Monday, July 29, 2013

Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters (Nintendo/Tose Software, 1991/1992)

It's hard to imagine it now, but the entire video game industry used to be pretty small. A few years after the legendary video game crash of the early 80s, Nintendo took a huge risk trying to release a new system to a largely uninterested market. Luckily for us, the NES (or Famicom in Japan) was a huge success and paved the way for the industry we have today. However, because the NES was such a huge hit, there was a much larger demand for games than the supply could satisfy, so every game back then got a lot of attention, even the pretty weird ones. One of those pretty weird early NES games was Kid Icarus, These days Kid Icarus is mostly known for its recent 3DS release Kid Icarus: Uprising, and Pit's inclusion in Smash Bros. Brawl, but back in the early 90s, a much forgotten sequel was released for the revolutionary (at the time) handheld system, the original black and white Nintendo Gameboy.

As luck would have it, the amount of time between when I last played the first Kid Icarus and when I played Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters is about the same as the amount of time between when they were released, which puts me in an unusually accurate frame of mind for reviewing such a classic sequel. The original Kid Icarus was one of the first NES games I had, and I played it enough that I can still hum the theme music on cue. Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters was a game that I was originally excited about when I first read in a classic issue of Nintendo Power that it was coming out, but for whatever reason I didn't get around to actually playing it until recently. Better two decades late than never I suppose!

Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters has a lot in common with the original game. In a way, it could be seen as a way to provide a portable version of the game while improving on some issues, rather than an attempt to expand the series. Both games combine vertical scrolling climbing levels, Metroid style maze-like dungeon levels, and the more traditional left to right side scrolling platforming levels that were once the industry standard. Every other level is a maze level that ends in a boss battle. Defeating the boss earns you one of the three magical items needed to save the world, but unlike in a Zelda or Metroid game, you don't get to equip these items until the last level when you have them all, and the game becomes more of a Gradius/R-Type style side scrolling shooter.

There were many improvements over the original Kid Icarus in Of Myths and Monsters. Despite being in a black and white grey scale, the graphics are much more detailed in this Gameboy release, especially the backgrounds which were simply solid black in the NES release in a classic arcade style. The vertical scrolling areas in the original let you run off one side of the screen and pop into the other side Pac-Man style, but if you fell off the bottom of the screen it was instant death, even though you were just down there a second ago and it was perfectly safe then. In the vertical scrolling areas of this sequel, the screen smoothly scrolls left and right with you as well, allowing the area to loop on itself creating the illusion of the game having much larger areas than it actually does, especially in parts that have mostly diagonal travel. As you fall, the screen scrolls down to follow your descent allowing you to safely backtrack to earlier areas in case you missed the entrance to one of the many bonus rooms.

As they did in the original, these bonus rooms range from health refilling springs, to shops, to endurance challenges. A memorable part of the series is the treasure rooms. Rather than just offering you free stuff, the treasure rooms are a test of your luck and greed. They hold several pots, most of which contain treasure, but one of which contains the God of Poverty. In a game show style, you can leave the room at any time and keep as much treasure as you've collected so far, but if you happen to find the God of Poverty you lose all that you've collected and have to leave the room. However, if you can open all of the pots, then the last one will contain an even larger treasure. On actual consoles, these are nerve-racking experiences of gambling, but if you play either of these games on an emulator with a quick save option, it's just free money.

The setting for the Kid Icarus series is an interesting one. Judging by the name and the scenery, the assumption is that like God of War, Kid Icarus must be set firmly in the world of ancient Greek mythology, but that's not actually the case. Even though there are references to Zeus and Medusa, and the lead character Pit bears a striking resemblance to the titular Icarus (who doesn't appear in either game by the way), the games are not actually set in ancient Greece, simply inspired by it. These games take place in an imaginary world called Angel Land. The instruction manuals (remember those?) for the games fill in the story of Angel Land being under attack, and Queen Palutena sending Pit to save the day. These plots are barely hinted at in the actual games, and even though the circumstances are different between the two releases, they are basically interchangeable, and if you've played one of the games, you've mostly played the other. Not that it's necessarily a bad thing. As much as I loved the original Metroid, the many changes made in Metroid: Zero Mission make for a much improved experience, and in that same way Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters could be seen as an improved (minus the color) re-imagining of the original Kid Icarus, which was already feeling pretty dated by early 90s standards.

