[Editors note: Meghan is unable to participate in this post due to ongoing email difficulties. Guess my opinion is the only one that counts this week.]
Title: Solstice: The Quest for the Staff of Demnos
Publisher: CSG Imagesoft
We’ve been pretty lucky so far. We’ve covered Mega Man, and Dragon Spirit – both venerable, well-respected entries into the annals of the NES. However, today we must diverge into something a little less savory – Solstice is not up to the levels of the games we’ve covered so far. In fact, if I had to come up with a single word to describe Solstice, it would be “infuriating”.
(the above was Marin’s contribution to the article. The perspective of the younger generation (i.e. 1 year old) is always appreciated.)
Solstice delivers 3 entirely different levels of pain. First, there is the storyline and the main character; second, the insane play control, and third, the ridiculously difficult world that the game exists in.
The storyline is deceptively basic. You are a wizard, named Shadax, trying to rescue a princess (Elanor) from some sort of bad dude (Morbius). The princess is about the best part of this character lineup, because her motivations are simple and she just needs to be rescued.
Morbius’s name is suspiciously close to a Mobius strip, and, just as a Mobius strip, Morbius is oddly one-sided. I have never gotten to the end of the game, or even close, so perhaps Morbius develops into a complex character with conflicting motivations and a soft side – but somehow, I doubt it. He’s another possessive fellow.
Interesting that so far, the bad guys in our NES reviews share the need to assert ownership over someone. Are we sensing a trend?
But the most confusing and enduring question in the game is “What Does Shadax Actually Look Like?”
The problem is, we have several different graphical interpretations of our hero. The first in the title screen of the game:
Here, Shadax is swathed in his classic blue robe, and sports a grey mustache, blue spot eyes, and over-sized inflated hands, the likes of which I have never seen before.Okay, so he’s a little weird, but a fairly typical wizard.
Then we see this screenshot in the intro sequence:
What happened? He has real eyes (a good improvement) that are still blue, and his outfit is still blue (although it looks a little sharper; maybe he was meeting Princess Elanor for more than just some polite conversation?). But his mustache is now light brown and a lot sharper and more stylish. Shadax apparently started the game as a fairly young wizard, and then aged to grey in the maze. I don’t blame him.
But then, there’s this:
What the hell? Shadax is blonde, muscle-bound, and PISSED. I have trouble reconciling this fellow with the dude from the opener, although it does lend more credence to the idea that Elanor and Shadax have something going on behind the scenes.
In any case, let’s move on to the play control. Frankly, it’s terrible. The game tries to be three-dimensional, but the three dimensions don’t actually line up with the up-down-left-right of the control stick. This leads to hours of frustration, as you try to move up, but instead move sort of up and to the right without meaning to, directly on to the spikes or the monsters. I find that this detracts so severely from the game-play that I would call it an inhibitor to fun. Even if you think you’ve mastered it, there are specific rooms in the dungeon that are configured so bizarrely that you can end up burning through all your hard-kept lives in a matter of seconds due to the play control.
Finally, there is the game itself. There are what seems like thousands of rooms to get through, many of which that can’t be accessed until some other action has been accomplished, by which time you’ve lost your way entirely and you can’t get back to the original spot anyways, since you’ve died, again. I don’t care how effective Demnos’s staff is, even if they work long hours and are more efficient than other corporate staff. They can’t be worth this. In fact, just writing about it is a frustrating experience, so I think I’ll stop.
Solstice is lame. Not recommended, unless you are feverish and enjoy being embedded in frustration.
Today we will cover the first game in the Mega Man series, aptly named “Mega Man”. (We’ll cover all 6 Mega Man games for the NES eventually). I have to confess, the first Mega Man was not MY first Mega Man. I started with Mega Man 3, when the series was already popular, and Mega Man himself had entered the collective consciousness of the Nintendo community. Hence, when I first picked up this game, I was surprised in two ways – first, that so many of the capabilities of future entries were missing, and second, how many were actually there. But more on that later.
First, let me just say, as an initial entry into a series that has spawned an incredible number of sequels, spin-offs, and other memorabilia, Mega Man delivers the goods. This was one of the first (if not THE first) game where the player had some control over the flow of the game – being able to select the level you wanted to play was entirely new, and the fact that there was a clear “best” order, was even more revolutionary. The game is still fun to play, although it remains passably difficult, especially with some of the jumps (I found myself on the edge of my seat with some of the crazy jumping required to progress), and there is some unevenness in the levels themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed my time, and would play the game again any time.
