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FGC #468 Shovel Knight

For shovelry!Just the other day, my father walked into my kitchen, and, because I had carelessly left a fresh delivery on my kitchen counter, my dad asked what exactly he was looking at.

“What’s Shovel Knight from?”
“He’s Shovel Knight. From… Shovel Knight.”
“Oh. So is that a movie? Comic book? Comic book movie?”
“Nope, it’s a videogame.”
“Oh. Does he… uh… dig?”

Yes dad, Shovel Knight does dig. And he bounces and battles dragons and saves the love of his life and brings hope to all the people of his homey little hamlet. And he’s been around for six years, and he’s rocketed from nonexistence to possibly the most adaptable character in the last few years of gaming. And, yes, he’s a little golden amiibo that is sitting on my kitchen counter.

And considering that all happened thanks to fan support, focused marketing, and damn good gameplay, it’s hard to believe Shovel Knight’s giant blue helmet isn’t the face of gaming of the last decade.

Now, it’s an easy thing to imagine Shovel Knight sprang into existence in the Spring of 2013 when the official Shovel Knight Kickstarter kicked into high gear. Or, perhaps, you would like to attribute his creation to when Nick Wozniak and his team first pioneered the concept over a lunch “that got too serious”. But to truly understand the origins of Shovel Knight, you have to go back to the late 90’s or so. Back at the turn of the 21st Century, 2-D platforming rapidly went from “is videogames” to “oh God everything that is 2-D is trash, strike it from thine sight”. For reasons that are still mysterious to even our most learned historians (though there is a hypothesis that Gamepro may have been involved), this kind of thinking persisted through many years, causing many a beloved franchise to embrace 3-D or die. Mario 64 was a revelation, Mega Man X7… less so. But the belief that a game could not be 2-D seemed to Shinyhold fast for a decade, and the only place you could find such an experience would be in the Gameboy ghetto of game development. It’s telling that one of the most popular games of 1997 had to retreat to the portable space, while its 3-D rival of the year managed to dominate the console industry for years to come. The message to game producers was clear: you weren’t going to get anywhere with 2-D. And doubly so if you were dropping cutting edge graphics for a “retro” experience. That kind of nonsense best be relegated to some manner of easter egg. No one would every buy a retro platformer.

So it makes perfect sense that Shovel Knight’s initial fundraising goal of $75,000 was quickly surpassed, and Yacht Club collected over four times as much funding ($311,502) in less than a month’s time. Shovel Knight’s audience was starved for Shovel Knight-esque content, and, while the yolk of 3-D oppression had been shaken in the years leading to 2013, it was still a time when the prospect of something “like old Capcom games” was going to appeal to a very dedicated subset of nerds. This meant that the whole of Shovel Knight’s “bonus” content was funded before ol’ SK officially touched his first trowel, so a game crammed with amazing content was forthcoming. 14,749 people were ready for some amazing retro action that would be shared with WiiU, 3DS and PC players shortly.

And, from a gameplay perspective, Shovel Knight did not disappoint. Shovel Knight is an excellent platformer that borrows liberally from the entire NES library, but combines all those pieces to be its own exceptional Voltron. Shovel Knight’s downward stab was apparently inspired by Link, but his greatest hopping challenges seem to evoke Ducktales more than anything. And the “arc” of the quest is much more akin to Mega Man, what with clearly defined “gimmick” bosses (Propeller Knight and Gyro Man were separated at birth) and stages that rely wonderfully on their masters’ theming. And maybe that world map is supposed to suggest Super Mario Bros. 3. Or those upgrades are supposed to remind us of Samus Aran’s evolving arsenal. And there were a few items that inched closer to modern sensibilities, like the collectables that advanced replay value (often hidden in accompanying “challenge” areas), or the death system that was a lot closer to Dark Souls than Darkwing Duck. But wherever the inspirations originated, Shovel Knight combined all of its pieces to be an extraordinary experience. Join the clubAnd it didn’t hurt to see a cast of memorable characters fighting through an unforgettable tale of loss and tragedy (and eventual triumph). Wrap this all up with a host of modern “achievements”, and Shovel Knight was one of the finest games of 2014.

But it wasn’t anywhere near done.

Shovel Knight was everything anyone could want from a retro platformer, but it wasn’t the complete game that had been funded a year earlier. All of those bonus bells and whistles would gradually dribble out over the following months and years. Things like Gender/Body Swap mode was little more than a (staggering and inclusive) skin for our heroes and villains, but Plague of Shadows was practically an entirely different game labeled as merely an “expansion”. The adventure, now featuring the morally gray Plague Knight, was a whole new way to play through familiar levels, and featured an added “town area” and a few other extras (peculiarly powered by washing machines) to boot. This was released alongside a number of quick challenges for Shovel Knight, and, coupled with some new console exclusives (and, uh, additional console releases, too) like challenges from Kratos and The Battletoads, it was clear that Shovel Knight’s additional content wasn’t going to be some hastily manufactured DLC.

And let me tell you, about a year and a half later, just in time for the release of the Switch, Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment proved Shovel Knight “DLC” was going to be a lot more than a meager expansion.