If I have to gripe about something in this game it's the music. The music isn't actually bad, it's actually rather pleasant and fits the game well, it just isn't nearly as memorable as the music in the NES original. It's not a matter of the Gameboy sound chip being less powerful either, the melodies simply don't grab me. Now part of that may be the fact that I was hearing these for the first time, while the original music I've been hearing since I was a kid, but I simply liked the first game's music better. Luckily, the original game's theme does make a return at the end of the game, so maybe that will inspire you to play through to the end?

Overall, I'm glad that I finally got around to playing Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters. Even though I enjoyed it, I probably can't recommend it to everybody. Even in 1991 it wasn't an amazing game, and the black and white graphics might be a turn off for some modern gamers who've never even seen an original Gameboy. But, if you're a hardcore retro gamer who's up for some old school platforming fun and you've missed out on this game as I had for so many years, it's a solid classic game well worth jumping into and spending an hour or two.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Hotline Miami (Dennaton Games/Devolver Digital, 2012/2013)

Sometimes there's a game that I'm just really looking forward to. Sometimes it's a game that everybody says is great. Sometimes it's a game that despite how many negative reviews I hear, I just know they must be wrong because it looks like it'll be amazing (it's usually not). And sometimes it's something that nobody I know has ever heard of, but it looks like it's exactly the type of game I'm into. Then, sometimes the opposite is true. Sometimes there is a game that even though everything I read and everybody I talk to says it's great, I'm just not looking forward to it. And sometimes when I finally reluctantly get around to trying the game I realize what a fool I'd been to wait so long. This is the case for me with Hotline Miami.

In my reviews on Wake and Evoland I mentioned how retro styled pixel art games are so common now, they're almost as much of a cliche as toon shading was a decade ago. A few years ago, it was a shocking change of pace that brought with it fond nostalgic memories. At this point however, it's so common that I imagine many developers simply use it to look trendy rather than to make a statement, or possibly just to save time on the art. Hotline Miami uses an 8-bit NES inspired art style, and as much as I enjoy that art style and games from that era, every time I saw screen shots from the game it just looked uninspired. Luckily for me, I decided to try it anyway.

I suppose the best way to describe what makes Hotline Miami so much fun is to start by stating what it's not, so anybody with my misconceptions can look past them. Despite its NES styling, Hotline Miami does not at all play like an 8-bit game. The control scheme is a simple one, you can move, aim, and shoot, but aiming and moving are independent of each other, similar to a twin stick shooter. On the gamepad, right stick aims, right trigger fires or swings your weapon, and left trigger throws your weapon. If you're playing the PC version without a gamepad, the mouse cursor and buttons handle this while typical WASD movement is used.

These simple controls allow for some pretty flexible and complex gameplay. Each mission in the game consists of showing up at a location, killing everybody there, and possibly picking something up before leaving. What makes the game so fun however is that you're not told how to play it. You can bust into a room with machine guns blazing commando style, you can sneak around stealthily and take out the baddies one at a time, or you can get clever and try to distract and misdirect people to get them to separate into smaller easier targets. It's not uncommon to change your mind and start playing differently mid level because sometimes certain approaches are more effective. The game actually analyzes how you play and rates you on your play style at the end of each mission.

One of the more clever aspects of the game is how important the environment is. Line of site is very important for stealth reasons, and sometimes walls have windows in them that can not only be seen through, but shot through. More than once I thought I was safe walking down a hallway only to be mowed down by machine gun fire from a nearby office that I wasn't paying attention to. Doors are also a hugely important part of the gameplay. Not only do they block line of site, they can be used to knock down enemies. Often a room will have more than one guard in it, and taking out one of them while busting in the door leaves fewer for you to worry about when the fighting starts. Sound also plays a role in the game, as gunshots will alert others who will come to see what's going on. Sometimes you want to avoid this, but sometimes it can be used to your advantage to lure several guards into a trap.

