Home > Chronological Challenge, Clearing The Backlog > Clearing The Backlog: Chronological Game Challenge pt 11

Clearing The Backlog: Chronological Game Challenge pt 11

September 12, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Hello! It’s been a little while, but that’s because I’ve been busy playing this week’s first game over the past couple of weeks, so I’ve had very little to report. But I’m back now with more thoughts, opinions and stories on my attempts to play every game I own in chronological order.

This week we come to the end of 1994, and this has been a year I’ve been looking forward to. And I wasn’t disappointed at all. 1994 has proven to the best year so far, with games such as Sonic 3, Super Metroid, Final Fantasy VI and Beneath A Steel Sky leading the charge, and this week’s got a few greats of its own. It’s almost a shame to leave it behind, but there’s plenty of great stuff to come in the looming PS1 era.

So let’s kick this off with a game I’ve waited to play for a very long time…

EarthBound

Publisher: Nintendo | Developer: HAL Laboratory / Ape | Year: 1994 (Japanese release)
Original System: SNES
Played on: Wii U Virtual Console

Goal: Collect the Eight Melodies and defeat Gigyas

Actual Outcome: Defeated Gigyas with my prayers

Opinion: My first encounter with EarthBound came when I played the original Super Smash Bros on the N64. I unlocked Ness, and immediately wondered who the hell he was. And what the hell was EarthBound anyway?

Years later, I discovered it was an obscure JRPG that had a rabidly devoted cult fanbase, and it got me curious. But initially there was no way for me to play it without the use of a ROM. That was until Nintendo finally gave it a Virtual Console release on the Wii U a couple of years back. I decided to see what all the fuss was about. With so many people raving about it, it must have been good, right?

Yes. Consider me now part of that rabidly devoted fanbase because EarthBound is a work of art. As someone who has played several JRPGs, there aren’t many that have made me smile nearly as much as this one has.

EarthBound is gleefully silly, poking fun at JRPG tropes at every opportunity. Ness is questioned on his quietness, no one bats an eyelid to the idea that a fly told him he’s a mythical Chosen One, and enemies sometimes perform completely useless moves in battle. There’s even a dungeon which explains the concepts of dungeons, and has an entire floor with its own zoo.

Mechanically, EarthBound is surprisingly simple to figure out. The battle system is fairly standard turn-based stuff, and wandering around the world is intuitive and straightforward. There are very few moments where you can get lost, as NPCs often point out what you need to do next, and a hint system is available. Best of all, I never once felt underpowered, meaning there were no points where the flow of the story stopped in favour of grinding. It just kept rolling forward as long as I didn’t avoid any battles along the way.

EarthBound is full of surprises too. It’s hard to guess what’s going to happen next. One minute you’re saving a girl from a cult, the next you’re teleporting to a weird mirror world where everyone talks funny. Enemies include scalding coffee cups and drunken revellers. It gets random and weird, and yet somehow holds together throughout. It’s a game that’s not afraid to be a little wacky, while not shoving it in the player’s face.

And even within the wackiness, the game likes to take dark turns that get uncomfortable at times. It’s scary being pulled into a police station and attacked by cops out of nowhere; Rodney King’s assault was only a few years prior to the game’s release, after all. The Happy-Happy Cult you encounter evokes shades the Charles Manson Family, the Ku Klux Klan, and Japan’s own Aum Shinrikyo (who gassed the Tokyo subway at the time of the game’s release). A ghost approaches one character and requests to break their legs and remove their hearing and sight, in one of the most horrifying parts of the story.

And that’s even before we get to the mind-warping final boss, which I’m sure you all know about by this point.

If I have any criticism of the game, it’s focused on the limited inventory system. Admittedly, that’s mostly down to disliking restrictive inventory space at the best of times. And it’s a pretty minor complaint in the grand scheme of things.

As a UK gamer who didn’t see this game officially released for 20 years, I have to say that EarthBound has been worth the wait. It’s charming, funny, scary, and a lot of fun from start to finish.

Sonic & Knuckles

Publisher: Sega | Developer: Sonic Team | Year: 1994
Original System: Sega Mega Drive
Played on: PS3 (part of the Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection)

Goal: Beat the game as Sonic

Actual Outcome: Defeated Dr Robotnik as Sonic

Opinion: Sonic & Knuckles is best known as that one game that allowed another game to be inserted into it. Since Sega intended this to be the second half of Sonic 3 before the project got split in half, it should be no surprise that it plays exactly the same.

As a result, my opinions on Sonic 3 apply here. Even the length issue still applies, as this still feels like half a game, albeit now the second half. As proof, the second zone feels like the kind of level that would appear towards the end of any other game in the series.

Further proof of this is in the game’s difficulty. Sonic 3 was tricky at times, but overall wasn’t all that difficult. S&K, by contrast, eases you in with Mushroom Hill and then throws everything it’s got at you from there on. And sadly, this difficulty means that I didn’t enjoy the game as much as I’d liked.

The problem was, some of S&K’s design choices are just maddening. Sandopolis Zone 2 is a perfect illustration of this – it’s a maze of confusing looping sections, timed puzzles and a bunch of ghosts hovering around. I had no fun playing this level – it wasn’t a challenge, it was a chore. This frustration continued with later sections such as the Lava Reef boss fight and a confusing gravity puzzle in Death Egg. Far too often, I found myself needing to double check things online to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood what I was doing.

