Fire Emblem Sacred Stones RetroActive Review

Fire Emblem Sacred Stones Pic1

Original Release Date: 2004

At the time I reviewed Fire Emblem 7, it was my favorite Fire Emblem game. This is no longer the case (Fire Emblem Fates is now my favorite, though admittedly I still need to play Path of Radiance at the time of writing), but I still greatly enjoy it.

So when I first played Sacred Stones, it had fairly big shoes to fill. How does it hold up? Overall, quite well actually, even if it isn’t quite as good as FE7.

The game features a brand new setting, characters, and storyline, so while the gameplay is very similar to FE7, it still feels like an original game in its own right. (Unlike Advance Wars 2, but I’ve gone on about that long enough) It also fixes some of the issues that plagued FE7. The merchant and support options are available from the very start, which makes managing items and units much easier and less tedious. The game also allows players to play side missions to level up their units, which is a welcome addition. In FE7, if a map was giving you a hard time, your only options were to keep going until you managed to get through relatively unscathed, or start the entire game over and try to level up your units more efficiently, which is rather unfair toward new players or players who don’t want a massive challenge. Sacred Stones takes care of this by allowing grinding, which also makes it much easier to get the supports you want. You don’t have to grind if you don’t want to, and the game is still quite challenging if you don’t grind or keep grinding to a minimum.

Sacred Stones does still carry over a number of problems that FE7 had. Limited supports and fog of war are the biggest ones that come to mind. But the bigger issue is that the game feels almost unfinished.

It’s obvious that they wanted to make a game as big and grand as FE7, but something went wrong along the way, and they had to cut corners. The game is noticeably shorter than FE7, the story feels rather rushed at times, the sequence of events don’t always flow very well, and there are a number of characters and plot points that are set up and then are either resolved anticlimactically or never brought up again.

It’s a shame, because Sacred Stones had the potential to be even better than FE7, so it’s disheartening to see a great game that clearly ran out of time or money, or something. As it stands, it’s not the best the series has to offer, but it’s still a very, very good game, and is very much worth your time if you enjoy Fire Emblem.

How well it holds up          4/4

Personal Enjoyment           4/5

Overall quality                      8/10

For further information about the game:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_Emblem:_The_Sacred_Stones

Advance Wars 2 RetroActive Review

Advance Wars 2 pic2

Original Release Date: 2003

The original Advance Wars was one of the earliest games for the Game Boy Advance, and is still among the best handheld games ever made. It showed that the smaller games for handhelds still had a place in a world where games on home consoles were bigger than ever. It demonstrated that a game could make up for a lack of scope and raw graphical power with a great deal of polish and focus. Indeed, it’s a good example of how limitations can be a good breeding ground for creativity.

So with its success overseas, a sequel was inevitable. But how does it stack up against the original? On the whole, rather poorly. It’s not a bad game by any stretch, and most of what was good about Advance Wars is still present in the sequel.

The problem is that it doesn’t do anything interesting. The first game was almost perfect, so there’s not a whole lot a sequel could add aside from fixing some minor issues, and Advance Wars 2 takes the wrong approach.

Firstly, it didn’t fix any of the problems with the first game. The main campaign is still kind of all over the place, the arbitrary restrictions on what certain units can attack is still present, and fog of war is still alive and well.

Instead, the game introduces various gimmicks that do nothing but clutter gameplay that was fine as it was. It adds new units, new items and types of buildings on the maps, and a bunch of new characters. None of which distracted from the fact of how similar the game is to its predecessor, bringing into question the necessity of its existence.

With a series like Fire Emblem, you can get away with having the gameplay be more or less the same, because typically each new game features a brand new story, setting, and characters, and since character and story are so key in those games, a little sameness in the gameplay is forgivable. So while Fire Emblem 7 and Sacred Stones are extremely similar when it comes to the gameplay, the different stories and characters make each one a distinct and unique experience. But Advance Wars is not at all character and story focused, and so when the sequel plays almost identically to the first, that’s a problem that cannot be ignored.

Let me be clear, Advance Wars 2 is not a bad game. But if you’ve played the first game, there’s literally no reason to play this one. It offers little that’s new, and what it does only diminishes the impact of the first game. Only play it if you really, really liked the first game and just have to see what the sequel is like. And if the first game wasn’t your cup of tea, don’t even bother with this one.

How well it holds up          4/4

Personal Enjoyment           3/5

Overall quality                      7/10

For further information about the game:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advance_Wars_2%3A_Black_Hole_Rising

Kirby Nightmare in Dreamland RetroActive Review

Kirby Nightmare in Dreamland pic1

Original Release Date: 2001

Kirby’s Adventure was one of my favorite games for the NES, a delightful swan song for the system that would help raise the visibility of Kirby and ensure he had more games. And eventually, one of those games would be an enhanced remake for the GBA, which is of course the subject of this review.

