter games. In Ultra SF2, they are basically palette-swaps of Ken and Ryu, with a few additional moves borrowed from Akuma. Interestingly, Ryu and Ken were palette-swaps of one another in early Street Fighter games, becoming increasingly distinct from one another over time, particularly with each new updated version of Street Fighter II. By Super SF2 Turbo, they were appreciably different. Ultra SF2 also adds Akuma, a hidden character Super SF2 Turbo, to the character select screen as a freely-selectable player character. Strangely, the character select screen is one place that does not use UDON’s redrawn art from HD Remix, instead reverting to the original character profile images from Super SF2 Turbo.

Like HD Remix, Ultra SF2 allows you to toggle between the original graphics and the redrawn HD art. Unlike HD Remix, this includes not only the character sprites but the backgrounds as well. However, it still does not include the HUD or other interface elements like the character select screen. Additionally, the aspect ratio changes with the graphic setting but is not independently selectable: the aspect ratio is 4:3 when playing with the original graphics, and 16:9 when playing with the HD art. In practice I don’t find this particularly bothersome, as players who select the original graphics presumably want a more faithful experience, while those using the HD graphics are probably okay with the more modern widescreen ratio, and the aspect ratio change has no perceptible affect on gameplay. Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason Capcom couldn’t have simply given us the option, and the inability to play with the HD graphics in 4:3 mode means that some of the HD background art goes unseen, cropped from the top of the screen. More bothersome, 4:3 mode is framed on the side by borders which say “Ultra Street Fighter II,” and they cannot be removed. While graphical borders are pretty common in modern releases of older games, they are almost always optional, and I generally disable them, preferring to play with plain black borders.

Also like HD Remix, Ultra SF2 includes both the original and a remixed version of the soundtrack, but it includes a completely new set of remixed tracks instead of the OC Remix ones. I prefer the OC Remix tracks, which sound more “intense” and seem more fitting for a fast-paced fighting game. Still, the new soundtrack is serviceable, and of course the original version is still available as an option. Another change from HD Remix is that Ultra SF2 also includes updated character voices borrowed from more recent Street Fighter games. As with the graphic style and aspect ratio, the music and voices are not independently selectable. You can have remixed music and new voices, or original music and original voices, but you can’t mix-and-match the two.

There are several new features and modes of play. “Buddy battle” allows you and a friend to take on a computer-controlled opponent in two-on-one match. There’s also a gallery containing over a thousand images from a Japanese Street Fighter art book. The gallery’s interface is decent and you can listen to any song from the game while browsing the illustrations.

Ultra Street Fighter II cover art

One welcome new options is a character color editor. Early versions of Street Fighter II included only two different color palettes for each character (to distinguish between them when both players selected the same character), but Super SF2 introduced many color options per character. Ultra SF2 retains all of the existing palettes, but also allows you to completely customize them. It’s a lot of fun to play with. The color editor allows you to assign virtually any color to each of three or four major areas per character. For example, when customizing Ken’s color scheme, you can independently recolor his hair, skin, and gi. The custom colors work with both the classic and HD graphics, although I’ve noticed a small amount of miscolorization on the edges of characters and between differently-colored areas when using the HD graphics. The classic sprites look just fine with custom colors. The character profile images on the character select screen and pre-fight “vs.” screen reflect the chosen colors only for game’s built-in color schemes, and use a psychedelic-looking rainbow-colored version for all custom palettes.

One completely new feature is “Way of the Hado,” a first-person 3D mini-game in which you control Ryu, using the Switch’s motion controls to perform special attacks and fight through waves of enemies. I think this was intended to be a pretty big selling point for Ultra SF2, but I didn’t find it to be anything more than an interesting diversion. The motion controls don’t seem to work particularly well, making it difficult to perform the intended attack (to be fair, you could say the same about Street Fighter II’s complex button inputs). It comes across as a kind of half-baked proof-of-concept for a more fully-featured 3D Street Fighter game, though “Way of the Hado” does nothing to make me particular anticipate such a game. It’s neat that Ultra SF2 includes an additional bonus game, but I wouldn’t consider it a major selling point.

