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FGC #607 Metroid

PRAY FOR PEACE IN SPACESamus Aran has been described as “The Hunter”. She has been described as a mobile tank. She was been described as the ultimate warrior. She has been described as the most powerful woman in the Nintendo pantheon.

And, after all that, I think a great Metroid game makes Samus Aran a bimbo.

My first Metroid was Metroid 1. I have three huge, unforgettable memories of Metroid from when I was a Wee Goggle Bob:

  1. The Ice Beam is so much better than the Wave Beam that, to this day, I still see the Wave Beam as a punishment/threat akin to those birds in Ninja Gaiden.
  2. Kraid is a giant pain in the ass (even when not giant).
  3. The Screw Attack was a boon like no other.

And to be clear on that final point, it is hard to describe the Screw Attack to someone who didn’t only ever play games like Super Mario Bros. (and its many contemporary clones) or Mega Man 2 for comparison. I remember distinctly describing “imagine you got a star man every time you jumped” to other kids that had not been able to make it through the caverns of Zebes. And did the screw attack actually serve the same purpose as a star man’s familiar invincibility? No. But it changed Samus for the better, and allowed her to sail through a number of monsters that previously would wreck her day. Whatever you consider the true final challenge of Metroid 1 to be (either an immobile brain in a lava factory or a dungeon full of jellyfish), the screw attack barely helps. But for actually adventuring through the other 90% of the game? Eat it, ripper that could otherwise soak 100 missiles, Samus Aran coming through, and you better get out of the way or be diced into your component pixels!

This seems dirtyAnd that feeling has never left my relative enjoyment of Metroid. In fact, I would argue that it is the main difference between Castlevania and Metroid titles. In a Castlevania game, you are constantly accruing new abilities and skills, but, by and large, it is a ladder system, and the bosses are climbing the rungs as you trade a +1 sword for a +2 sword/bat transformation. You are expected to graduate with these skills in the regular encounters just as much as the bosses that now have patterns that account for wolf forms. However, in a Metroid game, you get new skills, but are primarily improving what you have (practically) from the beginning. There are no gradually developing swords to find, just more missiles. Or more super bombs. Or more e-tanks. And the bosses are not 100% tests of skill, but gateways to confirm you have collected enough missiles, e-tanks, or whatever Samus has to find this mission. Can they be beaten with skill, precision, and a charge beam? Yes, but it feels more like they have 100 missiles of health because you are supposed to have 100 missiles by now. And you need those “gatekeeper” bosses, because otherwise you would just screw attack through everything straight to Mother Brain. And somebody has got to be a boss around here!

And that is ultimately what I want from a Metroid game. I do not need the difficulty to escalate as I venture further. I want it to get easier. I want Samus to become dumber, because she has upgraded her pea shooter to launch 50 continuous super missiles that are capable of literally rocking the planet. When Samus has 30 energy dots and the ability to transform into a cowardly ball, she should be precise and technical in all encounters. When she has more e-tanks than she knows what to do with and is blasting deadly rainbows out of her arm, she can soak a few hits while bad guys explode.

And if you still want a challenge? Then you have the option to not pick up that e-tank or missile expansion. Super Metroid‘s “would you like to turn off your screw attack” menu is poison to my playstyle, but it is an option. You can have a difficult trek through Zebes if you would like. “Challenge runs” are aptly named, but by no means required.

BLOW IT UPAnd speaking of Super Metroid, the original Metroid only included the Screw Attack, but Super Metroid upgraded everything down to Samus’s sneezes to be wholly homicidal. Jumping kills with the Screw Attack, running kills with the Speed Booster, and you can literally fly-dash-kill with the (slightly draining) Shinespark ability. And this is all before the finale of Super Metroid sees Samus gain a revenge beam that is capable of obliterating wall and brainnosaurus rex alike.

And it is interesting to consider what it means for Samus Aran when her ultimate goal is becoming practically invincible. Right from the start of Metroid, Samus’s abilities are some of the sharpest on the NES. Mega Man cannot duck, but Samus can roll into a ball to become a mobile, pint-sized target. Simon Belmont’s single-arc jump is one of the most perilous moves in his arsenal, while Samus has more air mobility than some birds (she takes after her dad). Mario can toss off bouncing balls, Samus can rapidly acquire beams that cover the length of the screen, freeze opponents, and/or travel straight through any object. Samus Aran is a formidable opponent from an era when most heroes could nary dream of having the mobility afforded by a Chozo costume. But once she has maximum missiles, energy tanks, and enough bird artifacts to soak a mortar shell? Well, then, who cares? She can just wade in lava like a toad (that enjoys a remarkably warm bath) and murder her parents’ killer by wave beaming through the floor.

NO PTSD FOR YOUAnd speaking of Ridley, that space dragon may exemplify this philosophy even more than the hyper beam. Meta Ridley of the Prime franchise may be sporting enhancements and brains, but “regular” Ridley is consistently all teeth, nails, and a tail that is 100% spikes by volume. By Super Metroid, Ridley is clawing and slashing and fighting like a wounded animal. There is no pattern to discern, no “phases” to go through. He is just a monster that may or may not eat your family, as there is no deeper Ridley to Ridley. This doesn’t work for everyone in this or any other game (Dracula would never sully his cape by fighting like that), but this is what it is to fight a bear… or The Incredible Hulk. Ridley is trying anything that works, and Samus is standing solid and using everything she’s got as her only defense. This kind of sucks from a videogame design perspective, but that “I just got lucky” feeling after Ridley finally explodes really works for why Ridley is memorable.