Spin it!Plague of Shadows was an all-new story with an all-new character (well, all-new for control purposes), but it still saw its hero (“hero”) venture through (most of) the same levels as Shovel Knight. The new play style radically altered your options for traversal, but it was still just a game starring Luigi instead of Mario (well, Super Mario Bros. 2 Luigi, at least). Specter of Torment reused those same levels, but modified them to the point they are barely recognizable. And that’s a good thing! Specter Knight possessed his own moveset, and, rather than mere rehashes, all of his stages were modified to be challenging for that specific moveset. This made Specter of Torment a complete sequel to Shovel Knight! Well… that might be a bit of an exaggeration. Maybe it’s more akin to a romhack? Or, like the NES games Shovel Knight so adores, it’s an “old school” sequel. Almost all the same assets, but rearranged so completely as to be practically unrecognizable. A shining example of the proper way to recycle pixels.

And, oh yeah, Specter Knight is a blast to play as. He’s the Zero to Shovel Knight’s Mega Man (or… uh… Scrooge McDuck?), and really feels like he belongs in an entirely different game. Which is appropriate, as his “entirely different game” seems to only reuse the general aesthetics of its prequel/sequel. The world of Specter Knight goes to some very unexpected places (like the origins of Shovel Knight’s best gal pal), and eschews some gameplay conventions (like the world map) while picking up all new challenges (like an endless tower of pain)(and grinding! Like Sonic!). It’s still unmistakably Shovel Knight, but it’s a whole new experience through and through.

SPIN FOR YOUR LIFEAnd then, in 2019, they did the same thing again with King Knight and Shovel Knight: King of Cards. Give or take one extremely subjective card game (I hate all card games [even that one], but my understanding is that some weirdos can enjoy such a thing), King Knight’s adventure is another slam dunk. The general tone (and lighting) seems closer to its OG Shovel Knight origins, but Kingy’s quest to be king of at least something features dramatically shorter levels and more bite-sized challenges than any of the other campaigns. And that’s a refreshing change of pace that additionally gives some of the gimmicks of the previous tetralogy some room to breathe. Green goo and a bouncy-butted beetle finally get a showcase in their own, complete level! Considering the number one complaint anyone ever leveled against Shovel Knight was that its stages were too long (which, seriously, you gonna complain about there being too much game to play? Philistines), King Knight’s King of Cards is a sequel to Shovel Knight that listened to its greatest detractors. Yacht Club learned something!

And then, to top it all off, Shovel Knight dropped its own version of Smash Bros. You can control every knight! And make ‘em fight! And most of the significant NPCs are PCs now, too. So, finally, you can see who would hold ultimate victory in a battle between Mona, Baz, Mole Knight, and those purple goo monsters from the final tower. And, for being an 8-bit redux inspired by a game that originally appeared on 64-bit hardware, it’s pretty damn impressive. It can get a little confusing when you’re trying to find your sprite against similar colored backgrounds (or against similar-colored enemies), but the designs of the Shovel Knight cast compensate for a lot, so you can usually tell the difference between a Shovel Knight and a Black Knight. And if you can’t? Well, just go ahead and have fun with it. This is an 8-bit platformer fighting game, after all. It’s supposed to be about as chaotic as a bucket full of enemy crabs.

Get up thereSo that’s 3.5 games, right? We’ve got Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope and Plague of Shadows as two pretty similar experiences, but Specter of Torment, King of Cards, and Shovel Knight Showdown are all as different as Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3. Showdown is practically an entirely different genre. I’m going to call that a total of 3.5 games that all fall under the Shovel Knight umbrella.

And it all came from one Kickstarter.

And if you bought the initial Shovel Knight at launch, the whole package cost a measly twenty bucks. You’re actually rewarded for being an early adopter.

Shovel Knight is a game that seemed to last a decade with its various expansions, but, more than that, it is a shining example of what was possible for a few brief years in the 2010s. Kickstarter was an extremely popular platform earlier in the decade, and, while it produced many excellent games and projects, it is primarily recounted now by any number of fans who wound up burned by creators who had the collective managerial skills of a hamster (and not that hamster with the hardhat). Kickstarter and alike is now seen more as a generally reliable healthcare plan than a platform that might create the next game you’ll play for five years. But in the last decade, it was responsible for Shovel Knight. And the triumph of Shovel Knight paved the way for oodles of retro platformer titles. Was every retro game good? No, of course not. But they never would have seen the light of day without Shovel Knight blazing a trail. And, while this trend is likely coming to its close, the current digital marketplace does speak to Shovel Knight’s success.

And, as appropriate for a knight that came from the crowds, he has now returned to the crowds as the most cameoed newcomer of the decade:

Smash it Good!
Slash it Good!
Bonk it good

Not bad for a dude that didn’t exist when the decade started.

Shovel Knight is the 2010s distilled down to its purest, more hopeful form. It is an experience that could only come from one time in gaming’s history. And it’s a damn fine game to boot.

2010: The decade of Shovelry.