But there is one shocking problem that could prevent your 1987-based counterpart from picking up this game and giving it a try (not knowing the future popularity, of course) – and that is the hideous old man pretending to be Mega Man on the cover. As we all know, Mega Man is a robot. But this hoary old gentleman on the cover dressed up in what I can only imagine is some backwoods interpretation of TRON is disturbing, and I find it difficult to identify with the fellow. Frankly, the Mega Man on the cover is NOT Mega, in any sense of the word, and worse, has some sort of yellow accent vest over the traditional blue armor, which makes me wonder if perhaps this Mega Man is a crossing guard, or perhaps security at a particularly nerdy concert. In any case, this was the first, and the worst, of the cover Mega Man images, and we’ll shudder and move on.
To touch on features that were present from the very beginning, and became staples of the series proper:
– The Choose-Your-Own-Path to get through each boss’s world.
– The collection of new weapons from each defeated boss.
– The fact that there were two power-ups you could get from killing a random enemy – the energy power-up and the weapon power-up. Careful management is a key strategic point here and in all the games.
– The musical tendencies towards greatness are present here. Mega Man, at least in my mind, has some of the best 8-bit proto-techno game music that can be found in the world of the NES, and honestly, any current DJ spinning electronica at the club would make a killing coming up with modern remixes and interpretations of the Mega Man music library.
– The crazy jumps required to progress.
– The Appearing-And-Disappearing blocks that take that jump difficulty to 11.
– The Special Tool you could collect in a particular level.
– The iconic Extra Life Mega Man Head.
But then there were the stark differences!
– Mega Man doesn’t stop on a dime! In all the other games, if you release the control pad, Mega Man STOPS. Here, he kind of drifts around for a step, as if to assert some level of independence that he simply doesn’t deserve.
– Mega Man can’t slide! The slide is a key move in so many ways in this franchise, and the lack in this game was simply appalling.
– No Energy Tanks! There’s no way to recharge your hit points if you are low, making every boss battle that much more difficult.
– The icons for the different energy pills were really different.
– There are points. Like almost always, the points, they don’t matter.
– Only six bosses, not eight.
– Some of the stages are very different than others. Guts Man, for example, has a short but tough stage, while Ice Man has a ridiculously long stage. This unevenness is smoothed out in future titles.
– Bomb Man. Bomb Man is, I assume, the inspiration for Rage Against The Machine’s band name as well as “Bombtrack”. What I like best is that the bombs are classic Black Circles With Fuse, which are endearing.
– Guts Man. Nope, not actually a squirming mass of robotic organs, Guts Man is instead some sort of strong man, able to pick up anything large and square at will. Most amusing is his slow leaping around during the boss fight, making the mighty Guts Man look like he is trying out for Black Swan.
– Cut Man. Ironically he was NOT cut from the game. More ironic that his weakness is Guts.
– Elec Man. Not enough letters available, I guess, to make him Electric Man or Electricity Man. Elec Man has the dubious honor of the best headgear in the game.
– Ice Man. The best part of the Ice Man stage is that he apparently froze some sort of tropical paradise, as the stage is full of frozen palm trees and icy swimming pools.
– Fire Man. Actually would be better named as Furnace Man, but hey, I wasn’t this witty back in 1987, so don’t blame me.
Then of course there is the perennial nemesis, Dr. Wily. (He didn’t go to Wily Medical School for 12 years to be called Mr. Wily). One would think that Dr. Light would have guessed that Dr. Wily was no good, if only by the sneaky eyebrow wiggle that is his signature move, or that everyone in this world seems to be named after their innate characteristics, but whatever. (Ironically, Dr. Light is an alias for the good doctor’s real name, Dr. Right. That’s right ladies, Mr. Right has competition now). I feel bad for the poor Dr. Wily, but not sorry enough to avoid kicking his sorry butt.
In summary, Mega Man is a great game, worth the play, as long as you ignore the box.
