Saturday, October 26, 2013

The (Not So) Terrible Twos


Zelda 2:  The Adventure of LinkCastlevania 2:  Simon's QuestSuper Mario Bros. 2.  All three of these NES games have a bad rap among gamers, but at their core, they're really not bad games!  In fact, these three games are my favorite entries in their respective series on the NES!


Last October I visited California and spent a week with some of my friends.  While there, between all of us, we played through 30 different games.  Three of the games I played through were the three this article is about.  One of my friends was actually pretty excited about seeing me go through Castlevania 2 in particular since it had been so long since he himself had gone through it.  In a reasonably short amount of time, I played through it without the assistance of a guide.  It was apparently quite a feat.

Zelda 2 was another one I tore through rather quickly.  By the end of the game, I had every item, every heart and magic container, and max levels.  It, like Castlevania 2, is known for being a crushingly difficult game.  I know these games inside and out.  I know where all the secrets are.  For all intents and purposes, I'm quite good at these games.  But I got good at these games in a time when there was no internet for assistance.  All we had to help us get through the games were magazines and schoolyard hearsay.

Speaking on pre-internet times, I don't recall people ever taking issue with any of these games before the advent of the internet.  At the time, none of them were viewed as weird games, or black sheep games, or even "bad" games.  These games came out at a time where there were no other games in their respective series.  In the case of all three of them, the third game returned the series to its roots, leaving the second game as an oddity or a black sheep entry.

But these games aren't bad!  Are they the best games in their particular series?  Probably not.  But that doesn't mean that they're not extremely enjoyable titles.

We've got three games to cover, so let's begin!

Zelda 2:  The Adventure of Link
Nintendo, 1988
Main Criticism(s):  "It's way too hard!" "It's not overhead like the other Zelda games!"

Zelda 2:  The Adventure of Link was one of the first NES games I got.  I'm sure that will make some of you feel I have a bias towards it because of that, but I feel like I should mention that anyway so you can decide now whether or not to disregard my views on its quality.

I didn't own the original game before I got Zelda 2.  I had rented it and seen friends play it, but I didn't own it until after I got Zelda 2.  Zelda 2 was actually kind of a blind buy for me, as I had only seen a screenshot or two of it in the first issue of Nintendo Power.  Basically, as a kid, I was just going off of the Zelda name, assuming it would be good.  I was not disappointed.

So what is it that makes people dislike this game so much?  For starters, the alleged difficulty of the game.  In my opinion, Zelda 2:  The Adventure of Link is not "too" hard, but it is a difficult game.  Link's sword attack does not extend very far from his body, and the powered up shooting sword attack is far, far weaker than it was in the original Zelda.  In fact, I would say that the shooting sword attack in the second game is almost worthless as an offensive weapon.  Not only does it not deal damage to any of the larger enemies, but it also doesn't even travel across the length of the screen.

The difficulty is a common misconception.  It's an action RPG, so you have to play it like one.  Level up.  Fight the enemies you encounter.  Seek out the heart and magic containers.  You want to see a hard game?  Take a look at the original Metroid.  Now that's a hard game.  Zelda 2 is regarded as being this impossibly difficult game, and yet you never hear many people complaining about how difficult Metroid is.

Also, once you get the down thrust, the game becomes a lot easier.  Up thrust helps a bit, too, but the down thrust almost breaks the game, and you get it before you go to the third palace.  With it, enemies that were once excessively difficult no longer pose as much of a threat.

Success is found in this game by knowing when to finish the palaces.  By that I don't mean which order to do them in, I literally mean "when" to finish them.  Every time you defeat a palace boss and put the gem in the stone totem at the end your experience will rapidly increase until you gain a level.  This is more or less a free level gain for you.  If you're playing and you're about ready to gain a level, go ahead and kill some enemies until you do.  Then go defeat the boss.  There's no "level grinding" in this game other than once in a while where you need to gain just a bit more experience before the palace boss battle.

This game takes the Zelda series in a direction that it never returned to, which I'm sure is a relief to a lot of people.  The Legend of Zelda series is often referred to as an RPG, yet this Zelda game is one of the few (if not the only) to actually have RPG elements in it.  As time has passed, gamers have taken a step away from traditional turn-based RPGs and have embraced the action RPG genre more.  If people are fans of the Legend of Zelda games and are fans of the action RPG genre, what's not to love here?

Another interesting thing is that the items you get in the palaces are not items you use to traverse them.  With the exception of the Handy Glove and the Magical Key, the treasures in the palaces are typically used in the overworld and not as weapons against the bosses.  There isn't the feeling like, "I just got this item.  I bet I have to use it on the boss in this dungeon."  Zelda 2 actually breaks from the formula and tries something a little different.  I don't know if that's a reason for why it doesn't deserve the hate it gets, but I think it's a very cool thing that makes it not seem so by the numbers.

The "it's not overhead like the other Zeldas" was not an issue back in 1988 when this game was released.  After all, it was only the second game in the series.  There was no established norm of what a Zelda game should look like.  No one complained when Ocarina of Time was a 3D game instead of an overhead 2D one.  Why disrespect this game for trying something new?  Side-scrollers were extremely popular back then.  It only makes sense for Nintendo to try to convert the Zelda series to that play style.

Castlevania 2:  Simon's Quest
Konami, 1988
Main Criticism(s):  "It's too hard!" "It's too confusing!" "It doesn't play like the other Castlevania games!"

