The Playlist / Those Tenuous Twos

  • Reading time:23 mins read

by [name redacted]

You may have read the first part of this column in the December 2009 Play Magazine. It was intended as a single article, and the start of a whole series of such lists. In the event, I was asked (due to my incorrigible verbosity) to break the article into three pieces; only the first found its way to print. Here is the column in full.

Used to be, when a game was successful enough to demand a sequel, the design team would do its best to avoid repeating itself. Though I’m sure they mostly wanted to keep their job interesting, the practical effect was that if the games were different, they would both remain relevant. In an arcade, Donkey Kong Jr. could stand handsomely by its father, each shilling for its own share of the coin. You might call them companion pieces, rather than updates or replacements.

When home consoles hit, design teams were even more modest, and were generally left to do their own thing. So starting on the NES, you will see a certain trend: successful game spawns weird, only tenuously related sequel; fans of the original scratch their heads; a greatly expanded dev team releases a third game, which is basically just the first again, on steroids; fans think it’s the best thing ever, because it’s exactly the same, except better! And to hell with that weird second chapter.

Thing is… usually the second game is the most interesting you’ll ever see.

How to Make the DS Better

  • Reading time:6 mins read

by [name redacted]

Originally published by Next Generation.

That the DS is a sensation is both indisputable and deserved. That it has helped to change the industry should by now be reasonably obvious. All the more shame, then, that the system is not really built for success.

The DS was an experiment – a cautious stab in the dark, introduced almost with an apology in Nintendo’s early assurance that it was not replacing the Game Boy. Instead, Nintendo insisted, the DS was meant as a “third rung” in the company’s strategy in addition to its traditional handheld and console systems. Judging by how long it took the industry and its followers to “get” the system and its improved follow-up, the Wii, Nintendo’s caution was probably well-advised.

To Nintendo’s credit, it wasted little time.

It’s-a Heem! Again!

  • Reading time:3 mins read

So far, New Super Mario Bros. isn’t as annoying as I expected. Kind of flavorless, yes. Well-made, though. Some nice ideas in here.

I like how they’ve stripped down everything except the mushrooms, fire flowers, and turtle shell — and then refocused the game so it’s basically all forward momentum. There’s plenty of stuff to dink around and find; that’s kind of peripheral, though. The overworld map pretty much drives the point home: it’s a straight line from the first level to the final castle, with only the occasional tangent to access an alternate route or a special item. The levels themselves are much the same. And the way the secret routes and items are hidden is nice and old-fashioned; reminds me of Mario 1 and Sonic 1.

Likewise, the focus on Mario’s size-changing is interesting. In past games (except Mario Land), there’s never been much point in being small. Here, not only is being small occasionally of value; you can also be smaller than small. And to trade it off, you can be bigger than big. Conceptually, it’s definitely got its stuff together; this is kind of like how Gradius V focuses on the Options. In execution — well.

The problem, as Toups pointed out earlier, feels like a lack of confidence. That seems to be an issue with a lot of Nintendo games these days. A shame. I mean. With more confidence in its own ideas, Wind Waker could have been really amazing. And again, whoever conceived of this game was a really clever person. You want to revive an imporant series, you break down what defines it and you build upon that. In this case, you focus on Mario’s growing/shrinking ability and on forward momentum; ditch all the suits and playground design and as much clutter as you can get away with, then slowly build back up with an eye toward the central themes.

Even the level design is often quite snazzy. Same with the very limited treasure hunt aspect, and how that ties into the world map: spend the coins however you like, whenever you like; go back and dink around to find the other coins whenever you feel like it. No pressure to complete everything; to the contrary, the game’s constantly pushing you forward. Yet it allows leeway if you want to explore. Again, sorta reminds me of early Sonic. Heck, Mario even runs like Sonic now.

Partly because of all that, I really wish this thing felt less generic. Less… cardboard. Whereas Gradius V and OutRun2 almost supplant Life Force and OutRun, this comes off more like a tribute game than something important in its own right.

EDIT: Actually, I want to say it reminds me a lot of a milquetoast follow-up to Super Mario Land. You’ve got some of the same ideas in it: better use of Mario’s size and working it into level logistics; more thematic enemies, and levels with memorable one-time quirks. I keep expecting the fireball to work like the Power Ball, and bounce all over, allowing me to collect coins. Instead, it just creates coins. (Not sure of the in-game logistics there. I think the Mario Land model would have fit better.) What Mario Land has that this doesn’t is a bizarre and quirky personality of its own, allowing it to stand as a response to Super Mario Bros. rather than just a new take on it.

The Nintendo Syndrome

  • Reading time:12 mins read

by [name redacted]

Part two of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation.

So Nintendo’s at the top of its game again – or near enough to clap, anyway. The DS is one of the bigger success stories in recent hardware history. People are starting to buy into the Wii hype; even Sony and Microsoft’s chiefs have gone on record with how the system impresses them. Japan is mincing no words; 73% of Famitsu readers polled expect the Wii to “win” the next “console war”, whatever that means. And these people aren’t even Nintendo’s target audience.