I always enjoyed the Mega Man games as a kid, even though some of my most frustrating childhood gamer moments have stemmed from them. The original Mega Man in particular was difficult for me. I’m pretty sure I never made it past the six evil robots. In fact, I’m pretty sure I never made it past half of them, at least not without some type of assistance. I recall one time in particular where I was trying really hard to defeat one of them and just could not do it. Shaun was laying on his bed reading, and I remember badgering him for a solid 15 minutes to try and get him to come beat up the bad guy for me, which he eventually did, all the while radiating annoyance (as I’m sure anyone who knows Shaun knows, it is unwise to disturb his reading).
Because I was continually thwarted by these robot bosses, I spent a lot of time in the main menu, where I would stare at the little guys that I just couldn’t beat. They looked so small and cute. Why were they so hard? I remember several thoughts I had about each boss:
Bomb Man – He looked so tan and angry. Also, is he wearing a one piece swimsuit? He reminded me of a cranky mid-life crisis wrestler.
Guts Man – Severe underbite. He seemed like the Neanderthal of the bunch, good only for hurling chunks of trash around. Kind of felt bad for him.
Cut Man – Obviously in a perpetual fury, judging from that beet red face. Perhaps he is angry about being forced to wear his undies on the outside?
Elec Man – I was never sure if he was wearing a yellow mask or if someone had flattened his face, painted it yellow and stretched it out.
Ice Man- My favorite. I liked his hoodie. Although in his little pose on the main menu he looks like someone just scared him and he’s about to cry.
Fire Man – I’d be mad if someone stuck a big metal plate over my mouth and set my hair on fire too. Poor guy.
After reading Shaun’s review, I suddenly also remembered the horrifying old guy on the cover of the Mega Man box. His facial expression seemed to be a mix of determination (“These robots are going DOWN!”) and extreme discomfort (“Why am I wearing this ridiculous outfit? What has happened to me? Where is my pride?”). I felt it was so very wrong to make the little Mega Man sprite in the game so adorable and then allow this….this THING to represent him on the box. Shame on you Capcom. Shame.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts that review ancient 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) video games, 20 or so years after publication, and about 10 years since I have played them (with some exceptions). The format will be as follows: first, I will provide a review after spending a full half hour (at least) playing the game under examination. Second, my sister Meghan (who spent many childhood hours watching me play NES) will provide her viewpoint on the game, based entirely on memory. So without further ado…
Title: Dragon Spirit: The New Legend
In this, our first entry into the NES review series, we will cover the mighty Dragon Spirit: The New Legend. The title invites the question, “the new legend? What was the old one?” Well, apparently, Dragon Spirit was a popular arcade game back in the day when arcades were viable businesses, supplying entertainment to today’s video-game-addicts-and-shut-ins. Interestingly, the port to the NES results in almost entirely the same game, just with a different story put in place to try and make it seem like a sequel. The disguise is not terribly effective; anyone familiar with the arcade game will find the game play entirely recognizable – it’s the same game with a different story. For the uninitiated, the original story had a dude with the improbable name of Amru taking up the Dragon Sword to fight a Big Bad named Zawel. The game opens with a very simple one-minute boss fight, which apparently is this battle. Future game play is dependent on whether you win or lose this fight – and the game makes it easy to win. If you win, it is assumed that Amru delivered a beat-down to Zawel. If not..well, it was just a bad dream, but you still have to play more, only in easy mode as the Gold Dragon instead of the Blue one. Let’s examine the expository story that comes up if you win against Zawel – it’s an amusing set of declarative sentences that read like they were written by a 5-year old (much like Axe Cop):
“Amru and Arisha married and had twins.”
Okay, so Amru had a girlfriend and they got married. Guess they were old-school, since the twins arrived after the marriage. I wonder if they are named Luke and Leia?
“Amru became ill from his battle with Zawel.”
Oh, this is sad. I wonder how? I guess if I had fought through tons of levels to deliver a stomping to a boss that was as easy as Zawel, I’d feel a little sick as well.”
“The twins were named Lace and Iris.”
Okay, so, back to the twins? NOT Luke and Leia, it seems. What about Amru? Is he okay? I think not; a healthy father-to-be wouldn’t have chosen two girly names unless the twins were both girls. Lace and Iris? Which is the boy?
“Meanwhile, Galda started conquering the Earth.”