If you've looked into the game at all, you've probably noticed the strange animal masks and wondered what that was all about. Throughout the game, you awarded various masks, each with a special ability. Some make you more effective with certain types of attacks, or let you run faster, or prevent dogs from attacking you. My favorite was the horse mask which made hitting an enemy with a door fatal. For the completionists out there, the owl mask doesn't assist in gameplay at all, but does allow you to see the hidden letter in each level. Finding all of these hidden levels will unlock an alternate ending, but attempting this will make the game much more difficult.

Hotline Miami's audio is another area where it's obvious that it's not purely trying to milk the current retro fad. If you're expecting chiptunes and FM chirps you will be surprised. The sound effects are all modern digital samples, and the music tracks, while heavily 80's dance synth influenced, are all full audio recordings as well. Overall, the game's audio track brings back more nostalgia for movies of the 80's than for 80's console games.

The next area where the game strays from the typical retro graphics formula is surprisingly with the graphics themselves. Even though the entire game is rendered in 8-bit styled sprites, the game is not at all something that could have been rendered in 8-bit. The entire level rotates subtly as you move around, and your character rotates smoothly as you aim in any direction. Eerie lighting and post processing effects give the game a surreal and sometimes gritty feel, far beyond the reaches of the 8-bit hardware the sprites try to emulate. I questioned several times throughout the game why they even went the retro sprite route at all. I suppose that the game takes place in the 80's, and it's a jab at that, and obviously retro sprite games are popular right now, but I couldn't help feel that the game might have been more enjoyable with a less retro art style. Maybe something similar to The Binding of Isaac or something?

So now that we've covered what I was expecting that Hotline Miami isn't, let's talk about what I wasn't expecting that it is. Well, in a strange way, Hotline Miami is sort of a puzzle game. Not a God of War style fight for a while and then solve a puzzle style game, but a game where figuring out how to kill your enemies is the puzzle itself. Each mission is confined to a single building, and each floor of the building is a checkpoint. You'll find yourself attempting each floor many times as you try to discover just the right method to take everybody out. Everything resets, so you can try over and over, getting a little farther each time, or getting stuck and trying a completely different direction. It's weird to think about knocking somebody out with a door, beating the next guy with a crowbar, then throwing the crowbar at the 3rd guy while you pick up the shotgun to let the bullets fly as steps in solving a puzzle, but in Hotline Miami, that's just how it works. What starts out as mindless fun quickly evolves into some real brain teasers.

Now to get controversial! Or at least, let's talk about controversy. Much like Mass Effect, the first thing I ever heard about Hotline Miami was the controversy around it, or more specifically, around its trailers. To build up hype for the game, teaser trailers were released involving real life actors acting out the violence from the game. Let's make something clear. This is an extremely violent game. The trailers did a great job of conveying that so when the game came out, people knew what to expect. And thanks to the controversial buzz, the audience who would most enjoy the game knew about it well in advance.

So, just to be clear, I really did enjoy playing Hotline Miami. It's a great game that I had a lot of fun playing. It has a unique feel, and like the Deus Ex series, allows you to find the playing style you enjoy most and do that. I wouldn't recommend sitting your 5 year old kid in front of it, but I'd highly recommend playing it for anybody into fast paced violent action that requires as much strategy as it does reflexes.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo, 1988/1989/1991)

Recently, while playing through Valis: The Fantasm Soldier, I started thinking about earlier games that might have influenced it. It's just something I tend to do while playing through various games. As I mentioned in the review, it seemed to be trying to emulate Ninja Gaiden in some ways. After doing a bit of research, it looks like the original Valis actually came out first, so maybe the influence was the other way around? Either way, it brought back memories of the first Ninja Gaiden game. I remember reading the previews in Nintendo Power magazine about this crazy new ninja game that was supposed to feel like a movie. Sure, I already had Golgo13: Top Secret Episode which played like a movie, but this one promised something different.

