Tag Archives: ds

FGC #517 Retro Game Challenge

What we are looking at here is exactly what modern gaming has been chasing for the last decade.

Died right at the end

And you don’t even notice it.

Retro Game Challenge is an odd duck swimming in a flock of odd geese (they’re over at Lake Eerie). It is a game technically based on a Japanese game/variety show (and we use that already ambiguous definition loosely) named GameCenter CX / Retro Game Master, which has been running for 17 years as of this writing. It’s apparently out-surviving Survivor! And that seems appropriate, as the main focus of the show is its host, Shinya Arino, attempting to complete classic games with legendarily great difficulty levels. This isn’t just some random stream, though; between the commentary and jumpsuit, this works out to something closer to Mystery Science Theater 3000 for videogames. And how does that translate to an actual videogame? Weirdly! “Put upon, sarcastically titled Retro Game Master-Arino” becomes a vaguely malevolent, virtual “Actual Retro Master of Games-Arino” who curses the player to be a child flung back in time to play videogames with Arino’s younger self. Master the games, beat Arino’s challenges, and you’ll return to your present… And one would hope that reward is better than a childhood where you’re cursed to play videogames all day…

VrooomBut that’s just the story of Retro Game Challenge, what’s really important is the actual game that’s involved. Scratch that, the game involved is games. Retro Game Challenge does its best to create modern facsimiles of retro games of the past. Rather than turn this into a simple retro compilation hosted by a celebrity (and, to be clear, this humble blogger would not object to such a thing), Retro Game Challenge goes the extra mile and crafts loving homages to the games of yesterday. There’s Cosmic Gate, a (slightly) advanced reimaging of Galaga, and Star Prince, a slightly more advanced shoot ‘em up in the vein of Gradius or R-Type. Then there’s the Haggleman series, which starts off as a simple arcade action title ala Mappy Land or alike, but graduates to a full, cinematic action-explorer like Ninja Gaiden with a touch of Metroidvania underpinnings. Rally King evokes the bygone days of racing games before the advent of Mode 7, and Guadia Quest is Dragon Warrior mixed with a little Final Fantasy and Pokémon. In fact, Guadia Quest seems to stand as the mission statement of the Retro Game Challenge titles: it’s very much a classic JRPG, but it’s also concise and user-friendly, and does not suffer from any of the jank that might detract from someone enjoying a classic JRPG in modern times. It looks retro. It feels retro. But its sensibilities are decidedly modern, so you’re not going to eject it from your DS after the eighteenth time you had to search for the STAIRS command.

And this is one way in which Retro Game Challenge was prescient. RGC was revitalizing in 2007/2009 (took a lil’ bit to localize that one) because it had been so long since we saw these “retro” titles. The concept of 2-D platforming had been demoted to the occasional portable title, and, outside of a Castlevania or two, that kind of “retro” gameplay had been constrained to the shadows. Similarly, JRPGs were, at the time, wholly grand affairs that featured 80-hour long plots and battle systems that required a master’s in exp point management (reminder: RGC was on the same system that featured a Xenosaga title). The “simple” Retro Game Challenge titles were a breath of fresh air in that thick fog of Assassin’s Creeds and Batmans that looked like Assassin’s Creeds.

CheekyAnd history has proven that people liked that fresh air. Retro Game Challenge was released just before the online stores of consoles found that people actually wanted retro titles… they just maybe didn’t need to spend $60 on a disc to get ‘em. Make it clear that these retro titles were not trying to compete with whatever defined AAA that week (remember when everyone was obsessed with Left 4 Dead? That feels like a distant dream…), and suddenly people were all about Mega Man 9 or (console) Cave Story or whatever came down the pike. Retro Game Challenge seemed to herald the start of the age of retro games being available on online stores, and, soon enough, you wouldn’t have to wrap these games up in a faux-compilation, people would just be willing to drop a Hamilton on Haggle Man to play for the afternoon. Retro Game Challenge saw our shores just as online storefronts offered more and more retro game challenges.

But there was one aspect of Retro Game Challenge that was visionary and wholly unique. Need me to draw you a picture?

Who's that pokemon

You have a built-in audience.

Game Master Arino has sent you back in time to play videogames with Child Arino. Technically, throughout the whole of Retro Game Challenge, you are effectively living with Child Arino, playing on his console, reading his magazines, and occasionally consuming snacks provided by his mom. You are playing games that he owns, but does he ever ask for the controller? Does he ever demand you boot up two player mode? Does he ever even take a break to the Little Arino’s Room when you’re approaching hour seven of going for the high score in Space Prince? Nope! Arino is always there. He flinches when you lose a life, and he cheers when you find a secret. He is the perfect host, but, more importantly, he is the perfect spectator. He is never bored with your gaming. He never tires of seeing your latest accomplishments. He is enrapt in your gaming, and only asks that you occasionally answer a random, inane question or two. So, yes, not only is he the perfect audience, but he wants to hear your opinion on matters. Ask me anything, Arino!