I already covered Kirby’s Adventure, and Nightmare in Dreamland is quite similar, so I’ll focus on the differences. It’s basically the same game, but Nightmare in Dreamland gives it a graphical overhaul, with crisp, timeless sprite based graphics and excellent sound design. The controls feel a little floatier than in the original, and there are a few minor tweaks, but for the most part it’s a faithful update that takes a game that was already good and makes it a little better.

Not much else to say. Kirby’s Adventure was a good game, and Nightmare in Dreamland is basically Kirby’s Adventure with some extra sprinkles on top. So if you like Kirby, it’s worth checking out.

How well it holds up          4/4

Personal Enjoyment           4/5

Overall quality                      8/10

For further information about the game:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirby%27s_Adventure#Remakes

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow RetroActive Review

Castlevania Aria of Sorrow pic1

Original release date: 2003

While I’ve enjoyed many of the older Castlevania games, the series fell into the trap of retreading the same thing over and over with minimal changes. Super Castlevania felt like the ultimate culmination of the NES games, utilizing what was good about them while minimizing the archaic baggage that made them a chore to get through. None of the games that came after Super Castlevania were bad, but they didn’t do much to innovate or improve off of Super Castlevania, and most just feel like variations of the same thing.

Then came Symphony of the Night. While the story and characters weren’t very different from the other Castlevania games, the gameplay saw massive changes. Instead of a linear sequence of levels, the game featured a far more open ended structure, with a large world map and a great deal of exploration instead of just combat. It, along with Super Metroid pioneered a new genre that became known as “Metroidvania.” This new gameplay structure breathed new life into Castlevania, and while this formula would also eventually become stale, it allowed for the creation of several other phenomenal games. One of which was Aria of Sorrow.

On the surface Aria of Sorrow looks very similar to Symphony of the Night, but it actually does a fair amount to stand on its own. The first major difference is in the story and the setting. The game takes place inside of Dracula’s castle, but unlike the medieval setting most of the games have, the story is set in the future, specifically the year 2035. And the main antagonist isn’t actually Dracula. The game reveals that Dracula was destroyed for good in 1999, but that the time has come when someone else will inherit his powers and become the new dark lord, and much of the game’s plot revolves around figuring out who will inherit Dracula’s powers.

The story is not the focus of the game, it never has been for this series. But the story elements that are present are quite good. The story is easy to follow, and the way it subverts and rearranges the typical Castlevania tropes is quite clever, and provides an experience that is both familiar and fresh. The characters, though basic, are all likeable, and they undergo a bit more growth than the characters in most Castlevania games.

Gameplay wise Aria of Sorrow is very similar to Symphony of the Night. You start off having access to only part of the castle, and you have to defeat enemies and acquire tools that enable you to unlock more areas of the castle.

One of the biggest changes Aria of Sorrow brings is in the Soul collecting system. Whenever you defeat a monster, you have a small chance of absorbing its soul, and gaining a new ability from it. This adds a lot of variety and replayability to the game, as the different souls offer different ways of overcoming obstacles, and aside from certain souls that are required to continue, you never know which soul you’ll get next.

But while the Soul system is overall quite good, it does have its problems. Some souls are much more useful than others, and there isn’t really any way to get use out of souls you don’t need. It’s also possible to get duplicates of the same soul, which exacerbates this issue.

Another problem is that a lot of the souls are rather redundant, and the way the souls are organized could have been simplified more. For example, there are two souls you obtain that are required to complete the game. One lets you walk on water, while the other lets you walk under water. The problem is that you can’t use both at the same time, you have to constantly switch back and forth between the two as necessary, which becomes really tedious. It’s the same issue with the water temple from Ocarina of Time, and Aria of Sorrow should have come up with a better way of organizing some of its souls. A more elegant solution would be to just make both souls an automatic ability once the player obtains them, allowing the player to both walk on water and underwater without having to sift through a menu every single time they want to switch from one to the other. And while that is probably the biggest issue when it comes to the souls system, there are a few other souls that could have been implemented more elegantly than they were.

Beyond that, the overall flow of the game is quite good, and getting from one side of the castle to the other is noticeably less tedious than in Symphony of the Night, which had a number of overly long hallways. The gameplay is fun and engaging, even on subsequent playthroughs, and the detailed sprites and environments are extremely nice to look at.

