Sunday, July 22, 2018

R-Type (1991)

Box art shamelessly stolen from The Game Boy Database.
Even when it's rendered in a slightly less menacing art style,
the Dobkeratops boss is nearly always awesome and scary looking.

If I haven't made it abundantly clear on this blog, or on my YouTube channel, I love shmups. You know, shoot-em-ups. Shooters. STG's. Scrolling shooters. Space shooters. Pick your term, whichever you like - I could care less. What I do care about? Shooter games. And no, not those first-person games, where you run around, toting a gun, shooting anything that moves. I'm talking about the kind of shooter where you fly a plane, spaceship, or similar craft, and blast everything that moves with an assortment of fantastical weaponry. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a good FPS game now and again, but my heart is with the classic scrolling shooter.

The alternate logo, used in a lot of arcade posters, and some ports,
looks awesome here, atop a rendering of the Dobkeratops.

I don't wish to belabor the point, but for the uninitiated, a brief treatise on the genre's origins: Space Invaders is where the shoot-em-up was born, followed by Galaxian, Gorf, Galaga, and many other "G" games, but it was potentially Konami's Scramble that defined the shooting game as it would come to be known, in that, it wasn't just a ship that could move along a single axis, firing at incoming enemies, but one that could move along both axes, while the screen scrolled to reveal more enemies and changing terrain. This innovation was quickly followed up by multiple developers, namely Sega with Zaxxon and Namco with Xevious, and the modern shoot-em-up was born. These early examples brought different innovations with them, and helped solidify some genre conventions, but the still rudimentary graphics meant that some of the elements didn't quite have the same kind of effect. In 1985, Konami followed their initial scrolling shooter game with a spiritual successor, the legendary Gradius. Not only did this game give birth to the modern shooter, but it also brought additional innovations and improvements to the genre. Irem brought their own shmup innovation to arcades just 2 years later, with R-Type.

Yep. Still awesome and scary looking, even on the tiny Game Boy screen.

It's not a stretch to say that R-Type was a unique beast, back when it was released. Up to that point, most shooter craft had little in the way of protection, other than the player's own skill and dexterity in dodging oncoming fire. Gradius introduced a front-facing shield power-up, that allowed the Vic Viper to withstand a handful of shots directly to the nose, which offered a much needed respite to the hail of bullets that often occurred. With R-Type, however, the R-9 was equipped with the Force Bit, a new innovation made possible by harnessing the flesh of one of the Bydo's own bio-mechanical menaces, that would not only provide shielding from enemy fire, but also absorb that fire indefinitely. The Force Bit could also be upgraded with one of 3 different weapons, up to two levels, and even thrown at enemies and used as a destructive weapon itself. Plus, the Force Bit could be coupled to the ship either in front, or in the rear. Needless to say, this innovation was quite forward thinking, and proved to be the unique element that catapulted the game to success.

Stage 2's alien graveyard and "intestines in giant test tubes" motif
just might be the most impressive thing, graphically speaking, in the game.

Naturally, when an arcade game became a hit in the 80's, it was almost inevitable that it had to be ported to some kind of home computer or game console. In the case of R-Type, it went everywhere. From the woefully under powered ZX Spectrum, to the fledgling TurboGrafx 16, many gaming platforms received a port of the game. Irem's little shooting game wonder didn't see release until mid-1991 on Nintendo's monochromatic handheld wonder. The port was handled by BITS Studio, who did a number of Game Boy conversions during that period, and is an admirable attempt at trying to bring the arcade experience to the platform, despite its limitations.

Unless you're a shoot-em-up wunderkind, expect to see this screen
quite a bit, like I did. It's okay, though; you have unlimited continues.

The general story is, the bio-mechanical Bydo creatures, and their conquering empire, have attacked humanity, and it's up to you, and your trusty R-9 ship, to repel the attack. As previously mentioned, you stand a better chance in a "one ship versus the whole armada" scenario than you might otherwise, because you have the Force Bit, an interesting invention that combines technology with some actual fleshy material from a Bydo creature. This gives the R-9 additional firepower, shielding from some enemy fire, and additional offensive capabilities, since the Force Bit can be hurtled from the ship's front or rear, directly into enemies. Using the R-9, the Force Bit, and some combination of the 3 weapons available in the game, it falls to you to defeat the Bydo menace. What's a space pilot to do, other than the task set before them?

Stage 2's snake enemy has far fewer segments, which is to be
expected, given the small screen size and sprite limitations.

The game scrolls horizontally, and you'll notice from the outset that the R-9 is a rather sluggish craft. You'll need to watch out for "S" power-ups, which will increase your speed. As for weapon power-ups, there are 3 types: the helix laser, the reflect laser, and the crawling ground laser. In the arcade original, these were represented with red, blue, and yellow power-up icons. Here, of course, that had to change to accommodate the Game Boy's lack of a color palette. The icon with a "1" in the center is the angled laser, that with a "2" is the helix laser, and the "3" is the wall crawling flame. When collecting an initial power-up, the R-9 is granted the Force Bit, and subsequent power-up icons either grant level 1 of a power-up, or level 2, if your ship is already powered up. Also available is the Round Bit, which auto-equips to float above your ship upon initial pickup, and acts as a shield against enemy fire and collision. Much like the Force Bit, this can also be used to damage enemies. If a second Round Bit is collected, it will equip to a similar position below the R-9. Round Bits will also fire single shots of the R-9's main cannon. Conspicuously missing from this port is the Missile power-up, which auto-fires missiles from the R-9 in the arcade port.

"Shot through the heart, and you're to blame,
You give aliens a bad name!"