Satoru Iwata has done a swell job, the last couple of years, taking a company that was coasting on past success, whose reputation had devolved to schoolyard snickers – that even posted a loss for the first time in its century-plus history – and making it both vital and trendy again.

So what happened to Nintendo, anyway? How is it that gaming’s superstar was such a dud, for so many years? What’s the white elephant in the room, that everyone has taken such pains to rationalize? It is, of course, the same man credited for most of Nintendo’s success: Shigeru Miyamoto.

NextGen’s Top Ten Years In Gaming History

  • Reading time:30 mins read

by [name redacted]

Originally published in some form by Next Generation. I was asked not to include 1999 or 2000, because the Dreamcast was perceived as a low mark in the industry rather than a high one. I was also asked to include the previous year, to suggest that we were in the middle of an upswing. So… that explains some of the selections.

In videogames, as in life, we tend to get things right about a third of the time. There’s one decent Sonic game for every two disasters; one out of every three consoles can be considered an unqualified success; the Game Boy remake of Mother 1 + 2 was released in one out of three major territories. With the same level of scientific accuracy, one can easily say that, out of the thirty years that videogames have acted as a consumer product, there are maybe ten really excellent milestones, spaced out by your 1984s and your 1994s – years maybe we were all better off doing something out-of-doors.

It kind of makes sense, intuitively: you’ve got the new-hardware years and the innovative-software years, spaced out by years of futzing around with the new hardware introduced a few months back, or copying that amazing new game that was released last summer. We grow enthusiastic, we get bored. Just as we’re about to write off videogames forever, we get slapped in the face with a Wii, or a Sega Genesis – and then the magic starts up all over again, allowing us to coast until the next checkpoint.

Buttoning Down

  • Reading time:8 mins read

What if the GBA had had two more buttons, as people kept asking for at the time? What difference would that have made?

You know, aside from fighting games, I don’t see what use the extra two buttons would be. Few games really use more than that for anything significant, and if they do they’re often rather clumsily designed. The GBA has two shoulder buttons that rarely get used for anything much.

Even now, how many DS games use the extra buttons to any particular effect?

As much as I enjoy certain fighting games, I find it kind of stupid that they’re always used as an excuse for a million buttons and a standard layout for controllers. If people want to play fighting games, they can go buy a fighting pad — which most people who are serious about the genre, which includes most people who bother with it, do anyway.

Of course, you can’t easily do that with a handheld. Still, what are fighting games on a handheld besides a novelty? NeoGeo Pocket aside. Which has… two buttons.

But the shoulder buttons are awkward to use, so perhaps that’s why. Anyway, games don’t have to use every button on a controller. Don’t more buttons just increase the available options?

Shoulder buttons aren’t really meant to be action buttons. They’re basically useful for state issues. For changing the nuance of the face buttons — much as with holding up to use the secondary items in Castlevania, versus simply mapping it to a third button.

The more you can abstract the actions, the better. If you’ve got an attack button, try to put all direct attacks on that button. If you’ve got a jump/propel bodily button, try to put everything jumping or flying or swimming or whatever-related on that button. Context (including the context of state-shifting buttons like triggers) narrows down the verb, so the player doesn’t have to think about it.

That’s kind of the idea behind Ocarina, with its context-sensitive jumping and junk. It just wasn’t implemented too well there. RE4 does basically the same thing, except it gets it basically right. In that case, “A” is basically the “DO SOMETHING” button — and what you do is determined entirely by circumstance and what other buttons you’re holding down.

In this light, the point about few GBA games using the shoulder buttons still holds. Between the two shoulder buttons, that basically gives you six face button functions — and yet how many games take advantage of this?

But using the shoulder buttons for state shifting isn’t practical. And besides, a diamond layout lets you pretend the buttons are a second D-pad, for all that implies. And again, isn’t it simply better to have more available options, even if those options are rarely used? Having fewer buttons limits the types of games you can create.

Let’s not be silly. State-shifting is not only practical; it’s one of the only significant concepts in control design to be introduced in the last fifteen years. I’d love to hear what makes it impractical.

Though I guess it’s nice, using the face buttons as a second D-pad is an incredibly specific and imperfect use, that is almost never implemented. Though I might adore Bangai-O, this argument is just as silly as saying every system needs six face buttons so people can play Street Fighter properly.

Of course having fewer buttons limits the possible variety of games. Which is why the PS2 has so many more kinds of games on it than the NES does.

As for the “more choice = inherently good” argument: not really. Arguably so at best. See older relatives, who get confused when there’s more than one button on a controller. See the Brain Training game for the DS, that asks people to ignore all of those strange, extra buttons on the system. The most important element in any videogame is an intuitive interface — something that anyone can pick up and quickly understand. An ideal default interface will also offer flexibility on a game-to-game basis, meaning it can’t be too specialized.

The other benefit here is that the fewer input options there are, and the more intuitively they are designed, the more care and consideration developers have to put into control design. Sure, some people will always screw up their work no matter what help they’re given. Might as well rein in the margin for confusion as well as practicable, however — if just for the sake of the end user.