S&K offers a much-needed conclusion to Sonic 3, but it comes at the price of being less fun than its first half. It’s still a game with a lot going for it, but its predecessors are just more enjoyable.

Donkey Kong Country

Publisher: Nintendo | Developer: Rare | Year: 1994
Original System: SNES
Played on: Wii Virtual Console

Goal: Take down King K. Rool

Actual Outcome: Krushed King K Rool

Opinion: Donkey Kong Country is nostalgic for me, and yet, I never owned the game as a child. I played it a lot, but only at friends’ houses or by borrowing it. I may have rented it at some point too. But I’m pretty sure that I never actually had it in my small SNES collection at the time.

But I remember it being a lot of fun, and so it joined my much larger collection when it got a release on the Wii Virtual Console. Was I right to remember it as a lot of fun, or has it aged badly?

Let’s start by saying that yes, Donkey Kong Country has noticeably aged. This is because of Rare’s desire to use fully rendered CGI models to create the sprites. It was an impressive revelation at the time of release, but today it looks rough around the edges. It’s obvious that the compression required to turn these CG models into SNES-capable sprites caused an explosion of jagged pixels everywhere.

Gameplay-wise, the level design is often little more than a straight progression from left to right, with maybe a few side areas here and there. In an era when the Sonic games already existed, this feels limited.

Oh, sorry, I’ve been criticising the game, haven’t I? You see, I wanted to get those two issues out of the way before saying that Donkey Kong Country is still a lot of fun. Even with the flat level designs, DKC manages to make up for it by making its secrets especially sneaky and its challenges especially tricky.

DKC is a difficult game, and I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times when I yelled at the game for some of the weird manoeuvres it expected me to make. And yet I kept coming back to it, and wanting to finish it. It challenged me and frustrated me, but never to the point where I felt it was being unfair.

And while the graphics are obviously pixelated today, DKC has a look entirely unlike anything on the SNES at the time, which makes it stand out. And there is still a lot to be said about the soundtrack – mostly that it’s excellent, incredibly varied and memorable. It’s so good that it once again raises questions over Nintendo’s Donkey Kong music choices in the latest Smash Bros (seven versions of DK Island Swing?).

I feel like maybe nostalgia might be a part of it, but I do love DKC. And it’s a genuine classic. It’s another example of why 1994 was so good for gaming, and a great game to round off the year with.

Oh wait, there’s another one…

Beyond Oasis / The Story of Thor

Publisher: Sega | Developer: Ancient | Year: 1994 (Japanese release)
Original System: Sega Mega Drive
Played on: PS3 (part of the Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection)

Goal: Summon all the spirits and beat the game

Actual Outcome: Gave up on the second boss out of annoyance

Opinion: Forgive the two names up there. Apparently in the US the game is Beyond Oasis, and in Europe it’s The Story of Thor: A Successor To The Light. I decided the name I’d use would be whichever one the Mega Drive Collection used.

It used both – on the main menu it’s The Story of Thor, the in-game title screen is Beyond Oasis. Thanks, Sega.

WhatIsItCalled

WHICH ONE IS IT, SEGA?!

Anyway, this is a game I knew nothing about until now, and now that I’ve played it, I think I’ll happily forget about it.

Oasis Story is a Zelda-clone. It’s a top-down action adventure game where you travel the world collecting a bunch of trinkets that will help defeat a major evil. You gain abilities and equipment that allow you access to new places.

Where this game differs is in its execution. While Link is a spry little bugger with a range of useful moves in his arsenal, Beyond Thornderdome’s protagonist, Prince Ali (fabulous he, Ali Ababwa) moves like his feet are made of concrete and learns abilities that proved useless more often than not.

This is A Link to the Past crossed with Streets of Rage, with maybe a bit of classic Prince of Persia tossed in for variety. This means awkward beat-‘em-up style inputs. In order to run, you need to tap the walk button twice. In order to perform more than a weedy little stab, you have to hold the attack button or perform circle movements that aren’t ideal in the heat of the moment. Crouch and jump occupy the same button and it becomes uncomfortable trying to do either of these things. Basically, the game requires ultra-precise inputs for everything, and everything is over-animated, and it’s unpleasant to play.

The world also feels significantly less alive than A Link to the Past or indeed, other good Zelda clones. It’s tiny, the citizens are about as well-crafted as your average Phantasy Star game, and exploration seems minimal. This is Zelda condensed. Diet Zelda. Baby’s First Zelda. Or it would be if it weren’t for the horrible control scheme.

I just couldn’t get into this. Apparently it’s super short (another mark against it when compared to LttP) but even with this I just couldn’t bring myself to try and get to the end of the game.

Still, 1994 turned out pretty well despite this game (and Dynamite Headdy, and my minor disappointments with SoR3 and Ecco II), so I’m not too mad about it. And in the end, isn’t that what matters?

Next time, we enter the year when the 5th gen kicked off! Exciting stuff!

Until then, keep an eye on my YouTube channel as always for my ongoing Tomb Raider 3 Let’s Play, follow me on Twitter for news and opinions, and if you really like what I do, why not consider tossing me some money over on Patreon? And I hope to see you again next week with the start of 1995!

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