December 27, 2010

Old Skool Gaming Nostalgia - Part IV: SNES (continued)

There were a lot more SNES games I was introduced to over the years, even as the N64 came out. But the ones that had the biggest impact were the one I was introduced to first and stuck with me. I didn't actually own an N64 until around the time I became a teenager so that left a lot of time for the SNES. These were truly the glory days for myself and the console as there were so many good games that inspired me for years afterwards. But alas, there are a few that come to mind that deserve special mention...

A Lot bigger than it looks...
The sequel to the Mario game that came with the system, Yoshi's Island focused on the exploits of (who else) Yoshi and his efforts to rescue baby Mario's twin brother Luigi from the evil wizard Kamek (not Bowser this time), who steals him from the Stork on its way to deliver the twins to their expecting parents. You play as Yoshi and his his friends the entire time while Mario comes along for the ride. You think it's kinda cool at first until you realize that every time you get hit Mario is ejected from his seat on your back and floats off into the air inside a bubble that magically appears. A timer begins counting down from 10-30 depending on how many stars you collect throughout the level and the little bastard cries out "HEY!" the entire time. You will quickly become annoyed with this and wish that something would just swoop down and take him away... which does happen if the timer reaches 0. You also fail when this happens, but at least you get to keep your sanity.

HEY!... HEY!... HEY! *Yoshi puts gun to head*
Most of the time though, you'll be so distracted by the awesome graphics and gameplay that you won't really care. Playing Yoshi is really smooth and you can find yourself getting out of most bad situations easily. Rarely will you die to technical difficulties... especially since you get a limited "floating" ability in case you just miss a small target you may have been trying to jump on. This is a life saver that I quickly came to love.

The scenery and graphics in general were unique to the game and I have never really seen anything similar on the SNES since. Unlike the platforms game before it, it gets away from the blocky feeling of it all with nice, clean transitions between tiles and even adds some nice effects like round, rolling objects (such as giant boulders that chase you through caves Indiana Jones-style).

There are 8 worlds with 8 levels, including 2 boss castles placed at level 4 and 8 of each world. Each boss battle is unique and fun - I went back and played them over and over just because the battles are so amazing. The most memorable battle for me was one where you fight this giant blob of some sort wearing an equally enormous pair of pants, which slowly sink down as you throw eggs at him. When you deal the finishing blow, his pants disappear completely and he turns red (blushing, I always assumed), then flies around the room like a deflating balloon.

Have you no shame?!
Besides him there is a giant Koopa Troopa where the objective is to jump on his head, forcing him to spew out eggs that you can fire at him. You have to wait until he decides to stand up and charge you before firing, which knocks him off balance and leaves his belly exposed. Then you ground-pound the shit out of him. Rinse and repeat. In another battle, you fight a giant water-passed Piranha Plant with tentacles and toxic spores. THEN... as if that weren't enough - you fight a giant crow who picks you up and drops you on the freakin' moon where you literally run around it, wait for him to stand over a stake, then pound down on it from the other side of the moon, driving it up through his insidey parts. Epic!

Suck it Neil Armstrong
The music is very non-Mario-ey - you won't recognize a single track - but, as always, it is very fitting and it'll be stuck in your head all day if not for as long as you have the ability to breathe. This game is truly one of the best evolutions of the platform genre as seen the uniqueness of every level in the game. You spend most of the game taking it all in and enjoying the hell out of it.... but even if you think you've got it down, you're in for a ride when you get to the final level.

No! I'm not Yoshi you idiot! Get the green dinosaur-thing!
In the final castle you finally confront the wizard responsible for all this trouble and meet your soon-to-be arch-nemesis, Baby Bowser. As always, he's too much of a pussy to fight you himself so he instead sends Baby Bowser - who decides he wants to ride you. Baby Bowser can imitate your ground pounds, which he uses in an attempt to mount and ride you like a "horsie" or send a deadly shock wave through the floor to knock Mario off of your back. Seriously, that is his motivation in this battle; he doesn't wanna kill you, he just wants a ride! But you're having none of that - Mario has dibs.

You defeat him by sending the same shock wave back at him, making him trip, and then ground pounding him instead. It's called Karma little guy. When you feel manly (dinosaurly) enough, having sufficiently beaten up a baby, the wizard Kamek will rain magic down on him, like every other boss before you, enhancing his abilities. Apparently he gave Bowser a little too much out of desperation, which results in him growing to ridiculous proportions, destroying most of the castle on the process. Oh well, there's probably thousands of minions who would like to stop pacing in far-off regions anyway.