It's funny that one criticism I have heard about this game is that it's nothing like the other Castlevania games... other than one that most Castlevania fans praise and hold in the highest regard:  Castlevania:  Symphony of the Night.  Castlevania 2:  Simon's Quest has more in common with Symphony than it does the standard side-scrolling entries in the series, but I guess the detractors don't realize that.

It's not level based like the other two Castlevania games on the NES.  Instead of going from level to level, you scour the countryside in search of abandoned mansions which contain a part of Count Dracula's dismembered body.  Also unlike the other Castlevania games on the NES, you gain experience and money from fighting monsters.  Not money like the money bags found in the first and third games, but money you can actually use to buy items and weapons.

Are the clues given to you by the NPCs useless?  I'd say so, yes.  Most of the clues you get from NPCs in role playing games are usless, too.  When I played the game as a kid, I don't recall ever needing the clues to know where to go.  How did I know to hold the blue crystal and crouch by an impassible pond?  I probably read it in a magazine, which were standard issue at the time.  Everyone subscribed to Nintendo Power.  It had the clues that you could use.

Some people might find this to be bad game design if you need outside assistance just to make it through the game, rather than have the game itself point you in the right direction.  But back then, that was just how things were.  Back then, you put the game in, turned the system on, and were instantly at the title screen and told to press start.  No hand holding.  Just press start and figure it out.

Castlevania 2:  Simon's Quest doesn't play like the other two on the NES, nor does it play like any of the other Castlevania games until Symphony of the Night was released in 1997.  It has a lot in common with Symphony of the Night, which is easily the most popular Castlevania game in existence.  A game which spawned the "Metroidvania" genre.  How can Symphony be hailed as one of the greatest games in the series and Castlevania 2 be panned as one of the worst?

I truly believe that The Angry Video Game Nerd soured many people's opinion of this game with his original review of it.  I didn't even realize that this game was looked down upon until I started seeing people cite The Nerd's review.

One of his main criticisms about the game was his dislike for the day/night cycle, which I always thought was a neat feature.  He also takes issue with the fact you die when you fall in the water, yet this is the norm in the Castlevania series.  I think a lot of people take his review as gospel and either don't give the game a shot or go into it with preconceived notions about it being a "bad" game.

It's a real shame so many people can't get into this game.

Super Mario Bros. 2
Nintendo, 1988
Main Criticism(s):  "It's not really a Mario game!" "It doesn't have the normal Mario enemies in it!"

How many times have you heard this:

"Did you know Super Mario Bros. 2 isn't actually the real Super Mario Bros. 2?  It's actually a game called Doki Doki Panic.  Nintendo thought the real Super Mario Bros. 2 was too hard for us so they gave us this game instead."

I'd say you've heard it quite a bit.  Maybe you've even said it to someone yourself.  We've all heard it, though.  It's a true statement, yes, but that doesn't make this a bad game.  In fact, Super Mario Bros. 2 is my favorite Mario game on the NES.  I easily put it higher than Super Mario Bros. 3.  Ooh!  Controversy!

Super Mario Bros. 2 is basically a sprite hack of Doki Doki Panic.  Doki Doki Panic is a good game.  Why, then, does making Doki Doki Panic into a Mario game suddenly equal such disdain?  You're not jumping on Goombas or kicking Koopa shells.  You're not fighting Bowser or saving Princess Toadstool.  Instead, you're jumping on Shyguys and hurling them at your enemies.  You're fighting Wart and tossing vegetables into his mouth.  You're playing as the Princess!  And she can hover!

When this game was released, it was huge.  It was on the cover of the first issue of Nintendo Power.  It being the second game in the series, there was nothing else to compare it to.  The controversy about it not being the official Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 didn't come until much later.

If you put the original Super Mario Bros. next to Super Mario Bros. 2, it doesn't even compare.  Think back to what that was like, back when you only had those two games to go by.  It's far more colorful than the original.  You can select which character you want to play as.  It had a unique and interesting game mechanic of jumping on enemies, picking them up, and throwing them at other enemies to defeat them.  Of course it was wildly popular.

I feel the argument that "It's not really a Mario game" is pretty much void at this point.  Today, what is a Mario game?  We've seen Mario jumping from planet to planet.  We've sprayed water over graffiti to wash it off.  We've seen Mario go 2D, gain levels in an RPG, and be a screaming baby on Yoshi's back.  He's played tennis, baseball, basketball, and been the star of many party games.  So what is a Mario game?  To say that this version of Super Mario Bros. 2 isn't really a Mario game no longer holds up.

Mario games have evolved and changed so much over the years that today "New" Super Mario Bros. is basically just another way to say "Old" Super Mario Bros.

Or is that not it?  Is it because it started as something else?  That it was something else originally in Japan as Doki Doki Panic?  Well, this game was eventually released in Japan as a Mario game, so if it's the mentality that Japan has the final word on what's a Mario game and what isn't, then I think this still counts.

We Americans did not have the chance to officially play the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 until Super Mario All-Stars was released and featured it as one of the playable games.  It has since appeared as an unlockable game on Super Mario Bros. Deluxe on Game Boy Color, and it has also been released on the Wii and 3DS' Virtual Console service.  After actually playing it (especially in it's original incarnation and not the enhanced All-Stars version) I can say that I'm glad Nintendo of America did not release it here as our Mario 2.  It's an extremely difficult game and it looks very similar to the original.  Had we got that game instead, Mario might have not ended up as popular as he did in America.  It probably would have made Super Mario Bros. 3 look even better when it was released, though.

Plus, the game introduced Shyguys to the Mario universe.  That has to count for something.