ActRaiser

Platforms: Super Famicom/SNES
Released: 12/16/1990 (Japan), 11/1991 (US), 1992 (PAL)
Developer: Quintet
Publisher: Enix
Japanese Name: アクトレイザー

The launch period of the Super NES is a very nostalgic-filled time for a lot of people my age, and big part of that is the deluge of new and innovative titles that developers were producing at that time (not to mention the improved graphics and sound that came along with the movement into a new generation). ActRaiser is always held up as a shining example of this innovation, and it absolutely deserves to be. From the moment you the logo flies gradually toward the screen using glorious Mode 7, and the music that sounds as orchestral as can be on a piece of 16-bit hardware kicks in, you see just how wonderfully ActRaiser merges 16-bit technology with fantastic game design and presentation. We have the developer Quintet to thank for this, and surprisingly this is their debut work. ActRaiser was originally slated to be a more standard RPG, but was scrapped and rethought fairly late into development due to it not being impressive enough of a game for a brand new and more powerful console. Quintet would also go on to bring us many games with some thematic simlarities to ActRaiser, such as Soul Blader/Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, Terranigma/Tenchi Souzou, and even a sequel to ActRaiser.

You are god God, and you find yourself awoken by an angel in order to save the people of a town below. Immediately you’re sent down into your earthly avatar (a statue of a warrior) and straight into an action sequence (called “Action Mode”). While these sequences don’t do anything very revolutionary for the action game genre, they play very nicely and look like a good 16-bit game should. They present just the right amount of challenge, with relatively simply designed levels and enemies whose patterns can be ready by the reasonably observant. In these sequences you don’t have to worry about doing anything with your character but jumping, slashing and using a limited stock of powerful magic spells. It’s that relatively simplicity that makes them very satisfying. Bosses of various levels of difficulty also appear at the end of each action stage, and their difficulty levels vary quite a bit.

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God beaming himself down into a statue to fight monstersA look at a day in the life of the angel that you control in the simulation parts of the game

After completing the first action stage, you may think that you’ll immediately be taken into yet another action stage. This turns out to be completely wrong, as you’re now put into a simulation game (called “Creation Mode”). After some exposition, you find yourself controlling the angel that had previously awoken you with the sole responsibility of helping a town’s population thrive, and therefore believe in God again. You do this through guiding their building of the town and defeating monsters who fly around trying to pillage what they build. As you help the town develop and seal away the monsters, stories unfold around the townspeople themselves that require you to take specific actions. The bottom line is that if you help the townspeople they will help you by giving you offerings of various items that can increase your magic and life stock, and sometimes items that you will later need to help out other towns.

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Your loyal subject’s method of communicating with their godThere are some very interesting boss enemies in this game, including giant plants with…tentacles?

With a total of 6 towns to assist, ActRaiser has a decent amount of playtime for its time. The flow involves getting through an action sequence, actually building up the town you’ve just made inhabitable, and then getting through a final action sequence before moving on to the next town. Combining these two genres into one game could have easily turned out terribly if so much thought hadn’t been given to its pacing. The two styles of game play are also so different that they make for great compliments to one another. I’m not the type of person who overly enjoys sim games, but the sim sections in ActRaiser are just simple and bite-sized enough for me to enjoy them quite a bit. The finale involves going into one final area for continuous action sequences against six of the game’s previous bosses, ending with the final battle against Satan himself (you are God, after all).

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Are we in the Sarlacc Pit? It probably isn’t a coincidence that this boss is named Dagoba…An actual account of what happens when you break into a Pharaoh’s tomb

The high quality of this game’s soundtrack can not be overstated. To many it remains one of Yuzo Koshiro’s finest and most defining works, and it certainly shows that he understood how to use the SNES/Super Famicom sound chip to its fullest extent right from the beginning of the system’s life. ActRaiser sounds incredibly bombastic and symphonic in its action sequences, and very soothing in its simulation sequences. It’s the perfect capstone to all of the other elements that make this game so great.

While this game’s story can be examined from a couple of different perspectives, what’s maybe the more pessimistic one is that people only turn to God when they’re desperately in need of help, expecting God to take care of all of their problems for them. Once their problems are solved, they cast God aside once again to go back to their now improved lives. No matter how you choose to interpret the theme though, it makes for interesting food for thought while playing.

