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Then and Now – UN Squadron

23 Feb

Then:

This was a special one, to me at least. I only managed to pick a copy up for myself in recent weeks, but UN Squadron was one of my favourite SNES games. I had to spend plenty of time in a friend’s house to play it, but it all seemed worthwhile when I was dropping bombs and blowing stealth fighters out of the sky. The game was fast and tough, but I adored it, from the variety of planes on offer, to the bombing run bonus stages, there was something in UN Squadron that spoke to me. It was a reflex test, bullets filling the screen and enemies on the ground as well as in the sky. After spending the early years of my gaming life playing the similarly themed Harrier Attack on the Amstrad CPC, this was like someone switching the lights on. From the monochromatic to the intensely colourful, the basic to the complex, UN Squadron was like playing something that flew in from the future, a glimpse of what I was missing before I finally owned a Super Nintendo of my own. UN Squadron returned to my life in secondary school, after I turned compute classes into gaming sessions by putting emulators onto the school PCs. A surprise hit, most of my class ended up playing UN Squadron over Mario, Street Fighter and the few other games I downloaded. Yes, this was a special one alright.

The bosses are large and detailed

Now:

I hadn’t really considered that UN Squadron could be bad, it’s one of those games that holds an appeal for me that I can never quantify, everyone has a few of these and it’s hard to be critical. I realise however, that I was playing the game in situations where it was guaranteed a level of appreciation it may not garner when played in isolation. In a friend’s house it had the advantage of being one of my few 16-bit experiences before I owned a console with that kind of power. In school it benefitted from a simpler control scheme that suited play from a keyboard, no wonder it beat out Mario for popularity. Extended play could be its downfall, could destroy my love for it. Its times like this I start to question revisiting old games in such a critical manner. I could just boot it up every once in a while and play it for 10 minutes, I’d never know if it might let me down. Of course, once I started playing UN Squadron again, it wasn’t a case of not wanting to stop, more a case of not being able to.

Developed by Capcom for the CPS arcade system originally, UN Squadron was known as Area 88 in Japan, based on a Manga of the same name. It first appeared in arcades in 1989, and made it to the SNES in 1991. With three playable characters, a range of weapons and 10 distinct levels, there was a lot to like about the game, but arcade games can often suffer in conversion to home console, and it was the Mega Drive, Street Fighter the exception, that offered the best home versions of the coin guzzlers. Of course, not every port was a failure, so there seems little point in judging in advance, yet a palpable sense of trepidation took hold when I first picked up the controller and re-enlisted to the squadron.

Bright, colourful graphics help make the game accessible

The first thing that stands out with UN Squadron is the music. After the classic Capcom sound plays (and the mind recalls Street Fighter almost instantaneously) the games music kicks in, and it has the same instant catchiness of the best 16-bit soundtracks. It’s infectious, both setting the scene as you choose a level and aircraft and elevating the spirit, drawing the player into the cartoon-like visuals of the character select screen. The character models are large, anime styled pilots, stereotypical now, but unique then. There’s the floppy haired Shin, the ubiquitous ‘Top Gun’ aping Mickey and the ever-present older man, who’s rugged, has seen it all before and yet still smiles through it all. After that comes the plane selection, limited to a single choice at first, but after playing a few levels and earning cash, the dynamic of choosing aircraft and weapons comes into play. There are various fighters, each more powerful than the last, and with every enemy shot down more money is earned, with which to buy more powerful craft. The special weapons though, also command your coin, and finding a balance between a better plane and the bombs, napalm, shells and missiles needed to complete a stage without losing a life adds a welcome element of strategy which, while shallow, gives Squadron a unique selling point other side scrollers lack.

Of course, gameplay is what matters, and all the money earning and weapon buying becomes a cheap gimmick if the actual meat of the game can’t provide a worthwhile experience. It becomes almost immediately apparent that this won’t be an easy game. After a first wave of harmless helicopters, suddenly tanks and anti-aircraft guns are littering the sky with flashing balls of death, as the same helicopters fly suicidally towards you. This isn’t quite bullet hell, but it’s not far off at times, and when, after exhausting a life or two making your plane that little bit more powerful (power ups are not lost after loss of a life, rather your plane gains levels of experience) and buying some extra special weapons, the first boss fills the screen and promptly knocks you out of the sky. One continue lost, and back to the drawing board. With only three continues available to finish the game, this is a massive challenge, ten levels deep. What keeps UN Squadron’s appeal though, is not the weapon and plane upgrading, but the fact that, like all the best side scrolling shooters, it’s never cheap.