Before getting into the review, I should clarify what "Ninja Gaiden" I'm talking about. The first Ninja Gaiden game was an arcade game in 1988. It was a big hit, so a port was released for the NES, because back in the late 80's, the NES pretty much was the game industry. Not uncommon for NES ports, this game was very different from the arcade version. In the early 90's, Sega got a piece of the pie and enjoyed releases for the Master System, Game Gear, and Genesis (or Mega Drive, depending on where you lived). Each of these games was simply called "Ninja Gaiden", and each one was completely different from any of the previous releases, and from each other. Over a decade later the series enjoyed a revival as an XBox game was released, again called "Ninja Gaiden". This doesn't even take into account all of the sequels spread across the various systems, but so far there have been at least six different games released titled just "Ninja Gaiden". In order to avoid any confusion, this review is about the NES release, and only that game.

So, what made Ninja Gaiden so special? Well, when I first popped the game in, I saw something I had never seen before in a game. I saw my first cinematic cutscene. Cutscenes are so common these days that we don't even think about them, unless we're complaining about them being too long, but back in the 80's it was revolutionary. Games like Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode had drawn out dialog scenes and animated story telling, and other games had the in game characters move and talk on their own. Even the infamous "The Princess is in another castle" could be considered a primitive cutscene of sorts, but Ninja Gaiden truly expanded on the concept. These cutscenes employed liberal use of cinematic techniques such as close ups, panning shots, dramatic camera angles, reaction shots, and slow motion action. Or, at least the best approximation of these techniques that 8-bit sprite animation would allow.

Adding to this was a soundtrack that pushed the 8-bit FM sound chip to its limits providing not only some of my favorite music on the NES (behind Blaster Master of course!), but some well timed sound effects that really added life to these silent movie style cutscenes. All of this would have fallen flat however if the graphics had been sub-par, but luckily they don't disappoint either. The in game graphics are like a mash-up of Castlevania and Double Dragon sprites with some random military guys thrown in for good measure, but they do the job well and fit the story. It's the cutscenes again where the graphics really wowed the world. How often do you get to see 8-bit plaid?

The game's story was also much more advanced than what gamers were used to at the time. Most game stories of the era consisted of an opening "There's a bad guy threatening the world, go stop him", and then you're on your way, with maybe a "How dare you try to stop me" at the end when you finally face the big bad guy. Ninja Gaiden took things differently. It was a tale of revenge and mystery full of plot twists, surprise betrayal, and characters you could actually get to know and care about. It followed a young man named Ryu as he attempts to avenge the unexplained killing of his father Ken. (No relation to Ken and Ryu from the Street Fighter series, at least as far as I know) It also features the first appearance (again, as far as I know) of one of the most iconic and influential lines of dialog in video games, a line of dialog that would go on to be reused in more games than even probably even existed at the time Ninja Gaiden was first created. Yes, to the best of my knowledge, Ninja Gaiden was the first game to use "..." as an entire line of dialog. Ok, after that build up, it's probably a let down. But I personally find it significant, and I still think of this game everytime I see it.

The game itself is a side scrolling action platformer that combines the fighting aspects of games such as Shinobi with the jumping around aspects of games such as Super Mario Bros. It wasn't the first game to make this combination, but it managed its own balance of the two that gave the Ninja Gaiden series a unique feel. The most noteworthy gameplay mechanic is the player's ability to stick to walls. This allows some interesting level design by having you jump back and forth between various vertical surfaces to reach areas that look unreachable. It's a small thing, but this really helps to give the game more of a ninja-style feel, at least when compared to other action platformers of the time.

The levels are linear, but in a winding fashion that lets it feel like you're exploring without ever letting you get lost. the occasional forks in design are short, and are generally to let you collect optional items or power ups. The levels are each spread across multiple environments, each with their own look.The locations are pretty varied but the cutscenes tie it all together with the story so it always makes sense why you'd be there. Each level culminates in a boss fight. These fights are a satisfying combination of clever strategy and simply hacking away. Sticking to the walls to evade attacks adds an extra level of thought to the battles.

