Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

It’s obviously unfair to judge an NES game by modern design standards, but that’s more or less what I’d like to do here. I’d also like to take a brief look at what also might have been feasible with the limited control scheme and other contemporary limitations. I honestly have no idea what can even be done with 128 kilobytes or whatever, but it’s not like I’m planning my own romhack; I’m far too lazy and untalented for that. Just think of this as a fun exercise.

comeinside

Speaking of fun exercise… Link? What’s going on in there?

In any case, Zelda 2 wasn’t pushing the system to its limits. It also doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the first. It’s an entirely different game, which is somewhat admirable: at this point in the franchise, the only certainty was that Link has a sword. But nothing they tried here really took hold in the games that came after.

Combat is the most interesting thing going for Zelda 2. You hit high or you hit low, or you block high or low, and you fight a number of humanoid creatures that do the same. They’ll also draw their weapons from behind, giving you an animation frame to know what’s coming. You can often just jump and focus on hitting their heads, avoiding any chance of taking a blow to your own legs, but for the most part, the difficulty in terms of reflex requirements, and the actual risk to the player in each minor encounter, are far higher than they should be.

I feel like pointing out that the reason it’s so uncompromising is not because gamers in 1987 were more hardcore or mature in the face of a real gameplay challenge than gamers now. Rather, they had nothing to choose from, so they would take one game that should be over within three hours, and play that for like a year. How many “great” or even memorable NES games were there, really, from 1983 to 1990? The first Zelda, a couple Marios, and maybe a dozen other nominations that are, for the most part, simple platformers? There’s been about five thousand titles to hit Steam in the first half of 2018. The reason they don’t make games so brutal anymore is that nobody would have the patience for it when there are a billion others to play. I only did so myself because I was exploiting save states.

You can grind, gaining levels, but this doesn’t really fix anything. It would have been far better to pace Link’s growth with weapon and heart piece upgrades obtained in dungeons, but instead you’re incentivized to hit the stat cap early, taking every edge you can get. Because you get enough exp to reach your next level-up, rather than a predetermined amount, when you touch a shrine, the best play is to grind in the first dungeon for 20-30 minutes, pumping all your points into attack to raise its experience requirement, and then cashing out for perhaps 2000 experience points from the shrine, instead of what would probably only be 100. Once you’re maxed out on experience, there’s also less pressure to fight everything, because a lot of tough enemies have nothing in their loot table. If these were conscious design choices, none of them make much sense, but it’s the kind of thing we expect from the NES era.

I do kind of like how drops come after every 6 kills within a specific enemy class, instead of being purely random.

When I asked myself how the combat might have actually been better, the game I thought about most often was actually Nidhogg, which also limits itself to two buttons, jump and attack. Nidhogg is a simpler game, just arena fighting, but far more fun than Zelda 2. Although you don’t crouch, up and down will somewhat similarly lower and raise your sword stance (with down doubling as a roll with directional input), but enemies die just walking into your sword, and the actual thrust attack isn’t always the best strategy. It’s even complete with the disposable weapon-throwing mechanic we saw in Breath of the Wild. Obviously, I can’t see Link getting murdered and respawning ten times per screen like a Nidhogg character, but I think there’s some merit to the comparison.

nidhogg

Nidhogg

You might also add the option to replace your active “B button item”, as you could in the first Zelda, replacing your thrust attack with a different item, while keeping the sword at the ready. Casting magic with the Select button isn’t so terrible, so this might not be necessary, but it does open up some more possibilities.

I’m not too fond on the design of Zelda 2’s magic, either. You tend to just use the one Shield spell to double up on health, and otherwise save your mana for hard-counters to very specific scenarios: Jump to get up high, Fairy to get up higher (this seems a little redundant, but there you go), Fire to harm enemies that are impervious to everything other than fire. I’d prefer if Link’s mana recharged over time, as more of a cooldown system than a “save it for when you really need it” system, while also being less of an easy way out of a jam (in other words, no Shield or Thunder spells). Meanwhile, Reflect should have been an item, a mirror shield upgrade.

While I’m not going to suggest anything that sounds entirely unfeasible, like adding the Magnesis rune, here are some suggestions: rework the “Spell” spell for its transmogrification ability as a projectile attack, maybe also keeping Thunder in that form, instead of as a screen-wipe. Fire can be kept more or less as-is, if cooldown based, but it’s otherwise too annoying to have hard-counters that end up not having enough mana to even use when you need them. It’s possible to come upon an insurmountably high wall without having left yourself enough MP to cast Jump, and without any slimes nearby to farm for mana potions. If this happens, your best option is just to kill yourself and get your mana back on your next life. I’m not really a fan of that.

