Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (NES, Konami, 1988)

A lot of sequels in the NES library are quite different from the originals. Super Mario Bros. 2, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and of course, perhaps the most infamous of all, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. It used the same gameplay formula and expanded on it a bit. No longer was this a linear quest; Transylvania was now a explorable, open-ended world, and now there are more than 6 mansions to go through instead of one central one. Added to that is a monetary and experience system. Hearts now are used as currency (gross) and Simon Belmont can expand his health bar by gaining XP (read:level and cash grinding)

Simon's Quest takes place a few years after the original. A woman's spirit appears before Simon, telling of the curse laid upon him by Count Dracula after his demise. To fight the curse, Simon must find 6 parts of Dracula's remains (?!?!) to resurrect and destroy him once again, and to find these parts, Simon must gather powerful weaponry and grow stronger, and raid all of Dracula's mansions across Transylvania. Anyway the story makes little to no sense and is actually somewhat disturbing, but of course this is a NES game, so story is not a focus.

The focus is on the game itself. And the game feels like a mix of Castlevania, Zelda II, and Dragon Quest. The action is pure Castlevania, with the purposefully stiff controls and horror-styled enemies, but as said before, it's not a linear game. Instead, you start in a town with some NPCs, and go searching for tools and weapons. It was a little strange playing this game for the first time, seeing how my first instinct was to whip the first "enemy" I seen. Anyway seeing that I am a Zelda II veteran, I quickly got into the swing of things. The Dragon Quest element comes from the amount of grinding that is required. 

You need to buy quite a few tools to progress, such as Holy Water (more on that later), and you need to use hearts to purchase them. You get hearts by killing enemies, but you need a lot of hearts to buy things. So naturally, you need to farm/grind quite a bit. I love all of the Dragon Quest games, so I don't mind grinding, but I can see why a lot of people would not, even RPG fans. This stems from the difficulty of the combat. While I can't say that it's as hard as the original, it's still pretty tough. The first few enemies you face are not difficult to fight, but they get more ruthless as you go along, and if you manage to run out of lives, which is not hard to do, you lose all of your hearts that you earned. That would discourage (and infuriate) a lot of gamers. The potential pain of the combat can be lessened, however, by upgrading your whip, and as you go along, it's basically required to do so.

One notorious issue with Simon's Quest is the very poor translation. Progressing is near impossible without a guide or FAQ, because the hints that the NPCs give you either make no sense, or is a bold-faced lie. Most gamers back in 1988 used a Nintendo Power guide, now we have this site. There are a lot of puzzles in this game, and some of them are very improbable to solve without help, such as the infamous "Deborah Cliff" puzzle. That and the day and night mechanic. It's a cool and fresh concept, at least back in the day, but the transition is pretty horrible. When it switches from day to night, enemies are more numerous and much harder to kill, making combat even more difficult, But when it turns nighttime, there's a little box that pops up in the corner saying "What a horrible night to have a curse." This scene lasts for about 10 seconds. Doesn't sound too bad, however this day/night transition happens every 5 minutes. So every five minutes, you lose control of the game for 10 seconds. It's as irritating as it sounds.

The mansions are usually quite fun to plunder (so to speak), but there are is one big problem with them; invisible pitfalls. When walking across a straight path in a mansion, be sure to start tossing out Holy Water to see where the holes in the floor are, because in quite a few instances, you will fall straight through, which most of the time, leads to massive backtracking. Another minor issue is with the two boss fights in the game. You have to battle The Grim Reaper and a bleeding mask-thing named Carmilla. Both barely attack you and are insanely easy to defeat. Actually, you can literally walk right past them (Don't walk past Carmilla. Beat her, she drops something important). Dracula is no different, spam your Golden dagger and he's toast.

As far as the graphics go, I think it looks detailed enough, I mean, I could tell what everything was, but everything's too dark. That's the point, I imagine, but it looks kind of......ugly. Even for NES standards. Kind of a personal thing there, but that's that. The music, however, is awesome. Bloody Tears is one of my favorite songs from Castlevania, and the song in Dracula's mansion is pretty good at building up tension, even though Dracula is a easy boss.

In Castlevania II's current form, I would normally give it a 6 or 7, but there is a nice ROM hack by The Almighty Guru, called Castlevania II Redaction. It edits the game to make it enjoyable without walkthroughs. NPCs give you useful hints, the day/night transition is much smoother, and Dracula's appearance is different (he's still a wimp). This version of the game gets a 8.5 out of me. All of the little issues are resolved, but there's the grinding, annoying traps in the mansions, and lame boss fights. At it's core however, I recommend Castlevania II for hardcore Action-RPG players. It was quite refreshing to play a action game like Castlevania with a lot of RPG mixed in, but the issues that Castlevania II has makes it enjoyable, yet noticeably flawed. Good play for RPG and Castlevania fans, but you should know what your getting into before you play it.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D (2011, Nintendo, 3DS)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time holds a special place in many a gamers hearts. It's innovative and fine-tuned gameplay was supplemented by gorgeous visuals (for the time), a breathtaking soundtrack, and a surprisingly interesting story. Now, after 12 years of it's release, Nintendo and Grezzo released Ocarina of Time 3D for the Nintendo 3DS. Being a devoted fan of the Zelda franchise, I rushed out and purchased the game day one, even ordering the Soundtrack off of Club Nintendo's website. Has it held up well over the ages? Let's find out.