FGC #468 Shovel Knight

  • System: Whaddya got? Nintendo 3DS, WiiU, and PC to start, but eventually shovelry spread to the Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and the Amazon Fire TV (for some reason).
  • Look away!Number of Players: 2-Players was eventually patched in (with or without amiibo), and Shovel Knight Showdown is 4 players simultaneous. But most people think about the single player campaign, because Shovel Knight appeals to lonely, insomniac nerds.
  • Just play the gig, man: Did I mention the music was amazing? Because it is. Jake Kaufman seems to be responsible for the majority of amazing American soundtracks for the decade, and the addition of one of Mega Man’s composers is just the perfect addition. The fact that every song gets a little in-game director’s commentary is pretty boss, too.
  • Favorite System: Shovel Knight appeared across multiple platforms, but the 3DS version still might be the best. It has 3-D and the ability to quickly switch between items (or whatever they’re called in the version du jour). Battletoads are no substitute for being able to avoid a pause menu.
  • Lucasian Problems: Kudos to Shovel Knight’s team for not returning to Shovel of Hope with every update to “backdate” changes from later expansions. It would be the easiest thing in the world to sneak in “remake” NPCs that allude to what happens in other knights’ adventures (or, hell, advertise those experiences), but Shovel of Hope remains unmolested and devoid of unnecessary changes. Thank you for the restraint.
  • Favorite Character: Percy the Horse Scholar. I will not be accepting questions at this time.
  • Go Toads!Amiibo Corner: Naturally, I preordered the Order of No Quarter amiibos when they were first announced. That was in the fall of 2017. They were released in December of 2019. That might be the longest preorder for a videogame-related item I’ve ever maintained. Good thing I still care about collecting every damn amiibo in existence!
  • Say something mean: Propeller Knight’s stage is the worst in every version/adventure. This isn’t because of the frequent bottomless pits (though, admittedly, that do not help); it’s the auto scrolling areas, and spots that may as well be auto scrolling because you need to wait for a cannonball or wind gust. I hate waiting! I want to run! Don’t hold me down, Propeller Knight!
  • Did you know? Shovel Knight is almost a NES game… though it does include three additional audio channels and four extra colors not available to original Nintendo Entertainment System hardware. There are some other “tweaks” here and there, too, but what’s important is that the screen shakes during explosions unmistakably like in an old school game.
  • Would I play again: Absolutely. This is the cream of the crop for 2-D platformers, and I love me some 2-D platformers. Long may his shovel reign!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Pokémon Sword for the Nintendo Switch! … Yeah… that was a totally random choice, and not the result of me putting a hundred hours into the thing over the last few months… Yeeeep! Gonna be a totally randomly chosen modern game next week! Please look forward to it!

Shake it

FGC #462 Soulcalibur 6

The soul is up to somethingWho is Soulcalibur 6 for?

Okay, it’s for fighting game players. It’s a great fighting game! But let’s ask the important question: who is Soulcalibur 6’s story for?

Soul Edge/Blade started with a remarkably simple plot: there’s a super powerful sword, it’s super evil, and a ghost pirate done got his hands on it. Everybody fight! Maybe your character wants the sword for their own evil desires, maybe they want to destroy the sword, or maybe they’re just an S&M daddy that wants a new toy. Whatever the case, Soul Edge had a straightforward story with clear, understandable motivations for the fighters. Soulcalibur, Soul Edge’s sequel and the first official Soulcalibur game, picked up the story from Soul Edge’s logical endpoint: one hero succeeded in shattering the evil blade, but one villain grabbed the other half. Now there’s a demon knight running around with a damaged super weapon, and some rejects from Journey to the West are doing their best to deliver the secret good version of Soul Edge (the titular Soul Calibur) straight into that Nightmare’s heart. And they succeeded! And that’s the very moment things got stagnant.

The Soulcalibur franchise fell into the same trap as many of its fighting game contemporaries. Apparently, once you hit the sequel, you firm up your final boss, and you constantly warp the plot around that character whether it makes the tiniest bit of sense or not. Street Fighter 2 gave us M. Bison, the dictator that revives for the finale of every other Street Fighter adventure. Shao Kahn surfaced with Mortal Kombat 2, and his abs won the award for most present final boss in the franchise. Even Soulcalibur’s sister series, Tekken, introduced Devil Kazuya with its second installment, and that damn “devil gene” has been driving the plot (nowhere) ever since. It’s a weird coincidence, but it seems that the second installment in many fighting game franchises focuses on a villain that must A. be killed and B. return endlessly. And any X-Men fan can tell you that you can only come back from the dead so many times before the plot starts to get a little stale.

This gonna be goodBut come back from the dead is exactly what Nightmare did in Soulcalibur 2. Nightmare was vanquished during the finale of SC, but, four years later, he got better, and Siggy was forced to once again rampage across the countryside while the usual suspects stabbed him a whole bunch. Soulcalibur 3 saw Nightmare return again, but this time there was an immortal older dude who knew more about the history of Soul Edge than any of the usual players, so his “possessed form” was promoted to final boss. Soulcalibur 4 saw Nightmare return again, but this time there was an even older immortal older dude who knew more about the history of Soul Edge than any of the usual players, so he was promoted to final boss. Hrm, seem to be in a bit of a rut here, so let’s see if Soulcalibur 5 can squeeze in some new material.