There are a couple of other missteps. The game has a lot of modes, features, and options, which is good in itself, but its menu system is not well organized. The main menu alone has eleven items to choose from. And while of course the game allows you to customize the button configuration, it does so “the wrong way.” Here’s Sirlin again, talking about the button configuration screen in Street Fighter IV:

The right way is for the screen to list functions, then you press the buttons you want to assign. The wrong way is to list buttons, then you scroll through lists of functions to assign. The reason that one way is right and the other way is wrong is pretty clear when you watch people try to configure buttons. I’ve had to watch what must be thousands of people do this over the years in all the tournaments I’ve helped run (not to mention local gatherings). When the config screen says “Jab” and requires you to press the button you want, you just press the upper left button on your stick (or whatever button on your gamepad). This is a one-step process. But if the screen lists “X” and then requires you to scroll through functions until you find jab, it requires a two step process. You have to know which button on your controller is labeled “X.” When this screen is the right way, no one has to know if the upper left button happens to be X or A or B or whatever else.

If you think this is negligible, you have never seen people set buttons. The wrong way turns what should be a 3 second task into a fairly confusing affair.

It’s one of those things that doesn’t really affect gameplay once you’ve got everything set up the way you like, but it suggests a lack of thoughtfulness on the part of the developer. There’s also an option to use “lite” controls, which allows special movies to be assigned to buttons, so they can be performed with a single button press rather than the complex input normally required. When using the standard dual-Joy-con setup, or the Pro Controller, the Switch has eight action buttons (four face buttons and two shoulder buttons). Street Fighter II uses a six-button control scheme, so you can assign up to two special moves without having to give up one of the standard attack buttons.

Ultra Street Fighter II buddy battle screenshot

The Switch’s Joy-con controllers are novel, and they help make the switch a hybrid portable/console system, but they are small, and I find them less than ideal for most games. I don’t like having four separate directional buttons instead of a single pad, and while the analog stick is serviceable, I don’t like using it to play games that lack analog controls, like Street Fighter II. So the Pro Controller, which is more traditional, is a far superior choice for playing Ultra SF2. Of course, the ideal way to play a Street Fighter game is with a full-sized arcade stick, and to that end, Hori has released a Switch version of their Real Arcade Pro V Hayabusa stick. I imported the Japanese version as soon as it was released, and it immediately made Ultra SF2 easier and more fun to play. In fact, I refused to play “ranked” matches online before I was able to do so with the Hayabusa, sticking “casual” matches only. At $150, it’s a bit pricey, especially for a platform that doesn’t seem likely to be a popular choice for competitive fighting games (though it is also compatible with PCs). 8Bitdo is soon releasing their own N30 arcade stick for the Switch, and at $80, it’s only a little more than half the price of the Hayabusa. I have not tried the N30 myself, but it seems like a good option at a more affordable price.

Speaking of price, Ultra SF2’s $40 price tag has been the target of ire in most of the reviews I’ve seen. And perhaps that’s fair; while it’s been dolled up with plenty of bells and whistles, it’s still basically a 23-year-old game (even older if you count its earlier iterations), and games of this vintage are usually sold much more cheaply, or as part of a collection. For me, I like Street Fighter II enough that I’m willing to pay a premium for it, and I was always going to splurge on the arcade stick to go along with it, anyway. Additionally, Ultra SF2 got a physical release, which is by no means a given these days, especially for what could probably be considered a niche title. So while I understand the concerns about its price, I still thought Ultra SF2 was worth it in the end.

Despite some flaws, Ultra SF2 is still the same Street Fighter II we’ve been playing since the early ’90s. It’s an important, seminal game, and it’s as fun and exciting to play as it ever was, especially with online play against opponents around the world. It’s a little expensive for what you get, and the most enthusiastic players will have to invest in an even more expensive arcade stick to get the most out of it. Those caveats notwithstanding, I recommend it.

