Monday, June 29, 2015

A Short Review of Shadowgate Classic

Imagine, if you will, a simpler time in gaming. A time dominated by simpler games. In this time, one game stood above the rest in the PC gaming scene, and that game was called Shadowgate. A groundbreaking point and click adventure game widely considered to be among the best of the genre. Twelve years later, Shadowgate returned as Shadowgate Classic on the Game Boy Color. And now, 16 years after that, I'm here to share that game with you.

Shadowgate Classic was entirely new to me. I didn't know much about it, and I didn't look up any info before purchasing a copy, as I prefer to go into my reviews blindly whenever it's possible. I only look up information on the game once I'm well into it. So I was honestly surprised to discover that I was playing a point and click adventure game once I started my quest.

Set in the vast fortress of Shadowgate, your role is to explore the castle and find a way to stop the evil Warlock from summoning a behemoth. You will start with nothing, but as you play you will collect many items that will aid you on your quest. There is no real combat, no stats, no movement. Just a single image with the choices to move to another location, use an item, open a box or door, examine your surroundings, etc. If something dangerous appears, you must either figure out which item can be used to overcome it, or retreat and look for another solution to the problem. Once you've found the items you need to defeat the warlock, you must search him out and then poof! It's the end of the game. Pretty simple right? Well not necessarily.

Like any good point and click, SC is centered around experimentation and death. Lots and lots of death. Any choice you make could instantly kill you. Much like a choose-your-own-adventure book, there's usually no intuitive way to tell what choice will lead to success, what will lead to failure, and what will lead to your tragic demise. Fortunately, saving is easy to do at any time, and the game will also automatically kick you back to the last screen you were at if you die, so forgetting to save for a while isn't a huge deal. 

As for the graphics, it has to be said; SC looks outdated. Even compared to other GBC games, the interactive illustrations could be a lot better. Of course, as a straight port of a 1987 Macintosh game, one can only expect so much, but I think it's fair to say that while it has a distinctive look, Shadowgate Classic hasn't aged all that well graphically. The illustrations have that weird 70s-80s pulp fantasy novel feel to them, which isn't a look I'd describe as timeless. 

So now to the real question: Is it worth playing? Well, yes... IF you're a patient person who likes experimentation and puzzling things out. If not, well, let's just say it didn't take me long to turn to a guide to help me finish, as I didn't have the patience to sit through hours of testing various items and options. However, I did appreciate the history behind the game. I felt like I was exploring gaming history as I explored the castle Shadowgate, and that alone made the experience worth it for me. If you're interested in trying it out, it's less than $2 on Amazon right now, so you don't have much to lose. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Game Boy RPG Series: Magi-Nation

I play a lot of handheld games, and I love RPGs. I've made it my mission to play and review every RPG released in the USA for the Game Boy and Game Boy Color consoles. My goal is to be able to experience these games and enlighten my fellow handheld collectors on their strengths and weaknesses. These games will be played in the order I find and acquire them. If you have any suggestions for games I should be on the lookout for, let me know.


Hooooo boy. Magi-Nation. Where to start? After trying to finish this game for a month now, I have developed a love-hate relationship with it. The creativity, charm, and effort that went into it has wowed me. The rushed execution and some head-scratching design decisions had me grinding my teeth in frustration. 

Let's start with a little background. Magi-Nation started out in 2000 as a trading card game called Magi-Nation Duel. Set up as a kind of cross between the Pokemon and Magic the Gathering games, MND developed a small following until it's last expansion came out near the end of 2002. In 2001, when the publisher, Interactive Imagination, was pushing the franchise the hardest, they published Magi-Nation for the Game Boy Color.

Despite being essentially a promotional title to push the franchise, Magi-Nation comes across as a labor of love in many ways. Magi-Nation has some of the most detailed pixel art I have ever seen on the Game Boy Color. The battle system is unique. The music pushes the technical limits of the Game Boy's sound processing. The writing is clever and engaging. Put it all together and it gives the distinct impression that the developers had a genuine love for the product they were creating.