LOOK AT ME DO THIS!And isn’t that what every youtuber and streamer is chasing? Hell, isn’t that even the secret point of most MMORPGs? Any game with an online social feature lives and dies by the ways it allows the player to “brag” about their accomplishments. Nintendo avoided “achievements” and “trophies” for this very reason? Well, why do I seem to keep seeing raids in Pokémon Sword/Shield featuring ‘mons that are completely useless, but abundantly shiny. Stop showing off, trainers! I see you! I get it! People have a natural, understandable urge to boast in almost every setting, and much of modern gaming has been constructed around showing off your latest “legendary pull” or “raid loot”. From Pokémon Go to Fortnite to Final Fantasy 14 to whatever that one shooter is that I always forget the name of (Destiny? I want to say Destiny), there are a richness of ways to crow about your achievements, and build a potentially rapt audience around your accomplishments. Modern gaming and entire websites are literally built around this concept, because if you’ve got spectators, you’re never going to stop playing. Of course you need to buy that new DLC, you’ve got to stay at the top of your game for the fans. You wouldn’t want to see that subscriber count go down, would you?

And it all boils down to trying to impress a friendly kid sprawled out on the carpet. It’s all chasing an audience as attentive as Young Arino.

One title predicted the next decade of gaming through a background element that most saw as an afterthought. Retro Game Challenge was secretly Prophetic Game Challenge.

FGC #517 Retro Game Challenge

  • System: A Nintendo DS game posing as a series of Nintendo Entertainment System games.
  • Number of Players: It kind of looks like there should be two players, but you’re actually going it alone on this one.
  • Favorite Retro Game: It says something that, back when this game was released, I was most interested in Gaudia Quest, the faux JRPG. Nowadays, I barely have time for real level grinding, left alone mini level grinding, so I’m going with Haggleman 3, the Ninja Gaiden/Metroid-alike. Haggleman 1 also gets bonus points for being exactly what it wants to be. Rally King can be hurled into the sun.
  • Poor kidLet’s Read: This is one of the few videogames… uh… ever that praises the gaming magazines of the retro era. Retro gaming histories at large seem to ignore the tremendous impact a simple preview for Super Mario Bros 3 or Final Fantasy could have on the curve of gaming’s history, and this is at least one game that acknowledges how “Classified Information” likely sold more titles than Toys R Us. Come on, whatever Mega Man Legacy Collection comes next, you can license a few Nintendo Power pages for the gallery.
  • And now a word from our Sponsor: Retro Game Challenge also promotes something we rarely saw in the United States: games with corporate sponsorship. There are a number of Famicom titles that tie in to various products and services, but it seems like the best we could ever get in the West was a Ninja Turtle or two. Of course, RGC would only be appropriate for the US if its Cup o Noodle version of Rally King was converted into Super HaggleMan 2
  • Goggle Bob Fact: Five years ago (damn!), back when I was still trying to figure out exactly what I was even going to call this site, I originally considered naming this whole “random games to play and write” project “The Retro Gaming Challenge”. Then I was reminded that that was taken by this very game, so I switched over to “Fustian Gaming Challenge”… primarily because I like the word “fustian”. And then, approximately seventy entries later, I realized I should have just gone with “Random Select”. It would explain all the featured fighting games!
  • Don't haggle meDid you know? At the absolute end of the ending, Cyber Arino will remind you that there isn’t anything more to the ending by stating plainly, “Even if you wait, there won’t be anything”. You can then wait for a full thirty minutes (not easy to do on a handheld!), and finally be greeting with Arino’s concluding statement of… “See ya”. He’s an honest guy.
  • Would I play again: Everything about this game is a delight. Not only will I likely play it again, but maybe I can dig up a fan translation of its sequel. Man, I hope that localization is half as good and thoughtful as the original…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Cannon Spike for the Sega Dreamcast! … Isn’t that just a special move from Street Fighter? Huh. Street Fighter is pretty good, though… Well, uh, please look forward to it.

Keep on kickin'

FGC #514 Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

LET'S QUESTToday we’re going to talk about videogames and how you engage with videogames. Actually, screw that, we’re going to talk about how I engage with videogames.