The R-9 has full 8-way movement via the D-pad, as one would expect. Pressing the "B" button will fire a shot from the main cannon, and rapid pressing will yield a fast succession of bullets. Press and hold the "B" button to charge up the cannon, indicated by the gauge at the bottom of the screen, and when you release it, will let loose a powerful blast that does far more damage than any normal shot, or even any of the lasers. The "A" button acts as your Force Bit control. If the Force Bit is docked with your ship, press "A" to release it, which will send it shooting out in whichever direction corresponds with which side of the ship it's docked. If the Force Bit is undocked, pressing "A" will call it back to the ship. The Start button pauses, naturally. Select is only used at the title screen, to bring up a handful of options, including a difficulty selection, between "Easy" and "Hard" modes.

The battleship of Stage 3 can seem a bit tricky at first, but if you can see
how I have my ship positioned, versus where the Force Bit is sitting,
you can see that this version of the game gives you a way to complete
cheese the central core, allowing you to defeat it with zero risk.

With most shoot-em-ups, you need fast reflexes, good hand/eye coordination, and a knack for interpreting on-screen events, so you can adjust what you're doing, in order to best power up and survive. These are all useful things in R-Type, but the key to success in this game, and indeed, its successors, comes down to memorization. If you know the layout of a level, which enemy waves are coming and where, which power-ups are where, and which weapons work best in a given area, you will stand a much better chance of success. Developing a pathway through each level, so you can position the ship where it makes the most sense, in terms of being reasonably safe from enemy fire or obstacles, and also allowing you to maximize enemy destruction, is essential for survival. This made R-Type somewhat unique for its time, because most other games in the genre allowed you to get by mostly on twitch reflexes and good power-up management. Irem had other plans for this game, however, because you can't just fudge your way through; you need to know where you're going, what you're doing, and which weapon you need at various junctions, because otherwise, you're not going to get very far.

Unfortunately, your high score in this version of the game is kind of a
moot point; at no point does the high score table ever display again,
and you can't even see your final score when you opt not to continue.

Visually, this port looks pretty good. The R-9 is recognizable, the switch to a numbered power-up system works, and most of the enemy sprites and level designs match their arcade counterparts pretty well. Most of the levels have very little in the background, but what's there works well to accent the foreground graphics, so it's not overdone. Animation is sparse, but it works well enough, despite a fairly high degree of sprite flicker, due to the number of sprites on screen sometimes, or the way the weapon power-ups are rendered. The BITS team should be commended for capturing, as well as could be expected, the look and feel of the arcade game.

In the absence of the original Stage 4 from the arcade, what was
Stage 6 becomes the de facto difficult level in the Game Boy port.

The audio department takes a bit of a hit, unfortunately. I'm not sure if it was a ROM size limitation, or what the reason was, but there are only 2 primary stage music tracks in the game that just repeat every other stage. Stages 1, 3, and 5 use the music from Stage 1, and Stages 2, 4, and 6, use that of Stage 2. The boss encounter music remains the same, and there's a separate ending theme, but the music selection in the game is quite sparse. Thankfully, what's here is at least translated reasonably well to the Game Boy's sound hardware. Sound effects are roughly what one would expect. They work for the port, and aren't annoying or offensive, but nothing stood out to me as being either particularly noteworthy, or specifically bad. They're merely utilitarian in that respect. The one exception is the sound effect that plays at the end of a stage, as your bonus score is being tallied. For a game that doesn't show your score when you die, it's a rather grating sound effect to count down that point bonus.

This spot tripped me up many times, having to try and navigate between 2
descending, basically indestructible enemies, and it's easy to crash into one.

As you might expect, concessions had to be made to fit this arcade game onto the Game Boy. I previously mentioned that the missiles were omitted from the weapon set. This isn't a big loss, since the strategic advantage they gave you in the original is mostly gone, given the more compressed level layouts and smaller enemy count. Rather than the original arcade game's 8 levels, the Game Boy port is comprised of only 6, cutting out stages 4 and 5. This was necessary due to the nature of those 2 areas. Stage 4 had enemies flying onto the screen that left obstacle trails you had to shoot through, and the sheer number of sprites and on-screen objects would have been overwhelming for the handheld. The same goes for Stage 5, which saw you pitted against giant robot snakes that split off into multiple sections when the head is destroyed. The Stage 5 boss would be too sprite-heavy as well. These necessary omissions make the game quite a bit easier as a result, especially since Stage 4 is generally considered the hardest area in the game.

Thankfully, the checkpoint in Stage 4 isn't too far from the boss, and you
at least get an opportunity to power up with a Force Bit & weapon beforehand.

R-Type has always been challenging, but while this version is no pushover, it is considerably easier than its original arcade incarnation. As previously mentioned, 2 levels are missing, so that cuts out a fourth of the game you need to memorize and learn. Also, there's a strategy you can use to more easily beat some bosses, whereby you throw the Force Bit at a boss, then move your ship out of reach enough that when you press "A" to call the device back to your ship, it instead will find the weak spot. Case in point: the Stage 2 boss can be easily defeated by throwing the Force Bit toward the right side of the screen, then moving the R-9 to the lower-left, and calling the bit back. Instead of traveling over top of the boss, it will go right to the center of the top of the boss, which is its vulnerable area. A similar strategy can be employed in Stage 3 at the end of the battleship. Needless to say, while you likely won't beat this game on a single credit your first time through, it shouldn't provide too much trouble, even in the game's second loop.

Just for the sake of contrast, you can see how much better R-Type DX
looks from this one screenshot. Imagine how much better the rest of the
game looks. It also sounds much better, with enhanced music & effects.