Set in the fantasy world of the Moonlands, Magi-Nation follows human teenager Tony Jones as he falls into the magical world and has to find his way home. Along the way, Tony can summon various monsters known as dream creatures using magical rings he can forge in the various regions of the Moonlands. While Magi-Nation was created and developed in the US, the game is very much a JRPG made by fans of the genre. On top of following typical JRPG logic and mechanics, MN also indulges in a bit of deconstruction of the genre, which I found pretty amusing. There are in-jokes scattered around the dialogue and the flavor text when examining items throughout the game. It all adds up to a charming experience that feels unique. There aren't many other games like this.

The world of MN is distinctive and colorful. You can practically feel the heat when exploring the volcanic Cald, or a chill coming on when finding your way through the musty dampness of the Underneath. The graphics are nothing short of impressive. Magi-Nation almost looks like a GBA title. Each dream creature is well-detailed too, although I sometimes found myself wishing that some of the creatures had starker contrast in the color palette, as it was hard to see all the detail in the designs when placed over a black background.

Another standout feature of MN is the combat system. Loosely based on the card game, MN's system centers around a single stat called energy. Energy acts as HP and a sort of fuel. Tony uses his energy to summon dream creatures and cast spells, but faints if he runs out, leading to a game over. Being attacked will also drain Tony's energy. The amount of energy used to summon a dream creature will act as that creature's energy supply as well, essentially transferring Tony's energy into the creature. Using any special attacks will drain the creature's energy just like Tony's. And at the end of the battle, any remaining energy from the summoned creatures will transfer back to Tony. This energy system, while not the most complicated, was fun and once again served to make the experience of playing Magi-Nation into something distinctive and memorable.

With all the praise I've given this game so far, you may be wondering just why my opening paragraph was less enthusiastic. It has to be said, the idealized portrait I've so far painted of Magi-Nation is far from complete. As charming as it can be at times, Magi-Nation has some serious flaws. Let's start with the environments I mentioned earlier; they suffer from what I like to call pointless meandering. They are just too big, each one filled with multiple branching pathways leading to nowhere. Then there's the battle system. Each menu has a loading animation you have to wait through. It takes time for creatures to appear, for attacks to carry through, and there is no way to modify the text speed. This glaring omission is a perfect example of the frustration that can come from playing for long periods. It seems like the developers spent all their effort making a pretty game and forgot to take very basic things into account.

This leads to me to what I think is the biggest flaw of MN: The save points. There aren't any. The only way to save is in a town with an inn, or in the overworld. Stuck in a big dungeon and your break's over at work? Tough shit. Almost at the final boss and not sure if you're gonna pull it off? Hope you ran outside and saved before going back in. How, in 2001, a portable RPG was put to market with no way to save at your leisure is beyond me. I would have finished this game in a much shorter span if someone had taken the time to implement this most basic of features. But unfortunately I simply could not sit down and spend any time playing it unless I knew I would have at least 30 minutes to play, as there was no way to know that I'd be able to accomplish anything in a shorter amount of time without losing that progress.

I think Magi-Nation would have been better as a home console game. In fact, I think the developers approached the design of Magi Nation by imitating their favorite home console RPGs (although even those had save points). The long, winding passages, the long periods of time necessary to accomplish anything, it all seems to point to a game that one would expect to set aside longer periods of time to play. And that is not, in my opinion, ideal for a portable platform. Every successful portable game I've played has been designed around short play sessions. In fact, that's one of the main reasons why I enjoy portables so much. They're very addictive due to the nature of playing in short bursts.

So would I recommend Magi-Nation? Yes. In fact, now that I've finally completed it, I'm playing through it again in the new game + mode, bit by bit. The flaws are manageable if you're aware of them and plan your playtimes accordingly. It's frustrating because I think MN could have been so much more than it was. More thorough playtesting, and more considerate design could have led to a lasting RPG franchise instead of an interesting one-off RPG now forgotten by everyone but us Game Boy collectors.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Game Boy RPG Series: The Final Fantasy Legend

I play a lot of handheld games, and I love RPGs. I've made it my mission to play and review every RPG released in the USA for the Game Boy and Game Boy Color consoles. My goal is to be able to experience these games and enlighten my fellow handheld collectors on their strengths and weaknesses. These games will be played in the order I find and acquire them. If you have any suggestions for games I should be on the lookout for, let me know.