This odyssey into madness was prompted by Random ROB choosing Dragon Quest 9: Sentinels of the Starry Skies. You may recall that ROB is now picking games from a truncated version of my master inventory of videogames, so, ultimately, DQ9 was no accident. Today’s game was always going to be picked eventually, as it is fondly remembered as one of my favorite games. In fact, I could toss out a few basic, personal facts about DQ9 immediately:

  1. It is one of my most favorite videogames
  2. It is absolutely my most favorite DS game, which is significant, as this is the system that hosted Flammole the Moleroid
  3. It is absolutely my most favorite Dragon Quest game, and the title that got me to enjoy the franchise after years of issues.
  4. I played Dragon Quest 9 for 197 hours, apparently. Given my general ADD and the wealth of alternative games I have available at any given moment, this is significant.
    That's a lot of time
  5. I never want to play Dragon Quest 9 ever again.

Considering the hours involved, that last point seems… peculiar.

To be clear, this is not a matter of burnout. For an easy example of that, consider Secret of Mana, a game that I played and replayed approximately every other day back in 1994. That was a game that, after I was wholly “done” with the experience (likely because Chrono Trigger was finally obtained), I was in no rush to repeat all over again. I had beaten the Mana Beast so many times with so many different sword techniques that I felt I was good and done with the title. But did I ever play the game again? Of course! Secret of Mana doesn’t hog my entertainment center as often as Mega Man 3 (which sees a replay at least annually), but I’ve undoubtedly returned to Randi a few times over the years. I may have “played out” Secret of Mana in its heyday, but I still feel like lapping up that nostalgia from time to time.

Dragon Quest 9? Not so much. That’s my original save file up there, and, short of a battery disaster, it’s never going anywhere. And why? Because even if I wipe that file, I’m never going to be able to play Dragon Quest 9 ever again.

BOOMIn a way, Dragon Quest 9 is a traditional Dragon Quest game from toe to tip. The basic plot, that you are a guardian angel that is torn from Heaven when a fallen angel decides to go all Morning Star on his celestial home, is little more than a framing excuse for venturing across the planet. There’s an evil empire to quash and apocalyptic demons to slay, but that’s all secondary to whatever you can do to help the next town over. They have a disease raging through their populace? Great, maybe you can kill it with a sword (and you can!). Dragon Quest 9 is a game about heroes tromping across the land, making the land slightly better, buying all of the medical herbs until the land has a shortage, and then saving the land from some manner of jerk that probably has a secret form or two. Start out saving a local inn business, finish up by rescuing God. Tale as old as time.

And, frankly, the most overt change to the Dragon Quest 9 formula here is simply a cosmetic upgrade of the good old days of the franchise, too. After years of well-defined protagonists and their distinct, sometimes dog-riding companions, DQ9 returned to the “generic” party of Dragon Quest/Warrior 3. You can create your own custom hero, and then choose three companions with their own distinct complexions and professions. Want a balanced party of the typical Knight, Monk, White Mage, and Black Mage? That’s fine! Want a party that is four re-headed thieves all named “Mona” for some reason? That’s also fine! Do what you want! There are plenty of memorable characters hanging around the fringes of DQ9, so you can create your own, wholly-silent party at your leisure. And speaking of customization, much of the equipment system and its attendant alchemy system in DQ9 seems tailor fit to encourage the player to experiment and adapt their party in new and exciting ways. Sure, you could make a beeline for all that metal slime armor, but wouldn’t it be more fun to have a character or two in a surprisingly resistant bikini? Or a celestial robe? Or just wholesale steal Alena’s outfit? There are options upon options here, and you could spend an entire day gathering the right materials (“ingredients”) to build the perfect superstar’s suit for your luminary. Assembling the perfect party, in more ways than just maxing out stats, is half the fun of DQ9, and it’s the kind of fun you don’t always see in a game where you’re ostensibly trying to “role play”.

CRAFTING!And, while these “new” features certainly account for why I played DQ9 for a “normal” number of hours, it was DQ9’s other big innovation that accounts for not only the excess hours spent playing, but also why I can never play the game again.

God help me, I loved the social aspects of Dragon Quest 9.

Looking at Dragon Quest 9 from a strictly pragmatic perspective, it was clearly a trial run for the MMORPG that was the eventual Dragon Quest 10. DQ9 eschews the typical DQ experience by allowing other players to join your party as you cooperate and quest across the land. Thus, DQ9 was designed first and foremost as a traditional JRPG, but allowed for a significant amount of wiggle room to squeeze in a guest participant or two. Or, put another way, you didn’t need a raid party to conquer that impossible boss, but it sure would be easier if your level 100 buddy stopped by. And there were more passive concessions made to the concept of making DQ massively multiplayer, too. There were quests that were released on a timed basis (causing players that had “finished” the game to return), timed online shop sales (a great reason to log in routinely), and spot-pass shared treasure maps that allowed you to share randomly generated dungeons with friends… or anyone that happened to be within wi-fi range. Since not all maps were created equal, the most massive multi-playing involved in DQ9 wound up being map swapping with as many people as possible. And regardless of whether or not map swaps were meant to be the most popular DQ9 pastime, these were all baby steps to seeing what people would want (and what the franchise could support) in DQ10. But if you were some manner of DQ purist, you could technically ignore all these add-ons and still have an enjoyable experience.