The best way to beat a brainless monster is to be a brainless monster.

So, yes, I want Samus Aran to be a bimbo by the time she reaches the end of her quest. After acquiring a PHD in Zebethian lost technology, I want Samus to be a big, dumb clod that will not get out of the way of a rinka while shoveling missiles into a jar. I want the last stand of Samus Aran to be the final flickering of her ultimate brain cell. A gibbering nincompoop could eradicate the Metroid menace with all those upgrades, and I want to play as that nincompoop.

And if Samus has to think about performing a single counter? That’s some other heroine. Samus is too dummy thicc with power to fit in with any of that rubbish.

FGC #607 Metroid

  • I don't understandSystem: Nintendo Entertainment System, but mostly played through e-reader in some version of Animal Crossing. Or maybe I am thinking of the version that was unlockable in Metroid Fusion? Or the GBA classic reissue? Look, it is on practically every Nintendo system ever created, save the Super Nintendo and N64.
  • Number of players: Samus does not encounter a single living thing that is not trying to kill her on Zebes, so only one player.
  • Favorite Powerup: You think it might be the screw attack? There is a reason I made that thing my desktop wallpaper!
  • Speedy Sister: The number one thing I noticed replaying Metroid in 2021? Dang, it goes fast. You only need, what? Morph ball, bombs, ice beam, and hi jump to complete the entire mission? No extra time spent here trying to remember where the hell the space jump got to, just nab some new boots and make a beeline for your local space dragon.
  • Ridley is too big: It is kind of miraculous that Ridley graduated to the main series antagonist role after Metroid, as he is certainly the easier of the two “mini” bosses of Metroid. Sure, Ridley officially has the second area, and gets a whole two scary statue heads leading to his lair, but Kraid? Kraid has his own weirdo clone to confuse new players, more health than has ever been measured, and the raw invulnerability of solid stomach spikes. And he even hides his requisite e-tank better than Ridley! Kraid got robbed when future editions devolved him into a mindless dinosaur. (And he lost all his hair, too.)
  • Map it out: My memories of playing Metroid as a child recall a Zebes that was easily ten times the size it actually is… mainly because I didn’t see a complete map until some “retro” Nintendo Power coverage of the game years later. When you are stuck in the depths of Brinstar with no way to distinguish between a lot of same-y rooms…. Well… let’s just say this game would be very different with Super Metroid’s automap.
  • The big finaleGoggle Bob Fact: I used to have a Nintendo sponsored calendar when I was young enough to not be literate. Metroid was the featured game of one of the months. As I was able to identify an “M” and someone clearly using an arm buster, I thought I was looking at Mega Man, not Samus Aran. I have been ashamed of this mistake continuously since I was 8.
  • Bounty Hunter: The original Famicom version of Metroid has save files, and a menu for such that is similar to The Legend of Zelda. If you complete the game, Samus’s icon receives lil’ money bag icons to indicate a clear. And if you finish the mission faster? Samus gets more money bags. But, money or not, the NES version is the only one with Zero Suit Samus and the “new game plus” of restarting with previous powerups. So what good is all the money in the universe compared to that?
  • Did you know? There are a few “unused” rooms within the code for Metroid. One contains an item orb on a random pedestal over lava. This is unusual, as item orbs only exist connected to Chozo statues in the normal version of Metroid. The room does resemble the location where you are likely to find your first missile upgrade, though, so maybe orbs were initially supposed to be more plentiful.
  • Would I play again: Yes, but only if there’s a map handy. I cannot remember which walls I am supposed to bomb for the life in me!

What’s next? Random ROB has not so randomly chosen… Metroid Dread! We just did the start, let’s see the most recent end! Please look forward to it!

THE END
“The Other Metroid?” Some kind of… Other M?

FGC #604 Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance

Reflections are importantCastlevania: Harmony of Dissonance was released back in 2002 on the Gameboy Advance. It was the first Koji Igarashi-directed metroidvania to follow the wildly successful Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and would be followed by the critically beloved Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow a year later. While many at the time lauded Harmony of Dissonance for being a step up from the non-canon, non-Iga-directed Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, in the years since, Harmony of Dissonance has gained the reputation as one of the “lesser” Igavanias. Nobody seems to claim it is particularly bad, but the understood consensus is that you would be better off playing literally any other metroidvania in the franchise. Iga was still getting used to portable Castlevanias, guys, play one of the games after he found his skelelegs.

And that is a damn shame, because Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance has some great ideas that were never seen in the franchise ever again. Take for instance…

Juste Belmont is all you need

This guy looks familiarCastlevania stars Simon Belmont. Castlevania 3 stars Trevor Belmont. Castlevania: Rondo of Blood stars Richter Belmont. And then we got Castlevania: Symphony of the Night starring Alucard, and we only ever saw one Belmont in a headlining role ever again. Juste Belmont is that Belmont, and he’s here to chew bubblegum and whip skeletons (and he’s fresh out of bubblegum).