Though this is a reasonably solid conversion of the arcade hit, it's difficult to recommend it. Not because it's not a good game, but because it has been supplanted by R-Type DX on the Game Boy Color. It collects both this game, and the Game Boy port of R-Type II, which we didn't get in the US, and offers both the original black & white versions, as well as colorized versions that are enhanced on the Game Boy Color and Advance systems. In addition, the "DX" mode is a mix of levels from both games, which changes the experience enough to add additional replay value. As of the time of this writing, the original R-Type on Game Boy is going for around $10, which is probably close to what I paid for it. R-Type DX, on the other hand, is only going for around $12 loose, which is a much better deal, considering all the extra content. I consider myself lucky to have held onto my copy of the DX version which I bought as a new release, so my only interest in picking up the original port is as a Game Boy collector and reviewer, and ultimately, to see if there were any differences between the 2 versions that would make for an interesting discussion. There aren't any notable changes, to speak of, so unless, like me, you're a hardcore collector or shmup fan, and have to have them all, this is one I'd consider passing up, in favor of its Game Boy Color iteration. Either way, this is an easy game to recommend checking out, if you're a fan of the original, or the genre.

PS - As an aside, R-Type was the first game I chose for a new shoot-em-up club I've started at RF Generation, where I'm a monthly contributor, and staff member. The RF Generation Shmup Club looks at one shmup every month, and we all pick the version/port we want to play, try for good high scores, and see how far we can get in the game. For each monthly game, there's a discussion thread, where we talk about the game, share scores, strategies, and just discuss the game in general. If you like classic shooters, or even modern shoot-em-up games, consider checking it out. Head over to RF Generation, go to the forums, and you'll find the threads in the Community Playthrough section. New members are always welcome, so if you're reading this, I hope to see you there as well!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Metroid II: Return Of Samus (1991)

Box art shamelessly stolen from GiantBomb. There's an old saying that
I will paraphrase here: "The suit makes the man." What about the woman?

In the annals of video game history, some games don't quite get their due.  For every Super Mario Bros. that gets duly recognized for its greatness, there's bound to be a couple games that, while perhaps not as ubiquitous, or universally appealing, are nearly as well-designed and realized.  While commercial fortunes may elude said games, sometimes their critical acclaim transcends the almighty dollar, and a game's fortunes can be won more organically, through the slow burn that comes from word of mouth.  When this kind of grassroots movement starts to take hold, it's only a matter of time before someone takes notice.

Nintendo needed to do little more than put the logo on the screen with
"II" behind it to elicit screams of geek joy all around the world.

Such is the case with the original Metroid, which was of particular interest to the youth in North America.  Much like it's adventure game forbear, The Legend of Zelda, which released a mere month prior in the US, Metroid became the talk of school playgrounds across the country.  Kids were talking about the exploration, the cool main character, and how hard the game was, because there was nothing telling you where to go, or what to do.  There was an air of mystery surrounding the character of Samus, and a sense of loneliness that comes from a game with no humanoid enemies, and only a scant few alien foes to dispatch here and there, with no clear indication of why you should do so, if only because they will hurt you otherwise.  It was as if the Wild West had been recreated on an alien planet, and Samus was the lone homesteader, trying to get lay of the land.

Samus has a very cool looking spaceship. It reminds me of the cool ship
from the "Flight of the Navigator" movie, only with windows. And cannons.

Metroid was a revelation in console game design.  While The Legend of Zelda had a sprawling map and immediate sense of adventure, with its jaunty overworld theme and colorful graphics, Metroid immediately set out on a different path, with a darker overall feel, and elements heavily inspired by artist H.R. Giger and the Alien film by Ridley Scott.  Samus, the game's protagonist, was alone on an alien world, with a limited arsenal of weaponry to defend herself from a myriad of threats.  The stark, black background and unfamiliar terrain helped to define the game's atmosphere, which gave the original Metroid a sense of identity.  This identity paved the way for a series of games that, while having achieved notoriety, hasn't quite received the accolades it deserves.

I'm not sure what that thing over my head is, but it kind of looks like a
sort of flying chainsaw drill thing. The stuff of nightmares. Thanks, Nintendo.

After the modest success of the original game, Nintendo followed it up with a sequel in an unlikely place, on their handheld Game Boy system.  After the very open, exploratory nature of Metroid graced the Famicom and NES, Gunpei Yokoi and a small development team were given the opportunity to create a follow-up.  What we got in the sequel was a bit more straightforward than its predecessor, with less backtracking, more combat, and a few elements that have since become staples of the franchise.  How this sequel stacks up against its predecessor, and the games that followed, is up for debate.

These save stands will quickly become your friend on this lonely world.
Actually, they're your only friend here on Planet SR388. Forever alone...

The short version of the story synopsis is, after defeating the Mother Brain in the first game, the Galactic Federation sends Samus on a mission to the Metroid life form's home world, designated SR388, to wipe out the species.  After landing on the planet, Samus must set out to find, and destroy, all remaining Metroids.  Along the way, she discovers that this life form has various states of evolution, and some of the more evolved forms are particularly nasty, and difficult to dispatch.  Once she has successfully expunged all the Metroids from SR388, she must then face off with the Metroid Queen.  Assuming she can take out the mother of all Metroids, Samus can consider it a day's work, and return home.

When you see one of these busted egg pod things, you know a Metroid
is close by, so make sure to watch for one, so you're not caught off guard!

There are a number of changes to the Metroid formula that are obvious here, such as the move from console to handheld, the necessary change to 4-monochrome shades instead of color, and the zoomed in perspective, complete with large Samus sprite, because of the small screen size and lower resolution of the Game Boy.  Some changes are only obvious once you begin to play the game.  This is a more linear affair than the original game.  Sure, you can backtrack as far as you want or need, but unless you miss a path, don't follow a path completely, or want to go back to save your game or replenish health or missiles, it's not nearly as essential to revisit the areas you've explored before.  Also, unlike the original, this time Samus starts out with some abilities already enabled, such as the Morph Ball.  She also starts out with a stock of missiles, which are necessary to kill the Metroids.

You'll find a few of these spots in the game, where you can fully refill your
health with the glowing ball, & your missiles with the, you know, missile tank.

