Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Super Mario Land (1989)

Image shamelessly linked from Museum Of Play.
Just look at all the cool stuff on the front cover - Mario is
obviously in for a big adventure this time around!

It's quite timely that the 2015 edition of Review a Great Game Day is happening as I begin to cover the Game Boy library, especially since I'm trying to get the 5 North American launch titles out of the way in relatively short order.  Not that there's anything inherently wrong with them; far from it.  In general, the launch library was a demonstration of the baseline for what the Game Boy hardware could do.  Ultimately, many subsequent games released for the Game Boy would far and away eclipse the launch titles in terms of scope, size, graphics, sound and gameplay, as we'll discover together through this journey.  As most gamers know by now, however, the technical wizardry is only window dressing.  If the game isn't fun, it doesn't matter how pretty it looks or sounds.  Super Mario Land is a complete package - it looks good for its time, sounds good, and is loads of fun.

One look at that title screen, 
and you know you're in for a good time.

It's no stretch to say that by 1989, as far as home entertainment goes, Nintendo ruled in North America.  Microcomputers were still the rage in Europe, and Japan had a flurry of competition between Nintendo's Famicom console, Hudson's newer PC Engine console, and the still fledgling Sega Megadrive, the successor to the Mark III (Sega Master System).  In the good old US of A, however, Nintendo dominated the market due to good marketing, and also due to some strong-arm licensing tactics that created difficulty with 3rd party publishers, especially if they wanted to develop software for a competing platform, such as the Master System or the new Genesis system.  Between the popularity of the Super Mario Bros. franchise, 2 installments in (3 in Japan, by this time), plus other popular Konami and Capcom properties, the NES was a force to be reckoned with.  It wasn't the most powerful hardware on the market, but with games as good as what we were getting, that didn't matter, because the final product was high-quality and fun.  Nintendo of Japan wanted to replicate that success with the handheld market, which translated into the Game Boy.  Naturally, Nintendo would want to bring their flagship character, and primary mascot, to the new platform.  It had to be a good game, or the franchise's staying power could be jeopardized.  Thankfully, it turned out to be a great game.

Look at all the shiny coins!

Mario, being the nice guy he is, was somehow informed of the goings-on in Sarasaland, a magical place, not unlike the Mushroom Kingdom.  Apparently, a ruthless alien named Tatanga has run amok throughout the 4 realms, and his minions have taken over.  Princess Daisy, who rules over Sarasaland, has been taken captive, and Mario takes it upon himself to rescue her from the evil alien.  He must traverse all 4 realms, defeat Tatanga's minions, and bring peace to the land once again.  Either Mario is a sucker, or he's just the nicest guy in the universe, because he continues to save princesses and people over and over again.

Image shamelessly linked from Brawl In the Family.
This comic perfectly illustrates the double-take most fans might have
done when first playing the game, due to the unfamiliarity of many
elements in the game's world, Sarasaland, much like they did when
they first played Super Mario Bros. 2, with the new "pull" mechanic, as
well as all the new enemies and locations in the game's world.

"I'll take what's behind door #2, Bob."

Thankfully, Mario has a couple tools at his disposal to help him along the way.  Along for the ride is the usual super mushroom & invincibility star, as well as 1-Ups that come in the form of hearts now, instead of mushrooms, most likely due to the lack of color to distinguish them from the super mushrooms.  Also, there are flowers in this game, but they're not "Fire Flowers".  Instead, they give Mario the ability to throw bouncing "superball" power-ups.  Interestingly, these superballs will bounce off any surface at a 45 degree angle, and will keep bouncing for a short time until they leave the screen, or wear out.  A new element here also is that superballs can collect coins, a gameplay mechanic you'll likely use more than once in the game.  Be aware that only 2 of the superballs can appear on the screen at any given time, so if you jump the gun and fire off 2, and neither hit the enemy you're targeting, you'll have to wait to throw more, and possibly dispatch the foe using the standard stomp method.  Also, if you reach the end of the level and can get to the upper door, you'll participate in a mini game where you can score extra lives, or a superball flower power-up.

Cats have 9 lives, but for Mario, the sky's the limit.