Juste Belmont plays like a Belmont. There is no gimmick here, no secret power that makes Juste a creature of the night just like his opponents. He runs. He jumps. He attacks with a whip of clearly defined length, and flicks its limp form around to block medusa heads at will. He can perform some of the “later” Belmont abilities, like the slide and backward dash. He even has a forward dash, because some weirdo gave the Gameboy Advance an L and R button. But, a few extra skills aside, Juste is familiar, and a clear descendant of Grandpa Simon (and maybe the old man that trained Richter a few decades later).

And in the friggen Castlevania franchise, it is nice to play as a Castlevania protagonist.

You could claim there is a clear dichotomy between Simon-like protagonists and Alucard-like protagonists in the Castlevania franchise. Soma is an Alucard. Shanoa is an Alucard. Castlevania-wannabe Miriam is an Alucard. But claiming there are only two options is reductive. John Morris of Portrait of Ruin is very close to being the typical Belmont, but there is a lot more nuance and variety to his moveset. Or, put another way, there is no way Juste Belmont could ever turn into an owl. It may be a result of the presence of Charlotte, but, one way or another, John is no Alucard, but he certainly is not a straight-Belmont, either.

And having a 100% Belmont on the team makes for a different, unique game. Juste eventually gains a “super jump” to traverse long vertical passages, but, for the majority of his adventure, he is stuck with little more than a regular Belmont arc jump. And that changes the castle dramatically! There is no expectation here that you will eventually be able to fly into narrow passages as a bat, or “mist” through glass windows. Juste is stuck with legitimate keys-as-keys, and a castle that could reasonably be traversed by a human on foot. And that’s the rub! Belmonts are humans, and that appropriately restrains the Castle to something that is never going to require reversing gravity or filling in map squares by bumbling around as a wolf.

It is nice to be human sometimes and know that castle completion is not tied to some esoteric ability you will find five feet before Dracula. HoD perhaps hampers itself too much with its human protagonist, but a more thoughtful sequel could use this “limitation” to open all sorts of doors.

But speaking of being a Belmont…

The Vampire Killer is all you need

Nice viewLook, I like variety as much as the next guy. I like finding peanuts and learning that Alucard must toss them in the air to get so much as a bite. I like earning the “curry” power, and forcing an ability-copying boss to chuck hot plates like it is his super power. I like there being two different fairies, one with inexplicable piano prowess. I enjoy the sheer breadth of nonsense “stuff” that appears in the Igavania titles, and I appreciate every time I find a new secret or ferryman skulking around in the shadows.

But, dang, sometimes I just want to play a videogame, ya know?

The thing about variety is that is causes choice anxiety. You have a sword, right? And it is fast and strong, but there is a stronger sword that is slower. Which is going to perform more damage per second? Which will allow you to quickly backdash away from danger? Which has the more powerful “arc” to blocking enemy fireballs? They have elements, too? So is the holy sword going to cut down all these undead foes, or are some of these monsters supposed to be resistant to the light of God? Is this one of those franchises where fire beats water, or the opposite? Thunder do anything for anybody? I have a fast, lightning-based sword, but is that going to do zero damage to rocky enemies? Am I thinking of Pokémon again?

Then there’s Juste. Juste doesn’t have to have a brain in his head, because he has a whip in his hands.

The Vampire Killer is supposed to be the greatest Dracula murderer of all time. It was all Simon, Trevor, and Richter ever needed. Juste wields this same weapon, but is allowed to have a little customization. With the right item, it can shoot fireballs like Christopher Belmont, change elements for weakness hunting, or just plain upgrade to stronger versions like back during the Quest days. In general, it is linear progression with the tiniest bit of customization for particular circumstances. And that’s great! You don’t have to spend the rest of your day worrying distinguishing between +1 Pow or +1 Speed when “have whip” is all you need to know. There is joy in finding the secret sword that makes farting noises when it hits skeletons, but there is also joy in not having to worry about your equipment screen, and ignoring any worrying about bringing the wrong hammer to a guardian fight.

Sometimes, the Vampire Killer is all you need… and that never happened in a 2-D ‘vania again.

And on that note…

Mundane Monsters are all you need

Prior to Harmony of Dissonance, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon introduced the concept of particular monsters dropping unique abilities. After HoD, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow pioneered a system whereby literally every monster dropped some kind of attack, ability, or upgrade. This became the standard for Castlevania titles going forward, and now it seems completely normal to fight mermen over and over until you can breathe underwater.

Harmony of Dissonance made no such attempt at having a wholly unique “ability drop” for every monster lurking around the castle. And, not coincidentally, Harmony of Dissonance also included this creature:

Creepy Crawly

Now, I’m not saying that when you grant every monster a unique, obtainable ability, you lose the chance to make some gigantic weirdos that have nothing to do with “can throw spear” or “+2 Con”, but… It does seem like more than a coincidence that we never saw that dude again.

Nobody wants to grind a hundred skeleton spiders.

Two Castles are all you need

Out and inCastlevania: Symphony of the Night turned the franchise on its head by including an entire hidden castle in addition to the “traditional” solitary sanctuary of Dracula. Later titles would either stick to one large castle (the Sorrows, Bloodstained [which we are still claiming is a Castlevania]) or one castle plus a number of “level” areas (Portrait, Order of Ecclesia). Never again did the franchise try two separate, but similar, castles.

And two castles are the exact right number of castles to have!