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One of the most visually impressive bosses of the game, the WyvernOne of the stranger bosses of the game, the Fire Wheel

If you know anything about Nintendo of America’s censorship policies at the time, it won’t surprise you to hear that certain aspects of this game were slightly tweaked for the North American release. You no longer play as God, but rather the God-like being known as “The Master”. The final boss is similarly not Satan, but rather Tanzra, “The Evil One”. Obviously these changes were very minor in nature, and the allegory is still incredibly obvious. Apart from removing some of the directly religious subtexts, several other changes were also made from the Japanese version. The command to use your currently selected magic was rather odd in the Japanese version: holding Up and pressing Y (this really tripped me up when I played through the Japanese version much later on in life, I had to consult the manual to figure it out). This was changed to simply be pressing X or A. The difficulty of the action sequences was adjusted to be significantly lower, and the passage of time in the simulation sequences was sped up to be significantly faster. Most players will likely consider these all to be changes for the better, unless someone is really looking for a greater challenge or a slightly more drawn out game (even so, I was able to clear the Japanese version without many additional difficulties). The action sequences can still be found with their original difficult intact by selecting Professional Mode, which allows you to play only through the action sequences without any of the simulation.

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Death Heim: Home to Satan and…the second bosses of each town…Satan’s true form revealed!

For those looking for slightly more modern ways to play this classic, your best option is the Wii Virtual Console. There was also a port for mobile phones in 2003 that not only stripped out all of the simulation parts of the game, but also did not even include all of the action levels from the original game. Not to mention thinking of having to play this game on a mobile phone makes me a little ill.

I can’t help but feel like Enix had planned to do more with the ActRaiser franchise than they ended up doing. Apart from the sequel that would arrive a few years later, there was also a 3 volume ActRaiser manga. Making a short run of manga for a video game was certainly not unheard of in Japan, but generally it was reserved for those series that were perceived as having some amount of staying power. Regardless, perhaps it would be good for Square Enix to decide to follow up on this well-loved franchise? Though given the state of Square Enix as of this writing, perhaps it wouldn’t be very good for the franchise itself.

Monster Hunter G

Monster Hunter G Title Screen
Platforms: Playstation 2
Released: 01/20/2005 (Japan)
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Japanese Name: モンスターハンターG モンスターハンター

Less than one year after the release of the original Monster Hunter, Capcom released the expansion: Monster Hunter G. From the moment Pugi (the adorable little pig that wanders around your house/the village from every game here on out) comes walking across the title screen snorting, the game shows us that we’re in for something more than your average expansion. In fact Monster Hunter G does everything that a good expansion should and more: It improves on some of the original game’s flaws, introduces conveniences that make it easier to play, and adds a lot of new content. It creates a template that all of the “G” expansions would follow from here on out.

Kotoko Farm is a new addition to the village that allows you to give a material that you’ve gathered on quests to the hard-working Felyne farmers to harvest, thereby producing more of that material over time. This saves the player a ton of time and provides them with a steady stream of basic materials (assuming that they maintain and upgrade their farm correctly). The staff of the Felyne Kitchen can also cook up a nice stat-boosting meal before a hunt. If the correct combination of foods are chosen, it can prove very valuable for players of all skill levels. The Training School is another new feature that caters exclusively to players who want a challenge. After selecting the monster that they’d like to face, the player will be provided with what is possibly the most sub-optimal setup of their chosen weapon type, along with a minimal amount of healing items. The player is then thrown into the field to hunt down their selected monster. It isn’t for the feint of heart! It really can’t be said what great quality of life improvements these three features are, and all of them will stay with the series in some capacity going forward.

Here comes Puugii!Every hunter's favorite past time - drinking!
Enter Monster Hunter G’s most fearsome creature of all: Pugi!By “hunt and kill monsters” you actually meant drink, right?

The variety of weapons that can be created for each weapon type have greatly increased, and with this greater variety comes two higher levels of weapon sharpness as well (blue and white). The Dual Swords that were featured in the US/PAL versions of the original Monster Hunter have even been brought into Monster Hunter G as well. The armor skill system has also been improved just as much as the weapons. Previously armor skills were static per armor set, but now each piece of armor has a certain amount of skill points for one or more skills. This not only gives skills to sets of armor that previously did not have them, but also allows mixing and matching of armor pieces from different sets to potentially result in a unique set of armor skills. Custom armor set crafting is a big part of high-level Monster Hunter play, and it this is where it was first made possible.

The monsters themselves aren’t without their changes either. Individual monsters now have sizes that are randomly assigned for each quest, reflecting in the actual size of the monster’s model on screen. Sub-species are also available for certain monsters, though they are essentially re-colors of the original monsters with slight changes to their behavior patterns. In addition to new quests added to the village (single player, or offline), a new difficulty level of quests called “G Rank” quests was added to the online mode only, offering the player greater challenges than previous High Rank quests did. Monster Hunter G’s servers for the online mode were sadly taken down along with the original game’s on 06/30/2011 in Japan.

The handling and care of monster partsFelynes and strange little goblin men work together to forge weapons
A rare inside look as to how monster parts are stored and treated prior to making them into equipmentSeeing Felynes and…strange goblin men working together to forge weapons is such a beautiful thing!