Nice night were' ha- HOLY DONKEY BALLS!
Now the system changes and you face the background where Bowser looms over you, wreaking all sorts of havoc on the remains of the castle. Every once in a while, giant eggs will rain down - which you can grab like any other - and hurl at Bowser. This totally changes the aiming system you may or may not have mastered by now, and can be a real bitch to figure out, since you're no longer firing in a straight line, but an arc. You'll be forced into a crash course since, the entire time you're trying to hit him he moves closer and closer to you, making the battle a race against time. Every time you hit him he runs several paces forward too so if you manage to beat him  -whether by a wide margin or a matter of seconds - he'll be way too close for comfort.

When you do finally defeat him, he'll erupt into magical fireworks and collapse on the remains of the castle before you. Then, you save Luigi and are returned to the Stork who delivers you to your parents. Decades later, a sibling rivalry begins that makes Yoshi will wish he had just stayed out of the whole thing and saved himself the trouble.

For me, the game was a perfect mix of cheeriness and ominousness. Most of the levels are bright and happy with friendly-ish enemies who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, whereas the castles are dark, dreary, and usually consist of non-biological enemies like spikes, crushing blocks... and spiky crushing blocks. On top of that, the replay value is great because each level keeps a score of how many items you collect and "grades" you for your completion with a percentage. You can go back and see all these percentages on the level select screen and unlock bonus levels upon completing every level in a world. This brought me countless hours of enjoyment as I scoured the levels for secrets like all the good platform games before it.

Not your grandfather's platform game...
But my fascination for the platform genre could only hold me over for so long when I suddenly happened upon a little gem... a game that would go on to be one of my favorite games of all time.

I just came.
The first two adventures had left me craving more... and now it was here, in all it's 16-bit goodness. As had become my custom, I blew through the intro in favor of jumping right into the gameplay without a clue as to what the story was. The game starts out on a stormy night where you - Link - are abruptly awakened from your sleep by a vision of Zelda begging you to rescue her from the dungeons of Hyrule Castle. Apparently some wizard is attempting to free Ganon - your arch-nemesis -from the Dark World where he was imprisoned when he stole the Triforce from the Sacred Realm.

So you wake up as your uncle heads out the door to deal with some situation at the castle. He tells you to stay inside and heads out into the storm. You dick around inside for a while, throwing pots around in a fit because he treats you like a little kid. Wait... you are just a kid. How did that happen? Oh well, moving on. You walk outside and follow the road north to the castle, getting heckled by any guards you talk to along the way, eventually making it to the courtyard of the castle. After being turned away by a rather menacing-looking guard, you find your way in through a hole in the garden and enter the castle dungeons.

Before long, you bump into your fallen uncle who was beset by castle guards - who have gone mad for some reason - and tells you to take up his sword and shield and attempt to finish the task he could not; rescue Princess Zelda. This is where you get your first real experience in fighting - both in-game and out it would seem since you're just a boy now - as you clear the way through the dungeon guards to the cell where Princess Zelda is being held hostage. Once you defeat the jailer and rescue the princess, she asks that you take her to the sanctuary by means of a secret passageway hidden in the castle. You brave your way through dungeon rats, bats, and other perils then finally make it through the the sanctuary where a wise old priest agrees to keep her safe while you try to figure out why the hell you just had to fight through once-friendly guards.

You better not molest her while I'm gone.

The majority of the game involves just that as you traverse all of known Hyrule in search of three pendants of power that you need to obtain the long-lost Master Sword from the Lost Woods. The Master Sword is the only thing that can stop the evil wizard and his plans to enter the Dark Land and free Ganon. The pendants are hidden away in three castles located all over Hyrule. Each castle has items that will help you along your way, like all the Zeldas before it. You can also find items in other places that will help you greatly, which really promotes exploration as a lot of them are hidden away.

The boss battles are exciting and each victory is sweet, leaving you with a great feeling when you manage to kill the boss. Bosses are much more intelligent and Link is much more controllable than previous Zelda installments so it really gives the game a whole new epic feel. The music does nothing but compliment the intense battles and atmosphere of the game, so I was constantly immersed in it. The villages and townsfolk who live there are also a welcome change in pace when you come back from the dangers of distant locations.

Once I had acquired all three pendants I was off to the Lost Woods. As soon as I entered I was immediately hit by the atmosphere of the place; the thick, fog slowly rolling by, the twists and turns of the old gnarled wood and the suspenseful music as I searched for the resting place of the one and only Master Sword. Then I saw it. A beam of light shone down upon the stone pedestal bearing it through the ages. Small critters scurried away as I approached the pedestal and presented the pendants before the alter. With new strength, I claimed the sword and held it high above my head, feeling its awesome power course through me. She must have sensed my success because soon after, I received another telepathic vision from Princess Zelda, once again beseeching me to come to her aid as guards approached the sanctuary that she had been hiding in.