One thing that bothered me was that the game shows what percentage of the map you’ve explored at all times, which kind of takes away some of the mystery of the castle, and the game would have been a little better without it. And while the game is overall excellent, the ending is rather anticlimactic. And before you ask, both of them.

But while suffering from a few shortcomings, Aria of Sorrow more than makes up for them with what it does right. It takes many classic elements from both the linear and metroidvania Castlevanias that came before it, while still offering its own unique spin to the franchise. Like many Game boy Advance games, it’s aged remarkably well, and is right up there with Symphony of the Night in terms of sheer creativity and quality. If you’re a fan of Castlevania, you should definitely check it out if you haven’t already.

How well it holds up           4/4

Personal Enjoyment           5/5

Overall quality                      9/10

For further information about the game:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castlevania:_Aria_of_Sorrow

Fire Emblem 7 RetroActive Review

Fire Emblem 7 pic1

Fire Emblem 7 pic2

Original Release Date: 2003

The Fire Emblem Series has had an unusual reception over the years. Unlike other Nintendo franchises, Fire Emblem remained relatively unknown for quite some time. The first six games were never released outside of Japan, and it wasn’t until the success of Advance Wars and the debut of several Fire Emblem characters in Super Smash Bros Melee that the games finally began to be released worldwide, beginning with Fire Emblem 7.

From there, the series slowly gained greater recognition, finally achieving mainstream attention with the release of Fire Emblem Awakening. Once in danger of being canceled, Fire Emblem has finally attained the praise and recognition it deserves. So in celebration of the release of the latest entry in the series, Fire Emblem Fates, I thought I’d take some time to look at what is at the time of writing my favorite game in the series.

As the first game to be released outside of Japan, Fire Emblem 7 was designed with newcomers in mind, and ironically is the first game in the series that does a good job of explaining how its various mechanics work. Much like Advance Wars, it breaks down the different parts of the gameplay into small manageable chunks, and like Advance Wars it strikes the right balance of being both simple and deep at the same time.

It lacks some of the more complicated features of later games, but the gameplay is so incredibly well balanced and polished that this doesn’t really matter. The gameplay on the whole is excellent, it has a phenomenal cast of characters, and its story is extremely well paced and put together. (Although there are a few details that aren’t very well explained. Are the dragons good or bad? The game constantly sends conflicting signals regarding that issue.) If one is looking to get into the older Fire Emblems, Fire Emblem 7 is a good place to start.

While overall a great game, FE7 does have some issues that are worth addressing. The tutorial phase of the game can be a bit overbearing, and while it’s useful for first time players, it can become rather tedious on subsequent playthroughs. Another issue is that, while the game is fairly friendly toward new players at the start, the game still provides a meaty challenge later on. This isn’t a bad thing, but if you don’t level up your characters efficiently throughout the game (which is a fairly easy mistake to make if you’re new to the series), the game can become literally unwinnable down the road. If someone gets themselves into this situation, there aren’t any alternatives aside from starting the game all over again. I’m not saying they should have made the game easier, but some sort of system that allows an alternative to starting again from scratch would have been nice.

There are also a handful of mechanics that are a little annoying to deal with. Rather than purchasing weapons and items in between battles, you have to do so during battles, which slightly undermines the strategy, and micromanaging all of the items between players can be a bit of a hassle, especially if you don’t have the merchant available.

While the game is fair for the most part, there are a few situations where the game can pull some dirty tricks. The most prevalent one is when enemy reinforcements show up unexpectedly with no warning. Most of the time the game does telegraph this sort of thing, but when it doesn’t it really throws an unnecessary wrench in the overall flow of the game, and can often lead to a character being ambushed and killed unexpectedly.

The biggest mechanic I have an issue with is the Fog of War maps. As I said in my Advance Wars review, Fog of War takes away the strategy from the game, because hiding the enemy prevents the player from being able to make informed choices, so the map can only be beaten through trial and error. On top of which, the enemy does not seem to be bound by the same limitations as the player. You can’t see the enemy, but based on how the enemy AI behaves, they can see you, which only compounds the issue of how unfair Fog of War is.

Finally, the Support conversation system isn’t very well designed. It takes far too long to activate a support, and the game limits the number of supports you can unlock during each playthrough. One of the best things about the Fire Emblem games is the characters, and getting to see the different personalities bounce off of each other and reveal new things about themselves is quite interesting. So it’s a shame that FE7 put unnecessary restrictions on this.

But while the game does have its flaws, FE7 more than makes up for it in the things it does right. As someone who was introduced to the series through Awakening, and who does think Awakening is better in some regards, overall Fire Emblem 7 is the superior game, and it is absolutely worth your time if you enjoy strategy RPGs.