Sarasaland has a bevy of new antagonists.  Goombas (Chibibo) and Piranha plants (Pakkun) have apparently populated Sarasaland under new aliases, but Koopa Troopa's (Nokobon) now explode shortly after stomping them.  There are goofy robots, running Easter Island heads, jumping fish carcasses, strange flying insect hybrids that throw arrows at you, jumping stone statues with wings.  The denizens of Sarasaland are bizarre, indeed.  Somewhat surprisingly, there are more enemy types in this Game Boy adventure than there are in either the original Super Mario Bros. or its sequel. 

"I hope this treasure is worth all 'o the extra effort!"

If you've played the original Super Mario Bros. game, you'll be right at home here with the gameplay.  Mario can jump with the A button, walk, run (holding down the B button), throw superballs with the B button, and duck by pressing down on the D-pad.  Jumping up to a block as Super Mario will break bricks and get coins and other items from question blocks.  Mario's movements are quite similar to those of his first side scroll outing, though gone is the inertia that takes place when you let up on the D-pad while moving left or right.  Mario stops almost dead in his tracks when you let go.  Some folks will find this refreshing, because they disliked the inertia.  Others, like myself, found it a tad jarring, though it doesn't take long to get used to.

Spacecraft in a Mario game well before Super Mario Galaxy!

Graphically, the game was fairly impressive for an early game, and certainly the most visually impressive and appealing launch title.  Despite his diminutive stature on screen, Mario is instantly recognizable as the protagonist.  Nintendo chose wisely to use a very minimalist approach to the backgrounds, with a few trees, pyramids, and various other elements in the background, but not overdo it.  It's quite reminiscent of the first NES title, though perhaps a bit more detailed to make up for the lack of color.  Locales are interesting and varied, as the 4 "worlds" within Sarasaland all have a relatively distinctive look, and some variation within each from one stage to the next.  For example, in the first world, the Birabuto Kingdom, you start out in an overworld, much like the original Super Mario Bros., but progress into an area inside a pyramid-like structure later in the world.  In world 2, the Muda Kingdom, you start again in an overworld scenario, but end up in a submarine underwater in a later stage.  Each stage is well laid out, and the graphical detail is enough to make it interesting, but not overdone so as to make it hard to see what's going on.  Animations are well done, despite being quite sparse.  I never noticed as a kid, but most enemies have only 2 or 3 total frames of animation.  Despite that limitation, it still looks and feels like a Mario platformer.

When did Mario games suddenly become shoot-em-ups?

The sound design in the game is also of equal quality.  The music is super catchy, thanks to composer Hirokazu Tanaka.  His score for the game is indelibly stuck in my head, and I've used the Stage 1-1 music as a ringtone, both on my various mobile phones, as well as my office phone, multiple times in the last 10 years.  The songs all have that Mario-esque vibe to them, though they're a bit more expansive.  By that, I mean that some of the songs have a specific, thematic bent to them.  There's a read Egyptian feel to the music from the Easton Kingdom, and a traditional Oriental feel to the music in the Chai Kingdom.  All the music in the game is interesting, and repeated plays will guarantee that one or more tracks will be on repeat in your subconscious.  Sound effects are also well done, with recognizable sounds for jumping, the transition from regular to Super Mario, grabbing the flower, the coin sound, the block hit & break sounds, etc.  New sounds are also done well, with some interesting effects to simulate voice when pelting bosses with superballs, or some of the enemy deaths.  It makes good use of the Game Boy sound hardware for such an early title, and you can tell that the sound design was as much a work of love as the rest of the game.

Speaking of shoot-em-ups, Nintendo takes a page from
the Konami handbook with the Easter Island heads.

The biggest drawback of the game is its relatively short length.  I say that, still being a huge fan of the game, but looking at it objectively, it is awful short.  That's especially true, considering the game's relatively meager difficulty.  As a kid, it didn't take me more than a couple weeks to go from just starting to play to actually beating the game.  Despite that, it's still a lot of fun to play, because Mario is adventuring through an entire new set of worlds that are interesting to traverse and look at.  The difference in inertia for Mario, as mentioned before, is a small issue, but worth mentioning.  Looking back at the entire library of Game Boy titles, most point to the sequel, Super Mario Bros. 2: 6 Golden Coins as the superior game, and from a strictly technical aspect, they're probably right.  However, this game remains my favorite of the 2 because of the sheer fun factor, the variation in the levels, enemies, bosses, the great music, and the fact that the game moves along with no slowdown.  This is a bona fide classic, and a must have for any Game Boy collector or aficionado's library.  Essential.