Video game review: Sonic Mania

August 17th, 2017

This week saw the release of Sonic Mania, the latest entry in the long-running Sonic the Hedgehog series of video games, and a throwback to the franchise’s earliest entries on the Sega Genesis. It’s built on the Retro Engine, a platform which brings modern console features like 16×9 widescreen support, 60-frames-per-second animation, and online functionality to retro-style games. Sonic Mania lead developer Christian Whitehead originally developed the engine for a Sonic fan game, then worked with Sega to produce a port of 1993’s Sonic CD to modern consoles using the engine in 2011. Similar ports of the original Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic 2 followed.

I picked up the Nintendo Switch version of Sonic Mania, and I was immediately hooked. Its controls and gameplay feel just like those of a classic Sonic game. That’s a good thing, because Sonic’s simple control scheme, using only the directional pad (or the analog stick, in this case) and a single action button, has always been one of the series’ strengths. Of course Sonic Mania includes the spin-dash technique introduced in Sonic 2, and it features Sonic 3’s elemental shields. It also adds a new “drop dash,” which allows you to perform a spin-dash immediately after landing from a jump. As in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, you can choose to play as Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles, each of whom has different abilities. Tails can fly briefly, while Knuckles can climb walls and glide through the air. You can also play as Sonic and Tails together; you control Sonic directly while Tails is controlled by the computer, but a second player can join in and take control of Tails instead. This effectively gives Sonic Mania a two-player cooperative mode, which is welcome, although not having tried it extensively, I suspect it will be of limited fun for the second player, since the game is very fast-paced and the camera always follows player 1, meaning player 2 will inevitably be lost off-screen fairly often.

Its graphics are also reminiscent of the style of its predecessors, but upgraded to take advantage of modern hardware. Sonic Mania runs in 16×9 widescreen at 60 frames per second. And of course it includes the requisite CRT-scanline filters (a much more subtle pixel-smoothing filter is enabled by default, but the graphical filters can be disabled altogether). The game features a lot of smooth, detailed animation (not to mention the fully-animated intro, clearly inspired by the one from Sonic CD). It also includes a vibrant color palette which invokes the look of the Genesis games, but which I’m pretty sure could not actually have been pulled off on the 16-bit hardware. There are a handful of instances which use more advanced graphical techniques, such as polygonal models. These are chiefly employed to add subtle perspective effects to stage backgrounds and the like, so they don’t usually stand out as anachronistic next to the pixel graphics. If you haven’t played a Genesis-era Sonic game in years, Sonic Mania looks like you probably remember those older games looking. It’s the perfect combination of old and new.

Sonic & Tails in Sonic Mania

Again borrowing from earlier titles in the series, Sonic Mania includes twelve themed “zones,” which include two “acts” each. Most zones are repurposed from previous Sonic games, while a handful are new to Sonic Mania. However, even the repurposed ones have been rebuilt and “remixed” from the ground up. They usually include recognizable segments integrated into a new layout and with new stage elements. Green Hill Zone returns from the original Sonic the Hedgehog, but can now be traversed via zip line. Chemical Plant Zone is back from Sonic 2, but features pools of chemicals that Sonic can bounce on to reach higher areas. And Sonic CD’s Stardust Speedway Zone now includes giant man-eating (hedgehog-eating?) plants for Sonic to climb. Within a single zone, the two acts are often visibly distinct from one another. For example, the new Press Garden Zone is covered in snow and ice for its second act, while Stardust Speedway Zone uses the “past” and “present” graphical themes from its Sonic CD incarnation for acts 1 and 2, respectively.

The level design itself is outstanding, and is easily on par with the best of the Genesis-era games. The Sonic games have always emphasized speed (of course), but at times that emphasis has clashed with gameplay—while it can be exhilarating, it’s not very exciting to “play” through an area of the game that doesn’t require you to do anything more than hold right on the directional pad. But Sonic Mania deftly avoids this trap, and throws lots of interesting puzzles and obstacles in for players to traverse along the way. Each stage also includes multiple paths, some of which are accessible only by certain characters due to their unique abilities.