There's plenty of variation in locales

There is not one death that is unavoidable, when a hit is taken, there are so many empty spaces on screen that could have been occupied by the player it seems like the next time will be easy. Often it is, until the next section that knocks you back. With each character offering different abilities, such as less time to recover from a hit, or faster levelling up of weapons, there is a character to suit your play style, and that helps immensely. I immediately chose the character who upgraded the main gun of their plane fastest, and could finish the first level with ease after a little practice. Future levels though made me wish I’d chosen the faster recovery, as I’d suddenly find myself besieged by bullets and enemies. Helpfully, levels can be tackled in different orders, and bonus levels help add to the cash available to get a better plane. This ability to take on a different level makes getting stuck less likely, and keeps things interesting.

With all the additional features UN Squadron brings to 2D shooting, it would be easy to forget the impressive gameplay, were it not so wonderfully crafted. Squadron has the perfect level of challenge, even for a beginner. It never, ever feels impossible, just very, very difficult, and yet each level is incredibly good fun, and with that ability to return after death with a better plane and more weapons, means that no effort is wasted. Without the cheapness of some similar games, which just have far too much going on, UN Squadron still manages to move along at a consistently frantic pace, allowing only just enough time to take a breath before each fresh wave of enemies. It’s relentless and absolutely addictive, just as a good shooter should be. I needn’t have worried about this one, it’s still special.

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Then and Now – Snake

16 Feb

Then:

I first owned a mobile phone in 1999, a Nokia 5110. It was fairly big by today’s standards, but it took the dropping, throwing and general abuse that something portable should, more than I can say for the delicate creature that lives in my pocket now. I’m not sure what made me want a mobile phone, I rarely used it for calls or texts, and buying credit remains something that permanently eludes me. There was one thing I liked about the phone though, and I liked it a lot – Snake. The game was perfect for a quick game on the bus, during lunch at school or any moment of downtime that didn’t allow access to something a little more advanced. Snake was ferociously addictive, a throwback to classic arcade high-score chasing, and having the high-score in Snake became a source of schoolyard pride. I played Snake a huge amount, and have never given another mobile phone based game more than a minute or two. The platform is simply awful for gaming. Controlling most things with a number pad is akin to trying to do calligraphy with a paint roller. Snake had it right though, it was simple and addictive, fun and challenging in equal measure, and made many journeys pass a lot quicker.

Brilliantly simple

Now:

Snake is a strange game to look back on. It seems a long time ago since I played it, despite it appearing towards the end of the PS1 era, a mere 11 years ago. The game was an update of a well-known formula, and had appeared in various forms on consoles and in arcades. Probably best known was the BBC Micro edition, also titled ‘Snake’. The mobile version was released to the public on Nokia phones in 1998 and was an instant hit. Nokia dominated the mobile phone market at the time, and their inclusion of Snake on their phones helped kick-start mobile gaming. Unfortunately this led to the ill-fated N-Gage for the Finnish firm, but with the iPhone growing in popularity, mobile gaming has reached new heights of success. This may never have happened, were it not for Snake. The game had most mobile phone users hooked and further versions were released on later Nokia models.

Success is one thing, but quality is quite another. Snake is an early example of what is a selection of games that were almost always awful. Mobile phone gaming was incredibly poorly implemented until touchscreen technology became the norm. How can a game which is one of the first of an utterly horrible genre still be good? Snake was only playable with the number pad of the phones it graced, and that system made almost every game absolutely impossible to control effectively. Add to that the tendency of mobile games to be slow and suffer from massive frame-rate issues (anyone who’s played scaled down conversions of PS2 games will attest to this) and you have a platform which simply cannot function as a gaming device. How on earth did Snake ever become so popular? It’s just a line moving around, trying not to crash into itself.

Proof positive that graphics aren't everything

The answer is simplicity. While other mobile games tried to emulate platform titles or other console staples, Snake stuck to the template of classic arcade games. Fun to try, simple to play and tough to master, it suited quick playing on the go. It also suited high-score attempts which went on for long periods. Mastery of Snake meant missed bus stops, appointments, classes and anything else on a schedule. It remains very, very difficult to put down. Like Centipede or others of their ilk, Snake seems easy. It should be reasonably possible to achieve a very high score, yet it isn’t at all. It’s easy to score in the region of 500, and then it becomes a challenge to even move, let alone collect the ‘food’ which appears on screen. The difficulty of getting further meant that it had a compulsive nature, and the exactness of scoring meant that getting a few more points was always a possibility. Like all classic simple games, Snake is astonishingly addictive. Coupled with the lack of options for other mobile games at the time, and the novelty of gaming without owning a portable console, Snake was the perfect model for success.