Soulcalibur 5 turned the entire paradigm on its head. Yes, Nightmare/Soul Edge was still ultimately the source of everyone’s woes, but the storyline generally focused on the war between the children of Sophitia, a heroine that had been around since the first adventure. It seems one of her kids was a little bit possessed by evil, and her other child was a little possessed by being a prat. And, unfortunately, the fate of the world rests on whether or not these two goobers can reconcile their differences and battle a malevolent ghost version of their mom. That’s new! And different! And all it took to get there was scrapping the majority of the beloved roster, replacing them with “legacy” characters that are increasingly ridiculous (the cool and calculating ninja was swapped for Hannah Montana), and maybe introducing a werewolf or two. And it was all a resounding success! … Wait, no, sorry, I’m receiving word that… Yes, it appears Soulcalibur 5 took the greatest risks ever seen in the franchise, and thus did it kill the franchise. Whoopsidoodle.

Yes, I know it's a mirrorSo Soulcalibur 6 was in a bit of a pickle at its planning stages. Soulcalibur needed to bring back the fans that Soulcalibur 5 had so carelessly lost with its fortunetellers and Gokus, but it also needed to do something new. This was an all-new, all different generation of gaming hardware, and the world had changed since the release of Soulcalibur 5. Six years! Do you know how many Assassin’s Creeds came out in that time? And fighting games were actually relevant again! There is so much potential in a Soulcalibur 6 that pushes the envelope even further than Soulcalibur 5. An all new roster! An all new epoch! Tell the whole story of the first wielder of Soul Edge! Tell us what happens generations after the fighters we know! The only plot constraint is wedging a magical sword in there, and, let’s face it, magical swords are already part of every plot! I’m pretty sure Romeo & Juliet were talking about Excalibur somewhere in that play…

Unfortunately, Soulcalibur 6 decided it wasn’t going to try something new. Here’s a roster of extremely familiar faces, two new fighters for the sake of saying there’s something new at all, and the exact same plot as Soulcalibur (1). Everyone liked Soulcalibur, right? It was the best one? Yes, of course. And, ultimately, what’s the problem with rehashing an old plot? “New” Super Mario is always just saving the princess, why can’t we just have a Soulcalibur where everyone is fighting Nightmare like the first time? It’s not like a fighting game even really needs a plot!

And that stands to reason, but here’s Soulcalibur 6’s Soul Chronicle mode. Its inclusion is… confusing.

Soul Chronicle mode is, ultimately, the game’s typical “story mode”. This is where you choose your fighter, and see exactly what they were up to during this game’s general eon. There is a base story that tells the tale of the main protagonists of the piece (staff boy, nunchuck dandy, and the cheerleader) and how they eventually defeated Nightmare and his vaguely threatening army of lizards, golems, and fetishists. And, yes, there are accounts for each individual fighter, which is a boon for anyone that needs to know exactly what a wandering swordsman was up to during the feudal era (fun fact: he was wandering around having swordfights). Even if it’s a story that we’ve heard before, this all has the potential to be very interesting for a Soulcalibur aficionado.

Or at least it would be interesting if it wasn’t 90% this…

Let's chat

For those of you that don’t feel like squinting at that parade of modern, tiny fonts, that’s a scene where a beloved (technically) ally is sneak-stabbed by the villain of the story. That’s a pretty dramatic moment! And it’s entirely conveyed through text boxes, characters portraits, and the screen flashing a different color (red is bad). This is visual storytelling that could have been rendered for Ninja Gaiden, and seems just a tweak phoned-in a solid thirty years later. And it’s all the more distressing when you consider that Soulcalibur 6 is capable of some really great storytelling in special moves that last ten seconds

Let's fight!

There! Even without sound, there’s absolutely everything you need to know about this version of Xianghua. She’s got a cool sword, she’s elegant and skilled with said cool sword, and she’s a bit of a goofball. Her entire storymode adds up to the same result, but why waste a half hour with talking heads spewing tortuous dialogue when you can get the same result in less time than it takes to read one of my meandering articles? And it’s not like Soul Chronicle is enhanced by the gameplay of occasionally throwing in a battle here and there: Zasalamel’s story mode is just him reading Soul Edge’s Wikipedia entries in his palatial library, and he seriously never leaves his chair. Dude wields a scythe the size of a small farm animal, and he doesn’t even touch the thing, because, oh man, did you click on this hyperlink about King Algol? Totally interesting stuff!

So if Soulcalibur 6 has the exact same plot as Soulcalibur 1, and it didn’t improve the presentation of that story beyond something that could have been seen on the Dreamcast (or possibly an NES), then why did they even bother? Even if much of the presentation is lackluster, why go to all the trouble of hiring actors to read these lines? Why write this dialogue, or make these character portraits? Why bother telling the exact same story in an inferior way when you can just pull a Zasalamel and spend a solid hour reading the Soulcalibur Wiki? Who needs a rehash of Soulcalibur when Soulcalibur is right there!?

And then it occurred to me: I’m an idiot.