Every act ends with a boss fight, which means there are a lot of bosses in Sonic Mania. Fortunately, the bosses are creative, unique, cleverly-designed, and fun to fight. One early boss in particular is a nod to an oddball Sonic spin-off game that made me giggle uncontrollably when I saw it—I’m grateful not to have had it spoiled before encountering it myself. Some of the bosses fairly tricky, but the “you’re safe as long as you have at least one ring” mechanic combined with the ability to retrieve up lost rings after taking damage means you always has a fair shot at winning.

Sonic Mania cover art

Sprinkled throughout the game are two different styles of special stages. Passing a mid-level checkpoint lamp post with at least 25 rings gives you access to the “Blue Sphere” mini-game first seen in Sonic 3, a pseudo-3D affair in which your character runs forward automatically, and you must turn left and right to collect blue spheres and avoid red ones, with the gameplay gradually becoming faster as the stage progresses. This special stage plays exactly like its Sonic 3 incarnation as far as I can remember, but I’ve apparently become terrible at it in the intervening years; though there are many lamp posts in Sonic Mania, and therefore many opportunities to play Blue Sphere, I’ve only managed to succesfully beat it a handful of times. Your reward is a medallion of some kind which has no discernible affect on gameplay. A tally of the medallians you’ve earned appears on the game’s “extras” menu; I presume that some extra features are unlocked after collecting certain amounts.

Slightly less common are giant rings, jumping through which sends you to a special stage reminiscent of the one from Sonic CD. In these 3D stages, the camera follows behind your character who must chase a UFO around a track in a limited amount of time. Initially, you runs too slowly to catch it, but collecting blue spheres increases your speed, while collecting rings gives you more time. Catch up to the UFO, and you’re rewarded with a Chaos Emerald. I have not collected all of the Chaos Emeralds, but in previous Sonic games, doing so would allow you to transform into “Super Sonic,” granting invulnerability and increased speed, and change the ending of the game upon completion. I presume that collecting all of them in Sonic Mania produces similar effects, though I have not yet had the gumption to find out.

The Sonic series has long been known for its great music (and that’s even before Michael Jackson’s involvment in the Sonic 3 soundtrack was known). I’m happy to report that Sonic Mania lives up to the series’ reputation on this front. A lot of classic Sonic songs appear, particularly from the returning stages. But there’s plenty of new music, too, and all of it fits right in, invoking the FM synthesis of the Sega Genesis’ distinctive Yamaha sound chip. Since the first time I heard it, I’ve been unable to get the theme from the first act of Press Garden Zone out of my head, which is pretty much my measure of how effective a game’s soundtrack is. The soundtrack is even available on vinyl.

Knuckles in Sonic Mania

The story plays out mostly through brief in-engine cut scenes between stages, with a more detailed plot summary in the accompanying electronic manual. But it hardly matters. As always, Sonic and his friends are going after Dr. Robotnik/Eggman and his robot minions, and have to save a bunch of cute animals along the way.

Sonic Mania is reasonably long for a side-scrolling platformer, certainly longer than most players will want to tackle in a single sitting, so it includes save system very similar to that of Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, with a whole bunch of save slots. It also includes some additional modes, such as a time trial mode and a two-player head-to-head mode, plus a variety of extra features and secrets, most of which I still have yet to unlock (there’s both an “extras” menu and a “secrets” one, both of which are mostly filled with question marks so far).

I absolutely love this game, and I was ecstatic the entire time playing through it. It perfectly captures everything that was great about the 16-bit Sonic games, builds upon them with great new content, and serves it all up in a gorgeous package that will make you feel like a kid again. I even got goosebumps at certain moments that were especially nostalgic. This is what 2010’s Sonic 4 tried to do, with some success, but Sonic Mania blows it out of the water. I don’t have a single complaint about this amazing game, except the lack of a physical release. There is a “collector’s edition” that includes a Sonic statue and a replica Sega Genesis cartridge with a gold ring inside, but even that release includes only a download code for the game rather than an actual physical copy.

Sonic Mania is available now for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, with a PC version coming next week. At $20, it’s a steal and I cannot recommend it more highly.

Nintendo announces the Super NES Classic Edition

June 27th, 2017

Yesterday, Nintendo announced the Super NES Classic Edition, a miniature version of their popular 16-bit console with 21 built-in games, and the successor to last year’s popular NES Classic Edition.