The Final Fantasy Legend

The Final Fantasy Legend, (or Makai Toushi SaGa in the Japanese release) is the first RPG ever released for the Game Boy, so I thought it would be appropriate to start my project from here.

The age of this title is quickly apparent. On startup, the first thing that I noticed was how simple everything is. You go straight to the menu screen, no extended intro, no cinematics. Your options are to start or continue. Once you get started on a new file, you can choose one of eight different characters- a male or female human, a male or female mutant (Called Espers in the Japan release, and in this review from now on) and a choice of different monsters. Once the game begins you can recruit three other characters to join your party almost immediately, for a total of four characters. 

One of the things that took me by surprise when playing was the leveling system. Namely, there wasn't one. Humans gain stats by buying and consuming items that boost strength, agility, and HP. Espers gain stats randomly by battling. Monsters transform into stronger or weaker monsters by eating the bodies of their fallen foes, a charmingly grisly mechanic I appreciated as a concept, although in practice this system was unintuitive and I ended up having to use a guide to figure out how to work it properly. Overall I'd rate the stat gain elements of FFL as a strength. It may be complicated, but I enjoyed optimizing my characters according to their strengths and weaknesses. and I liked the experience even if I wouldn't want it in every game. Some games thrive on simpler leveling mechanics, but since this is a game designed to be played in short bursts, I think a system like this added more to look forward to between play sessions. 

The story of FFL is very simple. Four heroes climb an ancient tower that leads to other worlds in a quest for immortality. Each world the tower leads to has a short scenario to play through before the heroes move on, almost like episodes of a TV show. Unfortunately, the translation is atrocious. This game was made before Squaresoft had a dedicated translation team and boy does it show. I had serious trouble figuring out where to go or what was going on at times. Towards the second half of the game things do improve a bit, but in the beginning everything is very vague and I was left to figure out what to do by trial and error.

The graphics and aesthetic in FFL are serviceable, if nothing special. Everything looks pretty flat, and the icons and graphics in the overworld make the game looks like a map rather than a real world to explore. The battles resemble the ones in Dragon Warrior/Quest for the NES, using a first person view. With a color range of four shades of gray, even palette swapping similar monsters is a no go. At least the towns and caves have more detail and look more alive. On the other hand, The music is much stronger. A small assortment of simple but catchy melodies by Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy fame added to the experience and stayed in my head well after I was done playing. 

FFL was designed with portability in mind. Saving is easy, quick, and can be done at any time. Dialogue is short and there's no extended dialogue or cutscenes. Battles are over quickly. Even tough boss battles are won or lost in short order. I honestly feel I can't emphasize the portable-focused design of FFL enough. I don't think I've ever played an RPG that I could get such a consistently satisfying experience from in such short intervals. I found myself sneaking a couple minutes here and there when normally I don't bother playing RPGs if I don't have at least 20-30 minutes to spare. That being said, FFL is not an easy game. Once I hit the halfway point, the enemies attacked in much greater numbers, and I had to travel longer distances without being able to heal and while managing a very limited inventory. Instead of just forcing me to level up in order to continue, FFL instead asked me to think ahead before setting out for the next area and plan accordingly.

If you're looking for a finely polished portable RPG experience, FFL may not be for you. It's rough around the edges, and the developers were clearly in uncharted territory when they designed this game. However, I think despite the flaws, FFL is unique and charming, with challenging gameplay and a clear eye towards convenient portability. FFL has had undeniable influence on portable gaming. Satoshi Tajiri of Pokemon said FFL opened his eyes to the fact that the Game Boy could be used for more than just simple action games. It's a classic that will probably still be remembered for years to come.