…Wait, let me try that again…

And then it occurred to me: Soulcalibur isn’t right there. Soulcalibur is nowhere. Soulcalibur 6 is the perfect entry point for new fans. And that’s exactly what Soulcalibur needs.

Here we goThe original Soulcalibur was released in the arcade in 1998, and hit the poor, doomed Dreamcast in 1999. It saw a rerelease on Xbox 360 in 2008, and apparently most recently appeared on Android devices in 2013 (with a controller-screen overlay that my brain refuses to understand). Even claiming that a cell phone version of Soulcalibur is a viable solution for anyone, the most recent release of Soulcalibur occurred five years before the release of Soulcalibur 6. And the version of Soulcalibur that gets the veteran players (including myself) all hot and bothered? That’s twenty years old. Soulcalibur is nearly old enough to drink. And it probably should drink, because, as you’ve already read, its plot from that point on somehow became equal parts convoluted and trite. So, rather than play two decades worth of outdated games, why not let the new fans catch up through their own all-new story mode. Why not give the fresh fans something to enjoy?

Soulcalibur 6 didn’t repeat Soulcalibur to give its practiced fans the warm fuzzies. Soulcalibur 6 was made to invite new fans to the table. Soulcalibur 6 is the ever-dreaded reboot, but it is a reboot in pursuit of strengthening a failing fanbase. And, considering that (as of this writing) we are entering an unforeseen Season 2 of DLC, it seems to have done the trick. Soulcalibur 6 isn’t the most revolutionary Soulcalibur title, but it has succeeded where others have failed.

Who is Soulcalibur 6 for? Fans old and new.

… Just don’t let the olds get too mad at the story mode being familiar.

FGC #462 Soulcalibur 6

  • System: Playstation 4 and Xbox One. A Switch version is just too much to ask for, I suppose.
  • Number of players: Rhymes with “Lou Sayers”.
  • READ A BOOKNot Just a Reboot: Okay, technically the story of Soulcalibur 6 isn’t just Soulcalibur 1 all over again, it is actually the story of a Star Trek 2009 situation wherein a future character (or two) is muddying the timeline to prevent the narrative dead-end of Soulcalibur 5 from ever happening. However, unlike in Star Trek or Mortal Kombat 9, this opportunity for a whole new story is principally wasted, and the “real” plot plays out exactly the same (give or take Kilik going super saiyan). About the only changes here are that Zasamel is now not going to become a complete screw up (though that wouldn’t have happened until a later game anyway), and Cassandra got started on her quest a little early. Actually, there are a few other fighters that “show up early” in this version of Soulcalibur, but, complete with age discrepancies, those seem more like retcons than actual timeline changes. Time travel or no, the plot synopsis for Soulcalibur 6 is just a copy and paste from Soulcalibur 1.
  • But there is an original story, too: Libra of the Soul features your own Create-a-Character (though not your Create-a-Character from any other mode, for some reason) fighting in an epic war between the two new characters, Another Sword Guy and Fabulous Rasputin. It’s also presented in a manner that is boring as hell. And it seems to have a healthy amount of tutorials, too. That would be great if your first thought on booting a new game is to get right into playing as Original Character, and not, ya know, going to town in the ol’ arcade mode with familiar faces. Still, good try? Maybe?
  • It's a comics thingBut what about Create-a-Character: Oh, that is aces. Nothing beats the Soulcalibur customization options… anywhere? In fact, it’s kind of weird that other games haven’t adapted what Soulcalibur did perfectly for like three games running. No matter, my only concern right now is whether I should name my long-haired, super bulky YoRaHa android “Chub-B” or “2-XL”.
  • Favorite Fighter: Seung-Mina conceptually, but I’ve been having a lot of fun with the final DLC character of Season 1, Cassandra. She’s like if Sophitia wasn’t inexplicably sad all the time.
  • Did you know: The internal project title for Soulcalibur 6 was “Luxor”, because the staff had the plan to make the game “brighter” like the original Soulcalibur. You know, the game where a man who murdered his father gains the ultimate murder sword and then murders half of Europe with a literally unquenchable bloodlust (for murder). Freaking sunshine and lollipops in this franchise from day one.
  • Would I play again: I’m playing it right now! Stop interrupting!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Kirby’s Dreamland 3 for the Super Nintendo! Does… does this count as Thanksgiving content? Maybe? Or maybe I’m just hungry. Well, I know Kirby is hungry, so please look forward to it!

I like purple
I’m leaning toward Chub-B.

FGC #461 Space Harrier

GET READYLet’s give credit where credit is due: credits suck.

Space Harrier is a fun game. At its absolute most “please define this game”, it is a shoot ‘em up of the general fantasy/space variety. However, when you actually grip that special flight stick and start jetpacking around and obliterating dragons, you realize this is something unlike anything else in the arcade. The perspective is “3-D”, a stark change from the other shooters of 1985 and beyond, and there’s just some indescribable something about the sheer rush of adrenaline one experiences when whistling through rapidly scaling rocks and mammoths. Maybe it’s the unusual choice of nixing the typical spaceship or jet and featuring a flying beach bum. Maybe it’s battling absurd and alien monsters that are vaguely enigmatic but wholly murderous. Or maybe, as ever, it’s the moai heads. Whatever the reason, Space Harrier is an incredible experience, even now, as the game approaches its 35th anniversary.