I did not ignore those MMORPG-lite features. Lacking friends that were interested in Dragon Quest (Smash Bros? Yes. 100 hour JRPGs for handhelds? No.), I drove an hour away to visit a Best Buy promotion where I was told there would be other nerds sharing maps. I got maps. I got stickers. I was a happy Goggle Bob.

Tag!

And it would be impossible to replicate that experience.

I’m not going to claim I’ve never done anything vaguely ridiculous for a videogame. I’m not even going to claim that “driving an hour for a virtual trinket” is really all that crazy. But for me, it was a singular experience. It was something none of my friends were doing, so I was forced to make a solitary trip in search of some cave full metal slimes. It was the logical endpoint of logging into DQ9 every day for sales, and checking frequently to see if a fun sidequest had become available yet. It was a time when I downloaded material maps off Gamefaqs message boards, and skulked around forums looking for alchemy recipes. There was this whole “meta game” that was a significant chunk of my life for approximately six months wherein I absorbed as much Dragon Quest 9 information from as many sources as possible. From that perspective, spending a day driving to a silly Nintendo promotion seems almost… necessary. Be glad I didn’t fly to another country or join a gang or something, Mom!

Not you againBut, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone that understands the passage of time, any kind of Dragon Quest 9 fervor eventually burned out to a mere handful of embers. All the quests were released, network services were discontinued, and, in a few short years, the idea of someone using a Nintendo DS to spotpass became as esoteric as someone using AOL to change their away message. The meat of Dragon Quest 9, the main quest and its many tangential vignettes, is always going to be there and available, but those early, tentative steps into the world of hybrid online/local multiplayer are gone forever. Sure, you can finagle a wireless modem into broadcasting the old DQ network for fun and profit, but it’s not the same. You’re never going to randomly obtain a treasure map by walking around the mall ever again (and not just because the mall closed, too). There’s never going to be another Dragon Quest 9 event at Best Buy.

So, after devoting nearly 200 hours to a videogame, I never want to play it again. Why? Because I can’t. What’s real and true and memorable about that game is gone forever, and it isn’t coming back. May as well save that file full of foreign treasure maps for future generations, and move on to something else.

Dragon Quest 9, you were an exceptional and singular Nintendo DS experience. Rest in peace, and be a beautiful, blue ghost creature forever haunting your graveyard.

FGC #514 Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

  • System: Nintendo DS. One would suppose a modern remake could rectify these issues, but then I wouldn’t be replaying the exact same game, now would I? Dragon Quest of Theseus.
  • Number of players: A whole cosmos of people… but I think only four at a time.
  • It's an innnyHey, some of these screen shots are clearly from a new playthrough: Well, yes, I did give it a try for this article. I preserved my precious save file on its cart, and attempted an emulated run of DQ9, but it only proved my hypothesis: you can’t go home again. And maybe you can’t play DQ9 after DQ11, either.
  • Speaking of Maps: The whole map system leading to unlimited, random dungeons after a game full of carefully created caves is an amazing swerve that obviously accounted for a significant amount of my playtime. That said, I was downright surprised to boot up my old cartridge and find there were a number of maps I never completed.

    Kind of redundant

    I’m sure it was just because I was too busy farming every other map in the game, but those Copper Ruins of Ruin are calling to me…

  • If you liked the MMORPG-lite features in DQ9, why don’t you play more MMORPGs? Every once in a great while, I downright enjoy getting drunk with my friends. However, that does not mean I want to become a heroin addict. I know my limits and addictions.
  • Explain your OG party member names: Robyn is my usual “female” nom de guerre, and appears often in other games. Rydia the green-haired mage requires absolutely no explanation. Felicia was initially a thief class, so she was named after a familiar Spider-Man character. And Misfit was a redhead named for another comic book character, this time a star from Gail Simone’s then-current run of Birds of Prey. I’m not certain if Misfit is still bungling around the DC Universe at this point, but someone should at least give her a try at appearing in one of the CW shows. She’d fit right in!
  • Choo chooFavorite Class: I had to work the hardest for Luminary, so that’s going to win. Also, in a game that somehow enticed me into caring about JRPG fashion, I’m always going to choose the most fashionable class.
  • Retro Challenge: There are a number of maps that feature the final bosses from previous Dragon Quest adventures. Considering I don’t think I had finished a single Dragon Quest game before DQ9’s release (does Rocket Slime count?), all of these bosses were new to me, and generally about as “nostalgic” as any other random monster. And that’s cool! It wound up encouraging me to play previous DQ titles, and now I can identify a Dhoulmagus from fifty paces.
  • Getting Around: The best airship available is a choo-choo. That is the best.
  • Did you know? As of this writing, DQ9 is the only mainline title to not see a revision/upgrade version of some kind. This is a crime.
  • Would I play again: …. Seriously?