The concept of a “dark world” works similarly to time travel in many videogames. In short, you have two distinct areas, but they influence each other in interesting ways. In the time travel adventures, you can usually affect change in the past that dramatically impacts the future. The classic “fill a lake in the past, see a future where a desert becomes a forest in the future” dichotomy serves as an easy example here. Similarly, you can have “light/dark world” situations wherein one area is a funhouse mirror version of another area, but making changes to one “castle” can drastically impact the other. The Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past or Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver are the classic examples here, but many videogames utilize these dual worlds to create exciting scenarios and save on assets. An evil mirror world is fun and economical!

Unfortunately, for having two castles (both distinctly noted as being formed from two differing minds), Harmony of Dissonance whiffs on doing anything interesting with the concept. Whether there was ever meticulous thought put into the differences between the “normal” and “chaos”-based castles is irrelevant, as the end result is a castle that is effectively double the size, but with very few actual parallels. Yes, you might find some similar or “reference” monsters in comparable rooms. Yes, you are likely to see a few more deadly monsters or blood-red sunsets in the “bad” castle. But, beyond a few extremely basic “wasn’t this room a little different over there” situations, this is a complete waste of a brilliant idea. Harmony’s two castles could be so much fun in a different, more considered game.

This is funAnd that is the tragedy of Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance: there are a lot of appealing ideas here, but they ultimately add up to an experience that is aggravatingly rote. With proper budget, drive, and familiarity, a direct sequel to HoD’s ideas could be one of the best titles in the franchise. As it is… well… Let’s just say that Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow keeps getting paired with HoD in collections, and it is obvious which game you should play.

(And in case you’re curious, it is the one that actually had its own sequel.)

FGC #604 Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance

  • System: Gameboy Advance on two separate occasions! Later, we had a WiiU release, and now it is on modern systems thanks to the latest Castlevania Advance Collection.
  • Number of players: This Castlevania quest is even more solitary than usual. Do you learn that weird shopkeeper’s name? That seems like it should be important! Guess we are sticking to one player.
  • Story Time: Props to HoD for featuring almost exclusively two characters: Juste, and his frenemy Maxim. Literally no one else matters in this story of childhood friends having occasional spats over kidnapping other childhood friends, and that kind of laser focus on the task at hand is great in a Metroidvania. I guess Death gets to squeeze a word or two in, too? Who cares? That dork is a little too Strider this time, anyway.
  • Love this bossThe Other Hero: Naturally, Maxim mode is unlocked upon completing the game. And Maxim rocks! While the meticulous planning that went into producing this Belmont-based adventure goes right out the window the minute Mr. Triple Jump appears on the scene, it is fun to see how much of the castle can be explored immediately without a need for keys or teleporters. Give Maxxy a way to level up, and it would likely be one of my favorite “other” modes in Castlevania history.
  • Favorite Sub Weapon: Juste has distinctly Sypha Belnades genes, and can utilize magical books to powerup his attacks. Unfortunately, this skill is completely useless, and should be ignored. Sorry, Great Gramma Sypha, you cannot beat traditional holy water.
  • Favorite Boss: Speaking of Sypha, two Castlevania 3 bosses return in modern-ish form: the Skull Knight and Cyclops. Cyclops is my favorite in the game, as he looks so goofy compared to his original, menacing sprite. Skull Knight does get a rad laser, though…
  • Interior Decorating: Apparently, that “Furniture Room”, where you can collect various tables and candelabras and such to decorate one tiny cube in Dracula’s Castle is a holdover from an idea that was nixed during the production of Symphony of the Night. This would have absolutely made sense for Alucard, as he would logically have his own room in his father’s castle. But Juste Belmont? A man who knows damn well that castle is going to collapse seven seconds after whipping an evil count? He should know better than to put effort into trimming such a damned castle.
  • ClassyDid you know? The doors that Juste uses to travel between the two castles look just like the portals the Doppelganger used in Symphony of the Night. Does this mean Alucard didn’t kill a monster, but an alternate universe duplicate? Probably not! And don’t suggest that again. Alucard has enough guilt without potential murder-suicides!
  • Would I play again: Probably not. Or at least not for another few decades. I want to see the HoD sequel, but the actual game isn’t all that fun… particularly when nearly every other Castlevania would be a better time.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Curses ‘N Chaos! We’re going to celebrate the Day of the Dead with a visit from Castlevania ‘n Curses’ old friend Death. Please look forward to it!

WRONG

FGC #593 Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

Straight to hell!Let us consider the economy of Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest (and how it has screwed me up to this day).

Castlevania 2 is an ambitious NES title that is also extremely broken. Much like Link’s second adventure, the curators of the Castlevania franchise decided to branch out in a more explore-y direction with Simon Belmont’s second quest. Unfortunately, it seems that the Goddess Zelda watches over all of her titles and guarantees proper Q&A testing… while Dracula just gets a graveyard duck. Or the graveyard duck was intentional! Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest has a legendarily inscrutable localization… but it ain’t that great in the original Klingon, either. The NPCs of C2 go out of their collective way to be cryptic at best, and downright dishonest at worst. There is a bad merchant in this town? Are you referring to how the ability to buy a white crystal over and over again is broken, or am I searching for a hidden dealer somewhere around here? And do not insult that kind lady peddling Holy Water. I wouldn’t be able to beat Dracula without her!