And speaking of things in their thirties, I had the pleasure of playing Space Harrier in my local arcade a number of times as a child. It wasn’t my favorite game (by the time I had a disposable income [my grandfather’s wallet], some certain turtles had already drawn my attention), but Space Harrier held my interest for a number of play sessions. I wasn’t actually any good at Space Harrier, but something told me I should return to that cabinet every once in a while when Magneto or Shredder was defeated. I never saw the final level (let’s be honest, despite the unwavering belief of the adults in my life, I was not actually all that good at videogames as a child), but I did find my way to at least one bonus stage that seemed to reprise the best parts of The Never Ending Story. That was enough for me! Time to go play some Pac-Man before I retire for my afternoon nap.

WeeeeeeBut just because I didn’t beat it didn’t mean I didn’t want to beat it. My grandfather’s quarters may have seemed unlimited, but hours at the arcade were at a premium. I only had time for the best of the best, and, let’s face it, how was a game that was already nearly a decade old going to compete with Konami’s The Simpsons? What would have been ideal for a Wee Goggle Bob was a perfect port of that sweet, Space Harrier goodness. Okay, maybe “perfect” was asking for a bit too much. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Arcade Game was pretty great! It may have had compromised graphics, but it was still something I could play at home with Jimmy on a Saturday afternoon. And it had two extra levels! Yes! A port of Space Harrier might have had to ditch the delightful graphics and controller of the arcade release, but it would be worth it to finally see the Fantasy Zone conquered if a home port could bring home the action.

Actually, strike that. There was a Master System port of Space Harrier, and it was barely recognizable. It tried to hoist a plot onto this nonsense! You can’t do that, Sega! I want to obliterate skeletal dragons divorced from any sort of stakes! … Oh, also the graphics were terrible.

And, like Nintendo of America, we’re not even going to acknowledge the NES version.

But! Space Harrier did get a “real” port in 1994. By that time, Sega home hardware had progressed to the incredible graphics of the 32X, and we were granted the most accurate port of Space Harrier yet available. And there was much rejoicing! This was distinctly Space Harrier, complete with huge sprites, detailed backgrounds, and that unmistakable feeling of adrenaline as your lil’ dude zooms over the horizon. Maybe dig out an appropriate controller, and this is truly an arcade experience that, after nearly a decade, finally makes it way home.

Except you won’t see anything past the third stage.

Rock 'n RollThere are eighteen levels in Space Harrier. There are a couple of bonus stages in there, but, aside from that occasional Flammy ride, every thing in every stage is trying to kill you every second. Bosses are bullet sponges, mundane mooks are menacing many minutes, and even inanimate objects are instantaneously fatal at the slimmest contact (though, granted, ol’ Spacey is moving pretty fast). There are no distinct power ups in Space Harrier, so the best you can hope for is temporary invincibility after a lethal collision. A new life grants you a few seconds of sanctuary, but after that grace period is terminated, you could die in every Space Harrier stage literally every five seconds. And suffice to say, if that’s your playstyle, you’re going to need a lot of quarters to see the boss parade finale.

The 32X “arcade perfect” version of Space Harrier offers… five. Five credits. Max.

Not to be constrained by the limits imposed by Sega executives of 1994, your humble author decided to try the real arcade version with unlimited quarters. The results? Even as a seasoned future gamer from the far-flung future of 2019, even as someone who has been playing shoot ‘em ups from birth, even as someone that is a registered cyborg (okay, maybe not really, but I strongly believe that the number of hours I’ve spent with a controller welded to my hands should count for at least partial credit) I still averaged about one or two deaths per level. To be clear, I very much mean “averaged” here, as some of the earlier stages saw me zooming unmolested through the skies as Koschei the Deathless, and other fantasy zones ended with a cavalcade of credit-based corpses scattered across the land. The final stage, a grueling boss gauntlet, was obviously a quarter killer, but, aside from that bit of digital malice, Space Harrier seems like a very doable game with approximately 35 credits. That would be nearly ten bucks worth of quarters in 1985 credits. That, arguably, seems fair.

TOO FASTSpace Harrier 32X allows for five credits. That is about thirty less than I would need. If my mother were playing this wonderful game, that would be about three hundred less than she would need. And that’s ignoring the final boss gauntlet, which, even for a seasoned veteran, would likely require a fiver all on its own. In short: your average player isn’t seeing the end of Space Harrier on five credits. Your average player might not even see the second level.

And that’s terrible! Because Space Harrier is good! And, while it is a bit repetitive in general gameplay, it’s still a game that literally never stops throwing new challenges and monsters at the player until the finale. Up to that point, every stage is different from the last, and the difficulty progressively ramps up to compensate for a more confident player. It’s not like Space Harrier ever turns into Battletoads, but greater challenges do wait on later levels.

But the average player would never see those levels. Limited credits meant that a game had to be grinded into a fine paste until a player had the skill to perfectly fly across level after level. And, even if that were achieved, you still only had a handful of lives to conquer the final challenges. That bone-dragon come out of nowhere and wreck your perfect playthrough? Well, welcome back to level one, loser, get ready. You’re doing great (wasting your life)!