Due to its overwhelming popularity, the NES Classic Edition was notoriously difficult to find when it was released last holiday season, and Nintendo infamously stopped producing them before they ever became widely available. Nintendo has promised to produce “significantly more units” this time around, though they’re being characteristically cagey about what exactly that means and whether they will continue to manufacture the SNES Classic past the end of the calendar year (the NES Classic stopped production the April following its release).

Super NES Classic Edition

For those who could get their hands on one, the NES classic lived up to the hype, though there were a few criticisms, chiefly the short length of the controller cables. The cables for the SNES Classic’s controllers will be two feet longer than those of its predecessor, which is a distinct improvement, though still on the short side. As with the NES Classic, I’m sure there will be many third-party solutions, including wireless controllers and extension cables. And unlike the NES Classic, the SNES Classic comes with two controllers packed in the box.

The NES Classic’s controllers were newly-manufactured replicas of the original NES controller, but they used a different connector—the same one used to connect accessories like the Nunchuck to the Wii Remote for their more recent Wii console. The Wii Classic Controller and Classic Controller Pro were even compatible with the NES Classic Edition. Interestingly, the SNES Classic is also “compatible with the Classic Controller and Classic Controller Pro accessories,” though images of the mini console itself show what look like the old SNES controller ports. It may be that those are just for show (like the cartridge slot, which is non-functional since the games are all built-in), and the controllers plug in elsewhere on the console, like on the back or side. On the NES Classic Edition, the new controller ports replaced the originals with the same physical placement on the miniaturized console.

The SNES Classic includes fewer games than the NES Classic did—21 instead of 30–but the actual lineup is absolutely stellar:

  • Contra III: The Alien Wars
  • Donkey Kong Country
  • Earthbound
  • Final Fantasy III
  • F-Zero
  • Kirby Super Star
  • Kirby’s Dream Course
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
  • Mega Man X
  • Secret of Mana
  • Star Fox
  • Star Fox 2
  • Street Fighter II Turbo
  • Super Castlevania IV
  • Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
  • Super Mario Kart
  • Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
  • Super Mario World
  • Super Metroid
  • Super Punch-Out!!
  • Yoshi’s Island

That’s 14 Nintendo games and seven third-party titles. There are four that I haven’t personally played (Final Fantasy III, Star Fox 2, and the Kirby games), but of the remaining 17, every one of them is very good, and I’d easily put eight to ten of them in the “all-time greats” category. The most notable title is Star Fox 2, which was famously shelved and never released. While an incomplete version of the game was leaked online years ago, it will make its official debut on the SNES Classic.

I’d like to share a few random observations about the game lineup, especially those that are part of a series:

Only the first of the three SNES Donkey Kong Country games is being included. That’s probably the right one to include if you’re only going to include one, but the omission of DKC2, regarged by many as superior to the original, is a real bummer. It would have been nice to have the whole 16-bit trilogy.

Earthbound is a personal favorite. It’s a quirky, humourous role-playing game set in the modern day but released at a time when RPGs were heavily associated with medieval-type settings. It’s the second game of a series known in Japan as Mother. Interestingly, the first Mother game, for the NES/Famicom, was completely translated into English and localized under the tile Earth Bound, but never released. That English translation leaked onto the Internet years ago, but it never saw an official release until Nintendo released it on the Wii U Virtual Console as Earthbound Beginnings. Given the inclusion of the previously-unreleased Star Fox 2 here, I’m not starting to wish that the NES Classic Edition had included Earthbound Beginnings. Oh, well—the SNES Earthbound is actually a much better game, anyway. One interesting thing to note is that the Virtual Console version of Earthbound had some of its flashy graphical effects toned down compared to the original—I wonder if that change will carry over to the SNES Classic version?

F-Zero is a fun game, and I’m glad it’s included (it was actually the first SNES game I owned, aside from the pack-in Super Mario World), but the lack of a two-player mode has always been a real shame. It’s a fast-paced, futuristic racing game, the perfect candidate for a head-to-head competetive mode (which was naturally included in the game’s sequels). It was an early SNES game, so I suspect that there may have been technical limitations that prevented it (or maybe they were just rushing to get it out at the console’s launch), but it’s going to stand out as one of the few things in the whole package that hasn’t aged well.

