By Ethan Madsen
Recently, I've been browsing around some other video game websites, reading some Virtual Console or XBox Live reviews here and there, particularly those that are straight ports of older, 2d games. I came to the realization that reviewing these older games using the same kind of grading systems these sites use for current releases doesn't make much sense. It's understood that these ratings and the accompanying text are relative to standards, be it standard-setting games or the standards of current technology. Even if the people reviewing these virtual releases are honestly comparing them relative to whatever system or standard that applies to the game in question, there's still a host of problems that crop up, such as the fact that on the Virtual Console, there are three generations of gaming that you have to make relative comparisons to and the relative disparities inherent in doing so.
My approach will be to focus not on numbers and ratings so much, but instead acknowledge the fact that these games are what they are: older games that belonged to a different era and standard. There's a big philosophical barrier people like me run into regarding stuff like this: what exactly is the value of things of the past? For virtual video game releases, this is tricky. I'm not talking about value in the antique sense. Older games can have that sentimental value attached to them, embodying the feel and aura of a bygone era-the powerful force of nostalgia in other words. The value I'm thinking about is both an intellectual and visceral value: Does the game still engage the mind, or are its ideas and design relevant compared to games of today? Is it still fun enough to play? Is it worth the five or ten dollars it costs to download?
It's this notion of relevancy that I aim to explore. This is the first of a series of articles examining and commenting on old school virtual game releases. My format for each article is to take two virtual releases which share some kind of common link (same genre, same console, same designer/developer) and comment on them. One of these games I will have played previously and be somewhat or very familiar with, and the other game I will have played very little or not at all: two games, two slightly different perspectives. Using this approach, I also believe I can take a more justified position in making relative comparisons.
Given that it's the relevancy of an older game in this day and age I'm seeking, the only rating I'll be using is a relevancy rating. My system is a rough estimate, but it at least gives an idea. Games will be scored on a scale of 0 to 3. A game with a zero relevancy rating is zero percent relevant for example; a two out of three is 67% relevant, roughly speaking. The actual percentages really aren't important, so don't put too much weight in them. Anyway, below is a breakdown of each ‘relevancy' number rating:
0 out of 3: This game has no relevancy at all. It's either poorly executed and/or poorly designed. You are better off spending your money on something to eat.
1 out of 3: This game has some interesting aspects. If you're a fan of whatever genre this game belongs to, then it's probably worth the money.
2 out of 3: This is a good game. It has a solid design and the game functions well, but it's not without its faults.
3 out of 3: This is a classic and definitely worth the money. You may find yourself becoming genuinely absorbed in this game despite its age.
4 out of 3: Beyond entertainment. I'll leave it at that for now. I don't foresee this happening right now or anytime soon (although I have a couple of games in mind that may reach this pinnacle), but you never know.
I'm primarily trying to reach and examine the essence of these games-the core interactive properties that are unique to video games-that most important substance by which a game can achieve a certain timelessness in value-while attempting to avoid the powerful tides of nostalgia. Hopefully with this method I will confirm-at least to myself-whether or not games of yore possess any kind of value beyond the nostalgic and the pioneering, and hopefully I will have helped like-minded gamers like you in deciding which games to download and play.
Now, on to the commentary! I decided to go on a little adventure for my first excursion back into old-school gaming territory…
Current Residence: Nintendo's Virtual Console
Original Console: NES
Year Released: 1993
Prior Status: Played and beat it many years ago.
…Or how to make a game that sucks, great
Kirby's Adventure can be aptly summed up as an SNES game in the skin of an NES game. It's got the obvious surface polish of a good SNES game (the SNES was going strong in ‘93) with its extraordinary attention to animation and the responsive controls (something NES games in my memory usually lacked). As a result, Kirby does stretch this NES skin its in, which often results in some slowdown. I've been wondering just why exactly this game appeared on the NES to begin with, given its late arrival. There must've been some market forces involved in this decision. Regardless, it pushes the NES beyond its limits some times and is still a great game.
A little about the gameplay: As Kirby, you move across air, land and sea through a multitude of stages and levels. Each stage is populated with numerous enemy characters. Kirby has the ability to suck in foes and copy their abilities. These abilities differ broadly and come in handy in different situations throughout the game. Some abilities allow for easier progression through certain areas; some abilities allow you to defeat mini-boss or boss characters with more ease; and some abilities you will need to solve puzzles or access secret areas. To spice things up, there are a few minigames per level/world that can be discovered.
Kirby's Adventure is better than many SNES or Sega Genesis games if you think about it. Kirby's ability to copy the abilities of most of the enemy characters is the kind of simple dynamic that developers love to employ because they can justify a whole game around it, integrating that into the level designs, the story, the puzzles, and just about any other element. It's a bottom-up approach that Nintendo is known and cherished for; it's a design philosophy where you begin with a handful of components that in turn interact and give the game life and dynamicity in exponential ways.
Besides the obviously well-crafted gameplay, the other vital component that keeps this game relevant is the amount of life and energy it has, with an added contextual bonus given that this is an NES game. This energy is brought forth by the aforementioned attention to animation-one of the most underappreciated elements in any video game-and the music. Great melodies are contained within this game that will be hard to get out of your head if you're inclined to that sort of thing.
This adventure of Kirby's isn't even his greatest. That is reserved for, in my opinion, his SNES outing, Kirby Super Star. But KSS wouldn't be possible without this. Hal Labs/Hal, creators of this and all things Kirby, know how to make games, and would go on to develop the Super Smash Bros. series.
Bottom Line: At least one of the five greatest NES titles ever released
Current Residence: Nintendo's Virtual Console
Original Console: TurboGrafx-16
Year Released: 1989
Prior Status: Never played it.
More accurately, Bonk's Bizarre Adventure
In all honesty, this is the first TurboGrafx-16 game I have ever played. Two-dimensional gaming has a special place in my heart, naturally. I expect to find a few gems amongst the games that came out on this console.
To use what I said in my Kirby's Adventure commentary above, Bonk is another one of those games that seeks to build the whole game outwards around a simple, flexible, powerful concept. In the case of Bonk's Adventure, this mechanic is Bonk's head, though it's not as deep as Kirby's ability to copy skills. With Bonk's head, you can headbutt, you can juggle enemies in the air, you can dive-bomb things, break walls and more. There are very few things in the game that can actually hurt Bonk if it hits him in the head. The game has a control issue, leading to some frustration in tight spots and during some boss battles, but it's nothing too serious.
Bonk, appearing to be a baby caveman-or perhaps just a really small, disproportionate caveman- must be guided across dangerous, prehistoric-themed, platforming levels. Many games of this era were bizarre maybe for unintentional reasons; Bonk is a bizarre game on purpose, contributing a lot of appeal by that stance. You'll be smiling at all the goofiness you come across, perhaps the crowning moment being when you enter into a living dinosaur through its mouth, work your way through its surreal gut, and then out the other end. Throughout the game are secret areas, little bonus stages, and boss battles, which were by then becoming the norm.
With its good gameplay, stark colors, nice animations, decent controls, and zany atmosphere, Bonk's Adventure is definitely a game that can be appreciated.
Bottom Line:A must-have for platforming fanatics or connoisseurs of the bizarre.
Email: emadsen at mygamer dot com