If you’re doing disposable weapons (holding up while attacking to whip your sword across the room) you could also add a spell which conjures a new, relatively weak weapon. Just a thought.

It’s also pretty much impossible to figure out where to go without a guide. At one point, Link has to interact with a featureless table in an empty house. At another, he has to walk through a fake wall in a dungeon, which looks the same as a real wall. Maybe there are NPCs hinting at what to do in these places, but since the NPCs all look the same and run endlessly through town, and they communicate in baffling and robotic sentences probably averaging around five words, I wouldn’t count on it unless you go in knowing you have to write everything down. I kind of think the presence of multiple towns with NPC chatter was too ambitious for this game. It’s still a ways off from Link’s Awakening and its sidequest chains, and even those were obtuse.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

 

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Metroid: Zero Mission

This holds up pretty well. The cutscene art and music seem a little crude on the GBA, though I’m not sure if the hardware’s any excuse. I always thought from games like Circle of the Moon, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and Mother 3 that the GBA really hits a sweet spot in terms of the instrument fidelity and enforced constraint. Super Metroid‘s soundtrack on the SNES is a minimalist masterpiece, but I didn’t really feel like the music here was anything special.

There’s still quite a bit of content after the point where the original NES game ends, and the additions are interesting. They take away your suit and make you do stealth segments, which is kind of a hard sell, but it kind of works. Getting chased between rooms by space pirates who can kick your ass, and still being able to do wall-kicks and find your own way around, doesn’t make for a bad approach to stealth. Nor is it incompatible with what the series is all about, as far as I’m concerned. I had already been thinking about what else could be done in the Metroid series without just repeating the same formula–the last three Metroid games I’ve played now have been direct remakes (of Metroid 2, 2 again, and 1, respectively), and at times it felt formulaic to the point that I didn’t know what the point was, especially with Samus Returns, which stretched this out over a much larger world map. What is Metroid, really? Am I playing all these because I think it’s important to use 99-unit energy tanks for player health? Of course not. As long as a Metroid game allows me to find my way around for myself, at my own pace, and is open enough to allow for some pretty deep advanced techniques to get some upgrades and abilities early on (while not ultimately skipping whole areas), I think I’m good. I overlooked this in talking about Samus Returns: you tend to have to do things when it wants you to do them, and it was a little joyless by comparison.

Zero Mission‘s design can be a little obtuse, though. Usually you have some indication of what area you’re supposed to be in, but even on the primary path you might need to bomb some subtly-different ground tile to progress onward. I got stuck for a while because of this. Mind you, because it was early in the game when I didn’t have too many other places to be, I was bound to find that tile sooner or later. And on the bright side, it got me to adjust to how Zero Mission likes to hide things. But it was far from the only time I got stuck. In Ridley’s area I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do until I gave up and turned around, only to find out that backtracking was the way to progress: a defeated boss moved away from its arena after I’d left its room, creating a new path for me. It’s as if some designer said, “Let’s have it so in this area, players have to butt their heads against a wall and then give up in order to find the way forward.” It’s a minor thing, I suppose — every player would eventually turn around, even if they could think of no other new place to visit with their current gear — but I can’t imagine a world in which that was the ideal way to have the player’s path through the level flow.

But that’s only regarding the main path. When it comes to optional ammo pickups, the missile caches, finding those gets far less intuitive. There are clever sequence-breaking tricks that the game never teaches you, but which the faithful Metroid players would already know about going in, like wall-kicking up a single wall or doing infinite bomb-jumps. I found it thrilling to use these to get up to hard-to-reach areas early on, assuming I’d otherwise be forced to wait until I had the space-jump to do them. But you don’t get to use the space-jump at all during the original NES stretch of the game. At some point these advanced tricks seemed to stop being the quick-and-dirty way to do get these pickups, but the only way. Many secrets I couldn’t find at all: I was convinced I’d be able to keep exploring Crateria after blowing up Mother Brain, despite anticipating the self-destruct timer, because there were power-bomb-yellow doors on the map, and I hadn’t found power bombs yet. Oh, I hadn’t entirely been wrong: you aren’t normally introduced to power bombs until after Mother Brain, in the new Zero Mission content. But you don’t get to keep exploring Zebes after it blows up, either — at least, not without loading up Super Metroid. So what gives? Well, if you see something to power-bomb on Zebes, the only way to do it is by using some esoteric diagonal ballspark move I never would’ve thought of, to get a different power-bomb pickup early. You know how in Super Metroid, you could use the mockball trick to get super missiles early? Imagine needing to approach that same level of esoteric nonsense for 100% completion: that was roughly how this felt. It also explains none of it. Super Metroid actually had animals that showed you the wall-kick, assuming you were willing to stop and watch. But there’s nothing like that here. I find that a little strange, given it’s a remake of the original game. Where else should a player expect a fresh start, with no foreknowledge of how things work?