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Castlevania: Rondo of Blood! That’s the good one! Yay! Please look forward to it!

Achoo

FGC #481 Mega Man ZX Advent

Have a mega timeI’m working on a theory here, and it’s that, despite the fact that Mega Man 9 is one of my favorite games and possibly one of the best Mega Man games ever, it also completely destroyed the Mega Man franchise.

And it all roots back to the history and evolution of Mega Man.

In 1987, there was Mega Man. The premiere of the Blue Bomber saw a robot that walks, jumps, and shoots. When he defeats a Robot Master, he gains that robot’s weapon, and can use it a limited number of times as an offensive option. This playstyle continued through the “Nintendo Years”, and saw six NES games and five Gameboy games. There were many pretenders to the Mega throne, but, by and large, Mega Man changed very little on the NES. A slide here, a mega buster there, but it all still went back to the same gameplay that was established in ’87.

In 1993, we were introduced to Mega Man X. X was, figuratively and literally, the newest model of Mega Man, and came with more than a few upgrades. He could dash. He could cling to walls. He felt more mobile than his stiff ancestor. And, on a very important but oft-ignored note, X could charge his robot master (now “Maverick”) weapons, and possessed an even greater ability mimic his opponents. Simple Mega Man would have never gained the invisibility of Sting Chameleon (Invisible Man?) from a fight, but X had the option to go incognito and fire off triple shots. Finally, “Mega Man” had an avenue to enjoy the more complicated Robot Masters that had been appearing since Wood Man first rained wicked leaves down on the battlefield.

Generations!1997’s Mega Man Legends was, unfortunately, an evolutionary dead-end for the franchise, but Mega Man X4 (released the same year) allowed a complete Zero to costar with X (he was technically playable in X3, but he was more prototype than man). The Mega Man franchise always put a particular emphasis on distance and how easily ol’ Mega could be defeated by simply bumping into an enemy, so it seemed only natural when the franchise went all in on a character that had more of an emphasis on close-range combat. And it was a change for Zero as much as anyone else! Zero used to be able to slash opponents from a distance with an armbuster and flying cut, but now he was limited to a sword’s length for combat. And it worked! Many preferred playing as the up close and personal Zero in X4 and future X titles, so it was little surprise when it was time for…

Mega Man Zero hit the scene in 2002. Once again, we had two evolutionary paths, with Mega Man Battle Network’s action/JRPG hybrid gameplay first emerging to great acclaim in 2001, and then Mega Man Zero curating the 2-D action a year later. MMZ could potentially be seen as a step back for the franchise, as singular Zero was technically more limited than X in his modular attacks, but, as the MMZ franchise evolved, Zero gained an arsenal that would put any other Mega Man to shame. And right from the beginning, it was clear that the point was never to give Zero another seventeen variations on Metal Blades, but create a smaller, tighter gameplay environment for an audience that had literally learned to walk alongside the little metal boy. Mega Man Zero’s Zero did not feel like the same upgrade we saw between Mega Man and Mega Man X, but it did offer a new, more intricate experience for the veteran Mega fan.

Seems familiar2006, four years (and ten games!) later, we received another two “sequel” franchises. Mega Man Star Force was our upgrade for Mega Man Battle Network, refining the basic gameplay and adding very important plot points about dinosaurs being killed by a lack of friendship. And, on the other side of the aisle, we got Mega Man ZX, the continuation of the Mega Man Zero franchise. In this world, the wars of Mega Man Zero eventually ended, and the heroes of that time were skinned alive and could now be worn like suits. Don’t worry! They’re still sentient “biometals”, so at least X, Zero, and all their frenemies can experience the joy/horror of being a fashion accessory for centuries! And the protagonist of Mega Man ZX watches their own personal Obi Wan die, which unlocks the ability to mega-merge the biometals of X of Z(ero). Thus, the titular Mega Man ZX is born, and they’ve got all the powers of Mega Man X and Zero. Finally! The lovers are united!

And, while the whole conceit of Mega Man ZX could have just been an excuse to give Zero a decent buster, the game really does feel like the conclusion of years of Mega Man and Zero games. Zero’s greatest strength was always its focused gameplay… but this left the hero feeling rather limited compared to his ancestors. Meanwhile, Mega Man had a thousand options for combat (or at least nine), but many of his adventures seemed overstuffed and… Sorry, the English language doesn’t yet have a phrase that translates to “too top spin-y”. But Mega Man ZX struck an excellent balance: the dedicated gameplay of the Zero franchise was here, but the options available to X were also fully integrated into every level. Mega Man ZX could “be”, essentially, Zero, or transform into a more mobile air-dasher. Or a water witch. Fireball bro. Cyber ninja. The hero’s got options! And each different form wasn’t just a matter of a slightly modified buster, they all offered unique mobility options, too. In a way, this is what was promised back in the ancient days of Rockman and his ability to mimic his opponents after a battle. Or maybe that’s just what was promised by Ruby Spears Mega Man…. Still! Whatever works!

