Every year, at least once or twice, I get what I like to call "Retro Game Depression." Symptoms include irritability (at overly complex controls), sleepiness (falling asleep while pondering beautiful, yet functionally dead vistas), and short attention span (perhaps from open world game burn-out). The treatment is simple; a barrage of games that both tickle my nostalgia as well as my love of retro gaming. Please join me, my friends, as I embark on a Late Summer Retro Gaming Expedition.
Just in case you are curious, the catalyst for my first bout of this year's retro game depression was Lost Planet 3
. It caused all of the symptoms that I described above, and then some. Now, I'm not saying that I hate the game, but after Starpoint Gemini 2
, Dying Light: The Following
, and Fallout 3: GOTY
(totaling more than one hundred hours of gameplay), Lost Planet 3
just didn't stack up. As pretty as the polar vistas were (and they were pretty, at least on the PC version of the game), ultimately the game failed to stack up, and dropped me deep into retro game depression. Now it's time to move on to the treatment.
Game 1 - Late July
Generally speaking, my retro game depression has been treated with retro video games, in terms of the actual creation of said game. There has been a sole exception, that being the Boku No Natsuyasumi
series of games. While not explicitly retro, the overall theme of the game is retro, however, the first game I played this year was not a Boku No Natsuyasumi
title, but rather another retro-themed game, this one being also fairly unique in its design.
*sigh* Once more into the breach. Maybe this time I'll beat it
While I've had Retro Gaming Challenge
for quite a while, I've never tried to complete it, usually stalling around Rally King
, which is the third game you play. I don't think I have anything against top-down racing games, but I think I was mostly looking forward to playing Guadia Quest
(the Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest
-style game), which is the seventh game that you play (out of eight), I pretty much gave up, about five or six times in a row. However, this time, late in July, something was at work when I picked up my DS Lite once again, and I found myself captivated by not only a few of the games in Retro Gaming Challenge
, but all of them. I enjoyed myself so much that I managed to complete not only the challenges, but the games themselves. Well, all but Star Prince
(one of the two schmups). For some reason I just can't manage to complete it, and thus, complete RGC
as a whole. Oh, well. I'm not giving up, I just stink too much at schmups to be optimistic.
For those not in the know, Retro Gaming Challenge
has you tackle eight games styled after various Famicom/NES games from the 80's, eliminating a set of four challenges per game to move onto the next. The story is a little weird, instead of being based directly on Game Center CX itself (a Japanese reality show about a thirty-something gamer trying to finish retro games from the "bit" era of gaming), it displaces the character (you), back in time from the modern age by Game Master Arino (a polygonal floating head) to beat the afore mentioned challenges alongside with the younger version of himself (!?!). There is a lot of little things built into the game that are designed to entice the nostalgic types, such as regularly released gaming magazines full of previews, tips, and secret codes, but the real star are the games themselves, which really do feel like some previously undiscovered NES games, though maybe with a little bit more polish than seen back in those days. Overall, the quality overall is excellent, and during the rest of my challenge (up to this point), I've fired it back up to play some more Haggleman
, or maybe try my hand at Star Prince
There is a sad component to this story, however. During my rapid playthrough of Retro Gaming Challenge
, I discovered that not only was there a sequel on the DS, but a third game released on the 3DS. Judging from what I have read, neither will ever see western shores. This really bums me out, especially since the second game shows so much improvement and increased amount of games. Daily challenges? Yup. A game store that you can visit? Got it. I guess I'll have to import if I want to enjoy the second game, though the 3DS is region locked, so I can pretty much forget about the third title (unless I spring for a Japanese 3DS).
If you have a DS or 3DS, about $25, and a serious jones for some NES/Famicom-era goodness, I recommend you give Retro Gaming Challenge
Game 2 - Beginning of August
Nearly every year over the past twenty-six years (give or two or three years while being an idiotic teenager), I have played through the first Final Fantasy
game in an effort to not forget from whence I entered the RPG fray. It wasn't my first RPG (that would be Dragon Warrior 1), but it was the first RPG that I understood enough to play for more than five minutes, and thus the catalyst for all the RPG love in my life stemmed from that moment forth (regardless of CRPG or JRPG).