Of course, the question is one of balance. How little functionality is too little to be functional, and how much functionality can you include before you generate clutter — therefore distraction and confusion — in the name of very specific implementations?

State-shifting address this issue elegantly by providing few options then tiering them to accomodate extra depth, for those circumstances where it is desired or required. Think of it in terms of a reference tool. Is it more ideal to have every possible item you might want to read about all on one page, or do you want to break it down into categories, then subcategories? The more you want to know, the more specific the knowledge you desire, the deeper you delve. No clutter. No noise. No distraction. Or a significant reduction in all of this, anyway.

Here are a bunch of games that (arguably) require two joysticks, so ha! And see, I didn’t even mention a FPS yet! And I’ll pretend not to mention fighting games either because you clearly hate them so much!

Yes, exactly. So what?

Mind that I like just about every game you’ve mentioned. Almost.

But you said there were barely any games like that! So there’s a bunch, and I can keep on going! What else are you going to dismiss just because it doesn’t fit into your ideal scheme, huh?!

Look, it’s the same fighting game argument again: Street Fighter uses six buttons, so every controller must have six buttons or else you can’t play street fighter! Except weaker. I’m not dismissing the existence of fighting games or first-person shooters or these random and rare double-joystick games you seem so fixated on; I’m dismissing their import in dictating an idealized default input method, specifically because of their specialized nature.

Again, if you want to play fighting games it’s easy to buy a fighting game controller that’s more suited to the genre than a standard pad ever could be. If you want to play FPS games, a standard pad will never be ideal for them anyway, conceived as they are for a completely different control scheme, so there might as well be a specialized controller to better facilitate them.

I mean, hell. Ikari Warriors wasn’t even designed with two joysticks in mind; it had a rotary stick, the purpose of which was to allow strafing. A more accurate compromise there is using a shoulder button for strafe-lock. Chu-Chu Rocket’s control scheme was a compromise to start with; the game would be better suited to something like a stylus or a mouse interface.

Beyond the stylus, the DS also has the internet thing going — making for an even more ideal Chu-Chu platform.

Which kind of illustrates the point that not every game is suitable for every platform, and no single input device can account for every special demand. There will always be a compromise, and the question is as to where to draw that line.

What you’re asking for is an all-in-one device that accounts poorly for every possible variable, and not only will that never be entirely satisfactory on its own right; it’s also the wrong approach to a deeper problem. By this logic, what else should the average controller include? Should it rattle when you shake it, to make Samba De Amigo more feasible? I’m sure if the feature were included, Kojima would find something to do with it. And then of course it would have to be included in every future controller, or else if Kojima’s game were ported to that system it wouldn’t play exactly right!

Just, come on already.

The question is perhaps both easier and more difficult for handhelds. It’s easier if other platforms are available, that offer different potential. It’s harder in that you can’t just switch controllers so easily. Although, actually, I can think of some ways around that as well.

In the case of the GBA, the question is whether two or four buttons are more ideal. In the long run, given how few games even used the triggers for anything of note, having only two face buttons certainly didn’t seem to hurt it too much, or to constrain too many developers. Would the extra two buttons have done any harm? Well, from what we’ve seen it doesn’t look like they’d have done much good. And, you know, omit needless buttons. Complication for the sake of complication does little save muddy the water.

The four buttons work as a concession on the DS because the main focus is on the touchscreen. The oversupply of buttons helps to balance that off and encourage pedantic gamer-types just as the touchscreen draws in non-gamers. The GBA doesn’t have a mitigating factor, so there the buttons would just be buttons.

Right, like anyone would get confused or put off by two extra buttons.

See, the problem here is that you’re a gamer.

R&D1 does what Ninten… D’OH!!

  • Reading time:2 mins read

I think I figured it out.

I just read that Nintendo R&D#1 is no more. It’s been absorbed and folded into Miyamoto’s boring old EAD studios. This dismays me, as R&D#1 has always been the one Nintendo studio that actually interested me. (Well, I like R&D#3 also — I’ve no problem with Ice Hockey or Punch-Out.) This was Yokoi’s studio. It’s where Metroid and Kid Icarus came from. The Game Boy. The Wars series. Fire Emblem. Wario Ware, as flawed as it is (mostly for EAD-ish reasons), is one of Nintendo’s few breakthrough game concepts in years.

Now, though, it’s all EAD from here on out.


Anyway. The SNES was where EAD, through force of sheer star power, first began to shove R&D#1 to the gutter. Mario and Zelda were Nintendo’s most popular series, so Miyamoto got priority. The SNES was his system. R&D#1 was reassigned to support the Gameboy. Note that the one real game the team made for the SNES, Super Metroid, is often cited as the one real reason to own it. Although I think it’s the most boring in the series, it’s sure head and heels above fucking Mario World or Starfox.