Ocarina of Time is best described as an Action game with a large focus on exploration and puzzle solving, along with some mild RPG elements. You control the hero Link as he rushes to save the land of Hyrule from the lord of all evil, Ganondorf. His quest involves him going all over the land, exploring dungeons and fighting numerous foes. I could explain more, but I would prefer to focus on the quality of the remake. If you want to know more about Ocarina of Time, I would suggest looking at a review of the original game.

Now, the 3DS remake's main draw is of course the graphical updates. Nintendo and Grezzo gave Hyrule and all of it's inhabitants a huge facelift, and it's a definite improvement over the N64 original. Characters now closely resemble their interpretations from the official artwork, and the environments are noticeably more detailed. Unfortunately, while the environments do look better than the 64 version, they still look a little underwhelming. The mountains still look a little on the blocky side and Hyrule field feels a little too sparse. Nintendo and Grezzo could have used a little more of the 3DS's processing power to clean up the environments a bit, but the game overall still looks quite nice.

The 3D effect is among the most effective yet. The depth really shows when travelling across Hyrule field, and the in-game cutscenes are given a nice new enhancement to their cinematic flair. In actuality, I really hate to turn the 3D effect off (to better utilize the gyroscope aiming and conserve battery life) because Ocarina of Time 3D just looks that much better with it.

One disappointment with Ocarina of Time 3D is the sound. Not that the soundtrack is bad or anything, far from it actually. I would go as far to say that Ocarina of Time has one of the best soundtracks in the franchise, but it's disappointing to find that Nintendo and Grezzo didn't remix it. It's forgivable, seeing how the music is still incredible in it's current form, but if they went through the trouble to enhance the visuals, why not the awesome music? Oh well, at least they included a incredible orchestrated melody at the end credits. A nice reward for completing the game.

Speaking of rewards, you also get a mirrored version of the Master Quest version if you complete the original. Basically it's Ocarina of Time Plus. The dungeons have been changed significantly, with items completely switched around and new enemies added in. The game has been completely flipped as well, and it's suitably disorienting. The nicest part of Master Quest (in my humble opinion) is the difficulty boost. I have found Ocarina of Time to be a somewhat easy game, one that I can breeze through in about 10 hours, but this version adds a nice challenge, namely an increased enemy count in dungeons, that and all enemies and obstacles do double the damage. It's a really nice addition, and definitely a worthy quest to any Zelda veteran. 

And seeing how Nintendo has to appeal to the casual market as well, they added in something called Sheikah Stones. They act as a guide, giving the player hints on how to find and solve dungeons. However, these are just general hints. If you want to find everything about the game, such as heart pieces and Golden Skulltulas, you'll have to use your own intuition (or a walkthrough, either way). I see it helping out younger and newer Zelda fans, but I found it to be useless (then again, I know Ocarina of Time forwards and backwards).

Also added was a bit of motion control. By physically moving your 3DS system when aiming a bow, hookshot, etc., you can aim them using the gyroscope. It seems gimmicky at first, but it's usefulness knows no limits. It feels more natural and allows you to react faster than the analog nub, making some tricky situations much easier to resolve. 

Other that Master Quest, updated visuals, and the motion aiming, this is virtually the exact same game you played back in 1998. Nintendo and Grezzo even added in glitches and bugs from the original game. It seems that the developers were trying to respectfully recreate a classic game and introduce it to a new audience, but you are essentially paying 40 dollars for a game that you can get for around 10 dollars on the Wii's Virtual Console service. It was worth it for me, because I love this game dearly and wanted to play it on the road, but for some, it may not be enough. That being said, there are people who never played Ocarina of Time before, and if that's true for you, then buy this game ASAP. Ocarina of Time 3D is the ultimate version of a game that's truly of the best ever created, but the 40 dollar price tag may seem a little too high for some. But as it stands with the 3DS library, this is probably the best you are going to get.

+ Game still holds up very well since it's release
+ Graphics given a good facelift, 3D is effective.
+ Soundtrack as epic as ever.
+ Sheikah Stones are a nice touch for beginners.
+ Master Quest is a worthy challenge.
+ Gyroscope aiming is precise and useful.

- Not a lot of new content, seems pricey.
- Soundtrack could have used an update.
- Some parts of the visuals don't look so hot.

OVERALL: ***8.5 out of 10***