"Finally, I get to face-a the evil Tatanga!"

"Hey, Princess Daisy, why don't-a you take a ride with
me in-a my brand new space-a-ship, huh? Woohoo!"

Friday, April 3, 2015

Tetris (1989)

Image shamelessly linked from GameFAQs.
This was a game even your grandmother could love.

Every video game console has at least one game that defines it.  One title that, above any other, people associate with it.  For modern consoles, it's often a launch title that soars above the rest in quality, or a later game that is exclusive to that system.  Usually, it's a great game that is universally hailed as something special.  For early consoles, that game often happened to be the pack-in title, i.e. the game that came with the system when you bought it.  In the case of the Game Boy, that game was Tetris.

The thing about Tetris, however, is that it's not just a quality pack-in title.  It was a mission statement.  It was the perfect representation of the hardware's untapped potential, and the kind of game that could sell a Game Boy to even the most ardent anti-video game folks out there.  Why, you ask?  The answer is quite simple; Tetris is fun for all ages.  Read that statement again, because I don't say it lightly.  Your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles may have no interest in blowing up aliens, stomping on walking mushrooms, or other such things, but a game with jigsaw-like puzzle pieces that move, and you have to put them in order to eliminate them from the screen?  Most anyone can get on board with that.  Large numbers of people did.

It's not a stretch to say tens of millions of people
worldwide have seen this title screen many times.

Unless you were alive and invested in video games in the mid-late 1980's, it's hard to truly explain the "mania" surrounding Tetris.  It was a craze, and nearly everyone was affected by it.  The storied battle between Tengen (Atari) and Nintendo over the rights to Tetris on the Nintendo Entertainment System is better documented elsewhere, but suffice to say, history proves that Nintendo won the battle, at least from a legal standpoint.  The game, upon a release on the NES and in the arcades, became a huge hit, and Nintendo, having scored the rights to the game on the NES, scored a major coup on the home console front.  That coup was further cemented by the inclusion of Tetris as the pack-in game for the original Game Boy.  Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get good figures for the sales of the Game Boy with the included Tetris pack-in, because sales of the Game Boy Pocket and Color models are lumped in with the original "white brick" version in all official sales statements, but sales of Tetris itself were upwards of 35 million units.  So of the 118.69 million "Game Boy family" systems sold worldwide from 1989 to 2003, we can link over 1/4 of those sales, in some measure, to the popularity of Tetris.

Playing this game again the last few days in preparation for this write-up, it struck me just how much I enjoyed it.  I recalled dedicating hours mastering the 4-line technique, and feeling a huge sense of victory any time I topped 100,000 points.  As a youth, I worked my way up to being able to start on level 7 or 8, and maximizing my scoring potential.  Having not played Tetris seriously in years, I'm not at that level any longer, but I was surprised that, after a couple practice runs, I was starting at level 5 or 6 and having some success in getting scores upwards of 60,000 or 80,000 points, and toppling the 100,000 mark a few times.  As they say, it's just like riding a bicycle; you never forget how, so just get on and ride.

Like many good arcade or early console games, this screenshot,
taken from the game's "attract mode", demonstrates subtly
how to play the game. A brilliant way to introduce the game
mechanics, and something that is lost in today's world of
overly complex games and 30-minute introductory tutorials.