So is Simon’s Quest broken? Well, yes, because those ending screens are pretty damn fractured by any rubric. But is everything before Dracula’s defeat broken? Well, no, just all the information that the player needs to successfully complete this quest is some combination of esoteric and obfuscated. Finding your first mansion housing a rib might be child’s play, but knowing from there that you have to kneel at a nondescript lake or show a bleeding heart to a ferryman (or that said ferryman is apparently canonically cursed!) is the kind of thing you would never in a million quests personally discover “accidentally”. Some hints in the Japanese version were mangled for the American release, and we can blame a number of Debora Cliff head injuries on this simple fact; but, even then, you kind of have to “know” that the crystals work when you are just standing around… And “stand still and wait” is not exactly the prime way a videogame works. Simon’s Quest is not broken in every way, but a clear explanation of what is happening and what should be done would certainly help a fledgling player. Just give me a ferryman that outright states that they are looking for something, and we can go from there!

And then there is the economy of Simon’s Quest.

Just don't look!Previously on Castlevania, hearts fueled “sub items”, and that was it. There were moneybags that provided points, but there was nothing to buy. A heart “bought” you the ability to fling a dagger, though, so you had something you wanted to ration and “save” for the rough spots. A proper cross boomerang and the hearts to fuel it could be the difference between life and death. This would be the standard for Castlevania games after Castlevania 2, too, and we would not see exchanging currency for goods and services in the Castlevania franchise again until Symphony of the Night ten years later.

But in the meanwhile, here was Castlevania 2. Before you even leave the first town, you are introduced to the concept of trading hearts. In fact, items available in the first town are very clearly outlined as…

Buy Once, Use Forever Items

My aching crystal50 Hearts will get you two different items in Castlevania 2’s first bout of commerce. Local townsfolk will note that thou must purchase a White Crystal, but the Holy Water is available, too. And both items are literally essential to your adventure. The White Crystal will allow access to (or at least illuminate a hidden platform in) the first dungeon, which is a vital stop on the way to earning Dracula’s Rib. But do not discount the Holy Water, as you absolutely need its ability to break “soft” blocks. Oh no! You’ve only got fiddy hearts in your pocket when the game starts, and you need a hundo! Time to get to farming skeletons!

And you will want those extra hearts, as Holy Water, the White Crystal, and the eventually available basic Dagger are all the best items to purchase. The Holy Water not only unlocks previously inaccessible areas, but also is the most straightforward item in the game for consistently hitting enemies below Simon. The Dagger might fly much straighter, but it is also much more powerful, and can completely supplant the whip if you are saving up for something better. And the White Crystal? Not only do you need it for basic platform-seeing purposes, but it also has a resale value! You can trade the White Crystal for the Blue Crystal, and then trade up further to the Red Crystal. All of those crystals are critical, and, given a lack of fast travel or mobile merchants, you really shouldn’t leave home (town) without it!

Unfortunately, not everything in Castlevania 2 has the same kind of utility. Let’s just go ahead and whip that notion in the bud…

Straight Upgrade Items

STAY AWAYSimon already killed the only vampire that ever mattered, so the legendary Vampire Killer whip is apparently sitting on a shelf back at the Belmont estate. In the meanwhile, Simon has pulled out the trusty leather whip that he picked up down at the Transylvania S&M store (Grant DaNasty’s Nastiest Emporium). Unfortunately, this budget whip is far from the best, and a variety of other whips are available from more savvy storefronts. Would you care for a Thorn Whip? Chain Whip? Chain Whip with little star dealy bopper? You’ve got options!

Or… you have no real options at all. Unlike many modern games, you absolutely do not need to upgrade your whips sequentially. You will likely find a vendor for the Thorn Whip before anyone else, but, if you save your hearts, you will eventually find that Morning Star shop, and own the best whip hearts can buy before anything else. In fact, if you really know what you are doing, you can farm nighttime zombies, make a beeline for that miraculous whip, and wield all the power of Lucifer before entering your first mansion!

And there is a valuable lesson here: why waste your hard-earned hearts on anything but the best? Only one whip can be upgraded (for free!) to the critical Flame Whip, and only one whip has the power to fell Death before he can make his lethal approach. Why bother with anything less? The Chain Whip is one of the most expensive items in the game, and it is literally completely worthless if you can afford a Morning Star. Save those hearts! Go for the greatest! Do not waste time on incremental upgrades! Shoot for the gold!

But you may have to blow a few hearts along the way on…

One and Done, Limited Items

Eat it, orbYou may make an immediate run for the Morning Star, but there is one thing standing in your way: a deadly, life-draining swamp. The only solution to surviving this problem is to purchase some Laurels, initially only available about as far east as you can get without the aid of a tornado. Laurels make Simon temporarily invulnerable, and that is just the right level of vulnerable you need for a purple swamp filled with fire-spewing beasts.

But Laurels come at a cost. In an effort to guarantee Simon is not invincible forever, Laurels are limited items that can only be used a set number of times. You buy two Laurels, you get to be invincible twice. Pretty straightforward! In a similar manner, there are Oak Stakes, purchasable only within haunted mansions, which are essential for unlocking Dracula Part Orbs ™, and are immediately consumable. And, while it may seem like they are wholly optional, bulbs of garlic fall into the same category. Garlic initially presents as simply an offensive item that works similarly to the Holy Water of Castlevania (1), but it also summons random Romani in graveyards to distribute daggers and bags and whatnot. You could get through the whole of CS2 without a single clove of garlic, but it is going to make your life better in more ways than one if you shell out for that veggie.