And it must have worked well for somebody, because Mega Man ZX gained a sequel, Mega Man ZX Advent, the following year. And it advanced the Mega Man formula by being completely bonkers.

Kiss from a roseMega Man ZX Advent eschews the typical mega-sequel plan by ejecting its previous protagonist right out of the gate. What’s more, this isn’t even a situation wherein the “ZX biometal” is immediately passed to the next generation or some other similar narrative trick to explain sprite reuse. No, the hero/heroine of Mega Man ZX Advent initially acquires the A Biometal, granting them the ability to wholly copy any given biometal or pseudoroid. What does this mean? It means you can play as the bosses! No more “got a weapon” or “can play as ZX-H” or whatever, you can just straight up emulate any given boss in the game! And it doesn’t matter if the boss “is too big for most areas” or “doesn’t have legs”, you can just turn into that fish monster on land if you really want to! Worst comes to worst, you just lose a life, so don’t worry about it. You’ll figure out that being a gigantic alligator monster all the time isn’t the best choice eventually.

And, while it demolishes the tightness of Zero to make some sections of ZX Advent unerringly silly (“Quick! Turn into the twin cat-bears!”), what’s truly remarkable here is how much the player is trusted with these unwieldy toys. Mega Man Powered Up had been released the previous year, and it did its level best to make sure all of the playable Robot Masters were balanced and similar so Guts Man could (technically) conquer any challenge originally designed for Mega Man. There is no such equilibrium here: it’s a known fact that half the playable “party” cannot complete the game from beginning to end. Hell, a fraction of that group can barely even jump! But that doesn’t matter, because you can switch between forms at any time, and who needs to worry about whether Queenbee the Hymenopteroid can fit through a particular hallway? Just switch! The X button is right there! The ring menu means pausing the action isn’t too big of a deal, and you’ll be switching over to the appropriate pseudoroid with a few button presses.

And being able to cycle through a complete set of “Robot Masters” really felt like what Mega Man was always meant to be. Mega Man ZX Advent was the culmination of a full twenty years of Mega Man games.

And it turns out it really was the zenith of the franchise. There was nowhere to go but back.

The secret bonus of Mega Man ZX was the ability to play as Omega, the super-powered version of Zero that was supposed to be his original, unstoppable body (long story). The secret bonus of Mega Man ZX Advent was the ability to control Modal a (case sensitive), which…

Pew pew

Looks a little familiar.

Model a was clearly a deliberate move, as the next Mega Man title to come down the pike was Mega Man 9, a retro title released in 2008. After years of Mega Man upgrading to match the graphics of the day, this was the first Mega Man title to fully embrace the NES aesthetic, and return to (faux) 8-bits. This was the first Mega Man to not try to upgrade old titles to modern sensibilities (like Mega Man X Maverick Hunter or Mega Man Powered Up) but take gameplay back to older standards while offering new and interesting experiences. But, retro or not, Mega Man 9 was an excellent game, and, while it may not have featured a “modern” Mega Man, it was the type of experience that could only be produced by people with decades of experience in the genre.

Which is great, because Mega Man 9 was apparently the end of any experimentation in the franchise.

CHOMPSince the release of Mega Man 9, we’ve seen Mega Man 10 (another retro title) and Mega Man 11 (something a little more modern). Aside from that? Nothing. No Mega Man X, Mega Man ZX, or Mega Man Battle Network. No Mega Man: Ultra Plus or whatever could have been next for the franchise. Mega Man 9’s success seemed to cement the concept that gamers just want classic, unchanged Mega Man, and that’s what Capcom is going to keep cranking out. We’ve seen about seventeen different rereleases of Mega Man 3, but nary a peep about Mega Man Legends 3.

(And, yes, we could blame this all on Keiji Inafune, the godfather of Mega Man, leaving Capcom, but that ignores the fact that we have Mega Man 11, and it’s probable there is a reason Inafuking isn’t at Capcom anymore…)

Was Mega Man 9 a good game? Yes. Hell, it was amazing. By comparison, is Mega Man ZX Advent a bad game? Well, it’s not bad, but it is very sloppy compared to Mega Man 9 (or even Mega Man Zero 4). But it’s a lot of fun, and its experimental side is arguably what Mega Man fans have wanted all along. But since even more fans simply wanted good ol’ Mega Man, Mega Man 9 was the end of the franchise’s 20 years of experimentation. Mega Man 12 may be allowed to have a gimmick or two, but it better be the OG Mega Man, or it ain’t getting greenlit.