I'll attempt to succinctly describe the game play.  You control a single, slowly falling geometric shape called a "Tetronimo", and can move it left or right, rotate it to the right or left, and press down on the d-pad to drop the piece to the bottom of the playing field, or atop another piece.  Each of these Tetronimo pieces is made up of 4 smaller squares, and pieces range from a large square to a long/tall line, to pieces where the squares are more "bent" in shape.  The grid you play in is 10 squares wide, and nearly 20 squares high.  As Tetronimo pieces fall, you place them on the play field in any order you wish, with the goal being to create a single, contiguous horizon line made of of Tetronimo pieces.  If you can manage to create a 4-line sequence at one time, using the 4-square tall "line" block, you score a big point bonus.  This 4-line clear, called a "Tetris", is the key to getting a high score in the game, and is also the linchpin to the game's deceptive simplicity.  Each time you complete 10 lines, the game's level increases, and the pieces fall faster.  Each time the level increases, the score multiplier for clearing single lines and "Tetris" clears goes up.  Thus, if you start the game at a higher level to begin with, you start with that level's speed, but also its score multiplier until clearing enough lines to go to the next level up from where you started.

"Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone."

Graphically, the game is not, by itself, impressive.  Compare it to the graphics on the NES, and the Game Boy's "4 shades of green" palette didn't impress much, and the sprites themselves were comparable, though obviously scaled back.  Context is important, however, and compare the graphics to what we had become used to in "portable gaming" with Nintendo Game & Watch devices, or the Tiger series of dedicated LCD handhelds, and it was a technical wonder.  Pieces fell and actually animated if you rotated them or fell smoothly when used the d-pad to drop them down to the bottom of the play field.  In addition, the minor animations of Mario and Luigi in 2-player mode, or the taking off of the rocket (if you scored 100,000 points or more in a single play), were something that, up to that point, hadn't been possible in a hand-held gaming device.  The graphics are largely utilitarian, but looking back, they're perfect for what the game is.

The game's sound and music is iconic, so it's hard to talk about it without talking about the game's music tracks.  We all know that "Type-A" sounds like a Russian melody, and that's because it was apparently based upon a Russian folk song.  "Type-C" is based on a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach, which gives it that classical sound.  "Type-B", however, is a wholly original tune, and composer Hirokazu Tanaka managed to also channel that Russian folk vibe to great effect.  Add the bouncy title screen theme, the high score music, and the triumphant music that plays as the rocket launches, and despite its diminutive size, the score is as well composed as one could hope for.  Sounds are also iconic, with the funny block rotation sound, the nice "slap" sound when you drop a piece to the bottom, the subtle single-line clear noise, and the not-so-subtle "Tetris" clear noise, as well as the "I'm dead!" sound that plays when you get a Game Over by filling up the play field.  They're not the best sounds you can produce on the hardware, but for an early title, they're still impressive.

If you're a Tetris perfectionist like me, you'll see this screen
a lot as you throw game after game, searching for that
perfect play through where you can execute Tetris after Tetris.

As I mentioned earlier, the ability to manage your pieces on the play field and line them up to achieve a "Tetris" is truly the technique that needs to be mastered to get the most out of the game.  Based on the pieces that fall, I generally try and choose either the right or left side of the board to leave open, stack up pieces to make a complete, 4-line (or higher) group, and leave the space for the 4-square "line" piece to complete that "Tetris" and score big points.  As pieces fall, and you place them, you have to be cognizant of all 7 pieces available, because you might get 3 big squares in a row, or the "L" and "J" pieces, and have nowhere to put them.  This puzzle piece management is of the utmost importance; otherwise, you'll find yourself expending available lines to clear away ill-placed pieces, rather than making "Tetris" blocks.  To increase the challenge, you can press the Select button during play to turn off the preview of what the next piece will be, which removes your ability to plan ahead by a move.

Starting at a higher level means you can rack up points
faster, and begin to achieve scores upwards of 100,000.

It seems surreal to talk about Tetris on the Game Boy, more than 25 years after its release.  It's difficult to pinpoint what it is about the game that makes it so addictive.  I picked it up a couple days ago, intending to play a round or two, and before I knew it, I had burned over 2 hours playing, without even realizing it.  That's much of what the game has going for it - that deceptive simplicity and addictive game play.  That addictive quality is only part of the game's appeal, and hopefully I've illustrated that above.  Make no mistake - if you own an original Game Boy, Game Boy Pocket, or even a newer Game Boy Color or Advance, you owe it to yourself to play the original Tetris release, because it's just one of those games every gamer should experience.  Essential.