Crap! This is no “meanwhile, back at the ranch…” – while you were off getting married and having pansy twins, Amru, apparently the EARTH WAS BEING CONQUERED. Some hero. Maybe he’s always been “sick”.
“Galda took Iris away as his victim.”
Okay, so many questions. Maybe Amru is so ill he didn’t notice Zawel’s big brother coming to visit? What does “victim” actually mean in this sentence? Is Iris the girl or the boy? This is slightly disturbing. Also, who announces that someone will be their “victim”? Galda is clearly somewhat of a pompous monster.
“Lace took the sword, which his father left him, to slay Galda.”
Okay, lots of answers finally. Lace is the boy (not sure whether Lace or Iris is a better boy’s name). Apparently, Amru was so ill that he either had a living will, or he died – in either case, the sword he used to fight Zawel is now in Lace’s possession. The fact of Amru’s death is so sudden – I don’t know how to handle it! At least Lace is going to go slay Galda. Galda seems like he deserves it, with all this talk of unspecific “victims”.
Okay, enough on the story. What about the game itself?
I have to admit, this being the first game I pick up and play in the series, I was afraid I’d have lost all skill with the NES and be terrible. However, it looks like muscle memory is still in place – he’s still got it, folks! The game play is very smooth. The controller works well, and the fun meter is still high on this one. Basically, you are a dragon, flying over a landscape (the scenery moves; you have 360 degree control within the screen on display). There are two offensive systems; you can either shoot directly in the air with fire from your dragon mouth, or bomb the ground from unspecified dragon parts. Either you are spitting bombs, or pooping them out somehow. I appreciate the irony of pooping the enemy into submission, as it is a strategy that has worked for babies for millennia.
That being said, having these two fire control concepts means that the game has a concept of ground vs. air, which makes for some interesting enemies (they start on the ground, then leap into the air to come get you). So kudos on that particular architectural design piece. While we are on the subject, this game can handle a ridiculous number of sprites on-screen at the same time. Also, the main character dragon sprite is LARGE, meaning you are a huge target that can be taken down by a weapon shot of just a few pixels. So that adds to the strategy of the game. Finally, depending on if you throw the first “boss” fight, you can play all 9 levels as the blue dragon (which is harder; the fire control isn’t automatic until you level up, and you have fewer lives) or as the gold dragon. As the gold dragon, in addition to the action itself being easier to handle, you do skip many/most of the levels. So the gold dragon is a good way to get used to the game, then, when your confidence is supreme, start out as the blue dragon. Either way though, the bosses are ridiculously easy (often able to be taken down in less than 5 seconds once you know their weakness), at least until the last couple of bosses. Bosses include giant things, like giant spiders, or giant sea serpents, or giant plants, or giant horseshoe crabs…..not the most creative, but at least they are, you know, BIG.
I was pleasantly surprised by the music, which held up nicely. Each of the 9 worlds has its own catchy tune, which seems to match the ambiance of the landscape appropriately.
If you shoot a flashing enemy, or bomb/turd on a red or blue rock, you can get power ups. These include:
– More firepower: Your shots are more effective, and if you power up all the way, you can just hold down the fire button instead of mashing it.
– More heads: Two is better than one, three is better than two. Basically you are doubling/tripling your effective firepower.
– Invincible: Self explanatory. It wears off (surprised?).
– Extra life: Self explanatory. It wears off (when you die).
– More speed: This is key, since you spend most of your time darting around the rectangle of play.
– More points: Useless. The points, they don’t matter.
– Angled shooting: This is nice – instead of a single shot straight ahead, it’s three dispersion shots.
– Small: The icon is “S”, which, again, betrays a lack of creativity. The result: you are small. (easier to dodge around the field of play)
– Small fake friends: Okay, so this one is a little hard to name. Basically, you become small, and develop two holographic friends on either side, slaved to your controls. But these holograms shoot real fire and poop real turds! And they can’t be hurt. Not bad.
– Super fire: Shoot long streams of super-powered flame, instead of discrete spats of fire.
– Earthquake: Everything on the ground dies, since the ground is shaking.
The 9 worlds are:
– Paleozoic era: No time travel involved, but you have to shoot dinosaurs and stuff. Kind of like the Land that Time Forgot.
– Volcano: Apparently our path to the source of evil now goes through a volcano. Why not just go around? I mean, you can fly, dude.