It remains the most enjoyable mobile game I’ve ever encountered, and is still extremely playable. It may be simple, and the controls are far from perfect, but they are fine for the task at hand. In fact, they’re better than fine, they work well. Snake is purpose-built and it shows in ways other mobile games never could. Adding a game like Snake to their mobile phones was an incredibly astute move by Nokia, and they deserve a lot of credit for supporting mobile gaming, despite their many subsequent mistakes. Snake remains the pinnacle of mobile gaming for me, it suits the platform, the controls are implemented well, the game is simple and addictive and most importantly, fun. It’s a thrill to play, to the point that I know someone who has held onto his dated Nokia and continued to play Snake on an almost daily basis. There is great longevity in simplicity, and Snake is a shining example of what can be achieved when all the facets of a system are taken into account, and a game built around that. A lot like the amazing 2D games of the Saturn, or the inventive puzzlers of the DS, Snake was chosen with the limitations of its system in mind, and so they never show. This, unfortunately, did not become the template for future gaming on mobile phones until the iPhone, and so mobile phone users were left without a decent replacement for Snake as technology advanced.

Then and Now – Golden Axe

24 Jan

Then:
Golden Axe was one of the true Mega Drive classics as far as my friends and I were concerned. We played this, along with Sonic 2 and Streets of Rage, constantly, arguing over who would play as the dwarf. I remember valiantly fighting my way through the forests and cliffsides, battling nightmarish monsters who were no match for my mighty axe. The fantasy world wasn’t a huge hook for me in most games, but in Golden Axe it filled me with awe and wonder thanks to the unique setting. The game just looked so different to usual side scrollers, which inevitably took place on the mean streets of generic cities. The graphics were great – large, detailed enemies took up plenty of on-screen space, and took a lot more punishment than the thugs Streets of Rage offered. The combat felt intense, and the characters had a weight to them that made them feel much more powerful than other game characters could. In essence, I was Conan the Barbarian, setting off on an epic adventure. Golden Axe was a treat for the imagination, bringing the settings of movies and books to life. It really felt like a world of its own, and that gave it a quality that drew me, and indeed countless others, in. This was a game that really stood out from the crowd. Plus I could ride a dragon and spit fire on enemies, how could it be bad?

Now:
I’m confused, I thought I was powerful, tall, strong, a mighty barbarian in an unjust world. But I’m a damn human-shaped tank. Golden Axe has aged poorly, it’s once gorgeous graphics now look dull and uninspiring. The fantasy world which fuelled my imagination was actually just my imagination. I know graphics have come a long, long way, but great art design is timeless. The art in Golden Axe is truly generic, full of fantasy clichés. The basic enemies repeat ad infinitum, with very occasional change. They come in different colours, and that’s about it. Of course, there are some other enemy types, but the amount of repetition is just ridiculous. The damage needed to knock each enemy down for good is also far too high. It’s not challenging either, just cheap, as you knock one enemy to his knees, attempt to finish him off, only to be blindsided by another generic mace-wielding grunt. I would have turned around, but doing so feels sluggish so it’s inevitably too late by the time I do. Getting to ride one of the beasts that pop up from time to time is far from fun either. I used to love getting on the turkey and wreaking havoc on enemies, but now when I manage to wrest one from the grasp of a buxom Amazonian, she, or another grunt, simply knocks me back off before I can get anywhere.

Maybe I’ve just lost my touch. It’s been a long time since I played Golden Axe for any extended period of time, but I can’t help feeling that I’ve killed a part of the child inside me. Going back to this game I expected to be as glowing as I was about Super Metroid, but I just can’t help hating it. Maybe I’m jaded. There was one level I loved more than any other way back when, it basically consisted of wooden platforms on the back of stone fish. I adored the concept, in fact I still do, but the execution is awful. Aside from the occasional fishy face at the bottom of the screen, it’s as generic as levels come. Brown on grey makes up the background, and the same boring enemies keep coming, and keep taking too long. Even the bosses from the first two levels are repeated, and this is level three. It just seems like laziness on the developer’s part, as does the length of time it takes to kill an enemy. I know I mentioned it already, but it really feels like they wanted to flesh out an incredibly short game by making it tedious.