Again, the SNES was Miyamoto’s system. Suddenly there was no more competition. He just got his way. So this is where it all began to devolve. Nintendo just went with what was popular instead of challenging itself, internally (as had been the case previously). Refine what had been proven effective. And this philosophy bleeds out of every pore of the system. It’s like a whole system devoted to a more-competent Sonic Team.

In contrast, the Game Boy was Yokoi’s system. The DS is basically the successor to the Game Boy, and to the whole R&D#1 approach to design. This is the progressive direction, because it has to compete with the popularity of white bread.

And that’s just what the SNES is and always was: the Wonderbread console. The start of Nintendo’s entrenchment.


  • Reading time:3 mins read

I picked up the GBC remake of the SFC remake of Dragon Warrior 1 & 2.

Gosh, the changes are nice.

Gosh, the game is easy now.

Really. I’m not sure what’s up with that. The game used to have the same syndrome as The Legend of Zelda and the first couple of Phantasy Stars, whereby the player was fenced in by impossible odds. Now one is more or less free to stroll at will. Money and experience are everywhere. Red slimes take one hit to kill at level one, where they take several in the original version. Or I seem to recall so, anyway. Not sure what to make of this quality.

However. Everything else is strangely just-right, in its tone and sensibility. I don’t recall much actual story in the original game. I don’t remember the townspeople saying much. Now they’re all miserable and scared and angry, and have halfway-interesting things to say about their own lives and problems. It’s all kind of bleak, yet strangely perfect. Then there are all of the little additions like the girl who finds the hero attractive and follows him around town for no other reason, which well illustrate the heart behind the game.

I thought I’d played this remake before. I don’t remember any of what I see, though.

This is nice.

I got it for eight dollars.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sure ends abruptly. I haven’t seen a Capra movie since I was aware enough to appreciate one. Looks like I need to go back and take another look at It’s a Wonderful Life and It Happened One Night. Again with the little details, which give the piece life — the expressions and reactions of even the minor characters or the extras.

The Trouble With Harry is gorgeous; it’s one of the few pictures that Hitchcock mostly filmed on location, and it shows. It also shows when the movie jumps to a set, although not as disconcertingly as in, say, The Birds. The cinematography is brilliant. The script is interesting. Herrman’s score — his first, for a Hitchcock picture — is above-average for him. The wardrobe, with its light New England jackets and autumn gear, feels as real and refreshing as the scenery. The acting, save Shirley MacLaine, is terrible.

The script, although interesting, demands a certain degree of shrewdness in its players. It doesn’t work on its own. In the right hands, it could seem like genius. Here, it deflates into so much awkward air. A shame. A shame in general. Maybe it would have been better as a silent film.

On that note, I am almost convinced that the Coens intended Barton Fink to be in Black and White. Just look at the choices in cinematography. The use of light and dark. Then turn down the color dial on your TV. Suddenly, the movie commands about twice the power it did a moment before. there is so much less distraction. The nightmare logic all makes sense. Where before you might furrow your brow and wonder what just happened, now you accept without question. Maybe even nod.

It’s still a perplexing movie. I think I might like it. I’m not sure. I think I have to watch it a few more times. I’m not sure if I want to. I think I might.


Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (GBA/Konami)

  • Reading time:1 mins read

by [name redacted]

Last year, Harmony of Dissonance presented to me an interesting dilema. Although a better Castlevania game (as such) than KCE Kobe’s Circle of the Moon, Harmony lacks the mindless glee of its (now-apocryphal) predecessor. Indeed, it is rather a heady experience. It’s more well-conceived than Kobe’s game, it has a pleasantly glitchy atmosphere, it’s full of neat continuity. It’s just that it’s not as crunchy; not as much empty fun.

Well, no such dilemma here. Aria of Sorrow is both a good Castlevania game and a fun game on its own right. I daresay, and do say, and am in the process of daring to say, that this is one of the most joyous, well-designed games in the series.

( Continue reading at Insert Credit )

Metal Slug Advance (GBA/Playmore)

  • Reading time:3 mins read

by [name redacted] and tim rogers

I don’t know if this report even went live on the site. If so, it’s buried in the infrastructure. If not, well, that sort of thing happens at Insert Credit HQ. Either way, it’s here now.

Good gracious! How did this slip through the cracks?

At E3, SNK had a nonplayable demo up of their upcoming Metal Slug game for the GBA. For whatever reason, it seems I’m one of the few people to actually get a solid look at it. (Brandon didn’t even know what I was talking about.)

Genya Arikado, indeed.

  • Reading time:5 mins read

Aria of Sorrow is good, yes?

It gets much better, once one gets past the first, false ending — although that final arrangement of souls isn’t exactly intuitive (at least, not until they’re all slotted into place). This is the third game in a row where Igarashi’s pulled an obscure trick like that. I wish he’d quit it.

I had noticed that the Flame Demon’s power looked sort of familiar — as did Soma’s item-use pose…

I’ve still a final boss to beat (and I’m out of potions!), and there’s still another whole hunk of the main map which remains mysteriously inaccessible. And yet… yes.