Megaman X is a pretty good choice to represent the Megaman franchise. I’d love for some of the other SNES Megaman games to have been included as well, but it’s a third-party title and Capcom has actually been actively mining the Megaman archives lately, with the SNES game Megaman 7 being reissued in the upcoming Megaman Legacy Collection 2 compilation. Megaman X was the first game of the “X” spinoff series. The first three games in that series were all released on the SNES, so X2 and X3 would have been welcome inclusions, but maybe the X series will get its own compilation on modern consoles if Legacy Collection 2 sells well (which I suspect it will). I can’t fault Capcom for keeping most of the titles in one of their most popular series in-house.

Secret of Mana is another good one, and one of the few games to take advantage of the two included controllers with a two-player simultanous mode. Actually, the original game supported up to three players using a multitap, a feature I presume will be lost in this version. Secret of Mana is actually the second in the long-running Seiken Densetsu series, the first of which appeared on the Game Boy and was released as Final Fantasy Adventure in the US. But the series’ third game was also for the SNES (actually the Super Famicom, its Japanese equivalent), and never saw an official English-language release. I suppose it would have been too much to hope for a new English translation, especially given the lack of a Western release for the Nintendo Switch’s Seiken Densetsu Collection, which includes all three games.

Secret of Mana artwork by Hiro Isono

There were five different incarnations of the seminal fighting game Street Fighter II released in arcades back in the day (plus more recent updates like Hyper Street Fighter II, Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, and the just-released Ultra Street Fighter II for the Switch). Three of those five (Street Fighter II, Street Fighter II Turbo, and Super Street Fighter II found their way on to the Super NES, and I think it’s interesting that the SNES Classic includes the second of those three. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad choice, though I think it’s fair to say that Super Street Fighter II was an upgrade in most respects. The SNES ports were not arcade-perfect, but they were very good. Of course, today it’s trivial to emulate arcade games of this vintage more-or-less perfectly, so while Street Fighter II Turbo’s inclusion here is a fun throwback, the console port is obviously not the idea way for modern players to experience it. Also, I cannot imagine trying to play Street Fighter with a handheld controller, anyway. Actually, I can imagine it, because I played it that way back then, and it wasn’t very fun. Investing in a nice, solid arcade stick is critical for getting the most out of this sort of game. But obviously this was never going to be the ideal platform for die-hard fighting game fans, and Street Fighter II Turbo is still a good choice for it’s important place in SNES history

Yoshi’s Island is an important inclusion. Not only is the game itself an absolute masterpiece, the pinnacle of 2D platforming, this will be the first-ever reissue of the original version. The game was ported to the Game Boy Advance, but with a number of concessions to the less-powerful hardware, particularly the graphical effects which leveraged Nintendo’s “Super FX” chip in the original SNES version. It’s this inferior port that was the basis of subsequent re-releases on the 3DS and Wii U Virtual Consoles.

All in all, there’s little to complain about in this lineup of great, classic games. Of course there are going to be some omissions. Chrono Trigger in particular seems to be on everyone’s “they should have included…” list, and rightly so. But given the limitations Nintendo surely faced in licensing third-party games, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a better list of 21 games that could have been included.

Assuming you can get your hands on one, the SNES Classic Edition is something to look forward to. Nintendo is releasing it on September 29 for $79.99.

Button Configuration

May 10th, 2010

Last month, Capcom released via Xbox Live Arcade Final Fight: Double Impact, a two-fer that includes the classic arcade games Final Fight and Magic Sword. I was especially excited to play Final Fight, a personal favorite, using the Hori Real Arcade Pro EX Joystick that I bought when Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix was released. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I discovered that Final Fight included no button-configuration option, and the default configuration, while perfectly sensible for the standard Xbox game pad, is virtually unplayable on the HRAP EX’s button layout.