There were also many other small conveniences that were added to Monster Hunter G to make it quite a bit more playable than its predecessor. The player inventory and item box now have options to automatically sort their contents, and weapons and armor no longer require the player to have all of the materials in their character inventory in order to forge them. These may not see like they would make a big difference, but every little bit counts when compared to a game that was lacking many modern gaming conveniences at the time.

Unfortunately, not every big issue that the original game had was fixed by this expansion. The weapon control scheme is still the same obtuse one that utilizes the Dual Shock 2’s right analog stick to attack instead of face buttons (see the article on the original Monster Hunter for more details). Farming up monster parts still takes an absurdly long amount of time compared to the later entries in the series, making building even a single armor set a real exercise in patience.

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Selecting your monster in the training quests…oh him again.Selecting which awful configuration you want to fight your previously selected monster with!

Players coming over directly from the first game will be glad to hear that their existing save data can be imported into Monster Hunter G. Those expecting nothing to be lost in the transfer will be disappointed though. Many of the minor items (potions, etc.) are not carried over directly, and not all quest completions are carried over due to a slight restructuring of quest order (accommodating for the insertion of new quests). All weapons and armor are carried over in tact though, as well as all of the various monster parts obtained from completed quests. Regardless of it not being a perfect transfer, players who even just a few hours into the first Monster Hunter game will definitely want to take advantage of this.

Something that careful observers will pick out are the very beginnings of Capcom realizing that Monster Hunter’s real strong point is its multiplayer: the introductory movie. Instead of featuring hunters fighting and running from monsters, it shows hunters interacting with one another and making their preparations in Kokoto Village. It also gives us an inside look into the jobs of those who are constantly assisting the hunters: The barmaids, Felyne assistants, and old goblin guys who forge the weapons and armor from monster parts. It really shows the gradual shift in focus toward a more multi-player focused Monster Hunter.

While Monster Hunter G makes the first generation of this series much more palatable, it probably won’t convince someone who found the first entry unplayable to jump into the series. Like all great series though, things will continue to gradually improve with each iteration. Players in search of the answer to the question “Where in the series should I start?” should probably still not settle on this entry. The answer to that question for a series like Monster Hunter is almost certainly to start with the latest entry.

The Wonder of Lost Odyssey

I was told when I started playing Lost Odyssey a couple of months ago that it was essentially a modern version of Final Fantasy 6, which is one of my favorite RPGs of all time. Now I’ve had many RPGs recommended to me over the years, and I’ve found that rarely do they ever live up to the strength of their recommendations. In this case, the game completely exceeded its recommendation beyond anything that I would have ever expected. As I write this I have finished Lost Odyssey completely: I’ve beaten all of the optional bosses and have gotten all of the achievements (I am not typically an achievement hunter by any means). I don’t mean to write a full fledged review for this game just yet, so let me tell you a little bit about what, in my opinion, is easily the best JRPG of the 360/PS3/Wii generation, if not even further back.

A frequent criticism of modern JRPGs is that they just don’t feel the way that they used to (whatever that means). I’m here to tell you that this game feels more like a completely modernized version of a 16 or 32-bit era JRPG than anything else I’ve ever played, and that is a fantastic thing. It’s hard to describe in detail, but the way in which you interact with the game world feels very much like Final Fantasy 6 or 8 to me, but with far more relocatable and better fleshed out characters than either of those games had at the time. The writing in this game is absolutely not trite or trivial, which is what allows for characters that I became attached to in a way that had not happened to me in a game since the 16 or 32-bit eras.

A huge part of this are the fantastic visual novel parts of the game that come in the form of Kaim’s memories returning to him. They were written by Kiyoshi Shigematsu and translated into English by Jay Rubin, both of them real authors. These sequences of the game will make just about anyone feel some sort of emotion, and make for very interesting interludes for the game’s otherwise fairly standard JRPG fare gameplay. Rounding out the entire experience is music by famed Final Fantasy composer and frequent Mistwalker collaborator Nobuo Uematsu, art by Takehiko Inoue of Slam Dunk and Vagabond fame, and one of the most fantastic voice casts (speaking for the Japanese audio) ever to appear in a video game.

I could go on and on about how much I love this game and exactly why it is far greater than any reviews ever gave it credit for, but allow me to wrap this up by making a final point. Back when Blue Dragon came out for the XBox 360, it was understandably viewed as the next Chrono Trigger because of the collaboration with famed manga artist/writer Akira Toriyama. What many did not consider is that it was missing a lot of the other collaboration elements that Chrono Trigger had (Yuji Hori, etc.). While Lost Odyssey may not seem as epic of a collaboration when compared to Chrono Trigger (probably due to the fact that Chrono Trigger was the first time that sort of a collaboration really happened), I would certainly argue that its results produce something just as epic given the talent involved.