Over the years, I've own many copies of the first Final Fantasy
. I've owned three copies of the NES game (sold twice), along with the various ports on the PlayStation, GameBoy Advance, PlayStation Portable, and Apple iOS (though I was sad to learn that I must have sold the GameBoy Advance port at some point). I've redundantly bought the first Final Fantasy
, counting remakes and compilations, a total of seven times, which is more than any other game in my collection, including the GTA games. It would have been more, but I just couldn't see the point of buying the Wonderswan port and the Famicom dual pack (with Final Fantasy II
), though that certainly doesn't mean I won't get it sometime in the future.
Now onto a shocking fact: I haven't played the original, NES version of Final Fantasy
since 2002, when Final Fantasy: Origins
for the original PlayStation was released. So, for nearly fourteen years, I haven't actually played the original game that got me into RPGs, only the remakes. The reason is simple; I'd forgotten what the original game was like. While I still hold that first experience of playing Final Fantasy
dear in my memories, many of those mental images have been replaced with graphics or gameplay of Origins
, or Dawn of Souls
on the GBA, so that when I think and reminisce, the remakes are what I'm getting all nostalgic about. Well, that is enough of that noise. It's time to finally come back to my roots and pop that FF
cartridge back into my NES. Then take it out, blow in it, then wriggle it five times, then turn it on!
I'd love to say that I got all weepy when I crossed the newly built bridge (spoilers!) in the beginning of the game and saw the little title sequence (see above) for the first time in fourteen years, but I wasn't. Instead, I was thinking, "Man, is this game harder than I remember?" Even mentally preparing for the experience didn't set me up for just how hard this game is to play. I'll admit, part of this is my own fault, as I decided on my traditional party of two Black Belts, one White Mage, and one Black Mage. I had forgotten that on the NES the Black Belts are pretty much useless until about level six, and don't become full party members until around level nine. This means that the two Mages have to pull all the weight, as the two nunchuck wielding idiots miss more than half of the time they attack. Once you get to level six you can remove their weapons that reliably get around twenty-five hit points of damage per round, but this number doesn't significantly go up for another three whole levels (or four hours of grinding). Man, talk about hardcore. Fact: You will die more with a party of Black Belts in Final Fantasy
than you will trying to beat Ninja Gaiden
for the first time. And you will throw your controller more as well.
Despite this (and the near constant pattern of death, reload, and death again), I really enjoyed my time getting to know the original NES Final Fantasy
again, even though it isn't the definite version any longer (that would be Dawn of Souls
on GBA or the PSP release, depending on your preference for graphics), it was still fun to experience the same reality checks that new players experience when playing this game ("Why is my fighter targeting dead enemies!?"). Granted, I didn't enjoy it enough to play through the Marsh Cave, which isn't super hard, but pretty much requires you to purchase 99 heals and 99 cures, a process that can take twenty minutes - with a turbo controller!
Because there are so many platforms Final Fantasy
was released on, there is a large variety of ways to pick it up, ensuring that there is no need to pay more than $10 USD (or your monetary equivalent) to experience this classic. Now if we could just get that stereoscopic version from the Nintendo Japanese eShop ported over, I would be extremely happy.
Middle of August
Despite the rekindling of my massive amount of handheld and console love this past month, I still ended up turning my PC back on, just not the one with all of the Steam games installed on it. Instead, I turned on the PC powered by a very humble Trident VGA video card with about 512KB of RAM, and I can guarantee you that the last game on our journey together this month uses very little power from that video card, if any at all.
While I never owned or even really played Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons
during the early nineties, it is nonetheless very nostalgic to me. Why? I had a friend with a computer, who would routinely show me games, but never let me play them. It wasn't like he was being a jerk or anything, just obeying the standing order in his house that stated I wasn't allowed to touch any of the computers, and that may have been for a good reason. I was notoriously... clumsy. Also, I was always confused as to why it never had a proper controller. I mean, I played games on my NES and my friends Genesis, and they had controllers, right? I would look at all those keys on the keyboard and get confused. Man, I was so ignorant.