Final Fight:  Double Impact

It’s extremely frustrating and downright bizarre how many recent games would be perfect for playing on an arcade stick like the HRAP EX, yet don’t include a button configuration option allowing the player to easily do so. Among Xbox Live Arcade releases, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled are two of the more egregious examples. Like Final Fight, they were originally released as arcade titles, yet can’t be played on the Xbox using an arcade-style joystick unless the player is willing to abide unnatural, counter-intuitive button layouts that render them all but unplayable.

Other notable offenders include the Gamecube version of Megaman Anniversary Collection, which uses only two action buttons—fire and jump—and yet manages to screw up the controls by reversing their functions as compared to pretty much every 2D action platform game ever created, and the U.S. version of Resident Evil 5, which reverted to the control scheme of the original Japanese version after using a modified control scheme for every previous Resident Evil game. I kind of like the idea that we’re finally getting the game as it was made by its original creators, but I found it extremely difficult to get used to after 13 years of playing Resident Evil games with the U.S. control scheme, and frequently found myself wasting valuable ammunition when I meant to run.

Megaman Anniversary Collection

What’s most frustrating about this phenomenon is that there’s simply no reason for it to be, as it’s trivially easy to add a button-configuration option to any game (at least, it is if the game is competently programmed). Adding such an option costs the game developer virtually nothing, yet provides great value to the consumer and makes the game much more accessible.

For this reason, in spite of all the glowing reviews it’s accumulated (and rightly so with respect to its gameplay), I can’t recommend Final Fight: Double Impact. In spite of the great gameplay it contains, it gets wrong one of the most fundamental elements of game design. How could I support a game that doesn’t even get the basics right?

NES Hard

September 25th, 2009

At the local shopping mall last week, I saw an ad for A Boy and His Blob, an upcoming Wii game. I became pretty excited, because I quite enjoyed the original NES version of A Boy and His Blob when I was younger, and I had no idea that a new version was in the works.

As I thought about it, I realized that A Boy and His Blob is the perfect candidate for a modern remake, because it features novel gameplay that still holds up well, yet has some issues that could be addressed in a new take on the concept.

The gameplay mechanics were done right the first time around, and are actually rather novel. The player controls an ordinary-looking boy who’s followed around by a shape-shifting alien blob. The boy carries a pouch of jellybeans of various flavors. Feeding one to the blob causes him to transform into one of several different objects, depending on the flavor of the jellybean. Feed the blob a licorice-flavored jellybean, and he transforms into a ladder, allowing the boy to climb up to high ledges. Feed him a punch-flavored jellybean, and he transforms into a hole, through which the boy can drop into underground passageways. There are thirteen flavors altogether. Solving the game requires figuring out which objects to use in various situations, and feeding the blob the appropriate jellybeans.

A Boy and His Blob

Unfortunately, despite its fun gameplay, A Boy and His Blob is frustratingly difficult in places. Often, it is unclear where the player should go or what he should do to proceed. There’s nothing wrong with difficult puzzles, but A Boy and His Blob is artificially hard in the way that a lot of old NES games are. It presents the player with obstacles but not even the slightest hint as to how to progress past them. That’s more than mere difficulty; it’s outright unfairness. It’s practically impossible to beat that kind of game without using a walkthrough, and forcing the player to resort to external references to progress indicates a fundamental design flaw.

A friend of mine coined the term “NES hard” to describe this kind of faulty gameplay. I like that description, because it’s the kind of problem that was sadly prevalent among games of the NES console generation. Even the best and most enduring games of that era succumbed to this phenomenon at times. The Legend of Zelda launched one of the all-time great video game franchises, spawning over a dozen sequels to date, yet even it forced the player to somehow divine which specific bush out of thousands in the game he had to burn in order to reveal the hidden entrance to a particular level.

The Legend of Zelda

In spite of its flaws, The Legend of Zelda is now considered a classic, and the series has since produced even better games by combining the time-tested adventure elements of the original with more sensible level designs. A Boy and His Blob has the potential to be a great game by coupling the same sensible design philosophy with the basic mechanics of the original. That’s why I’m looking forward to the new Wii version, which is being released on October 13.

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