As you make your way through the game, you quickly find the Spider Ball power-up, which allows you to make the Morph Ball form adhere to any surface, as if by using some kind of sticky substance.  This is essential for traversing various areas, and for reaching the locations of some power-ups, and Metroids.  In addition, you'll locate missile upgrades, each increasing the maximum number of missiles you can carry by 5.  You'll find the familiar Ice Beam and Wave Beam part of the way through, but you'll also discover the new Spazer Beam and Plasma Beam, both of which return later in Super Metroid.  As with the original game, you can find the Varia Suit to cut the damage Samus takes in half, as well as obtain the Screw Attack, which allows Samus to cause damage to enemies when jumping into them in a spinning motion.  New to this outing are the High Jump Boots, which allow Samus to jump far higher than normal, as well as the Space Jump, which allows Samus to essentially spin jump infinitely, assuming subsequent jumps are executed properly (more on that later).  There's also a Spring Ball power-up, obtained by conquering a creature known as an Arachnus, that allows Samus to jump while in Morph Ball form.

The blue stuff that looks like water? Yeah, that's acid, and if you touch it,
you lose health. Also, I'm not sure why fish have mo-hawks on SR388.

Items that are essential to the completion of the game are the Spider Ball, the Ice Beam, and the Space Jump.  To make life easier, the Screw Attack is really helpful, and of course, locating as many Energy Tanks (to increase Samus' total health points) and Missile Tanks as possible, so you have enough ammo to take out the more highly evolved Metroids.  You also probably won't get too far if you don't upgrade to a more powerful gun, such as the Plasma Beam, at some point during the adventure.  Because this is a more linear affair, chances are, you'll likely discover most of the upgrades with minimal exploration and effort, as nothing in the game is too far off the beaten path.  It's just a matter of looking at the fairly obvious tells for where to bomb or shoot to break a path through a wall or floor, and you'll find what you're looking for.

Like the first game, there's knockback, as well as no grace period after
taking damage before you will take more, so watch your energy closely.

Graphically, this game is really on point.  The Samus sprite is large and detailed, and despite limited frames of animation, looks great while running and performing various movements.  All the areas are nicely drawn, with interesting use of different patterns and motifs that tie together fairly well, without being too repetitive.  Enemies all look good, though most aren't really animated.  It's a bit odd, as most enemy sprites just move on screen, but don't have separate frames of animation.  One particular enemy that does has a weird effect that accompanies the animation.  I don't know if this was a conscious decision, to help minimize screen blurring, or to keep the focus on Samus' animation, but it's an interesting side note.

They're not as prevalent here as on Zebes, but there are a handful of doors
that require the requisite 5 missiles to open the first time you encounter them.

Of particular interest is the colorization option available, when playing the game on newer hardware.  Starting with the Super Game Boy, and going all the way up through the Game Boy Advance, and Game Boy Player, each official way to play the Metroid II cartridge was programmed with a specific color palette for the game that gave Samus her iconic red and yellow suit, and colorizes backgrounds and foreground elements in various ways.  I know there's some hardware trickery that can be used to sort of get around the 4-shade limitation with this special palette, though I'm not entirely sure how Nintendo pulled it off.  I think the palette was tweaked after the Super Game Boy for the Game Boy Color, and for the Game Boy Advance and Super Game Boy.  Playing on 2 CRT TV's, the SGB palette looks brighter and more limited, in terms of colors used, whereas playing on the Game Boy Player (which I did for my full play-through), it seems there's a wider array of color choices used, suggesting that Nintendo purposely used some additional GBC/GBA magic to accomplish that.

You know you've hit pay-dirt when you've found a room with a large statue,
holding a power-up in its hand, waiting for you to shoot it and claim it.
"Take the bombs, Samus, for you are the Chozo-en one."

In the audio department, the game is pretty much what you would expect, and that's mostly a good thing.  The music in game is a mixture of slightly bouncy, hopeful sci-fi adventure music, ambient sounds, and a couple tunes that are less hopeful, and more foreboding, though nothing quite as atmospheric as the follow-up game would have, save, perhaps, for the title screen theme, with its contrasting harsh, high-pitched tones and somber melody.  The iconic jingle that plays when you find an upgrade is here, complete with a couple nice percussive flourishes, for effect.  The theme that plays during the final face-off with the Metroid Queen is sufficiently dark and unique as well.  Sound effects are mostly good, with cool explosion effects, good weapon noises, and a scant few enemy sounds.  The one area of sound that I take issue with is the annoying alarm that plays constantly when you get low on health.  It's kind of cool that it changes a little bit, depending on how close you are to death, or to restoring your health, but it's still annoying.  It's not quite as grating as that of most of the Legend of Zelda series games, and yet, remains a nuisance.

Lots of fun places like this to sneak through walls and find hidden areas.

Going into this game expecting an experience like the original game is a mistake, so if, perchance, you haven't played this game yet, understand that it takes a different approach.  The goal here is to kill all 39 Metroid creatures on SR388, and then take out the queen.  As I mentioned earlier, this is a far more linear affair.  When you pause the game, you see a number in the lower-right corner, which indicates the number of Metroids you have to kill within the general area.  Once that counter reaches zero, you experience a mild earthquake, and the acid that blocks your path to lower areas of the planet gets reduced, which then allows you to go deeper into SR388 to find and destroy more Metroids.  After this acid reduction takes place and you move to the next area, you can pause the game, and again, see how many Metroids are in the area that you need to dispatch.

Finding all the Energy Tanks in the game is essential, so make sure to
seek them all out. You'll need that extra health to face the queen.