And, give or take experimenting with garlic in any old graveyard, these one-and-done items are all very situational. You could use a Laurel anywhere, but you probably are going to conserve it for the moment you approach those shining, purple shores. Garlic is rarely necessary for average encounters, so save it for shop summoning or the occasional pizza. And you only ever need one oak stake per mystical orb, so you can stow that away until you need to earn a fingernail. In short, once you have a relative idea of what you are doing, you will never be in a situation where you can potentially “waste” one of these valuable, limited items. Short of whiffing it big on tacking an inanimate circle, you are not going to “accidentally” need another 50 hearts for a replacement anytime soon.

Wish I could say the same about our final category…

Freemium Items

MortThe Silver Knife can be found by properly placing garlic in the graveyard. The Gold Knife can be recovered from a downtrodden Death. And the Sacred Flame is hiding in a dark dungeon, but free for the taking if you gaze with Dracula’s eye. They are freebies! Items of absolute importance (well, maybe the Silver Knife is kind of a waste), and unerringly useful. The Sacred Flame is like an advanced Holy Water that can immolate Freddie the Claw Skeleman without a thought. And the Gold Knife can re-kill Dracula before he even has time to teleport out of his coffin. No wonder Death was hanging onto that blade!

But there is a bit of a drawback to these weapons of Drac destruction: they each cost hearts. Each of these items is free to add to your inventory, but cost a heart per use. And one or two hearts may not be the difference between life and death, but you need as many of those hearts as possible for all the finest upgrades. You need a new Oak Stake in every mansion, and who knows when you are going to have to reup on Laurels? And, if this is your first time venturing through Castlevania (or you just have a terrible memory), you would not know if you needed additional hearts for anything else. That Morning Star cost nearly every heart you could ever have, but is there something better out there? Some armor, maybe? Blue Ring? It worked for Link…

And, if you have not already guessed, this is why I never use the Silver Knife, Gold Knife, or Sacred Flame.

Sure, I may have hearts to spare by the time the final mansions are being raided, but would I ever use a weapon that consumes two whole hearts per use to clear those areas? Certainly not. I might need those hearts for later! Using these freemium items may make my life easier, but what if they are going to make my life worse when I need to grind for more hearts? And Dracula isn’t dead yet! What if I get up to his final chamber, and I run out of hearts!? I would have to engage with actually fighting Dracula the real way, and I simply do not have that kind of time. I would rather make every other part of this game harder than ever even think about wasting my valuable cash on something as trivial as my 10,000th violent skeleton. I’m saving up for that vacation home Simon is never going to use!

Er-hem.

Anyway, Castlevania 2 is apparently why I don’t play mobile games. Thanks for reading.

FGC #593 Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

  • What a horrible night to have a swampSystem: Nintendo Entertainment System to start, and then it at least showed up on the recent Castlevania collection for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. It was also on Wii, Wii U, and 3DS. Sorry, Castlevania 2 does not see as many releases as Mega Man 2.
  • Number of players: Simon is facing this horrible night to have a curse alone.
  • Forever Apart: The various chunks of Dracula could also be considered usable “items”, but every other item save the initial rib is so… not useful. Also, can we take a moment to acknowledge that an official body part of Dracula is his ring? Not a single limb in there, but we somehow need his signet to cross his dumb bridge? And, while we are looking at lugging around bits of the count, is his complete lack of a brain there to account for his generally braindead plans? When you have to rely on the wizard Shaft to get things done, you know you are missing some pieces.
  • Boss Time: Castlevania is a franchise known for its bosses. And, in C2:SQ, there are a whole two of them, and you can walk right past one. Nobody likes you, Death! Camilla and her bloody tears is required, but only on the technicality that she drops the cross item that allows access to Dracula’s ruined castle. At least these jerks respawn for any potential rematches. I would not say no to seeing that in Symphony of the Night…
  • Goggle Bob Fact: I played this game so much as a child, I memorized the code that grants all the items. It is complete gibberish, but I can recall this random assortment of letters and numbers immediately. If you ever see me in person, quiz me! I would transcribe it here, but I don’t feel like having Google steal my code for maximum Laurels.
  • I do not talk about musicAn end: Damn is it hard to get the best ending without optimizing dang near everything. Also, is it really worth it? Because it sure does seem like the accompanying text for any given ending does not match what actually happens. And, ya know, there is that whole “Simon dies almost every time” thing. Dude just cannot catch a break.
  • Did you know? According to the Castlevania timeline, Simon killing Dracula, blasting him into literal pieces, reassembling said pieces, and then immolating the count all over again only bought the world fifty years of Dracula-free time. Juste, Simon’s grandson, was the next Belmont to take up the whip chronologically in Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance. And Juste only had to beat Dracula once to keep Drac chilling until Richter time.
  • Would I play again: Yes. Dammit. It’s a Castlevania game, so I will blow my hard-earned hearts on any version of it that is ever released. Put this sucker on a cell phone with in-app heart purchases, and I’ll buy it, too.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Aero Fighters 2! Take to the skies! To fight! In flight! Please look forward to it!

I can!

FGC #582 Game & Watch Gallery

Let's watch some gamesThe best way to preserve your past is to literally own your past.