The “bad” ending is… interesting, as is the manner in which it is accomplished.

I think this counts as the first major Castlevania game since SotN. HoD, it seems to me, was intended as a smaller, bridge game — both in terms of plot and development. It exists in order to fill in some gaps in the larger series. AoS is something rather new and creative, in a manner not unlike SotN.

I do wish that its music were more interesting, though. While it really shouldn’t, it does baffle me that all of the reviews I’ve seen for the game have complimented it on the drastic improvement in both its sound quality and the compositoin, over HoD. Uih? Sound quality, perhaps — although I think the low-res samples in HoD are actually quite a bit clearer and more resonant than what one tends to find here.

Amd yet: composition? The hell?

HoD has perhaps the most intelligent, well-written score in the series. The AoS soundtrack is… good, but largely unremarkable. It’s one of the most conservative scores in the series; it doesn’t attempt anything new. Its main melodies are tired, simplistic, unimaginative. The structure is as straightforward as it can get. There are a few good pieces later in the game, but in comparison to either HoD or Circle of the Moon (each of which had its own strengths) it’s… really kind of mediocre.

Less evolved, less energetic, less adventurous. It’s just… there. It sounds pleasant and Castlevania-ish.

I’ve gone into this before, rather vocally. It’s perhaps my fault for reading the mainstream reviews. It’s perhaps even more my fault for reading the somewhat more hardcore fan reviews.

Since I’m on the subject, I’ll paste here a bit of something that I recently blathered (and then subsequently forwarded, in part, to Tim).

I just noticed something with the Japanese naming schemes. None of the games in the series — not one so far (aside from Circle of the Moon — which makes… one, I suppose) — have had the same title in the US and in Japan. Even recently, they’ve changed seemingly for no reason. Aria of Sorrow was made for the US, for instance — and yet it’s getting a different name in Japan.

But if you look at the names — the US titles have rather arbitrary musical names. Most of them are just [musical form] of [something bleak] or something otherwise rather negative-sounding.

  • Symphony of the Night
  • Harmony of Dissonance
  • Aria of Sorrow
  • Lament of Innocence

In Japan, though — well, look at the pattern.

  • Nocturne in the Moonlight
  • Concerto of the Midnight Sun
  • Minuet of Dawn

Keep in mind that Castlevania Legends is originally called “Dark Night Prelude“.

With the exception of Rondo of Blood, these all have to do with time of day or other related astronomical phenomena. Further, they tend to make a bit of sense in terms of the plots of the games in question.

Minuet of Dawn (AoS) takes place about thirty years in the future, at the dawn of a new era. Dark Night Prelude — it was, indeed, a prelude to the rest of the series (even if Igarashi ignores the game now).A “Midnight Sun” or a “White Night” is a kind of a surreal experience. It’s not really night, although it should be. Things aren’t really what they seem. And indeed, in that game things are not what they seem at all. It’s night, as such, but the darkness is gone; Simon defeated it fifty years earlier.

So. The names are much more meaningful and consistent in the Japanese releases, even now. This is kind of bizarre.

To go back to Circle of the Moon, I only notice that it has perhaps the most pithy title of all, even if it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the game’s plot. Yet another example, it seems, of something that sounds good, which Kobe just thew in for the heck of it.

It’s really a shame that they had to mess up on so many tiny details within and about this game. A game this enjoyable should certainly be part of the main continuity, rather than a weird non-canon side story. It wouldn’t have been difficult to have changed a handful of superficial details. Maybe have reworked a few of the more arbitrary abilities, in the process. Put in some more thought.

Ah well. It is what it is. At least it doesn’t take itself any more seriously than it takes the series as a whole.

So. Yeah. I’m curious to see where Lament of Innocence goes. I also wonder whatever happened to that intended port of Rondo of Blood to the PSX. A while back, Igarashi said that some Konami higher-ups were nixing the project on him. He asked fans to send in mail and show their support if they wanted the game to be released. Looks like they must not have gotten enough.

A shame; I’ve never even gotten a chance to play the thing. It’s become one of those things like Panzer Dragoon Saga and Radiant Silvergun.

It seems I am more or less rested now. I shall set out to writing, momentarily.

What does a genius need with pants?

  • Reading time:10 mins read

The Metroid 2 score really gets a bad rap. Actually, Metroid 2 seems to be the whipping child of the series in general.

I think it’s worth pointing out that when the music is good, it’s really good in this game. The main tunnel theme, the Metroid battle theme, the revamped Samus and Item themes.

Where it begins to get a little controversial is in the various ruins. Once the player wanders out of the central tunnel and into any of the larger playfields, the music switches to an atmospheric pattern of bleeps. Not a lot of melody. Not a lot of rhythm in particular.

If you’re looking for Hip Tanaka’s tuneful power-ballads, I can see how it should be easy to feel let down. But the music serves a different purpose here.

Metroid 2 is by far the creepiest, most clautrophobic game in the series. It’s lonely, unnerving, frustrating, almost trance-inducing. It has a tangible atmosphere which I think is wholly fitting to the game’s setting and general purpose. (This atmosphere is most obvious when the game is played in full black-and-white, as originally intended, rather than with the upgraded Gameboy Color palette.)