To some extent I think it’s kind of cool and old-school to have secrets I’m not going to find, but I would’ve only really gone in for that if I could reload a save after the credits or something and get to return to before Mother Brain died, letting me do it at my own pace. I also resented the use of the shinespark for these. There were multiple occasions where the levels felt too cramped for it, and I had some trouble with the controls, at least in using the 3DS D-pad. (The GBA, unlike the SNES or the sort of controller you’d use playing AM2R on PC, also lacks X and Y buttons, and has to cram more functionality into what’s left.) Shinesparking is also used in more complicated ways than before, often requiring you to chain them by using a new mechanic where your launch gets interrupted on slopes, while retaining momentum. You tend to have to do things in a very specific and calculated way, hitting precise but ambiguously-textured blocks.

Even when you found the secrets, collecting powerups gets pretty challenging sometimes, but this was the kind of challenge I happened to appreciate. One room I just barely noticed near Ridley, with two missile packs in it, required basically all the skill I felt I had, even after I figured out how I was supposed to do it. I had to manage rolling into a shaft, clearing away blocks with my beam, and shooting missiles upward, before the blocks at my feet crumbled away. It was getting frustrating, but I felt extremely gratified when I pulled it off. This was ten times harder than any of the Zero Mission bosses, and ten times harder than the skill level needed for obtaining any pickups in Samus Returns: there’s no time-slowing power here to make a joke out of the crumbling floor tiles. And yet at the same time, Samus Returns had bosses that required extreme precision, being hard as hell and the highest-quality aspect of the game. Strange.

Having complained that Samus Returns’ map-revealing ability was too much, it might seem a little silly to be making a strong complaint in the other direction here, but Zero Mission has classic map stations, and they just don’t reveal enough to really matter. The desired middle-ground should be obvious, though: add map stations that take some effort to reach, but which actually reveal gaps on the map tiles where there are entrances to rooms you’ve never been in. It’s odd to me that Samus Returns did away with the map stations and just let you see everything around you in a giant radius when this other option is here. Starting blind in an area, and having the map room as an objective in itself, has always been a great way to design the levels.

I liked this one a bit more than Samus Returns. It had its own strengths, but where it didn’t offer enough to justify its longer playtime, Zero Mission tried new things that worked, and has stronger fundamentals. The openness with which you could use tricks to get over ledges early or do a sequence of rooms in reverse — without doing some directionless amorphous design where you have no sense of where you’re going at all — is top-tier among the other games in the series. But I’d have loved it if it were ported into AM2R with some changes here and there, like adjusting the shinesparking a little and benefiting from a more informative map screen. Mainly, I have some regrets that the game’s post-Mother Brain sequence got in the way of me finding everything for myself. It’s not a long game, but I’d rather not start over anytime soon. I’ve never been a Metroid speedrunner, and I think doing things slowly, in one go, at my own pace, should remain a core part of the Metroid series, too.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

 

Metroid: Samus Returns

There was an unofficial Metroid 2: Return of Samus remake last year; a fangame. It was actually pretty incredible. Nintendo sent the guy a DMCA request and, surprisingly, announced their own Metroid 2 remake shortly after: Samus Returns, for the 3DS. Funny how that works; Metroid 2 came out in 1991, and then few people cared about it for like 25 years. Now we have two new versions. It gives us a pretty interesting way to compare and contrast.

Being on the 3DS hasn’t worked in the favor of the official game: the 3D graphics perform sluggishly at times (at least on my old XL), and the controls are brutal on my hands: Samus Returns has to be quite forgiving for anyone aiming with a circle pad, but AM2R felt extremely tight without bothering with the new free-aim stuff (which actually would’ve worked better with the real control stick I used to play it, or, say, in an official title on the Switch). And it’s no shock which of the two games has more profit-seeking junk getting in the way: I don’t want to buy plastic toys, not to mention the actual plug-in amiibo reader, to unlock all the modes and get all the energy tanks. And I won’t. (Besides, the old Castlevania games always had awesome postgame modes where you played as new characters with new moves, but here? Fusion Suit mode is just regular mode, but you take four times the damage. With these controls? Nah.)