– Jungle: Now you are in a swarm of plant life. Fun only because you get to shoot through the overgrowth. Why doesn’t my fire breath burn all the plants? They must be inflammable or something.
– Graveyard: Okay, now our road is in a graveyard. Someone’s GPS must be on the flux.
– Cave Road: Flying your dragon in a cave sound difficult? Yep, it is.
– Glacier Road: All the fun of the Cave Road, except the scroll rate goes crazy fast at one point.
– Deep Sea: This is where it gets tough, and also, underwater. Apparently dragons swim just as well as they fly.
– Dark Road: All the fun of the Glacier Road, but now you have to do it in the dark.
– Evil Place: This is a nice callback to the first boss battle – flying through some sort of lame castle. All the fun of the past few levels, and it TAKES FOREVER to get through. Multiple boss battles ensue, so the challenge is all squashed at the end of the game.
Overall, though, I would say that this game is still a winner. I wouldn’t play it every day, but it certainly was not terrible, despite the incredibly declarative story and the bizarre route to the final boss. Definitely worth the replay.
Dragon Spirit was always one of my favorite NES games, possibly even my top favorite. I think that was because it was one of the few games I could play from start to finish on my own without having to either A.) quit in frustration or B.) ask Shaun to come beat the “big guy” for me. I’m not sure if this means the game was really easy or if it means I have some special affinity for flying around strange landscapes and shooting/pooping on enemies as a dragon.
As I recall, I always purposely lost the initial battle with Zawel because I wanted to be the Gold Dragon. It was MUCH easier with the Gold Dragon, and I didn’t derive some special sense of accomplishment from beating the game in the harder mode as the Blue Dragon. (Game being easy = 1. Me being good at it = 0).
On occasion, I would feel like tackling the challenge of playing as the Blue Dragon, especially since you got to play through more levels in that particular mode. These unfortunate sessions would usually end with my getting stuck on maybe the 3rd or 4th level and after using up all my lives in quick succession, I believe I would be treated with some kind of animation of Galda reveling in my defeat and a phrase like “Evil has triumphed” or some such nonsense, after which I would be returned to the title screen and be forced to start all over. It was extremely frustrating and not worth picking that stupid Blue Dragon.
One of my fondest memories of Dragon Spirit is this one day where I was playing on the 7th level as the Gold Dragon, which was an underwater level. It was pretty difficult, especially at the boss fight at the end of the level. However, I was kicking butt. I was doing so good that Shaun and our dad even paused to watch me beat up the underwater boss and express amazement that I was playing so well. I recall the phrase “How can you do that?!” I didn’t get hit even once! My heart swelled with pride! I was the unstoppable Gold Dragon that even my big brother noticed! (Game being easy = 1. Me being good at it = 1).
I also remember that after I beat the game as the Gold Dragon, the screen would go to a picture of Lace as a toddler capering about in a nightgown wearing a ghoulish grin as he clutches one end of a leash, the other end of which is affixed around a small blue dragon’s throat. The dragon looks like it is being yanked around by this child and it’s about to die or something, as its expression is one of pure terror, complete with bulging eyes and a protruding tongue. This horrible depiction is accompanied by Lace saying something along the lines of “Oh! Thank goodness! It was all a dream! Monsters are scary…but my sister Iris is scarier!” Ummm, this kid is running around in his nightgown gleefully choking a baby dragon. I don’t want to meet his sister if she is scarier. I also like that this clear case of animal abuse is set to a really peaceful piano-like song.
Overall, Dragon Spirit was a fun game that I enjoyed playing repeatedly. I may not have been up to Blue Dragon standards but darn it, I was really good as that Gold Dragon. I guess it doesn’t really matter that I could only beat the game on easy, after all I was only a little kid – although I hope I was never a kid like the twisted Lace or ultra-scary Iris.
Hey gamers! You’ve probably wished that MikeDiDonato.com had content that more closely related to your gaming passions. Well, get stoked because Mr. Shaun McQuaid is returning to MikeDiDonato.com to review all of his favorite late 80’s early 90’s Nintendo games. He has dusted off the cardboard box that held games like Dragon Warrior and Star Trek the Next Generation and has agreed to give each a half hour of his time before writing his review.
So there we have it! Game reviews aplenty are on the way!