The Nintendo Game & Watch is technology that is fairly unique for this blog: the first Game & Watch was released before I was even born. While I have always considered myself blessed to be a games preservationist that has grown alongside the gaming medium, Game & Watch arguably belongs to Generation X with its initial release in 1980. Premiering with titles that I am doing my best not to describe as “primitive as a Flintstone”, the Game & Watch initially showcased games like Ball, Flagman, Vermin, and Judge. These pocket-sized devices all played one game per unit, and featured not only time-keeping functionality, but upwards of two game modes. Were these titles basic? Yes, of course. But could they be fun? Absolutely! If nothing else, they beat playing with your calculator on a train ride, so further Game & Watch titles were consistently released straight through 1986. At about that point, the Gameboy was preparing to take over the portable market, so new Game & Watch models became limited, and new titles for the “system” began to dribble out at a slower pace. But, for a time, Game & Watch ruled the roost, and Nintendo “the toy company” established itself in this new “videogame market” that may or may not have been recovering from an apocalyptic alien invasion (that is currently buried in New Mexico).

In short, if you are considering the whole of the history of videogames, you have to remember the Game & Watch. The Nintendo Entertainment System may have defined the home console for a generation, but just a few years before that box (and its dastardly robot) graced our shores, we were already playing with power, one Game & Watch at a time. And, while the “limited to one game” thing was saddening, this also encouraged an awful lot of wonderful mutations across the line. This was the first we saw buttons that increased or decreased in number according to a game. This was the first we saw the iconic crosspad. This is the first we saw “dual screen” gameplay, in both horizontal and vertical formats. Game & Watch is the first place we saw Luigi.

Boxes!And that latter point is pretty damn relevant, because when was the last time you heard about Mario’s other jobs with his brother? Nobody questioned when Mario claimed he was a doctor, because we were already used to his construction, bottling, and cement factory jobs…

A Mario Bros. where two brothers prove their plumbing credentials through flipping over turtles and crabs is the Mario Bros. everyone always remembers, but Game & Watch Mario Bros. was released four months before its arcade brother. It was a horizontal dual screen Game & Watch title, and saw Mario and Luigi (again, appearing in a game for the first time) working at some manner of delivery plant (is that a thing?). Both of the brothers (each clearly labeled by their respective joypads as “Mario” and “Luigi”) must work in tandem to pass something (boxes? cakes? bottles?) along and into a waiting delivery truck. There are not any “tricks or traps” to speak of, but the intermediary conveyer belt is a harsh mistress, and likely to break more than a few whatsits if the brothers (or your thumbs) don’t move fast enough. There are no monsters here, though, so this is a wholly mundane adventure focusing on what must be Mario & Luigi’s summer jobs. And speaking of jobs, this particular Game & Watch model eventually earned sponsorships from some businesses like Pokka (a Japanese food company) and Campari (an Italian liqueur producer). So Mario does know what alcohol is!

But if you are getting your historical information from Nintendo, Mario’s wine knowledge has been… let’s say obfuscated.

The new styleGame & Watch Mario Bros. has not been completely forgotten by Nintendo, but it has been diluted in modern incarnations. Mario Bros. appeared in both Game & Watch Gallery 3 for the Nintendo Gameboy, and Game & Watch Gallery 4 for the Gameboy Advance. Unfortunately, there was basically no way for modern (“modern” being “made after 1984”) systems to emulate the hugely horizontal play area of the original Game & Watch, so everything was compressed to fit a squarer playing area. And, obviously, Mario & Luigi now work at a simple package delivery company, so the impressionable players could never have an inkling that the super brothers were ever transporting wine. And the “modern” reimagining? Well, now we’ve got a cake factory in the works (not even a cement factory?), Wario is a delivery driver (that should not be allowed), and Bowser occasionally stops by to muck up the conveyer belts (dude does not have anything better to do today). In both the GBC and GBA versions, it is a much prettier and a more modern, palatable experience… but it isn’t remotely the same. The basic elements of Mario Bros. are there, but everything from the sunny graphics to the aspect ratio feels like an entirely different animal. For the first appearance of the most famous player two in all of gaming, Game & Watch Mario Bros. is preserved about as well as a sandwich bag filled with ranch dressing (honey, I know you hate to throw out food, but we have a perfectly good bottle of the stuff right there on door).

And don’t even get me started on Game & Watch The Legend of Zelda!

Rescue the laundry!But let’s not imagine we live in a world where Game & Watch and its contributions are completely ignored. Why, there’s Mr. Game & Watch right there, starring in one of Nintendo’s most popular franchises. And his “package attack” move echoes exact animations from Game & Watch Mario Bros. Same for his down taunt, which recalls the exasperated sitting of the brothers when completing a level. And we just got a Super Mario Bros. 35th Anniversary Edition Game & Watch! It didn’t actually include Game & Watch Mario Bros., but it definitely included… uh… Ball, apparently! And Super Mario Bros.! Everybody likes Super Mario Bros. better anyway! What’s the problem?