The music is an important element of that formula. It exists to create and sustain a particular mood. I feel it was composed very deliberately; Ryohji Yoshitomi could have written anything, after all. But he chose to go the avant garde route.

There is a method to the music, as you can tell if you listen closely enough. It’s not random, and it’s not careless. It’s an attempt at an unsettling ambient soundscape.

The problem that Yoshitomi faces in this instance is the limited sound capacity of the original Gameboy. Melodic fare is easy. More experimental music is a bit tricker to pull off convincingly with only a few triangle and square waves at a person’s disposal.

Whether Yoshitomi succeeds in his goal or not is up to the listener. But for what it is, I think his score works very well.

Combined with the excellent quality of the more melodic portions of the soundtrack, I’d easily rank the Metroid 2 score up there amongst my favourite original Gameboy soundtracks — somewhere in the neighborhood of Gargoyle’s Quest.

On the other hand, it’s worth noting that Yoshitomi was never asked back for the future games.

The music in Prime does something odd to my head.

It all began with the theme which plays behind the game-select screen. For whatever reason it might be, that theme moves me pretty strongly.

The last time I felt this way about a videogame theme was in 1986, when I first slotted my copy of Legend of Zelda into my NES. At the time, I was struck with a profound awe and wonder. I knew that I was seeing and hearing something important. And my whole body reacted.

The Metroid Prime theme (from it’s use later in the game, I’m assuming that this is intended as the main theme to the game) has a similar, if somewhat more muted, effect on me. And the deeper I crawl into the game proper, the more impressed I am with the music in general.

In the case of the main theme, I think a large part of it is the uncommonly synchopated rhythmic pattern. Short-long, short-long, long, long, long. Another part of it is the weird, theramin-like lead instrument. But it’s just the overall weight of decisions made in the tune’s composition, arrangement, and production that make it so strange and so captivating to me.

The rest of the score seems a bit more tame — although there are more touches of experimentation, the deeper I crawl.

In my view, Kenji Yamamoto makes some very tasteful and wise decisions in terms of references to earlier themes. I particularly like his restructured Metroid and Brinstar themes.

Some of the earlier, more traditional soundtrack fare (particularly during the pre-Tallon introduction sequence) isn’t altogether interesting. And the planet-side music does take a while to build up to anything. But I’m beginning to sense a sort of a method behind the score’s evolution.

If it keeps going where it looks to me like it’s headed, this is going to be a pretty darned sensitive and impressive work. I don’t really know that it has much comparison in terms of what else is out there at the moment.

The Prime soundtrack is, so far, perhaps the most original and generally satisfying one for my tastes.

However: as for the soundtrack which I find the most memorable, well-written for its time, and which I personally enjoy the most — I’d have to go with Hip Tanaka’s original Metroid soundtrack.

There’s not a dud in the bunch. It consists of some of the best themes ever written for any videogame. And it made the game far more interesting to play than it really should have been.

I do quite like the Metroid 2 score, for what it is. Super Metroid’s music was… functional, to my mind. It was very Metroidy. To my mind Yamamoto has improved greatly since 1994, however. I don’t have much comment on the Fusion score. It, too, was Metroidy — though in a way which fit Fusion.

Return of Samus is really what comes to mind when I think of Metroid.

The first game was a bit of a fluke; the elements which make up the game don’t really cohere as well as they might. There doesn’t seem to be much of an overall vision. It was done on a pretty low budget. It seems rather random to me that it turned out to be as memorable as it was.

Metroid II was the first game where all of the elements really came together. Samus was retooled to look more or less as she does now. Her ship was introduced. The game upped the creepiness level several notches, along with a deep sense of disorientation and paranoia.

It’s perhaps the loneliest game in the series. The grainiest. And also the most wonderful.

More so than in any of the recent games, there is a sense of nigh-unlimited possibility in Return of Samus. You just don’t know what’s out there. Anything could be important. Anything could be a threat or a relief. You just don’t know where a new item will turn up. Or where the end is. Or where you’ll unexpectedly blunder into another Metroid.

I think the most important factor in so establishing RoS in my mind has to be the spider ball. The way it’s been retooled in Prime is interesting, but the item was far more flexible in RoS. (It was also probably a nightmare for the level designers, so I can see why it’s mostly been left out since then.) The way it was implemented in that game opened up a wealth of possibilities for exploration.

Super Metroid was certainly enjoyable. But it was a bit over-polished and conservative for my tastes. It was engineered to please as wide an audience as possible, while feeding fans exactly what they wanted (rather than what they didn’t *know* they wanted). Sort of like Phantasy Star: End of the Millennium. It didn’t really do very much new; all it did was take the best of the first two games and make it all a lot more palatable.

Basically — the first game establishes the concept of Metroid. The second game begins with that template, and then goes on an introspective search for identity. The third game takes most of the new ground blazed in the second game, combines it with the charm and trappings of the first game, and puts as much shine on it as the SNES can muster.