My plea to everyone who has any interest in playing a JRPG on the XBox 360 is to give this game a chance. If you have any nostalgia for a Hironobu Sakaguchi-era Final Fantasy game, Lost Odyssey will certainly not prove to be a waste of your time.

New Super Mario Bros. U – The Second Coming of Super Mario World?

In all honesty, New Super Mario Brothers U is definitely not the game that sold me on buying a Wii U shortly after the Japanese launch date. I had eyes only for the HD version of Monster Hunter 3G, with absolutely no intention of even buying this new entry in the Super Mario series until it dropped in price a bit. But then I heard the words that made my heart leap and brought back feelings of wonder once felt by my 11 year old self: “It’s like Super Mario World.”

Now I look at Super Mario World as one of the finest games ever made, and most likely my favorite platforming game of all time. I’ve also come to view the New Super Mario Bros. series as having grown somewhat stale after its original DS entry. Therefore I was very weary upon hearing this statement, but then I heard it from multiple sources. They were all sources that I trusted implicitly. So just like that my mind was opened to giving New Super Mario Bros. U a chance, and at full price no less. I’ve now spent a good amount of hours with this game and have just completed (though not 100%) the game’s main mode. So is it really the second coming of Super Mario World?

In several ways, yes it is. At least it’s closer than any Mario game that has come since. The normal New Super Mario Bros. style of world map has been overhauled to make all of the worlds and levels flow together much more fluently, in a manner that certainly hasn’t been seen since Super Mario World. Each world typically contains a fortress ghost house and a castle. Each level also encourages a high level of exploration. And perhaps most importantly, gone are the sluggish controls of New Super Mario Bros. Wii: They have been replaced by a much tighter feeling control system of old.

Even with all these great improvements to the New Super Mario Bros. series, this game isn’t quite on the same level of magnificence as Super Mario World though. It was definitely created by people who had the utmost amount of love and respect for its predecessor, but they just didn’t manage to recapture the same magic here. Is it because of the young age that many of us were the first time that we played Super Mario World that makes it seem so unbeatable? Possibly. But I think this game at least proves that that sort of magic can potentially be recaptured again. One of the things that made Super Mario World so great is its originality: It threw in so many new elements that hadn’t been seen in a Mario game. New Super Mario Bros. U dabbles in this, but doesn’t do enough of it to make it a real competitor for the Mario throne.

New Super Mario Bros. U depends a little bit too much on making its originality from features that utilize the Wii U’s unique traits. Being able to play on the Wii U GamePad is certainly a unique feature, and very convenient. The game looks gorgeous on the GamePad’s screen, but I preferred the feel of the controls when using the regular Wii Remote instead of the GamePad. Challenge Mode is very nice for what little I’ve played with it, great for a change of pace. I confess that I haven’t really played any of the other new modes, though it certainly is appreciated that such a high volume of content was added. It gives me a great incentive to revisit this game later on.

All of this said, this game is absolutely worth a purchase, particularly if you love Super Mario World. The sheer amount of content and re-play-ability makes it worth the full price tag. Nintendo should also be told by as many as possible that we support them going back and really attempting to rediscover what made Super Mario World so great.

Dragon Ball Z for Kinect: Throwing Kamehamehas at Your TV

I’ve played a few sub-par Kinect titles on the XBox 360 at this point. Most of then have spotty motion detection at best, and many of them aren’t even much more fun playing with the Kinect instead of a regular controller. Though it’s hardly a must-play, or even worth spending much more than a couple of hours with, Dragon Ball Z for Kinect is neither spotty with its motion detection nor without its amusements while Kinect-ing it up.

This Dragon Ball title re-uses assets from other recent titles and doesn’t do too much new for a Dragon Ball game in general. Its highlight is the story mode, in which you punch kick, dodge, and Kamehameha your way through the major Dragon Ball story arcs as you would expect if you’ve ever played one of the franchise’s titles before. It also has a Score Attack mode in which you can have specific character matches.

All of that being said, it does those very typical things well. If you’ve played several of the DB games up until now, you certainly won’t mind going through an abbreviated version of the story one more time. Very spot-on motion controls accompany all of this, along with a decent array of moves and semi-interesting combo system. Helpful on-screen prompts guide you through completing combos and dodging enemy attacks, making each battle a fairly non-frustrating experience.

In the end though, you’re still throwing punches at your TV. Even though I didn’t have anyone judging me as I was playing, I couldn’t really help but judge myself. For this reason I wasn’t really able to stick it out much past the first story arc. I will freely admit that if I was a young boy I’d probably think that this was one of the greatest games that I’ve ever played. Finally being able to throw a Kamehameha did have a way of filling me with a child-like sense of wonder.