Your main weapon is your sword. It's never replaced or upgraded, so it feels just as powerful on the first level as it does on the last. It's range is limited however, so to augment this you also have access to power ups. As in earlier games such as Castlevania, these power ups are held in floating objects, and are released by striking them. Many of them are secondary weapons such as throwing stars, boomerang stars, spin slash ability, or orbiting balls of fire. Other's offer ammo for these weapons, add extra time to the clock, or freeze all of the enemies for a short time, or of course add an extra life. Then there's the always disappointing extra points power up that adds to your high score, but doesn't actually help you get through the game.

That brings up one of my gripes with the game. Ninja Gaiden's arcade origins are ever present throughout the game. Mostly in the pacing and the non-stop action, but also in some of the more out of place feeling contrivances. Each level has a time limit, something the Super Mario Bros. series for example gave up on with their first home console exclusive release (the first SMB was actually an arcade port). I can understand that in an arcade you don't want one player clogging up the line by playing too slow, or at least you want to charge more quarters, but in a home console game presenting an adventure on such a grand scale, it feels cheap to have a clock in the corner that will kill you if you take just a bit too long. It discourages careful thoughtful play, and offers more frustration than challenge.

Ninja Gaiden was an incredibly innovative and influential release in the history of gaming. It was a game outgrowing its arcade past, while still growing into its console home, and defining what a console title could be at the same time. Playing through it now, it's far from a perfect experience. Like many classic games, it's much more difficult than many modern gamers care to put up with, and the gameplay does tend to get repetitive after a while. Yet, there's no denying that this is a true classic that helped to shape what games are today.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Evoland (Shiro Games, 2013)

Way back in 1978, when I was just a baby, a musician named Frank Zappa released a song called Joe's Garage as the opening track of a concept album of the same name. When I first listened to the song, I thought it was a good tune. It told a fun story, and I liked how it changed the arrangement around as it went.

Years later I was watching the History Channel (back when they actually had shows about history, I've ranted about this before) and they showed a program on the history of rock music. It started with folk, country, and blues roots, and traced it through Mowtown, Elvis, the Beatles, surf, punk, psychedelic, sort of the entire route of inspiration that rock music took over the decades.

Shortly after that, I listened to Joe's Garage again, and it hit me. This song was genius! This one song traced the entire history of rock music in order from the its roots up until the birth of heavy metal in the late 70s. Being too young to be familiar with the historic timeline, it went completely over my head when I first heard it, but it was all there.

But, music isn't the only form of media where this type of nostalgic journey can take place, as was proved by Shiro Games when they made Evoland.

Evoland is less subtle about its purpose than Joe's Garage was (wow, did I just call Frank Zappa subtle?), but it could be argued that video games are in general a less subtle form of media. Evoland attempts to trace the evolution of gaming. Or, more specifically, the evolution of adventure games. Well, kind of.

There's no reference to classic PC text adventures or graphic adventures, and if you have fond memories of Adventure on the Atari 2600, hold on to them because you won't find any reminders here. The evolution presented here starts with The Legend of Zelda, which admittedly is when adventure games went mainstream. It's also a bit out of order. The NES was released years before the Gameboy, but for the purposes of the game, starting in black and white just makes more sense.

So, what exactly is Evoland? As I mentioned in my Wake review, retro themed games are a growing trend right now, but I've never seen one take things as far as Evoland. Rather than emulating the graphical style and  game mechanics of one era and genre, Shiro Games has meticulously recreated almost a dozen different styles. Mostly, it emulates games from the Zelda and Final Fantasy series, both 2D and 3D incarnations of each, but there's a good chunk of Diablo thrown in later in the game too.

The game evolves through treasure chests. Each time you open a treasure chest, there's a chance of evolving the graphics, audio, or gameplay in some way. Sometimes chests are blocking your path to ensure that they are opened. On the graphics side, the game goes from black and white, to 8-bit NES style color, to 16-bit SNES style color. The game eventually transitions from 2D to 3D with Mode 7 effects, pre-rendered backgrounds, and full polygonal worlds with upgradable levels of texture detail. The gameplay starts as a 2D Zelda clone, but grows as it offers turn based battles, random encounters, hack n' slash loot dungeons, and even the obligatory fetch quest.