I’m going to take a moment here and mention my most despised aspect of Golden Axe. The gameplay and graphics may disappoint, but the sound quite simply offends. From the hideous squeals when enemies die, to the pitiful sound as sword meets flesh, to the gentle thud of axe on skull. How this seemed like visceral, raw and brutal combat, even in 1990, bemuses me. The sound really detracts from the action, as the swing of a sword sounds robotic and digital. I can’t become immersed in a game when every time I do something, I’m reminded that I’m playing a game, not battling my way through a world of adventure. Nothing in Golden Axe draws me in, it’s just below par in every respect in comparison to similar titles. Streets of Rage has a superior, more intuitive combat system, Comix Zone boasts a wonderfully executed and gorgeous art design, and those are just two examples. I’m starting to wonder if Golden Axe gained popularity entirely because of its inclusion in the Mega Games compilation.

There is one aspect of Golden Axe that still holds some appeal. 2-player co-op. The same enemies which frustrate now fall faster and there are no back-attacks with a friend keeping you safe. Most of the cheapness is negated. The fact that each boss has a twin is no longer a source of incredible irritation, but a necessity. Fighting over who rides the dragon is still as bitter as ever, and rows will still break out when you’re unceremoniously booted from its saddle by player 2. The camp enemies and ridiculous female characters soon become a source of amusement, as the game takes on that novelty appeal that bad action movies have. In fact, Golden Axe has aged like the movie that so obviously inspired it, Conan: The Barbarian. It seemed great in its time, but now it’s fairly awful – yet with a few friends can become a huge amount of fun. If only to laugh at.

Then and Now – Goldeneye 007

21 Jan

Then

I have to have one, I need it, I can’t live without it. That essentially sums up my feelings about the Nintendo 64 after playing Goldeneye. I was just a fool with a PlayStation and a copy of Star Wars: Dark Forces, in all its pseudo 3d, Doom-lite glory. Goldeneye was incredible, a proper first person shooter on a console. I had played Quake and Doom on friend’s PCs and been impressed, but Goldeneye blew them out of the water. The levels looked amazingly detailed, the graphics were mouth-wateringly good and the gameplay was sublime. The N64 control pad was the perfect companion, the Z button was my trigger, the R my sights. Everything worked beautifully in tandem. The missions were immensely good fun, with plenty of options and actual stealth. I didn’t have to just run around shooting monsters, I was using a silencer, taking out cameras, throwing knives at guards. Then there were the cheats earned for completing levels in a certain time, all of which just added to the fun. (Paintball mode!) More difficulty meant more objectives and more of the level to discover. The game just kept on giving. I had only borrowed it from a friend after I got an N64, and he didn’t get it back for some time. The cherry on that cake though, was the multiplayer. There were four of us playing at once, four! I’d never seen the likes of it. It was even more fun than the single player. Proximity mines were my weapon of choice and I was as devious as they come with them. My friends died and had no idea why, until I taunted them mercilessly. Hours and hours of my life were poured into Goldeneye, and if I could do it all again I probably would, because they were an absolute blast.

Now

Rare produced some of the N64’s biggest games, including Banjo-Kazooie, Jet Force Gemini, Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark and the phenomenal and underrated Blast Corps (If you haven’t played it, pick it up and thank me later) They were instrumental in the success of the console outside Japan, and the pick of the litter was Goldeneye. Revered as the game that brought the FPS to consoles, for better or worse, Goldeneye brought a huge number of innovations to FPS gaming, from the stealth elements to the use of objective-based mission structure. Goldeneye became the template for future games of its ilk. Sadly, like most original titles, it was later games which would make the most of its innovations. The late 90’s saw the FPS genre explode in popularity, and with it came shooters which were far more technically impressive, and still stand up wonderfully today, Half Life being the most notable example.