How well it holds up           4/4

Personal Enjoyment           5/5

Overall quality                      9/10

For further information about the game:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_Emblem_(video_game)

Advance Wars RetroActive Review

Advance Wars pic2Advance Wars pic1

Original Release Date: 2001

The game boy advance library has aged remarkably well. Before then, most handheld systems were not very powerful, and couldn’t hold a candle to home consoles. As a result, there was a limit to what most games for handhelds could do, and they tended to be little more than glorified time wasters that couldn’t match the depth of their home console counterparts.

The game boy advance did a lot to change this, and showed the true potential of handheld gaming. While it was still not as powerful as home consoles, it was powerful enough to allow for deep and engaging experiences. What the system lacked in power it made up for in elegance. Instead of focusing on graphics or scale, the games could hone in on the mechanics, creating simple but polished experiences, many of which hold up brilliantly even to this day.

One prime example of this is Advance Wars, an early title for the GBA that is considered by many to be one of the greatest strategy games ever made. While I was initially skeptical, playing through it makes it easy to see why it is so highly regarded.

The game is in essence an elaborate variation of chess, with both sides moving units around a map trying to complete an objective while preventing the other team from doing so. Where it truly succeeds is in implementation.

The game manages to nail being both simple and deep, simultaneously intuitive while also providing a meaty challenge. It does this by breaking the various mechanics down into small manageable chunks, allowing the player time to gradually learn the rules of the game without becoming overwhelmed.

Many older strategy games and RPGs fall into the trap of overloading the player without explaining how the various mechanics work, which makes understanding and learning how the game works a chore. This, combined with the unreasonable but common sink or swim attitude when it comes to the difficulty, and you have a recipe for a game that is needlessly hostile toward newcomers.

Advance wars skillfully avoids these problems by appealing to players of all skill levels, at least at the start. This is not to say that the game is easy. On the contrary, many of the challenges and maps are quite difficult, and require smart planning and sound strategy to overcome. But the game understands the importance of starting small and gradually becoming more difficult, rather than hitting the player with tough challenges right off the bat.

Besides the gameplay, the art style and characters have also aged quite well. They provide the game with a timeless charm, and unlike other war games, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

While the game is polished nearly to perfection in many areas, it does have its flaws. Some units are not able to attack other types of units, which can be irritating, and in some circumstances makes some units functionally useless. The game would have been better if there was simply a massive damage penalty when certain units try to go up against units they aren’t as good against, rather than simply not allowing the option of attack at all.

Another issue is the main campaign. While it has a decent difficulty curve, and does a good job of showing off the various characters and strategies the game has to offer, it’s not always structured coherently. The sequence of battles can feel random at times, and the difficulty can waver up and down without warning.

This may be in large part because the story for the campaign is not very good. It makes very little sense, is needlessly complicated, and doesn’t flow very well as a narrative. While I realize story is not this game’s focus, having a basic and coherent narrative shouldn’t be that difficult. The bulk of the worthwhile content is outside of the main campaign, and while the campaign isn’t bad, it’s not as good as it could have been.

Another issue is that some of the maps occasionally have arbitrary win or lose conditions. For example, some maps require you to protect a particular unit for a certain number of turns, because of…reasons. In a game like Fire Emblem, which is very character and story based, this makes sense, as each individual unit is distinct and irreplaceable, and you can care about a unit even if they aren’t that useful to gameplay. In Advance Wars, however, all of the units are generic and interchangeable, and many maps allow you to build new ones from scratch. So it’s rather bizarre that the game would try to make you value one particular unit over another when they have as much personality as a chess piece.

Finally, there is the inclusion of the Fog of War maps. This is a mechanic I extremely disliked in the Fire Emblem games, and I don’t like it much better here, because Fog of War is a mechanic that takes the strategy out of a game that’s supposed to be all about strategy. In most maps, if you lose a battle, it’s because you made a mistake, or the enemy outmaneuvered you, or you didn’t plan ahead. The point is, for most of the game if the player fails a match, it’s entirely their fault. In the Fog of War maps, however, it’s almost impossible to make sound decisions because you can’t even see the enemy. As a result, the only “strategies” are either moving like a snail across the map to avoid ambushes, or just rush ahead and get slaughtered so you can know where the enemy will be coming from on the next try.

I’ll grudgingly admit that the Fog of War maps in Advance Wars are marginally better than the ones in Fire Emblem because the enemy is bound by the same limitations as the player, and there are ways you can use the limited visibility to your advantage. I still don’t think it’s a good or fair mechanic, but it’s at least tolerable here.