AH!Credits, luckily, have gone the way of the dodo in recent decades. As arcade games (and arcades!) fell out of favor, less and less games seemed to exist to gobble up quarters. Credits were forgotten for loot boxes, DLC, and loot box DLC. Companies found new and exciting ways to fleece customers, usually with items that contain the adjective “rare” (“legendary” is also acceptable). And, ultimately, we’re better for it. A Space Harrier released today might include suspend state saves or infinite credits detracting from the inherent challenge or tension of the experience, but it would allow your ailing granny to actually see Planet Nark and Wi Wi Jumbo. And that’s a privilege everyone should have, regardless of skill, reflexes, or whether or not you own an entire camel full of quarters. Credits are a scourge on allowing someone to enjoy an entire game.

And before anyone wants to tell me that I’m wasting my time, and I may as well be railing against polio or wooly mammoths, let me remind you that Neo Geo emulation with credits is still a thing. A horrible, horrible thing.

Limited credits need to stay firmly in the dustbin of history.

FGC #461 Space Harrier

  • System: Arcade and 32X for this review, but it has also appeared on… Didn’t I cover this as part of the article? I am not going to repeat myself! But do pick up the 3DS version! Switch also available!
  • Number of players: Space is a great big place that can only fit one Harrier at a time.
  • Ready? Many more battle scenes will soon be available !
  • Stop Complaining: Yes, the 32X version does have an “arcade mode” code that offers infinite credits. But it requires a second player controller and an immediate stop over at Gamefaqs (or Sega Visions). I’m going to claim that doesn’t count, because I couldn’t be bothered to check for cheats online before playing (now or in the 90’s).
  • This guyWhat’s in a name: Uriah is the fuzzy, white dragon that helps during bonus stages. That is a weirdly biblical name for a magical reptile (or mammal?). David married your wife, dragon!
  • We’re all friends: The title screen seems to imply that, like Altered Beast, all the characters are friends when the game isn’t in session. All the game’s a stage, and the players merely… players.
  • Favorite Boss: For inexplicable reasons, the double skeleton dragon (Salpedon) appears before the single-skulled skeleton dragon (Valda). I don’t know what makes Valda so special, thinking he can show up with a mere one head when his better has already appeared in an earlier level, but that takes guts, and I respect that.
  • Did you know? Considering Space Harrier was one of the first 16-bit titles in the arcade, and it used a vaguely analogue-esque “stick” for controls, it would be very appropriate to say Space Harrier was ahead of its time. Considering Space Harrier was released the same year as Commando (not Bionic) and Gauntlet, you can see why Space Harrier’s gorgeous purple skies caught players’ eyes.
  • Would I play again: On the 32X? Never. The arcade version (with infinite credits)? That sounds about right.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… SoulCalibur 6! And the soul appears to still be burning. Maybe someone should put that out? Please look forward to it!

I hate these bugs

FGC #460 Final Fantasy Legend 3

Stay dampHow the hell do you screw up friggin’ time travel!?

Okay, to be clear, we’re not talking about how do you screw up while time traveling. A healthy 80% of all time travel fiction is based entirely on this concept, and, give or take a Time Cop, that’s always a good time. It’s the human condition, right? You go back in time with your intricate future knowledge of how you’re going to make everything better, make a few changes here and there, and Bob’s your uncle, Hitler is president. Whoops! I think we all learned a valuable lesson about not messing with the natural order of things (and I would seriously like to speak to whichever time traveler is responsible for our current political situation).

No, what we’re focusing on today is how you mess up a story that involves time travel. After all, time travel is one of the best tropes in all of storytelling. Want to change the past? Duh! We all do! But changing the past (and hopefully avoiding Hitler) isn’t the only option available with time travel. Want to see the future? Or drop that text book, and experience the past like a tourist? Or how about traveling through time to prevent a “bad future”? Did anyone order a child from an alternate timeline? Hell, let’s go nuts, screw up the timeline, and see an alternate reality where bad is good and good is wearing ill-fitting leather. Time travel opens the door to any number of wonderful tropes and stories! And leather!

FIGHT!And let me tell you a secret about time travel stories: don’t ever try to figure them out. Time travel is always, always going to be a complete mishmash of conflicting ideas and contradictions with the very concept of cause and effect. And that’s fine! It’s time travel! It breaks all the physical rules of the universe, it may as well also cause a broken brain. So don’t bother trying to figure out how there can be more than one Trunks at one time, or how you can’t wrap a gun in beef shank and bring it to the past, or why the hell bringing a teenager on a time travel expedition would ever make sense. It’s all just nonsense from the moment someone goes back to the future, and you’re expected to not think too hard about how Bruce Banner accidentally invented the fountain of youth while trying to quantum leap. You can’t ruin time travel by not properly following the rules for a fictional event. Time travel is the Wild West of storytelling, and you’re perfectly justified in claiming that if two time travelers kiss, they instantly become horny lizards or something. It’s cool! That’s just how time travel works in this universe, and they’re going to have a wonderful little reptilian family. Be happy for the lizards!