Goldeneye is still a fun game, don’t get me wrong, but it has a huge amount of flaws which are blatantly obvious under modern scrutiny. The biggest problem is the controls, which seemed so good at the time. The use of the analogue stick to walk forward, but look left to right was a poor choice, strafing is difficult and thanks to my becoming used to modern FPS controls I tended to stagger drunkenly forward in a zigzag pattern, rather than just smoothly going in a straight line. It took some getting used to, but the controls are far from intuitive and at certain moments I found myself fumbling for the right button to strafe and trying to change my weapon at the same time. Turok actually managed to get the FPS controls nailed down as best they could be on N64, but changing to a similar control scheme here was a miserable failure, thanks to Goldeneye being made for the default system. Trying to shoot the hatch on the train level was an exercise in futility.

The speed of the game is also pretty high on the list of flaws, low frame rate means the enemies move even slower when a lot is happening on screen, with the occasional feeling of a lag between control and on-screen movement. Explosions ratchet the pace of things down even further and it becomes quickly apparent that the great graphics come with a price. It’s not totally game-breaking, and it’s usually an element of games I don’t take any interest in, but it’s too noticeable to ignore here. Especially when there are exploding crates almost everywhere. Those great graphics are rife with glitches too, enemies clip through walls, managing to kill you despite being behind a closed door, and this is a fairly common occurrence. The Jungle level is a real low point for the graphics, a confusing mess where you can be shot by seemingly invisible enemies. It would have made a great Predator game though.

While I’m on the subject, why are there exploding crates everywhere? It’s as if the game designers just wanted to frustrate in as many ways as possible. Crates explode, hurt you, then the slowdown causes you to get shot a few times and later in the level you die, knowing that if it wasn’t for those crates you’d still be alive. What are they keeping in them anyway? Worse still, if the crates hadn’t exploded, Natalya might still be alive, instead of her death causing an instant failed mission and a restart. Escorting her around is absolute torture, and the point where you have to protect her as a constant stream of guards shoot from every conceivable angle is one of the most frustrating in gaming history.

The inclusion of a vehicle level seemed extremely impressive when the game was released, but the tank level is an absolute mess to play now. Mines are impossible to see, they’re the same colour as the ground, and the controls are horrible. It’s next to impossible to drive and shoot at the same time, but stopping means being hit by rockets, as does trying to speed through the level without shooting. Might I remind you, tanks are not fast. The stealth doesn’t really work either. Trying to replay the second Bunker level is confusing to say the least. There is no way to get out of the cell you start in without alerting the guard and seemingly no way to get the silenced pistol without killing a roomful of guards with a rifle, and incurring the wrath of the endless stream of respawning goons that fill the level, and again, cause massive slowdown. Then Natalya stands between you and the guards, you shoot her, and that’s all she wrote, quit, restart. I remember there being throwing knives in a pit to the right of that cell, but I can’t find them anymore, and really, a secret like that shouldn’t be necessary to complete the level.

I’m probably being far too critical, Goldeneye was unbelievably good when first released, and for good reason. It has some really well-designed levels, looks great and is a fun game to play. The weapons feel satisfying and varied, and the challenge of increased difficulty and tougher objectives remains a good reason to play, better than the pointless achievements we’re stuck with this generation anyway. There are some real highlights amongst the levels. The Frigate and Train levels stand out in particular, and the mad dash through the Facility necessitated by that time limit (which must be beaten to unlock a cheat) is still thrilling. The enemy AI may be poor, but it’s forgivable for a game as old as this, and the difficulty is pitch perfect aside from the occasional frustration, mostly due to some poor design choices. Again, forgivable considering the sheer number of new ideas on offer.

It’s tough to say whether Goldeneye is still worth playing. As an FPS, probably not when games like Half Life 2, or even the original Half Life, exist, but on its own merits it is a fun slice of N64 action. The multiplayer is still great, though having only four players makes some of the maps feel enormous, and you can spend a lot of time aimlessly wandering around in circles, though it’s all worth it when a proximity mine takes out one of your friends and you get to gloat. The post-match rewards are a really brilliant touch, and checking them after every game is always entertaining. I still get ‘most cowardly’ more often than not. Single player is a great example of well-crafted gaming, one which still has that addictiveness thanks to the unlockables and the genuine feeling of progression. Not having checkpoints or regenerating health is a huge plus in my book, and makes things far more challenging. Knowing one hit means instant death, but being so close to the end of a level you just manage to push through and complete it, that’s what gaming is about. There are better games, and Goldeneye is something of a museum piece in the FPS world, a seminal innovator which has been bettered but still deserves high regard, and I’d still rather play it than Black Ops.