Beyond those minor issues, Advance Wars is a fantastic strategy game. The gameplay is almost perfectly polished, it has an enormous amount of content, and if that’s not enough for you, there’s a feature that allows you to create your own maps. The game may have its flaws, but it deserves all of the praise it gets, and it’s a shame that it isn’t as well known as Nintendo’s other classics.

How well it holds up           4/4

Personal Enjoyment           4/5

Overall quality                      9/10

For further information about the game:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advance_Wars

Majora’s Mask Retroactive Review

Majora's Mask pic1

Original Release Date: 2000

Majora’s Mask is a game that’s had a rather unusually reception over the years. At the time of its initial release it was well received, but largely overshadowed by its predecessor, Ocarina of Time. Over the years it has grown a large cult following, and now it ironically almost overshadows Ocarina of Time.

My opinion of the game hasn’t changed much over the years. I greatly enjoyed it when it was still a relatively obscure title, and I still greatly enjoy it now that its popularity has exploded. It’s a game that easily lives up to the high standards set by other Zelda games, and while I’ll admit that Ocarina of Time is still my personal favorite, Majora’s Mask was and is the best Zelda game released to date.

One thing that stands out about Majora’s Mask is how unique it is. Coming off the success of Ocarina of Time, it would have been incredibly easy to churn out a copy and paste sequel that was essentially more of the same. Instead, Majora’s Mask takes the basic outline and gameplay of Ocarina of Time and does something completely different with it.

The setting, story, and structure of the game are markedly different from the traditional Zelda formula. Instead of Hyrule, the game takes place in a land called Termina. The goal of the game isn’t to save the princess or stop Ganon, but to prevent a moon from destroying the world. You only have three days to accomplish this, so you have to constantly travel back in time and go through each area of the game in order to prevent armageddon.

One thing that Majora’s Mask does very well is tying the story and gameplay together. Ocarina of Time was already very good at this, but Majora’s Mask executes it almost perfectly. Wherever you are in the game’s world, the moon is always in the sky above, reminding you of what’s at stake. In addition, while all of the characters you meet have their own goals and individual stories, all of them ultimately tie back into the main plot, and you can visibly see how the world and characters change as time ticks down toward doomsday.

Honestly, Majora’s Mask does so many things right, and most of what I could say about it has already been said. So, much like my review of Super Metroid, I’m going to take some time to go over the handful of things it does wrong.

The first issue isn’t really a flaw, it’s just something to keep in mind. As I mentioned in my Ocarina of Time review, Ocarina is a game that has a very lengthy and substantial main quest, but is rather lacking when it comes to exploration and side activities. Majora’s Mask is the exact opposite. The main quest is not bad by any means, it is actually quite good. But it’s very short when compared with most Zelda games, and the bulk of the gameplay comes from the various side quests. For players who enjoy exploring and finding all of the little secrets and side stories in a game, Majora’s Mask will certainly deliver. But if you’re like me, and prefer to focus more on completing the main campaign, Majora’s Mask can feel a little bit underwhelming.

Another problem is the three day cycle. While a well thought out and well implemented mechanic, it does have its annoyances. It serves the story and gameplay well, but ultimately it puts a time limit on the game. Take too long on an area, or miss an important time marker, and you have to start all over again from scratch. Most Zelda games have a save system that allows the player to easily stop and jump right back in if they make a mistake, where Majora’s Mask doesn’t, which can make some parts of the game rather tedious.

Probably the biggest flaw with the game is the mask collecting system. Some of the masks you can obtain are actively and consistently useful, but there are others that are not. Many of the masks only have a one time use, and afterwards are functionally useless.

This isn’t helped by the fact that there’s often little to no correlation between how hard a mask is to obtain and how useful it is. Some useful masks, such as the bomb mask or the bunny hood, are relatively easy to get. Conversely, the couple’s mask, the hardest normal mask to get in the game, is arguably the most useless mask in the entire game. It doesn’t give the player any new abilities, it’s only good for a one time use, and it doesn’t even look that interesting. It doesn’t even have any eye holes, so one wonders how Link can see out of it.

But while Majora’s Mask does have its flaws, it ultimately more than makes up for them. It’s overworld is detailed and well thought out, and manages to perfect the idea of having areas that are all memorable, but no bigger than they need to be. It’s story and characters are among the best in the series, the gameplay is excellent, and it’s earned the right to stand alongside other classic Nintendo games. It’s a great game, and if you haven’t played it already, you really should.

How well it holds up           3/4

Personal Enjoyment            5/5

Overall quality                     10/10

For further information about the game:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Legend_of_Zelda:_Majora%27s_Mask