And time travel can be amazing in videogames. Videogame narratives by their very nature must be linear. You can have a flashback in Lost, Breaking Bad, or [please insert name of show that premiered in the last decade], but that simply doesn’t work in a videogame. If Mega Man has a “flashback level” to before the adventure started, he’ll lose all his sweet robot master weapons and extra lives. And that just wouldn’t do! It’s even worse in JRPGs, where experience is key, and your character must start at level zero. A flashback in a JRPG would never fly, because your hero has to start as a blank slate, or, at the very least, an inexperienced townie. Seeing some “ten years earlier” with a child that somehow knows Ultima is not even a possibility.

WORM!But time travel? That’s how you meet the past. Swing on back, take your time in a special dungeon or town, and meet all the villains before they became corrupted by malevolent fog. Or use time travel in new and interesting ways, like by changing subtle items in the past to greatly influence the future. Plant some beans. Break some walls. Distract the guy building the wall. Time travel opens all sorts of avenues. And in your better games, time travel offers entire worlds. Here’s the craptastic present, an even more rotten future, and a glorious past that you can restore with a little elbow grease (and giant swords). But at least there are lasers in the future! That should help you save the day. Just remember to take your time and explore every nook and cranny to discover the difference between these disparate time periods!

Final Fantasy Legend 3 seems to present itself as such. Right from the start, you are introduced to our quartet of heroes, three of which hail from a future approximately fifteen years ahead. Our fourth warrior is a woman from the present, where the rest of the gang has been raised and trained after being smuggled back with the aid of a mutant professor and his time machine. Everyone is informed that the world is being flooded by a nebulous evil god/master (pick your translation), and it is now their job to travel between the past, present, and future to find enough pieces of that time machine to lift off and launch a missile right into this damp god’s face. And that’s a great excuse for an adventure! It promises three different time periods (and thus three different worlds) all in the midst of this forever flood. And, bonus, as the game progresses, we’re also granted the ability to dive beneath the waves, so there’s a full trio of underwater “worlds”, too. Let’s see how that coral reef has developed over thirty years!

So it’s kind of a shame when it all turns out to be bullshit.

Painful!Here’s the basic flow of Final Fantasy Legend 3: You start in the Present, and venture through a tower. This grants you the ability to go back in time. Now you can participate in a rescue mission in the Past that guarantees an old lady and a young girl will be alive in the future (present). Back to the Present, and it’s time to waddle around another tower or two. This allows travel to the Future, where some helpful future townsfolk grant the ability to access a floating continent. The floating continent, you’re told, does not have “time”, so it is an area that does not have a past, present, or future. Then it’s off to Heaven (Pureland) and Hell (Underworld), which are under similar time restrictions. These three areas (Floatland, Pureland, and Underworld) contain a healthy 60%-75% of the dungeons in the game, and, as part of the finale, they’re going to be the largest/longest dungeons as well.

Did you see what happened there? This is a story that introduces a time machine from the first moment, and then doesn’t even use the damn thing for at least half the game!

That’s how you screw up a time travel story, dear readers. If you’ve got a time machine, and you’re not using it, you’re doing something wrong. Use all the toys in your toy chest, and never turn your time machine into a glorified airship. Final Fantasy Legend 3 dropped the ball, but you don’t have to.

But if you do mess up, just go back in time and try again. At least it would make a good story.

FGC #460 Final Fantasy Legend 3

  • System: Gameboy. There were actually two different versions, one published by Square in 1993, and another rereleased by Sunsoft in 1998 (because a certain game made Final Fantasy a tweak more popular). Both versions are exactly the same, give or take some terrible cartridge art.
  • Number of players: Four party members, one consistent guest character, but only one player.
  • So mysticMaybe actually talk about the game for a second: Disappointing plot aside, Final Fantasy Legend 3 is easily the most accessible of the Final Fantasy Legend titles. This makes sense, as this is right about when this “version” of SaGa branched off to form Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, and SaGa continued on in a different form on the Playstation 1. Or at least that’s how I remember it. Regardless, this is the rare SaGa/FFL game that doesn’t require a friggen chart to map out character progression, so it’s fun for a girl or a boy.
  • But the equipment system still sucks, right? Oh my yes. I might cheat my way into perfect stats just so I never have to manage the inventory ever again.
  • Favorite… form? You have a lot of options for character customization. No, wait, scratch that. You have a lot of options for whether you would like your party to devour gears and cogs to become robots. Or you can eat a hunk of meat and become a man-bat. You’ve got options. Regardless, the worm is the best choice, as he’s a friendly looking lil’ dude. For a monster.
  • Did you know? There was a DS remake of FFL3, and it never made its way over to Western shores. But some dedicated fans translated SaGa 3 Jiku no Hasha: Shadow or Light, and now you can play the dang thing in English. Hooray for our side! Literally!
  • Would I play again: I want to say there is a JRPG from the 90’s that uses time travel a little more effectively, so I’ll pass on this legendary adventure.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Space Harrier for the 32X! That’s going to be a mammoth of a good time. Please look forward to it!

CHOMP