I also noticed some slowdown in a few areas. No doubt this is less of a problem on a new 3DS or 2DS. On my old XL, it’s normally fine, except in cutscenes. In some areas deeper into the game, it gets worse. There’s one boss with two big grinders for arms — it’s actually kind of a neat fight, except for a badly communicated weak point and the 3D effects that drag the framerate down to a basically unplayable state. I don’t think the 3D graphics look very good anyway: if they had just done another sprite game with slightly retouched Zero Mission assets — as I assume AM2R did — I think it would’ve looked great and performed better. It’s a sad state of affairs when Nintendo’s releasing titles for their flagship series which barely run on the systems they are, officially, still coming out on. It’s not like I’m trying to play Xenoblade Chronicles here: this is not a New 3DS exclusive. As I already alluded to, it’s not like they can’t do Metroid sidescrollers on the Switch too, you know? Save the 3D for there, and give us some more pixel art.

I actually saved myself some thumb pain by using a homebrew app that sends control stick input from an xbox controller over wifi. This was really cool, and mostly worked well, but sometimes the wifi link would get spotty for a while — it seemed to get laggy whenever I needed it most. And once I got super missiles and found out I had to use the touch screen to switch to them, that made using an xbox controller a little more of a hassle. Still, whenever the going got tough (like with the aforementioned Big Grinder Arms guy) it helped a lot that I could change to a real controller for ten or fifteen minutes.

Samus Returns definitely isn’t afraid to break from convention, which is nice, because Metroid 2 was kind of crude; an almost blank slate to build upon. If you first look at the gameboy version’s map, and AM2R’s, they’re very close to the same size, but with three entirely new areas added in AM2R. These are probably the coolest parts of the game, but for the most part, as one would expect from a fangame, your path through SR-388 stays pretty faithful to the source material. Though I hardly remember much of my original Metroid 2 playthrough, I think AM2R just made some occasional adjustments to the maps to let you use Super Metroid power-ups that weren’t originally there: the general flow and shape of passageways remained unchanged. The map in Samus Returns, though, seems to completely do its own thing. It’s several times bigger. The designers did whatever they wanted.

Some of these changes are nice. Some are problematic, though, like the fast-travel stations. Teleportation points aren’t worth crying about, but it’s better to have an interconnecting map; when you can just warp to earlier areas, it feels like cutting corners. AM2R’s means of getting back to old areas later — by getting shot through cannons into directly vertically or horizontally aligned rooms far away — was much more clever. I feel the same way about the scan pulse: while it sucks when a game hides things in random tiles and you have little chance of finding everything unless you play with a guide open, I think most Metroid games have already been smart enough about showing the connections to unvisited rooms, and marking which ones still hold power-ups you haven’t collected. As long as the game is straightforward enough about which tiles can be blown up, something like a scan pulse should be unnecessary, and I think putting it in there takes some of the responsibility off the level designer to keep puzzles sensible.

Even with this “corner-cutting” designer handicap, though, I had to look up how to get past one type of obstacle: the ones you propel yourself past with power bombs. The idea that you’ll only get launched if you’re using the spider ball to secure yourself just never occurred to me after realizing it did nothing in non-spider form; it’s the kind of thing that they should’ve tutorialized by locking you into a room right after you get the power bomb, making you use it (both horizontally and vertically) to get out. AM2R had some head-scratchers, but everything was communicated clearly. I don’t like looking things up in a Metroid game.

It’s a tough game, even with changes that can make it feel casualized. Power-ups even get sucked in when you’re not holding a charge beam now, which is a little sad. More to the point, though, you can continue from outside of a boss door when you die now. In exchange, though, those bosses tend to be more than you can possibly take without several practice runs, and even then will test your limits, mainly because getting hit by the wrong attack can empty three energy tanks when you have maybe seven total. Blame the framerate and thumb pad if you want, I certainly will, but either way some of those encounters (like Big Grinder Arms guy) took me half a dozen tries. These fights can last several minutes, too.