Fusion tries to be a very different kind of a game, and I respect it for that. What’s more, I think it succeeds quite well in its attempts to reinvent Metroid as a tense action-oriented game. I feel the level design is severely lacking, though; I’m not all that fond of some of its lazy logistical constructs. The game comes off almost feeling like Super Mario World in terms of how special moves and blocks are used.

Prime, I really like a lot so far. I didn’t honestly expect it to be as good as it is. I can’t comment very well on it until I’ve finished the game, though — as it seems there’s still a lot of odd stuff coming up that could effect my evaluation.

I think it could be interesting if the next game were set somewhere after Fusion. That game sets up a ton of change for the Metroid universe, and it would be intersting to see how Retro might follow through on it.

On the other hand, I tend to see the main linear series as Intelligent Systems’ duty. If there’s to be an out-and-out Metroid 5, it would make more sense to me if it came from the original Metroid team.

What seems to be Retro’s duty is to fill in the cracks and to attempt to explain all of the peculiarities introduced in the main series. To dig deeper into the groundwork set by Intelligent Systems.

And on that note, I think a Metroid Zero of sorts (as someone mentioned above) would make a lot of sense.

In early interviews, it was suggested that Prime was going to be set before the original Metroid. I think they chose wisely, in their decision to instead make it a direct follow-up to the first game — but that still leaves the backstory concept to fulfill.

In terms of bonuses, I agree that it would be keen to include Super Metroid — and for exactly this reason:

That way, every single Metroid game would be playable on the Gamecube.

Metroid 1 is included with Prime.
Metroid 2, you can play with the Gamecube Gameboy Player.
Metroid 3 would be included with this sequel to Prime.
Metroid 4 would again work with the Gameboy Player.

Kind of keen to have everything in one place, y’know?

I would also like to see the ability to turn power-ups on and off, as in Super Metroid.

Honestly, I’d just like to be able to take the Varia suit off every now and then. Those oversized shoulderpads just keey getting more ridiculous with every game; I much prefer how her raw Power Suit looks.

Also, it would be nice to be able to combine the various beam weapons (as in the third and fourth games).

I’d like to see young Samus, somehow. As a child, in a flashback, perhaps.

I want those Chozo statues back again, for holding power-ups.

And I want Retro to feel free to try out some more radical, experimental ideas that I would probably never think of on my own. I want to be surprised, above all else.

* * *

Regarding the spiky, butch hairdo from the concept art: Yes. That impressed the hell out of me. And it seems to match my interpretation of Samus’ personality, really well.

And honestly, doesn’t it make a lot more sense to have short hair if you’re going to be wearing a suit like that? Imagine it getting caught in the helmet. Yowtch.

Metroid Fusion (GBA/Nintendo)

  • Reading time:1 mins read

by [name redacted]

So, a new Metroid then. How is it this game took eight years to make? You’d almost think it was designed by Nintendo.

Though I have digested only a sample of the system’s bountiful and no doubt noble bounty, I feel it safe to conclude that Metroid Fusion is so far the best game to be set loose on the Game Boy Advance.

Which is not to suggest the game is flawless. Because, well. The game is flawed.

( Continue reading at Insert Credit )

Note to Intelligent Systems

  • Reading time:4 mins read

Turning off Save Points — for any length of time — IS A PAIN IN THE ASS. Especially in the vicinity of the toughest boss yet so far. Especially when you follow it up almost directly with another appearance of the SA-X. Now, I don’t mind replaying a section a few times. I think I’ve pretty much learned this boss’ patterns by now. But come ON! This isn’t freakin’ MDK2. Is the tension you’re trying to build really worth the annoyance factor? I appreciate the attempt to use the environment in unexpected ways, but… GOD.

Okay, I’m a little more than halfway through with this thing. I just took a six-hour nap or so, following an important telephone call that I actually made — clearly, directly, with no matter of stammering and no blanking-out. Take THAT, Nynex. Or whatever your name is now.

Also, I got a great image in my just-waking head, of Fay holding the brim of her tricorn as she scampers quickly forward, her poise broken. There’s a lot which can be done with the animations when it comes down to it.

Samus’ new suit and replacement powerups are starting to make the old Samus feel clunky and outdated by comparison. Having to toggle missiles on and off, ice beam instead of ice missiles. Having to choose between one missile type and another. A slower, less precise jumping mechanic. Having to go after separate (and random) refills for each type of weapon, as well as one’s energy — rather than just absorbing bacteria after every enemy killed.

I want my spider ball. I realize what hell this addition must be for the level designers, but dammit. That’s one of the big reasons why (unlike nearly everyone else in the universe) Metroid II strikes me as my favourite game in the series. There’s just so much more to explore in that game than anywhere else, and it’s so mysterious. Plus, it introduced to us the newer and updated version of Samus (as well as her mega-shouldered Varia suit), the way her arm cannon opens and closes in order to shoot missiles, the ability to duck and to shoot downward, a whole bunch of quirky new upgrades (only the most obvious of which have made a return appearance so far), Samus’ ship, and an interesting break from form. (Fmor! Romf!)