Unlike the original game, which saw you exploring large areas with no major threats, save for a few pesky enemies here and there, this game has what boils down to a succession of mini-boss fights, with many of the lower-tiered Metroids.  This approach quickly become full-on boss fights, as you face off with some of the more evolved forms that take more of a pelting to down, and are trickier to defeat.  A quick search of the web will reveal the strategy for fighting the queen, but if you go in blind, like I did, you may be a little stumped as to how to take her down, even with full health and missiles.  After defeating the queen, instead of having to quickly escape, you can sort of leisurely stroll out of her chamber, and jump your way up and through the catacombs to reach the surface again, so you can get back to your ship.  As you do so, you'll encounter an egg, which hatches, and reveals a baby Metroid that follows you.  As you're escaping, this baby Metroid will clear a path for you through certain obstacles that Samus cannot shoot through, either with a laser weapon, or with missiles.  This, of course, sets the stage for the iconic Super Metroid intro, with it's famous line, "The last Metroid is in captivity; the galaxy is at peace."  So unlike the Legend of Zelda franchise, which has rarely received a direct sequel from one game to another, the stories of the first 3 games in this series are all interconnected, and flow relatively well from the first through the third.

The Spider Ball is a pretty fun power-up to use, because Samus can literally
stick to any surface or wall that doesn't cause her or her suit any damage.

As I write this review, in the fall of 2017, it's interesting that there are now more options than ever to experience the story and game play of Metroid II: Return of Samus.  Not only can you purchase an original cart, and play on some form of Game Boy hardware, but you can also purchase the game on the 3DS e-Shop.  The game never received a Wii, or Wii U Virtual Console release, however.  In August 2016, a fan-made remake was released, known on the web as "AM2R" which stands for "Another Metroid 2 Remake" which was released as a free download for PC.  Within days, Nintendo rightfully filed DMCA take-down requests, to protect the Metroid series as their intellectual property, and the game was subsequently taken down.  This happened after the developer, using the name DoctorM64, had poured years of development time into the project.  Of course, as with anything on the internet these days, once it's out in the wild, and a few people have downloaded it, it's still generally available, though not officially from the AM2R web blog.  Subsequently, DoctorM64 has parlayed his notoriety into a job offer from Moon Studios, who developed Ori and the Blind Forest, so at least the good Doctor landed on two feet after this went down.  In addition, Nintendo has just release an official remake, titled Metroid: Samus Returns.  This remake adds new elements, such as a melee parry ability, which gives you the ability to stun incoming enemies so you can then target them with a new laser sight, and blast away.  I haven't purchased a copy yet, but after playing through the original, it's on my short list to buy and play through soon.

Without getting too far down into the weeds, AM2R is a worthy remake, and definitely worth checking out.  It fixes many of the typically mentioned problems with the original game: it's in full color, the perspective is zoomed out, the control is tighter, the game moves faster, and there's a greater sense of exploration, because some of the new abilities you have to find first, such as the Spider Ball.  I haven't played it through to completion, but I can say that it definitely feels more like Super Metroid, and that's a good thing.  The interpretations of the Metroid II music are all really well done, and worth downloading on their own, as they tend toward the Super Metroid style and overall feel.  Graphically, AM2R is gorgeous, with that Super Nintendo look and feel, and the game is impressive overall.  Yes, you'll need to look a little harder to find a download for it, but it will be worth your time, because it's a stunning game that takes the source material and lovingly updates it to give it more polish.  I can't really recommend it enough, given the fact that it's free.

"Spider Samus, Spider Samus, does whatever a Spider can...mus."

Now that I've sung the praises of a fan remake, how does the original game fare?  Pretty well, all things considered.  The game looks and sounds great.  Metroid II retains some of the lonely feeling of the first game, but without too jarring an effect when you find a Metroid to take out.  Each area where a Metroid is located, you'll see a shattered egg/pod, indicating that there's one close by, so you'll be on heightened alert.  Each time you clear an area of Metroids, it's a very satisfying feeling, knowing you've opened up a whole new area to explore.  The new weapons and items are cool, and you'll definitely have fun with the Spider Ball power-up, scaling walls and going all sorts of places, looking for energy tanks and missile upgrades.  The Metroid encounters, especially the more evolved forms, can get fairly intense, and will raise your heart rate significantly as you rush to pelt them with missiles.

This game isn't without its flaws, however.  The obvious issue of the zoomed in perspective, due to the Game Boy's low resolution, is present here.  It doesn't affect game play too much, but it does hamper the Metroid encounters somewhat, because there's so little room to maneuver, it can feel claustrophobic for some of them.  The Game Boy's processor speed is a factor, because it means the game moves a bit more slowly than its predecessor.  That's not entirely a bad thing, because it makes some of the Metroid encounters a touch easier, but on the flipside, that means the game isn't overly difficult.  As with the first game in the series, Metroid II has no map feature, so you'll either need to draw your own, or in this age of internet, just search for one.  I found one that I liked and used that as my guide throughout the game.  Even though this is a more linear adventure than the original, I still recommend using or creating a map.

"Oh, what a feelin' - I see Samus on the ceiling."

I also rather dislike when games have zero recovery time when you take damage.  Yes, I know that with the energy tanks, it's more forgiving than a game where you get 3 to 5 hits and you're dead, but you can quickly run out of life in some situations.  Add to this, the fact that this game has knockback, and there are a couple spots where you can be juggled to death by a pair of adjacent enemies, with no way to escape.  You can get knocked off a ledge by a Metroid, only to fall into an acid pit or other hazard, and quickly drain all your health.  Metroids can be difficult to kill, because they're only vulnerable in certain spots, and some of the more evolved forms are hard to evade as you're attacking, so you will inevitably take damage, and often be forced to backtrack to find a health refill station before you will feel brave enough to venture to the next Metroid chamber, lest you find a save point before then.  The Metroids toward the end of the game can only be killed by using the Ice Beam to freeze them, and then quickly pelt them with 5 missiles before they thaw out.  If you don't know this, you'll die repeatedly until you figure it out.  And even then, you'll find that, once they get to you and get on to of you, you'll drain of health really fast, and have to flail around frantically to shake them off.  I understand that increases the sense of urgency in dealing with them and taking them out, but when you're so close to the end, it can be very frustrating to be downed so easily by what looks like a flying jellyfish.