The RAGE Re-opens

20 Jan

The R.A.G.E. shop in Dublin re-opened today after being forced to shut for almost a month. If you’ve been to the shop, you’ll probably already know that it’s the only place offline to buy classic games and consoles without forking out ridiculous amounts, and that’s alongside a great selection of vinyl and work by local artists. Thanks to a burst pipe though, only a short time after the original opening, the shop closed. Compounding the misery, the Sunday Times featured an article about the shop, only for it to be shut, presumably when potential new customers who saw the piece tried to visit. It looked grim, although the RAGE’s facebook page had positive updates and an impressive show of support from their customer base.

This video illustrates the extent of the damage:

After a few weeks of work though, the RAGE has lifted the shutters again, despite suffering losses in both stock and any profit that would have been made had the store been open. The fact that a small shop exists which supports independent music, is welcoming and friendly and offers something nowhere else does is frankly incredible in Dublin at the moment, and disasters like this don’t help matters, so I’d encourage anyone to head in and buy something, a game, a record, whatever, if they want to see the shop remain open. As I said previously, it’s great to see a small business like this open, but at this point it would be even better to see it do well.

Then And Now – Super Metroid

20 Jan

Then:

I have a confession to make. A deep dark secret to reveal that taints my retro gaming credentials. I didn’t like Super Metroid when it originally appeared in 1994. I suppose I just didn’t get it, my young mind wasn’t ready for the long, dark corridors and solitary wandering. It seemed to have no structure, no purpose pushing me forward. Mario was so clearly defined; get to the castle without dying. Zelda had its temples, its new items, its semi-tutorial in the castle. Super Metroid though, confused me. I was on a strange planet, gun in hand, searching for a ‘metroid’ which apparently was very important. I hadn’t played the NES original, so all plot was lost on me. Venturing forth to discover branching paths which seemingly all led nowhere, I quickly tired of shooting the same enemies as I failed to find what I was looking for. I got about as far as the discovery of the morph ball ability, before the game was discarded. Little did I know that that transformation opened up more of the game to me. I was used to linear progression, and assumed that all the rooms I’d explored were fully exploited for any progress they might yield. Super Metroid offered little explanation, and I had never encountered anything like it before in a game. In fact I’ve encountered little since.

Now:

I returned to Super Metroid fully aware of its reputation. It is held in high regard by most discerning gamers for the very reasons I was so quick to ignore it in the past. Games which follow a non-linear path, which value exploration and discovery are rare, but they do exist. The Castlevania series offered me a glimpse of how compelling the freedom offered can be. Could Super Metroid do the same, now that I understand how to approach it, or would I be as unenthused as I was before, blindly fumbling in its dank caverns?

Simply put, Super Metroid blew me away. The art style never left an impression on me originally, but now I wonder how I could have ignored its subtle beauty? Maybe it stems from a plethora of modern games which rely too heavily on the same shades of brown or grey to create a sense of gloom in their interiors, but this game is special. Somehow the perfect shade of pink or orange can evoke terror, as rock walls suddenly appear organic, and herald the appearance of ever more powerful enemies. The planet Zebes is alive with colour and variety, yet never garish or vulgar. Its depths never fail to surprise, and what should be a series of caves quickly give way to a planet alive internally in ways its rainy surface could never reveal. Bio-mechanical flora and fauna all vie to cease your path through the labyrinthine world. Strange statues and technology hint at what must once have been a habitable place, now deserted, lonely and foreboding. This is surely one of the finest examples of 2d gaming in terms of the use of the technology to create a palpable atmosphere of isolation, confusion and adventure.

Adventure, you see, is the core of Super Metroid. Few games afford the player that feeling of discovery every time a new weapon or ability is accessed. A higher jump suddenly causes flashbacks to places unreachable, which now might be explored. It all feels impressively personal, as you forge your own path, and find these power-ups in an order dictated by your own choices. Go left and you may find a more powerful missile, right and an upgraded spacesuit is your reward, each giving you a new way to open the depths of Zebes and confront the multitude of aggressive creatures which lie in wait.

The gameplay is also influenced by your choice of routes. Rush through and you may miss something which can help defeat one of the enormous bosses, or open a later path. Your weapons and abilities are integral to combat, and using the right one at the right time can give you an enormous advantage. Waste all your missiles on the way to a boss encounter and you could struggle, but without the missiles your health may be too low to have a chance when you get there. It creates an interesting trade off. While missiles are plentiful, dropped by slain foes, some of the more impressive power-ups are rare, and conserving them to open doors or for use exclusively on bosses can save backtracking, but in pinch they may keep you from restarting at the last save point. It all comes down to choice.

