MetalFRO's Blog

Posted on Jul 8th 2020 at 12:00:00 PM by (MetalFRO)
Posted under Stargate, Game Boy, Acclaim, puzzle game, science fiction, licensed game, movie tie in

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I'm pretty sure I've made it clear in my writings and videos that I'm a big fan of science fiction. I grew up loving the Star Wars movies, watched the debut episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with my parents, and watched that series through to completion, and followed that up with both Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and caught up on other series when I had the opportunity. My family saw Independence Day on opening weekend, and I managed to purchase the final VHS release of the original Star Wars trilogy, which I still have to this day. One franchise that happened to pass me by early on was Stargate, however. I don't remember going to see it in the theater, which is odd, because I was dating at that point, and would have wanted to go see it. But I somehow didn't see it upon release.

Fast forward a couple years, and I rented it, and immediately enjoyed it. I thought the premise was interesting, the characters were good, and the setting was unique. And when I got the chance to see the follow-up series, Stargate SG-1, I liked that, as well. Several years later, when the TV series exited the premium Showtime network, and finished its 10-year run on the Sci-Fi Network, as well as being in perpetual re-runs on the channel, I became a real fan. My DVD and BluRay copies of the film, DVD of the "Director's Cut" of the TV series pilot episode, all 10 seasons on DVD, and copies of the 2 follow-up films with the SG-1 casts will attest to my fandom. I didn't latch onto Stargate Atalantis in the same way, though I did eventually develop an appreciation for it. I still feel like Stargate Universe was too self-serious, and didn't have the kind of character development necessary to make it a good follow-up, so I wasn't surprised when it was cancelled. Needless to say, I'm a fan.

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A simple title screen, but it gets the job done. That font at the bottom, though...

As with most any science fiction franchise, a video game adaptation is inevitable. Several, typically speaking. In the case of Stargate, there was a pair of action platforming games released on the 16-bit consoles. And then there's this oddity: a puzzle game for the Game Boy (and also Sega's Game Gear), based around the idea of the hieroglyphics used as addresses for the Stargate itself. It's an interesting idea, and one that has potential, particularly for a low-power system like the Game Boy. This kind of puzzle game approach is a perfect fit for the hardware, at least on paper. In execution, however, it's a bit of a mixed bag.

The idea is simple: you're presented with a pseudo-3D, wire frame top-down view of a round chamber, and you can control where along the wall of that chamber to move slowly falling shapes that bear the hieroglyphic symbols that make up the addresses used throughout the various Stargates across the universe. The idea is to match up 3 of the same symbol, in a vertical stack, and that will eliminate those pieces from the chamber. If the group of pieces you eliminate matches one of the 7 symbols at the top of the screen, representing a Stargate address destination, that symbol at the top shows as completed. Completing stacks of 3 for symbols not in the address will merely yield points, and the stack will disappear, leaving you more room to create other matches. You can flip the pieces over, to reveal a 2nd symbol on the other side, giving you another matching option. Occasionally, a blank piece will appear. This acts as a wildcard, effectively allowing you to make a match with it, and only 2 of the same symbol, or if you're lucky enough, 1 symbol piece, and 2 successive blank pieces.

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The cutscenes in the game's intro, and between levels in the Battle Mode
are quite good, and have really good art in them for the Game Boy hardware.

There's also a special piece that has 2 separate functions. On one side is a harpoon symbol. Drop that piece on the top of any stack, and it will eliminate the entire stack of pieces. Flip that piece over, and it is a pyramid symbol. When you drop that on the board, whichever symbol it lands on, every piece in the chamber bearing that symbol will be eliminated. Obviously these 2 options are very handy, particularly if you have a tall stack of misplaced pieces, or just a full board, so you can make more room. Fail to strategically employ these items when they appear, and the chamber may fill up. If a stack reaches the top of the chamber, it's game over.

This leads to the game's 2 main modes: Skill Mode, and Battle Mode. Skill Mode is a single-player experience, giving you the chamber, a gate address at the top, and just lets you have a go at matching the symbol pieces together. If you manage to get a full address, you're presented with another, and the game just keeps going, until you fill the chamber to the top with a single stack. Once you game over, you're presented with a screen that calculates all the bonuses you received, based on how many matches you made, the number of bonus tiles you successfully utilized, and the number of completed Stargate addresses you had, at varying levels of difficulty. It functions quite similar to the endless modes in the various games in the Columns series, and serves somewhat as a practice mode for the real game.

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This is the initial screen you'll see when you start Battle Mode. The spaces
that are unavailable are always randomized, as is where Ra starts off.

Battle Mode pits you against one of Ra's minions, and you're both attempting to gain control of a particular Stargate. As you make matches, much like Puyo Puyo or Columns, you create additional pieces in your opponent's chamber. As the CPU makes matches, likewise, your chamber will receive extra pieces, usually in a stack. If the pieces they drop match what you already have on the board, they will sometimes eliminate, depending on the order dropped, but usually, they just create a taller stack, and put you that much closer to losing. Your goal in Battle Mode is less clear, as you don't always have the opportunity to complete a full gate address during a match, and even when you do, that doesn't always trigger a win condition in a particular battle. If you manage to win a gate, you'll see the letter "D" pop up on a grid screen, indicating you won that round. Ra's minion always gets to choose the first gate, and if he wins, he will choose subsequent games, until you win a match, Likewise, if you win a particular gate, you'll get to choose which area to battle for next. If you win a match next to a gate marked with an "R" that Ra controls, it will flip the adjacent gates to your control, similar to pieces on an Othello board. If you can manage to flip enough of Ra's pieces to your control, or simply win enough matches to gain the majority of the board, so that Ra can't flip enough of your pieces to have a majority, you'll win Battle Mode, and then your score will tally in similar fashion to what you see in Skill Mode.