Mega Man 9 is my favorite game that murdered its own franchise’s creativity.

And Mega Man ZX Advent is my favorite game where you can play as Bifrost the Crocoroid.

FGC #481 Mega Man ZX Advent

  • System: Nintendo DS initially, and now available for PS4/Switch via the Mega Man Zero/ZX Collection. This game was actually chosen by Random ROB a while ago, but I decided to hold off for the modern collection. And it’s good!
  • Rock out!So you spent an entire article bitching how Capcom ignores the experimental Mega Man titles, and they just released one of the experimental Mega Man titles? Yes. Shut-up.
  • Number of players: Grey or Ashe, but only one at a time.
  • Favorite Pseudoroid: Vulturon the Condoroid is a heavy metal vulture that summons robot zombies and flies through the air strumming his murderous electric guitar. Just… just how are you supposed to compete with that? Block Man can’t touch that with a ten foot block.
  • Second Runner-Up: But all of the pseudoroids are amazing in this game. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to just phone in a number of Robot Masters that are all basic variations on a theme (like the Guardian Quartet), but we’ve got giant bees dragging around enormous hives and twin dog monsters and Metal Sonic and… Well, the list goes on for a while.
  • Say something mean: The empty rooms that can be uncovered but won’t activate until you speak to the right random Ranger to initiate a sidequest are the absolute worst. The fact that there are like 50 “golden skulltula”-style monsters to hunt down, and the quest giver is tucked away in one of the final levels is somehow even beyond the absolute worst. Some kind of… Mega Worst.
  • An end: Complete with the secret ending, the finale of Mega Man ZX Advent sets up a sequel featuring evil biometals, a turncoat leader, and an uncertain future that we know will culminate with Tron Bonne running around a sunken world. But what happens next? Who knows! Like Mega Man Legends, this branch of the Mega Man franchise never made it to a full trilogy, so here we sit waiting for more.
  • BUZZ!Did you know? Chronoforce the Xiphosuroid, the horseshoe crab-looking pseudoroid that can control time, is named for the Xiphosura order, which includes the Tachypleus tridentatus aka kabutogani. And that’s where we get the name for the Pokémon, kabuto.
  • Would I play again: Did I mention I like playing as the giant crocodile monster? Because I very much enjoy playing as the giant crocodile monster.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Gradius V for the Playstation 2! Keep your options open, Vic! Please look forward to it!

FGC #475 Contra 4

Get 'emSometimes a game isn’t the “best” in the franchise. Sometimes a game goes well beyond such an accolade. Sometimes a game is the “most” in the franchise. And, for the Contra franchise, Contra 4 is the most Contra that has ever existed.

When considering the most a franchise has ever been, you immediately realize that some franchises will literally never have a “most” entry. Final Fantasy, for instance, wildly bounces around different narratives and gameplay styles within its own releases. By the time we hit Final Fantasy 7, for instance, you could say its techno-magic world was already trite within the franchise (see FF6) or a crazy deviation from the franchise’s origins (see FF1). That gulf has only widened with time, so your “best” Final Fantasy has equal odds on containing a Ramuh that is a wizened old lightning wizard or some manner of buff centaur. They’re both valid, but also equally impossible to quantify as the definition of a feature within a franchise. Mario games are similar, as it’s very difficult to see Donkey Kong existing in even the same universe as Super Mario Odyssey (and not just because Bowser got bored and literally rebooted the universe). You’ve always got your goombas and your princesses and whatnot, but the simple act of jumping varies incredibly whether or not there are four players or black holes about. How can you say what is the most Mario when the only connecting tissue in his universe is a pair of blue overalls?

But sometimes the more iterative games are even worse. Mega Man had a very straight line through the NES era, and, even when a Mega Man title is released today, it is still very much like its forbearers. However, it seems every Mega Man title adds some new wrinkle to the formula, whether that be something like slides or armor made from dogs (well, one dog). And, while you can still subjectively choose a “best” Mega Man, the entire franchise doesn’t seem to include one title that is simply the finest of literally everything that has come before it. You won’t earn that accolade by adding gears or a dash to the preexisting gameplay. And, ultimately, that is how we define what a “most” game must be: a game that takes everything from the previous entries, cuts off the crusts, and forms an enchanting sandwich filled with only the absolute best parts.

And Contra 4 is that sandwich. And it is delicious.

… Even if it is stuffed with an overabundance of alien larvae.