The level of choice in Super Metroid, without the plot device of measurable morality or other such gimmick, is wonderful. No play through is the same, players will feel their way through Zebes in their own personal style, some slowly, savouring the exploration and excitement of discovering something new, others blasting their way to the next boss, stopping only when they need something to gain passage further into the game. Even players who play the same way will discover things in a different order. The game gives the player such power over their progress that it is almost overwhelming. At times it is easy to get lost, vainly struggling to discover the right way to get to the next area. Yet Super Metroid never frustrates, in other games such blind fumbling would lead to empty rooms or dead ends, but here backtracking is rewarded with new paths opened by abilities gained later. Getting stuck simply encourages players to find another route, desperately scanning the map for a path, which invariably leads to a completely unexpected detour.

Super Metroid is an astonishing achievement, offering a totally personal experience which leaves the player feeling isolated yet emboldened, ploughing onward through a series of beautifully designed areas, in a totally non-linear way. There are no levels, no constraints which can’t be overcome with a little ingenuity and most importantly of all, no boredom. The game is compulsive, teasing the player with new areas just out of reach, which are always worth the effort. The number of power ups make the exploration rewarding and the combat deep and satisfying. Even taking on the games standard enemy types is consistently fun, let alone the huge bosses, thanks to the addition of a new attack at regular intervals. Like Zelda, with its hookshot and boomerang, there is a certain thrill to finding morph ball transformation, the grappling hook, the ice beam, knowing full well that they open the game up that little bit more, and that is enough to keep coming back for more.

Utterly compelling and totally enthralling, Super Metroid now stands as one of the highlights of the Super Nintendo’s stellar catalogue. It combines tight, fluid gameplay with a level of depth seldom seen in games of any era. Truly a classic of gaming, I now consider it one of my favourite SNES games, and that’s without any rose tinted glasses.

The RAGE – Retro Game Shop in Dublin

20 Jan

The R.A.G.E. – Record, Art and Game Emporium
16b Fade St.
Dublin 2

In what used to be road records on Dublin’s Fade Street, a new record store has opened, and it has a small section devoted to retro games. Considering Dublin’s only retro game shop has some of the biggest mark-ups I’ve ever encountered I expected little, but gave the place a chance nonetheless.

As I said, the games section is small (in case you’re interested, there’s a nice selection of vinyl from some really great bands, as well as tapes, cds as turntables) but there are plenty of titles packed in. No CD games present, except for one for the Mega CD. This is purely devoted to the finest of Nintendo and Sega’s early output. There were far more Mega Drive games than any others, but the smaller selections for NES, Master System, SNES and N64 were quite good, with many better known games for sale, instead of the usual shelf after shelf of FIFA variants. At a glance I spotted: Super Mario Kart, Sonic 1,2 and 3, Streets of Rage, Mario 64, Mega Man 2 and most of the best games for each console. The only games lacking were some of the older Mario titles and any Zelda, which is forgivable, they probably sold out on the opening day.

Behind the counter were boxed SNES, Mega Drive, Master System and Mega CD consoles, as well as plenty of pads and accessories for all the available consoles. The prices were also great for a bricks and mortar shop. Most games were €10 or less, with only a few boxed or rarer games above that price. Mario Kart was €15, but that was to be expected. I picked up F-Zero X for the N64 for €7, a boxed copy of Tetris and Dr. Mario for the SNES for €8 and an official SNES pad, amongst a few other things.

The staff are really friendly and helpful, which definitely encourages the customer to return. He told me the games are selling well and he plans to get more in, so it’s definitely worth a visit if you fancy starting a retro collection, or expanding one. The boxed consoles are €50, and unboxed €35, which is very reasonable for a shop, especially with the added bonus of having somewhere to return anything faulty to, and the option to test games out. There’s a full section of test consoles, so you can try before you buy, a very nice touch. They also put on small gigs and EP/album launches for local acts, so there’s plenty more to enjoy than games.

Best thing about the place though, I got a free carrier bag with a Mario mushroom logo on it (pic below). It’s the little things that make a shop great, especially independent places like that, and while it’s sad to see Road out of business, it’s good to see something else unique replace it.

If you want to visit, the address is 16b Fade St., Dublin 2
Or you can find the Rage on facebook here