And finally, the Space Jump.  I'm not sure if it's just me, but I have a hard time pulling it off in successive jumps.  I don't know if I'm waiting too long, or what my problem is, but in some areas where it's easier and faster to use the Space Jump, or in locations where you have to, because there are hazards that prevent you from using the Spider Ball, I found myself easily frustrated because I couldn't pull it off easily.  I would get it to work 2 or 3 times, only to stop spinning and fall to the ground below.  Or, I would start using it, and try to time it so that I could dodge enemies, and enemy fire, only to plow right into a hazard, and plummet back down below.  It wasn't enough to make me want to rage-quit, but it certainly raised my blood pressure, and put a damper on the overall experience.  I know there are folks who can Space Jump like nobody's business, and kudos to them.  I obviously haven't quite reached the level of Space Jump Zen Master.

"Ice, ice beaming."

When it's all said and done, I believe that Metroid II: Return of Samus is still well worth playing, more than 25 years after its release.  It's still a solid game that holds up well, and won't take an exorbitant amount of time to get through.  The mechanics, graphics, music, sound, and game play all hold up well enough to make it worth going back to.  I will say that, if you are curious about AM2R or Metroid: Samus Returns, I would encourage you to go back and play the original first, even if just briefly through emulation, so that you'll have a greater appreciation for the remake and re-imagining of the game, and also to see that, despite the improvements introduced with these newer iterations, the core game play is essentially the same, and it's still strong all these years later.  Metroid II: Return of Samus remains one of the shining examples of how to take a beloved console game franchise, and shrink it down to a mobile platform, and still make it work in a way that is fun, engaging, and worthwhile.  Despite its flaws, I still had a lot of fun with the game, and would definitely revisit it in its original form, even with the availability of remakes.  Highly recommended, if not downright essential for Game Boy enthusiasts and Metroid fans alike.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Dramatic Readings! My Video Review Series

As much as I enjoy writing Game Boy game reviews, I understand that not everyone likes to read long-form reviews as much as I do.  I also really like the convenience of video platforms like YouTube, and have reached a point where I consume far more YouTube than I do traditional TV these days.  I've had a YouTube presence for a number of years, with a personal channel where I've done music reviews and vinyl album collection videos, but only got started with a Game Boy and gaming themed channel a couple years back.  Most of what I have up are game collection and pickups videos, but I've started a series I've dumbed "Dramatic Readings!" where I read through my written reviews, atop Game Boy game footage of the game in question.

I've just uploaded the 4th video in the series, so I thought I'd highlight that here on the blog, so that, for the handful of folks who have read my reviews, but may not know about my YouTube channel, you can quickly discover this avenue as well.  I'm going in order of my reviews, from the very first game I reviewed, forward through the blog, so the video reviews will always lag behind the written reviews.  I'm hoping to get enough videos made to eventually catch up to the blog, so that, whenever I release a new written review, I record my video review of the previously reviewed game.  This way, there's time for folks to read the written review first, and then if they miss that, or prefer the YouTube content, they can still see that video review within a reasonable amount of time after the written review is posted.

I have a lot of reviews to get moved over to video, so that will take some time to accomplish.  In the meantime, I'll still be playing games and writing reviews, so there will still be fresh content for the blog, as I have time to do so.  As I've mentioned before, this is all a labor of love, and because I'm not funding this through Patreon or any other means, but simply buying games with my own money, playing them in my spare time, and writing reviews as I can, I go at my own rather glacial pace.  I'm planning on trying to accomplish as many of these Dramatic Readings! videos as quickly as possible, so I can get into that rhythm of writing a review and then uploading the previous review video, which I would try to have prepared and ready to go so I can release them around the same time.  This way, I can have new content ready to go for both the blog, and the YouTube channel, as time allows.

All this to say, if you haven't checked out my YouTube channel yet, please do so, as I also post game hunting and pickups videos, and have some other stuff in the works as well.  Here are the first 4 episodes of Dramatic Readings!

Dramatic Readings! Episode 001 - Donkey Kong 94

Dramatic Readings! Episode 002 - TMNT: Fall of the Foot Clan

Dramatic Readings! Episode 003 - Tetris
Dramatic Readings! Episode 004 - Super Mario Land

Thank you for reading, and continuing to check out this blog.  I would very much appreciate it if you would also go subscribe to my YouTube channel, and if you haven't followed me on Twitter yet, please do so there as well.  As I said, I'm not doing this for money, but getting nice comments on reviews and videos does help keep me motivated, as it does for anyone, so please let me know what you think, and give me some honest feedback.  Thanks again for your support!

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Championship Pool (1993)

Box art shamelessly stolen from GameFAQS.
I'm not sure what the Billiard Congress of America is, exactly, but it seems
like it's important. Or maybe it just thinks it's important. Who knows.

I know very little about the sport of Billiards, known to mere mortals simply as "Pool" - a sport that is less agility, dexterity, and athleticism, and more a game of mathematics.  Simply put, pool is all about geometry, knowing how hard or soft to hit the ball, and understanding the playing field, with all the various configurations and iterations thereof.  It's a game with a strict set of rules to adhere to, and near-infinite complexity.  There are a large number of different styles of play, each with its own set of specific rules, quirks, and strategies.  Also, it's a game I'm pretty terrible at.

Nothing screams "Excitement!" quite like this title screen.

My wife's late grandmother had a pool table in her basement that the grandkids would always play during family get-togethers, while waiting for the meal, or after the meal, when the adults were upstairs chatting.  Outside of that, and a handful of experiences with it at various arcades or bowling alleys, and at the local youth center, I have almost no experience playing pool in real life.  I understand geometry from an on-paper, mathematical level, but the practical application of it as pool strategy always eluded me.  I could line up my shot, but unless I was gunning for the pocket nearly dead-on, I always had a tendency to over or undershoot, bouncing off the pocket's angled edges, and sending the cue ball rolling off in a random direction.  Needless to say, I've never developed a love for the game.