Creepy CrawlyIf you hadn’t played Contra (1) in a while (which, considering Contra 4 was released in celebration of Contra’s 20th anniversary, was very likely for many people), you might be forgiven for assuming Contra 4 was some kind of remake or reimagining. Many of the familiar trappings of Contra are right there from the beginning (like a certain laser core wall or a dragon gate at the top of a waterfall [its name is Gromaides, you buffoon]), and levels do have a tendency to switch from radical 2-D to tolerable 3-D hallway-based fortresses. And there’s a giant, pulsating heart at the (an) end, too! But then you might notice there are a few items from Super Contra (3) in there, too, like a ruined cityscape ruled by an enormous alien, or a final alien monster that needs to be brain-blasted. And isn’t that giant robot straight out of Contra: Hard Corps? Black Viper from Operation C? A mountain of corpses from Shattered Soldier? Is that whole ruined city the one from Contra Force, a game absolutely no one has ever played? Holy cow, this isn’t a remake! This is everything that has ever appeared in a 2-D Contra! It’s maximum Contra!

And it’s not just about the setting, bosses, and strangely high number of gross bugs scuttling about: Contra 4 is also about condensing the Contra gameplay to its most recognizable form. The grappling hook feels like the only thing we haven’t seen before in 2-D Contra, and it vaguely feels like something that was added more for managing the dual screens of the DS. But aside from that addition? There is literally nothing here that hasn’t been seen before. Two weapons for runnin’ n’ gunnin’, a jump for alien vaulting, and your always trusty ability to duck (eat it, Mega Man) is all you need to complete this adventure. And the weapons are all basic Contra mainstays, like the laser, machine gun, or that whaddyacallit thingy that blows up real good. Grenade launcher? Crusher? Something like that. But even though everything here is familiar, it’s also its best possible self. You will not be straddled with the crappy laser of the NES version, this laser gun is the best it has ever been (and we will hear nothing of classic versions). And Spread? Your opponents have seemingly been arranged in ideal spread formations, so Spread has never felt so… right. ZAPAnd that’s how Contra 4 feels in a nutshell: there are so many situations and abilities involved that, while it’s all been done before, it is done so perfectly here that, when you hit your stride, it feels amazing. The fact that later levels are gated behind limited lives and continues is not an accident: it is a way of telling the player that the ideal way to play Contra 4 is to play it while coasting on the high of a death-defying run.

This article could just be a list of the ways Contra 4 references other Contra games. This could be a list of the ways Contra 4 refines the Contra experience that has come before. I could even do my best to note how upgrading weapons starts out impossible, and quickly becomes second nature. But, when you get right down to it, everything about that would be entirely perfunctory. In much the same way Contra 4 is the most Contra, there is no real way to explain how Contra 4 works beyond just saying “go play Contra 4”. It is Contra. It is every Contra. It’s all the good of the franchise wrapped up in one perfect little cartridge.

Contra 4 may subjectively be the best Contra game, but it is certainly objectively the most Contra game that has ever existed.

FGC #475 Contra 4

  • System: Nintendo DS. This is the only issue, as not only is the game tied to an extinct system, it is also made flawlessly for said extinct system. There was no way the dual screen-based stages were ever going to work in a WiiU tablet/television situation, and it barely works (thanks to screen dimensions) on the 3DS. And now either option barely exists anyway! Sorry, everyone I just told to play Contra 4!
  • Number of players: I’m going to assume that it’s two, but I’ve never played this game with a buddy. Maybe the two player mode isn’t great? Maybe it’s wholly perfect, too? Don’t know. Don’t care.
  • Damn bugsFavorite Character: I know it’s Wayforward being Wayforward with its female characters, but I appreciate Sheena Etranzi, the heroine of Hard Corps, appearing in Contra 4. She’s, what, the only female character in the franchise that isn’t at least partially a robot/bionoid? Is that right? Even if she winds up being “the hot blonde” on the roster, she’s still representing 51% of humanity like a champ.
  • Super Code: You can enter the Konami code to obtain some extra lives (which are rather essential when you’re starting out in this death-coaster), but code entry requires screen tapping in that familiar pattern to earn your cheat. This is simultaneously very cute and very annoying.
  • Goggle Bob Fact: I would like to stretch this article to insane lengths so I have more room for screenshots, but… that apparently isn’t happening. Damn!
  • Did you know? The boss of the city zone, Crustacean Cruiser, is eerily reminiscent of a similar giant bug boss in Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Ohme. Given that giant slug is one of my favorite fights in both franchises, I’m going to allow this random, universe-shattering homage.
  • Would I play again: This is the best Contra and one of the best Nintendo DS games available. It’s just a damned shame that the Nintendo DS isn’t so viable anymore… But I will find a way to play it all again! I swear!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Final Fantasy 9! Speaking of games that try to encompass everything that has come before, here’s the adventure of our second-favorite Saiyan in fantasy land! Please look forward to it!

The eyes have it