Well, the problem is that whole likability thing with a healthy mix of hardware versus profitability. Would people rather play Super Mario Bros. or Game & Watch Mario Bros.? Well, considering the Game & Watch collection was a modest hit, while Super Mario Bros. is a game that is continually released on every system ever produced by Nintendo (and with a few weird mutations, too), it seems pretty obvious that more people are interested in seeing the brothers when they are a little more super. And that is convenient, because Super Mario Bros. can be perfectly (or at least reasonably) emulated to practically any device with a screen, whereas the wine factory (I am sticking to this for you, Campari) requires two side-by-side screens for a perfect experience. And Nintendo has decided to drop this whole “dual screen” thing as of the retirement of the 3DS and WiiU, so official Nintendo hardware is out of the question. Could some other company, maybe one without as many valid revenue streams as Nintendo, carry this burden? Some “lesser” hardware manufacturer would be happy to reissue a few Mario games. An Evercade for the Game & Watch? I know I would be down for such a boutique item.

Octo!But it ain’t gonna happen. Nintendo holds an iron grip on any and all legal ownership of Mario, Luigi, and the Game & Watch. It would not be as profitable to focus on “perfect” Game & Watch preservation as it would be to steer those resources into other departments, but, by the same token, there is no way Nintendo is going to let someone else profit from technology made by Nintendo nearly 40 years ago. The original creator of Game & Watch died nearly 25 years ago (!), but Nintendo is going to own that hardware lock, stock, and barrel until the day you die. And if you are under the mistaken impression that Nintendo would be cool with some modern modding, go ahead and ask anyone that listed a video on youtube about how to hack the latest Game & Watch release. Oh, wait, you can’t, because Nintendo copyright claimed all of them out of existence. Want to do anything you want with that fifty dollar doodad you got for Christmas? Not on Nintendo’s (game &) watch, buddy!

But this is the future for nearly all intellectual property out there. Nintendo will own Game & Watch for the next hundred years, and there is absolutely no reason they would ever have to loosen their grip on the IP. And, with that in mind, they control how Game & Watch content exists for the rest of time. You want to play the original game? No, no you don’t. You want to play with silly, beepy Mr. Game & Watch, and exchange tales of his “references” with your friends. You don’t want to remember when Nintendo was proudly peddling liquor sponsorships to get a foothold, you want to remember when the Nintendo Entertainment System defined gaming. There was never a “desperate” Mario that had to beg for your attention. There has only ever been a complete, genre-defining Mario.

History is what you make of it. And if you own your history, so much the better. For you.

FGC #582 Game & Watch Gallery

  • ToadholeSystem: Technically ROB chose the Gallery for Gameboy, but I did a lot of focusing on the Gameboy Color enhanced Game & Watch Gallery 3. Also tossed in some Gameboy Advance Game & Watch Gallery 4 action, too. I have a lot of random Game & Watch Galleries scattered about the place.
  • Number of players: You can link cable all of these games, right? If you can’t, I’m still going to claim they are two players, because you can at least do some boxing in Game & Watch Gallery 4. It counts!
  • Can’t you just be happy with the fact that there are four Gameboy games that preserve Game & Watch titles? Well, yes, that is good, but the last Game & Watch Gameboy title was released in 2002, with the more digital versions only seeing release as recently as 2008. While Game & Watch games are technically available in some ways (you can grab the GBA version on WiiU as of 2016), it sure seems the birth of Nintendo gaming is going to stay locked away in a vault.
  • So you’re saying a new Game & Watch line will be released seven seconds after publishing this article? Yes, that seems to be how it works.
  • Favorite Game & Watch game (collection based): Octopus is part of Game & Watch Gallery 1, and I appreciate how that game has always been as “simple” as other G&W games, but contains an awful lot of strategy. Or maybe I just like matching wits with an octopus. Whatever! You want the spiritual ancestor to practically every videogame I have ever enjoyed, though, just check out Octopus.
  • Love that little guyFavorite Game & Watch game (modern revision): Game & Watch Gallery 4 went harder than it had to with its remixed graphics, and I appreciate that Donkey Kong Jr. got one final showcase before he was retired seemingly forever. That little dude always needed a few more starring roles, and Gogglebob.com does not officially recognize Donkey Kong (of Donkey Kong Country) as Junior’s grownup incarnation. And further proof Mario once had a mean streak!
  • Favorite Game & Watch game (that we will never see again): Mickey Mouse had his own Game & Watch game. Like another children’s star, it was a game involving our hero grabbing eggs from chickens. Minnie was responsible for watch/alarm duties. And we will never see it again, because I cannot imagine the legal quagmire that would result from both companies even addressing the issue. This never happened, guys!
  • Goggle Bob Fact: Game & Watch Mario Bros. is one of the first videogames I ever played, as my cousin had that Game & Watch, and I successfully begged my parents to let me try it. I am moderately certain Toddler Goggle Bob did not immediately break the thing… but my memory from that time may be a little hazy.
  • Did you know? The Nintendo DS title Personal Trainer: Cooking, which is little more than a dedicated cookbook that is somehow not Cooking Mama, included Game & Watch Chef as a hidden feature. Chef… is not a game that is going to make you a better cook.
  • Save 'em!Would I play again: I like revisiting the infant stages of the Mario we know today. I would totally be down with all of these titles being ported to the Switch, as they work very well for dealing with random boredom. Other than that, though? Well, sometimes it is nice to know something is being preserved, but maybe I could play something else…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… What Did I Do to Deserve This, My Lord? 2 for the Sony PSP! Oh, what I have done to deserve this, my ROB? Nothing? It’s actually a good game? Okay, great. Then please look forward to it!

Where is Little Mac?