Super Metroid is the Super Mario Bros. 3 to Metroid II‘s Wrath of Khan Metroid II did almost everything better than the first game, despite the limitations of the Gameboy hardware. And the inventions that the team used to get around the inherent problems of the platform were hugely important refinements to the building Metroid aesthetic. The only problems are that most of the music generally isn’t as melodious and memorable as Hip Tanaka’s score from the original (though I dig what there is), and that the control is a little floatier than in any of the other Metroid games. Okay, and perhaps the backgrounds lack a lot of variety. But hey, again — this it the original Gameboy. What do you want? If the game comes off feeling like a B-picture as a result, then all the better.

The third game is the ultimate refinement, really, revisiting and polishing the original game’s format while borrowing most of the interesting suggestions from the sequel. A few moments are a bit too traditionally SNES-like for me (you know, the blatant hardware abuse more for the sake of making things look cool for the players who can’t see through the gimmicks than because it adds anything to the game experience), but all in all it’s unquestionably one of the best-designed and best-executed games ever made. The thing is, I tend to retreat from that kind of polish. There’s just not a lot to say. Yes, it’s a great game. Moving on.

Where does Fusion fit in? Where, indeed. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Sam I Am

  • Reading time:4 mins read

So I was staring at my order at ebgames (I refuse to provide a link). I spent most of the weekend and yesterday wondering why it hadn’t shipped yet. I was on the verge of becoming extremely agitated when I woke this morning, noting that they apparently had still yet to ship the darned thing. But then she appeared, completely unannounced. I have Samus, and I’m not letting go.

It didn’t take long to whiz through the short bit that I’d already played through wholly illegitimate means a week or two ago. Since then I’ve been slowly poking around, doing my best to do my thing.

Metroid is exactly the kind of game made for a person like me — someone who isn’t content not to poke every single inch of the scenery fifteen times, just in case he might’ve missed something interesting. I flat-out refuse to try to play through the games quickly, even the second or third time through — it’s a matter of principle, bikini or no bikini.

I just today realized how useful the “sleep” mode is that the GBA has. Must make note to institute this in my own game.

The music in this game — so far it’s a mix of Metroid, Strider, and Little Nemo: The Dream Master. And it sounds like the new Samus intro theme (a bit more understated than the traditional one) skips a little. I can’t tell if this is a bug or if it’s meant to sound that way. I assumed it was a mistake in the emulation earlier, but no; the game really is like that. I can’t figure out why. It sounds strange.

There’s a headphones option… Hmm.

And I was wrong. Sammie doesn’t breathe — she PULSATES.


The pace of the game seems intentionally briskened up; Samus runs, jumps, stops, flips, does everything about twice as quickly and precisely as she used to. It was hard to tell on the emulator, but the game is a hell of a lot more action-oriented than the past Metroid games have been. And usually the only areas really left open for a lot of exploration are the huge (and frequent) sections where Samus is trapped — often without anything helpful like a recharge room nearby — and must run around in circles for ten or twenty minutes, looking for the one obscure block that the player has missed, which is her ticket to freedom.

Overall, I’m not so sure I like the way the levels are designed in this game, compared to any of the previous three Metroids. The level design is certainly better than in almost any other game out there, but it’s a bit too gimmicky and forced for me. Intelligent Systems could’ve worked the exploration into the game a lot more seamlessly — and less annoyingly — than this.

Beyond Samus’ newfound speed and athleticism (I guess that’s what you get when you become a Metroid), the control is a bit weird in a couple of respects — especially coming off of the past games. For one, Samus doesn’t bounce as much from her own bomb blasts anymore. It’s harder to climb through the air with explosions, as one can in every other version of Metroid. Two, often changing direction in mid-air will cause her to cut her jump short. This is probably me hitting “up” or “down” unintentionally, but the game can get kind of hectic at times (considering the new focus on speed, as well as HOW MUCH damage Samus takes in comparison to how much she gets back) and it’s annoying to suddenly find that Samus doesn’t want to finish the jump she was making when she’s hovering right over, say, an electrified pool or a huge boss monster.

Anyway. I’ve things to read and reply to. Things to scan. Things to write. Things to eat.

I found out how to hook up a Casio keyboard to the patch bay, today. Hooray.


Aderack: You can see Samus’ butt cheeks now.
Smiley: Eee!
Smiley: Like in Super Metroid, when you use the special healing technique?
Aderack: Well, they’re covered. But… very tightly, for some reason.
Aderack: WITH her armour on. Her… pulsating Metroid armour.
Smiley: Well. Butt cheeks on a female are immune.
Smiley: To all attacks and weather.
Aderack: It’s kind of weird. The rest of her new suit (much more organic than her old one) is sort of skeletal-looking. Especially from the back. But there, right on the butt, the more armory part opens up to show the spandexy part. Specially.
Smiley: Buttastic!