But to speak some more on departures from the traditional mechanics, let’s get to the obvious one: they gave Samus a melee bash that parries enemies, which is about as out-there as it gets. It’s neat, but you have to play a little too reactively, and I’m not sure that’s the right fit for Metroid. When you’re up close already and need some breathing room, it makes sense to have it, but enemies take far too many hits to die when you’re not killing them with a parry and counter-blast. If you’re not already in a position the enemy will attack from, you have to go out of your way to line one up, making yourself unnecessarily vulnerable, so I found myself resenting the addition at times. It may have been smarter to simply avoid those enemies, but I find you’re usually hungry for at least one kind of ammo or health pickup, or you’re still checking out the room and don’t want to leave the threat there, so it’s best to kill everything outside of a speedrun.

It’s admirable that the game doesn’t try to sell itself purely by repackaging the old, though as I say this I actually feel contradicted by the use of the Lower Norfair music used in the lava areas, which wasn’t actually part of the series until the third game. It seems to have been thrown into Metroid 2 retroactively, for a kind of backwards application of nostalgia. Of course this is a nerdy thing to get mad about, but what better time to actually expand the repertoire of Metroid themes than when you’re going back to a time when there was so little to build from? Like Super Metroid itself did, with such incredible results? (I’ll make an exception for Ridley’s fight music, though a new version of his NES lair theme could’ve been cool too.)

It seems that the only place where Samus Returns and AM2R both really stick to the Metroid 2 gameplay is in throwing in dozens of repeat fights against the same metroid minibosses; first the alpha, then the gamma, zeta, and omega life stages. Both remakes added several of their own completely new bosses, and both got pretty creative there, though Samus Returns definitely goes the extra mile in boss complexity — it probably says something about my preferences as a whole that during a few boss fights in the 3DS game, I found myself thinking about how cool it would be if someone added them to AM2R in a patch. But the miniboss repetition doesn’t seem like something that really needed to be preserved, and we could’ve tried fighting just one metroid at each stage of life — maybe then throwing in a gauntlet of each in a row near the end? — and just getting to kill some more metroids scattered around in their iconic larval state elsewhere — especially in Samus Returns, with its deeper interest in change.

Super Metroid is my favorite Metroid; I think the series only had the barest inkling of what it was supposed to be before then, and it’s lost that inkling numerous times since. I still haven’t played Zero Mission, but it’s safe to say that for players with no existing associations or attachments, AM2R was up there with the best of them, doing what the series has always been praised for, and for bonus points it did it on the best possible hardware, which is to say PC. But this isn’t a review of AM2R. Samus Returns fluctuates between bold and formulaic, but in both the old and the new, it’s a mixed bag. On better hardware, I might have called it a very good game.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

Not A Hero

There’s a lot here that would appeal to me on paper. Pixel art; charming voice work with Scottish, Welsh, English voice actors; fast-paced shooting and smashing through windows to leap between buildings. But it doesn’t work.

The writing is terrible and there’s plenty of it at the beginning and ending of every mission. It’s nothing but random zany internet people comedy: monkey cheese ninja pirate stuff. It’s insufferable. There’s nothing so unfunny as this self-satisfied jokeless writing. You can skip it, and I started to after a handful of missions–despite not being the sort of person who ever skips text–but then that left me with one less thing to keep going for. To see how the story ends? Not likely.

Gameplay presents some reliable ideas early on, when you’ve got a set obstacle course and you’re supposed to figure out the correct route. “Last time I went through this door, but if I jump in through this window first, so I can stab this guy from behind, he won’t react and kill a hostage.” It’s not so ambitious, but it can make for fun planning-oriented trials. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t settle on that design: power-ups are randomised, but should have been predetermined for use in planning, so you could predetermine the best time to get them and the best way to exploit them across multiple attempts.

Moreover, in later missions, the game leans more on challenging your reaction times instead, with swordsman who cause instant death if they touch you. That could ostensibly be called a pre-planning challenge, in that if you don’t make sure you have a full ammo clip before dropping from a ledge, you’re guaranteed to die during a reload. But I decided I’d had enough when I was slide-attacking the swordsmen to briefly stun them, and found that this worked unreliably (near as I could tell), as they would sometimes take a swing as the slide attack neared them. Continuing through the remaining missions seemed like it would be tedious trial and error, mainly in learning where I could safely jump down without being cut to ribbons by an off-camera enemy, and any desire to put myself through that was wiped out by my contempt for the game’s story. Pass.

The reviewer strongly discourages spending time or money on this game–it is bad. It could still have a good point or two. But whether it’s a short piece of shovelware or a long, high-profile game where each hour feels like some kind of dubious psychological trap, expect a torturous experience where none of the good even begins to make up for the bad. It is the antithesis of what the reviewer looks for in a game.