With 4 main game modes, and multiple variations per mode, there's
an awful lot of game here, despite most pool variations being similar.

That being said, pool video games are a common sight on most every platform.  They're not quite as common in North America as, say, Mahjong games are in Japan, but one genre that was always present on any console during the 8 and 16-bit eras was that of video billiards.  I think the Side Pocket series showed up on nearly everything during that time, and while it gained a certain degree of name recognition, I can't speak to the game's playability or quality as of yet, because I haven't played any of the games, save, perhaps, for a few minutes of the NES version as a kid.  This isn't a genre I would normally dabble in, but given my desire to play every single Game Boy game, it was bound to happen at some point.  Enter Championship Pool by Mindscape.

Not to be cliche, but Party mode is where the party's at.  Quite literally.

When I initially chose this game from my ever-growing pile of Game Boy cartridges, I assumed it would be another throw-away sports title, as is usually the case with most of these games on a handheld system.  Sure, loads of people STILL play Tecmo Super Bowl on the NES, and even mod it each year to add current teams, stats, etc., but a pool game?  I had no hesitation in thinking this would likely be little more than a reasonably pleasant time-waster.  I had no expectations going in, other than this preconception.  What I found was a surprisingly deep experience that, while still imperfect, offers a lot of content for enthusiasts of the sport, and plenty to do for those of us still figuring out how to chalk up our cue.

"Well the game never ends when your whole world depends,
on the flip of a friendly coin."

The intricacies of billiards are best explained elsewhere, but here's the 10,000-foot version: you have a table where you put together a large grouping of balls, and you use a long wooden stick to hit an equally-sized ball into that grouping of balls to split them up, then systematically use that methodology to hit successive numbered balls into various "pockets" around the table.  There's 1 pocket at each of the 4 corners, and 1 on each long side, for a total of 6.  If you hit the wrong ball into a pocket, that's bad.  If you hit the right ball into the wrong pocket, that's bad.  If you hit the cue ball, used to hit the numbered balls, into a pocket, that's also bad.  And in most sets of rules, unless you're playing what's referred to as "scratch pool" in common parlance, you cannot hit the 8-ball into any pocket until all other balls designated to you have been sunk into other pockets.

This is one of the few rules in pool I distinctly remember learning as a
kid, and when playing with others, actually following.

Keeping all this in mind, the essential elements to success in pool are understanding the basics of geometry, so you can hit the cue ball with your cue (the aforementioned long, wooden stick), so it can strike the numbered balls and send them careening into the pocket.  If the ball you want or need to hit is halfway down the table, and there's another ball in the way, you can hit the cue ball toward a wall to bank it off that surface, and back toward the destination ball, in hopes that you'll hit it with enough force, at the proper angle, so as to direct it to the pocket in question.  It sounds simple enough, but there are a lot of elements at work.  How hard do you hit the ball?  Do you hit it straight on, high up on the ball to create "topspin" or down low to create "backspin" instead, to slow it down?  Do you hit toward the right or left side of the ball to give it a bit of curvature in a given direction?  Can you bank more than once, if the other balls are in the way, or clustered too far together?  All of these elements  at work make pool a far more complex sport than one would imagine.

Pool's just like football, right?  "Ready...break!"

Translating that to a video game could prove challenging, especially on a tiny handheld system with a direction pad, 2 action buttons, and 2 optional buttons, but Bitmasters pulled it off here.  Controls are deceptively simple at first: use the D-pad to move your targeting reticle around to point to where you're going to shoot the cue ball.  Press A to confirm targeting, and you see animations that help indicate the approximate proposed trajectory of the intended target ball.  Assuming you're targeting the right ball (more on that later), and can aim it toward a pocket, you can then press A again to shoot the cue ball and hope you not only hit the intended ball, but that it then reaches its intended pocket.  It's not quite that simple, however.

I feel like there's a joke here somewhere, but I can't quite find it...

As you're moving your target circle around, you can use the Select button to zoom in on the pool table, to get a much closer view of the action.  In either zoomed in/out view, you can hold down the B-button, then press a direction on the D-pad, to move the targeting circle far more slowly and precisely, to finely tune your shot.  In contrast, you can also hold a direction down on the D-pad, then press and hold the B button to move the cursor quickly, which is useful for faster navigation around the table.  Pressing the B button once will bring up the power meter, and then you can hold down left or right on the D-pad to increase or decrease the strength of your shot.  Press the Start button while lining up your shot, and you're treated with additional options: under the Game Control menu, choose the Set Spin option to get a "behind the cue" view of your ball, and move the stick around to determine where on the ball you plan to it it.  It's a surprisingly deep control scheme for a portable pool title, and was likely carried over from the NES version of the game's design.

I'm a master scratch player. The trouble is, that skill is only useful
when you're a DJ, not when you're trying to will at billiards.

There are other options as well, accessed via the Start button.  You can quickly switch between displaying the ball numbers or not, move the cue ball (if the rules dictate you can, via a break shot, or opponent scratch), choose your zoom (instead of just pressing Select), or access the "Jukebox" (to toggle music on or off).  In the Actions menu, you can choose a Special Action, such as calling a safety (where there's no clear shot), or viewing the scoreboard.  You can check out a replay of the last shot, deciding to Insta-Win, if you can't handle the pressure, or choose to end the party, if you're playing one of the party modes within the game.

When your opponent scratches, by sinking the cue ball, you get an
opportunity to place the cue ball anywhere on the table, which is a
huge help if you want a clean shot at your next numbered ball.