Actually, I've never seen a game combine real-time action adventure combat with authentic turn-based JRPG  combat quite as smoothly as Evoland does. Some parts of the game have enemies crawling around that you have to attack with your sword (or bow and arrow, or bombs), and in other parts you battle your enemies by selecting for each member of your party to attack, or use items or magic from the menu. Even the inventory and pause menus change depending on what part of the game you are in. It is a little weird that the potions you buy during the RPG sections can't be used to refill your heart containers in the action adventure inspired sections, but this game tends to put gameplay before narrative, so it's probably more fun this way.

It is worth pointing out that none of the different mechanics presented are very deep, at least not compared to the games that they are based on. This can be seen as either a positive or negative aspect depending on how you look at it. I generally saw it as a plus because as the game isn't terribly long, expecting the player to master as deep of an upgrading and leveling mechanic as might be found in a much longer game, and then do it again several more times would be unreasonable. What you essentially get is a light version of each style. Bombs and arrows are unlimited, as is your magic in the turn based fights (go ahead and heal every other turn!). Leveling up automatically picks the best stats to affect, and purchasing upgraded armor automatically equips it for you. In some ways, this more streamlined approach is actually an improvement to the pacing of the game. Walk into a save station for example, and the game is saved, keep walking. I much prefer that to the whole mess of: Would you like to save your game? What slot would you like to save to? Would you like to overwrite the previous save? Are you sure? As the annoying meme floating around the internet lately likes to say, "Ain't nobody got time for that!"

As with the games that inspired it, there are plenty of boss battles to go around. What makes the boss encounters of Evoland special though, is that each one is presented in a different gameplay style. If you've played the classics that inspired them you'll have no problem as they pull the same tricks you've come to expect over the years. Remembering how you redirected projectiles in Link to the Past or how often to use offensive or defensive magic in Final Fantasy will be useful info to keep in mind. As I was never as much into the Diablo series as I was other games, it didn't surprise me that the Diablo inspired boss gave me the greatest challenge.

The audio side of the game is equally as impressive as any other aspect of the game. The game starts out silent with sound effects and music added later from their own treasure chests. We go from classic electronic sounds and authentic chip-tunes to digital audio effects and sample based music. Eventually we enter the CD-Rom era with full pre-recorded music tracks and modern high quality sound effects. This would all be expected as part of the game's presentation and style, but what took me by surprise was just how good the music was. The sound track not only matches both the audio quality and musical style of the classic games being paid tribute to, but it does it with some incredibly well composed and catchy tunes. I'm glad that since I got the game on, it comes with the complete soundtrack as mp3 files.

As somebody who grew up playing adventure games, and then played Evoland while in my mid-thirties, I feel that this game was made specifically for people like me. As was the case for 3D Dot Game Heroes, I'm probably almost exactly the target audience that the game was made for, and for that I can say that if I could go back in time and recommend the game to myself, I definitely would. But should I recommend it to you? That's a hard question to answer. As was the case with Joe's Garage, the genius of the game could easily go over the head of younger gamers who don't get the references. The fact that the main character's name, Clink, is a cross between Cloud and Link doesn't mean anything to gamers who don't know who those characters are. Several of my favorite aspects of the game such as the blue pixelated loading screens while swapping out pre-rendered backgrounds in the FF7 inspired town could easily be seen as annoying defects by others. I'm not saying that it's not a fun game, or that the nostalgia is all that makes it worth playing, I'm just saying that it will be a much different experience for some than it is for others.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Valis: The Fantasm Soldier (Telenet Japan, 1986/1987/1991)

Way back in January when I posted my first review, I decided for a number of reasons not to give the games scores. How good a game is can't really be summed up by a simple number. Some games with lower scores might actually do a lot of things better than other games with higher scores. Some games with higher scores might actually be less fun for some people than other games with lower scores. It's a tricky balance. Most of all, if you really want to know what I think about a game, you should actually read the review, not just skim down a list of numbers! In the half year that I've been writing these so far, I've done a couple dozen reviews, and at no point was I more glad that I wasn't assigning a score to a game than when I played through Valis: The Fantasm Soldier.