Note to self: do NOT sell this to a merchant.

I rushed to her aid but was too late. The old priest lay dying on the floor - killed in cold blood in a holy temple of the gods. He urged me to pursue the guards on the way back to the castle before they could sacrifice the princess and break the seal of the old wise men. I fought my way through each level of the castle and up to the roof, breaking through the magical barrier with my new weapon. By the time I found the wizard at the top of the castle I was too late. I watched as Zelda disappeared before my eyes, and the seal was broken. With that, the wizard disappeared to attend to whatever business he was occupied with. But I wasn't falling for any bar tricks. Enraged, I followed his image through the curtains behind the sacrificial alter and found him in his lair.
For my next trick... bubbles!

Caught off guard, he went into a flurry, unleashing his foul magics against me. With the aid of the Master Sword, I found I was able to deflect his attacks back towards him. After a long battle of deflecting balls of plasma, dodging lightning bolts, and staying keen as he transported around the room, I defeated him. But he was not willing to give up yet. With his last ounce of power, he opened the way to the Dark Land, sending me through to meet my doom at the hands of the evil trapped within.

As the dizziness wore off I found myself in the tainted Dark Land; a shadow of the former Golden Land that contained the legendary Triforce. In order to restore the land to it's original state and defeat Ganon, I would need to rescue the seven maidens, ancestors of the original wise men who had formed the seal on the Golden Land. Once rescued, they could combine their powers to break the seal on the wizard's fortress atop Death Mountain. The enemies and obstacles I faced before me made the dangers of Hyrule pale by comparison. The seven bosses guarding the crystals entrapping the seven maidens proved to be an enormous challenge as the power of the Dark Land enhanced their abilities greatly. But one by one they fell, and at last I had all seven crystals I needed to break the seal to the wizard's lair.

The not-so Golden Land.

I climbed Death Mountain, battling monsters I had only heard of in legends as I made my way to the peak of the mountain. With the seven crystals in hand the seal was broken and I entered the final dungeon. An immense labyrinth lay before me. After much time and effort I finally found my way to the final chamber. I would end this cruel wizard's life and finally all of this madness would come to and end. He came at me, stronger than ever in the heart of his power. But his arrogance was once again his mistake as I anticipated his attacks and fought bravely to combat them... but again he was unwilling to quit, morphing into a giant bat and fleeing the scene. I was granted a vision, and watched as he broke through the roof of the pyramid-like structure I had found myself on when I had come to this land.

I tracked him down, making my way back to the pyramid and jumping down the hole the wizard had made in the top. Then it hit me; the pyramid was the resting place of the Triforce... and Ganon himself was the new curator. There was no way out now; it was inevitable that we fight... deep down I knew it would happen all along. He tested my abilities like a child tests a bug, toying with me as he threw a trident around the room like a boomerang. I got a few stabs in at him, which he quickly laughed off and proceeded to blow all the lights out in the room, not giving me the decency of fighting him face to face. I scurried to relight the torches, hoping even the dimmest light would give me a glimpse of his shadow as he moved stealthily around the room in full stalker mode. He clawed at me in the dark as I struggled to fight back, sustaining several blows before he finally backed off. This went on for ages until, at last, he let out a final growl and collapsed to the floor. I had done it - I had defeated the greatest evil Hyrule had ever known in the Golden Land, tainted by his power.

He was the only blue pig growing up, and that made him weird. 

Deeper inside the temple I found the Triforce. The voices of the ancestors greeted me as I reached out and touched it, instructing me that I could have whatever my heart desired. I thought back to all those who had helped me during my journey and all their troubles and wished them all happiness, then watched as my wish unfolded before me. I was taken back to my home land, seeing it changed for the better and safe from Ganon and his evil minions. I had done it. I was a hero.

Too... heavy...

Whew... epic walk through complete. Needless to say, The Legend of Zelda was the first game that truly made me appreciate the modern RPG and set the bar for what an adventure should truly feel like. After defeating Ganon, I played again, making an effort to search far and wide for any lost secrets that I might have missed the first time through - but mostly it was just to relive the great adventure I had just experienced one more time. The SNES saw many amazing video games - many of which were the blueprint for a lot of modern games that we know and love. Although the aforementioned games had the largest effect on me, there were several other games that I played later that definitely deserve mention for their ongoing impact on me and the industry itself.

To be continued...

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