What to say about the first Commander Keen
? Well, the history of it is pretty interesting. It is said that John Carmack, genius programmer working for Softdisk (a monthly MS-DOS disk-based gaming magazine), made a massive breakthrough in coding for the IBM PC and compatibles: smooth scrolling in any direction, without noticeable full screen refreshes. Seems pretty trivial, but with this little trick (and the talents of the John Romero, John Carmack, and Tom Hall), the formula for the PC platformer was written in stone. Once based almost exclusively on puzzle action, the typical PC platformer now featured expansive, open levels with an emphasis on collecting items (much like in European micro-computer platformers) and using ranged weapons. The specific genre tropes of colored keycards appear in this game, as well. The end result was a tidal wave of platformers (some crap, some good, some even great) that would appear on the PC for decades to come.
Confession time: I only played Commander Keen
on my early Pentium-class DOS computer for about thirty minutes. No matter how much I try, I just can't get used to the default keyboard controls, which has directional controls on the right side of the keyboard and the actions on the left. Decades of consoles games have ruined me, it seems. So, I started playing it on DOSbox (or more specifically, the DBGL frontend for DOSbox), first swapping the controls (WASD for movement and arrow keys for action), then finally plugging in my Gravis Gamepad and mapping the controls with the DOSbox key mapper, and running on a MacBook Pro, to boot. It felt a little blasphemous, but in the end it made the game a lot more playable for me. Hey, at least I didn't use a NES controller, right?
It's really okay guys, right? Right? What's with the torches and pitchforks...
I wish that I could better convey what it is like playing this game from my point of view, that being an old school NES gamer that had a fleeting (and very passive) interest in PC games back in the early 90's). Now I am a huge fan of the platforming sub-genre in general, so when I started playing Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons (Keen 1)
I immediately saw the influences of Super Mario Bros
, but that quickly fell away. Keen has a strange weight to him, but the game is compelling and fun. Also, brutally hard, though not in the "Meaty" way that is prevalent in the platformers of today, or even in the Super Mario Bros 2
way, where the game seems designed to irritate. No, Keen 1
demands precision from the player. Those that don't master the controls will fail, and there are no continues to fall back on, and no mid-level saves to help you. Die trying to get that stray piece of pizza? Back to the beginning of the stage with you; the game only saves when you complete a level.
Keen starts out simply running and jumping. Heck, even the first enemies you encounter cannot really kill you (unless they knock you into a pit). Jumping on their heads dispatches them, though the body remains (this holds true for all enemies). Very quickly you get a "raygun" with limited shots, and later a pogo stick that allows for a much higher jump (though at the loss jumping precision). And there are a lot of collectibles strewn throughout the level, though you will be quick to notice that only contribute to your overall score (which does net you extra lives). A nice little touch comes in the form of booklets that help you translate alien script that appears occasionally within the game, which doesn't really add too much to the experience, but is still a nice little reward.
Overall, Keen 1
still holds up as an enjoyable game experience, even if you don't have nostalgia for it. There is no music, the sound is PC speaker-tastic, and the graphics are good but EGA, lacking the higher resolution and better color palette of VGA. But so what? The charm of Keen 1 is
in the graphics, as well as the dated sound and game mechanics. After all, this is the Super Mario Bros
of the PC, and you know how much we NES geeks love our Super Mario Bros
Buying Keen 1
can be easy or annoying, depending on how you want to play. If you want easy, you can buy the first keep trilogy (Invasion of the Vorticons
), as well as Goodbye Galaxy!
(the second series of episodes) on Steam for a reasonable $4.99 USD. It is even playable these days on Steam, as it also includes a pre-configured DOSbox with the games (though I still like to put all my DOS games on my mobile, cross-platform DBGL drive). Physical copies are much more of a problem, especially considering the amount of valid disks floating around that are shareware only and not fully activated. There are also a lot of compilation disks, as well as pack-ins that originally came with computer hardware. Original disks, bought from Apogee through their mail order service are as rare as unicorns, apparently, so expect prices to be wacky.
That is it for this months article, folks, though most certainly not for the current Expedition. During the course of writing this article I played a large number of games, many on the systems pictured in the first photo, and simply picked a few games to include. Please tell me what you think in the comments below.
Thanks for reading!