Valis: The Fantasm Soldier was released in Japan on a number of different consoles in the late 80s, but it didn't reach the western world until the Sega Genesis port in the early 90s. I played the Genesis version (as far as I know, it's the only version in English), so my opinions are all based on that one. Since it's a port of an earlier game, it feels like an earlier game. It doesn't move like a Genesis game. It's hard to describe, but as I played it, even though it certainly looked like a genesis game with large colorful sprites and multi-layered scrolling backgrounds, the game just had a certain 8-bit quality to it. Does that make it a bad game? No! I love 8-bit games, and still play them, but it might have been a bit disappointing back in 1991 if you were trying to show off your new 16-bit console to your friends.

Valis: The Fantasm Solder is a side scrolling action platformer with an arcade feel. It seems to want to by a Ninja Gaiden style game, but it sometimes feels more like an 8-bit Castlevania title. You mostly follow a linear path, with the occasional maze area thrown in, but I've heard that some earlier versions of the game are more maze oriented rather than arcade inspired. Along the way you fight monsters, collect power ups and upgrade your sword. Each of the game's levels are divided into a few different areas with sometimes drastically different looking background sprites, giving the game a nice variety of scenery.

Most of the design ideas in Valis: The Fantasm Soldier had been seen in numerous games before it, but it did manage to squeeze out some interesting ideas of its own. My favorite aspect of the game's design is how it handles sword upgrades. Weapon upgrades have long been a part of games, and have been handled in more ways than I can count. They generally range from quick and simple as seen in space shooters to complex and elaborate as seen in the role playing genre. The sword upgrade system in Valis manages to stay simple while providing a decent amount of variety and customization. Swords in Valis shoot projectiles similar to the first few Legend of Zelda releases. Sword upgrade icons are found throughout the game representing each of the different sword types. Each sword type has a different strength, some do more damage, some shoot in multiple angles, and my favorite actually shoots homing projectiles that never miss! Collecting a power up for a different type of sword switches you to the lowest of three versions of that type, and collecting the same type will increase the strength of your sword. This method gives you control over finding the weapon that best fits your playing style, but doesn't slow down the arcade pacing.

When swinging your sword around just isn't enough, Valis: The Fantasm Soldier also lets you sling magic at your foes. From the pause menu, you are able to switch between the different spells you pick up along the way, and attacking while aiming up on the D-Pad unleashes the magical attack. There's nothing ground breaking about the spells offered, but they get the job done. Some are better when surrounded by several weaker enemies, and others are better for taking out stronger opponents. There's no indication of exactly what each spell does other than its cryptic name, but magic refills are found often enough that it's usually best to just try them all out as you go.

Each level ends with a boss fight. As would be expected, the early fights are simply a matter of hitting the boss quickly until it's dead. Later bosses take more effort. There's no real clever strategies with these fights, it's generally just a mater of dodging their attacks and hitting them as much as possible. I found that the magic spell with the spinning fireball is useful against the later bosses. It doesn't do much damage when it hits, but it hits often enough that the damage quickly adds up.

As with most arcade style action games of its time, Valis: The Fantasm Soldier doesn't get too bogged down with its storytelling. When it does, it's through the use of some surprisingly well drawn anime style cutscenes. The problem with them is that the text is typed onto the screen painfully slowly, with no way of skimming quickly through the lines. Early in the game, these cutscenes are quite common, but after the first couple of levels they stop, and you don't see any more of them until almost at the end of the game. The story presented is well done, and makes sense of the game's world. If you're looking for a deep plot, you'll be disappointed. It's still more than most games of the genre offer, at least of that era.

So, how do I best describe how I felt about playing Valis: The Fantasm Soldier? The easiest way to describe it would be to say it was almost exactly the opposite of what I thought about Heavenly Sword. There is a lot wrong with Valis: The Fantasm Soldier, and it doesn't really wow in any way, or even make that great of a first impression. But, somehow when all of the many flawed pieces are put together, something just seems to work. I enjoyed this game a lot, even though it's difficult to say exactly why. Some games are just greater than the sum of their parts. And that is why I'm so glad that I don't put scores on these reviews.