Control is simple. Press right on the D-pad to move your pieces clockwise, or left on the D-pad to move your pieces counter-clockwise. Press A on the controller to flip your piece over, to see the alternate symbol, and if you press and hold the B button, the current piece will fall quickly toward the chamber floor. Pressing down on the D-pad will advance the tile 1 space further down the chamber. And of course, the Start button pauses the game. There's nothing else to it, other than remembering that you can continue to press right or left to rotate the currently falling piece around the chamber as much as you want. It might sound un-intuitive at first, but it works, and you should adapt quickly.

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This is the view you'll be looking at the most. The wire frame is very helpful,
and a good design choice, to ensure players can successfully place tiles.

Graphically, the game is an interesting contrast. The bulk of the game has very simplistic graphics, though they get the job done, despite the low resolution. As mentioned before, sometimes the patterns can be hard to make out once a piece falls a couple levels down, but you'll learn to identify each one over time. However, because the Battle Mode serves as the story mode of the game, you'll get brief cutscenes with dialogue that have relatively nice renditions of Daniel Jackson and Colonel Jack O'Neil, as well as Ra and a couple of his minions. The map screen that displays between levels in Battle Mode is nicely rendered, and the starfield effect on the title screen is understated, but works for what it does. So while the game's visuals won't win any awards, they're serviceable enough for the most part, and even well done in spots. At least the tile flip animation is convincing.

The sound department is where the game doesn't fare quite as well. The game only has a small handful of tunes to play during matches, and while they change up between Battle Mode segments, in Skill Mode, you're locked into just the one song. Thankfully, you can turn the music off, if it gets to be annoying. Even so, the tunes themselves aren't bad, and have that vaguely chiptune take on a sort of Egyptian themed atmosphere. You probably won't be humming them for hours after you turn offf your Game Boy, but they do provide that necessary accompaniment to the action on screen. Sound effects barely register, on the other hand. There's very little in the way of other sound, and you probably won't notice it much, other than the little "shuffle" noise the tile makes when it's being flipped. In total, the sound is a bit forgettable, but not awful.

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Make sure to watch for the "harpoon" piece - especially if you have a tall
stack of tiles you need to clear out, because this will accomplish it for you.

This all sounds interesting in theory, but the execution is where things get dicey. The top-down view makes it difficult to see the symbols very clearly, once they fall down more than one or two levels, which adds to the challenge, but not in a very appealing way. Because the pieces generate randomly, there will be times when you're given every piece but the one you need to make a match, and you end up either having to cover up the spot you've been saving for matches, or hope for a harpoon to clear out a stack. The game doesn't move that quickly, but if you have a stack that's one piece away from being at the top, you will have barely any time to react to either drop a matching piece, harpoon, or blank piece on the top of that stack. That also means you have to rotate your piece the other way around the chamber, which can make it harder to get the piece where you want to go.

My other big frustration is with the Battle Mode, and is twofold. Firstly, the win conditions aren't that clear from battle to battle, other than making enough matches to fill up the opponent's chamber. Some matches appear to be incredibly short, so either the CPU gives Ra's minion all matching pieces, and your chamber fills up to the top very quickly, or a match can drag on, seemingly forever, while you and your opponent keep dropping pieces into one another's chambers, neither quite able to clinch the win. There were a couple instances, while I played, that I was able to complete a full gate address, and be presented with another, during Battle Mode. I would have assumed that to be a win condition, but it's not. Because you can't see the opposing chamber, you have no way of knowing how well your opponent is doing, so it's just a matter of doing the best you can, and hoping for the best, or that the AI will make a mistake, and fill up a column.

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As you complete matches of the hieroglyphics at the top of the screen,
you can see them grayed out. Once you complete a full 7-character
gate address, you'll be given a new one for which to make matches.

My second big gripe is also with Battle Mode. The Othello concept is kinda neat, but it's not clear to me, as of this writing, what determines which pieces adjacent to yours will turn over, or how many. I thought perhaps it was like Othello directly, where a line in both directions would flip, but it's not. It appears to be adjacent pieces, but sometimes it seems like it flips over more than that. I may have been misreading the board, but it appeared inconsistent. Is it based on how many open gates there still are? If so, and you can win back more enemy-controlled gates that way, it feels like an odd way to do it. Either way, it was an odd system to use, even though it sort of mirrors how the gates all connect to one another within the Stargate lore.

At the end of the day, what do we make of Stargate on the Game Boy? I'm not sure how to even quantify that. What you have here is an odd combination of Block-Out and Columns, with some Othello thrown in for good measure. I assume that Battle Mode is more fun in a 2-player setting, though naturally, I wasn't able to test that. On its own, the Skill Mode is fun enough for a little while, and is good practice to get a feel for the flow. The real meat of the game is Battle Mode, but unless you really get a kick out of falling block games and match 3 puzzles, I don't know how heartily I can recommend this. I had some fun with it, and I can kind of see the appeal, but I think it's limited. If you see it dirt cheap, it might be worth checking out. As of this writing, a loose cart is hovering just below $7. I can't advise anyone pay more than that, because I think the game ends up being a bit less than the sum of its parts. That's a shame, because there's a good game buried in here somewhere; it just doesn't do enough to elevate itself beyond the mediocrity that many of the handheld's puzzle games often do. For puzzle game die-hard fans, and Stargate aficionado's primarily, if not only.

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