Speaking of modes, Championship Pool offers a large variety of game modes.  At the main screen that comes up, you can choose between 4 different modes: Tournament, Challenge, Party, and Freestyle.  In Tournament mode, you can select whether to auto-break the balls as they're racked on the table, or do that manually.  You can also choose between a standard 8-ball or 9-ball game setup.  It's a single-elimination tournament bracket, so you only get one shot to fail.  In Challenge mode, you can choose from one of six different billiards challenges: 14.1 Challenge (like "straight pool" but each shot must be properly called and achieved), Eight Ball, Nine Ball, Equal Offense (a series of 8 15-ball racks in a scoring contest), Three Ball (sink 3 balls in as few shots as possible), and Speed Pool (sink the balls as quickly as possible).  Freestyle allows you to essentially practice on a standard 15-ball rack, taking shots and being less concerned with the full rules, but getting a feel for the geometry, game mechanics, controls, and approach of the game.

The zoomed view is really helpful for precision in lining up a shot,
especially combined with the slow cursor method to near-pinpoint accuracy.

The most robust mode is the Party mode.  In this game mode, there are 11 different options: Eight Ball, Nine Ball, 14.1 Continuous, Ten Ball, Rotation (similar to straight pool, but balls must be sunk in numeric sequence), Straight Pool, Equal Offense, Fifteen Ball (similar to rotation, except balls can be sunk in any sequence, and scoring is based on the ball number), One Pocket (each player has a designated pocket that they must shoot any balls into, in order to score), Three Ball, and Speed Pool.  Each of these modes allows either 2 or 5 players, depending on the mode.  The handy part is, each player can use the same Game Boy handheld, and players just pass it back and forth, or in a round table fashion.  With so many options, one can conceivably get a lot of value out of this mode, either playing with other people, or playing every round oneself, as a means of getting more practice at each different set of game rules.

"11-ball, corner pocket!"  It's my signature move.

Tournament mode, because it's single-elimination, is quite difficult, because you really have to have a good handle on the game mechanics in order to avoid getting "snookered" by your opponent.  You also have to abide by the strict rules of either game, so that means hitting the numbered balls in sequence, and making sure to correctly pocket each one.  Foul too many times, or lose because your opponent just out-shoots you, and you'll see an avatar of your opponent on screen with a greasy smile, letting you know that you're not up to the task.  The real challenge comes in the form of the so-named Challenge mode, where a single mistake means game over - no scratch, no retries, you're just done.  You'll need to rack up some serious time in Freestyle or Party modes, and get incredibly good at the game before you have much hope to complete a challenge in this mode.  I found myself, with my limited skill and knowledge, only being able to get about 2 or 3 shots in on any of the challenges, often breaking the rack, and then not even remotely being able to reach the target ball for the rule set, and immediately failing the challenge.  Enter at your own risk.

Sometimes, these shots from across the table, even when the target
ball is close to the pocket, can be difficult to sink properly.

Graphically, the game doesn't do much, but it's hard to expect that from a simple billiards game.  What's here is competent, however.  The simple overhead view of the table is good, with a nice representation of the wood grain of the outer table, and an angled design on the carpet below, as well as the pockets, pool balls, cue, etc.  The initial menu has a nice graphical effect where, when you press up or down on the D-pad to move the arrow to select your game mode, a set of pipes above and below the arrow will blow out a puff of smoke, as if to move the arrow up or down.  It's an unnecessary flourish, but a nice touch, nonetheless.  The text on screen during the initial menus is a little harder to read, because it resembles a manual scoreboard, but that's a nice touch.  In-game menus are much easier to read, and the game's overall presentation is clean.

One step away from victory, as the 7 ball will be an easy one to pocket.

In the audio department, the game is pretty weak.  The game only has two or three music tracks in total.  One plays at the title screen, and during the game itself, and there's at least one more track that plays when you lose.  There's another short tune when you win.  I haven't got far enough into the Tournament mode to know whether or not there's additional music if you win the whole contest.  Sound effects are utilitarian, so they get the job done without being exciting.  The sound when you smack the rack of balls and break them is fine, as is the rest of the sound for hitting balls, bumping the pool table wall, or sinking a ball in the pocket.  Nothing here smacks of outstanding sound design, but it fits the bill.

Of all the rotten luck!  Oh well, maybe next time.

The real meat of this game is in the depth of the control scheme, coupled with the staggering number of game modes, but even then, it still boils down to hitting the cue ball to break a rack of numbered balls, and shoot them into various pockets.  A player's mileage is going to vary wildly, depending on how much effort one wants to put into learning the nuance of the controls, and digging into each of the game's modes.  True mastery of digital billiards will elude all but the most patient players, and based on how granular the controls can be, I suspect that the Challenge mode games will take a significant amount of practice before they'll be won.  If I'm going to play a game that's more on the slow side, such as this, my preference is either a turn-based RPG, or a puzzle game of some sort.  This kind of game, lining up shots, taking forever to determine how and where you're going to shoot, how much power to use, spin, backspin, topspin, etc. is not really for me.

When I started playing this game for review, I tweeted out a statement about this game being boring.  While I stand by my original assessment for how little I had played it, and how I was equally uninformed about the game's mechanics, I must amend that statement by saying that it's boring - at first.  Once you begin to get a feel for it, learn the nuance and complexity of the control scheme, and begin to see some real victory for your efforts, it becomes more rewarding.  Whether that's enough to justify a purchase will depend on your love, or lack thereof, for billiards, as well as whether or not this kind of slow, methodical gameplay is for you.  I don't see myself coming back to this game anytime soon, but I have a much greater appreciation for it now, after spending more time with it, than I did when I reluctantly inserted the cartridge into my Game Boy.  I would consider that high praise, because a game I fully expected to dislike, and ultimately lambaste in print, has become something that I found to be oddly thoughtful, well-designed, and a worthwhile experience.  It's certainly worth the $5 I paid for it, and if you're a pool enthusiast, I dare say, this might be the kind of experience you've been looking for in a video game.  I'll give this a casual recommendation to the enthusiast or sports fan looking for an old-school handheld fix.