The Binding of Isaac

     I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth was made available on the Nintendo E-shop. “Really?” I though. “A (mostly) family-friendly company like Nintendo is actually going to publicly align itself with THIS game? I mean, they do know it’s about a little boy who fights unspeakable horrors using his own tears after escaping to a basement when his mother tried to kill him because a voice from they sky told her to, right?”(I swear, there’s no way in Sheol I could make something like this up!)

     But I wasn’t about to let the chance to play it on my WiiU instead of the laptop I didn’t wanna play games on yet. One purchase and one download later and I was spending the rest of 2015 learning exactly why Rebirth had had such an impact on the Indie gaming scene and why all the big and respectfully-sized Youtubers were playing it on their channels. The Binding of Isaac − from the original all the way up to Afterbirth+ − is one of the most addictive games out there. Never the same thing twice, always keeping you on your toes in anticipation of what’s gonna present itself next, constantly toeing the line huge risks and huge rewards. It’s all so exhilarating and it’s what compels me to keep playing through nine whole fair-to-middling Isaac rounds with the hope that the tenth one will be awesome.

     I spent hours and hours with my WiiU, unlocking pretty much all the content that Rebirth after, including all the

-characters (except THE LOST)

-items (OK. Maybe not all of them . . .)

-bosses

-endings

I ultimately failed to unlock all the secrets and challenges though.

     And then Afterbirth, an all-new DLC expansion was released at the end of that same year that I hoped would make its way to my beloved console. But it never did. Which meant that if I ever wanted to play it (on Steam, obviously) I’d have to star ALLLL the way over. I WAS NOT cool with that at the time, so I decided to give Afterbirth a pass. Besides that, I felt that there was so much more to do in Rebirth

     Then 2017 rolled around and I began to notice something kinda lame: starting an Isaac round that could be considered decent  was becoming an increasingly rare occurrence. There were so. Many. Terrible. Rounds. And that’s when I stared playing Rebirth a whole lot less. Before long, starting all over again with Afterbirth was beginning to look more and more appealing. I soon found myself sitting in front of my laptop thinking, “So I have to buy Rebirth again to be able to play the new-ish DLC? Fine. And the struggle begins again. Oh well. Here we go . . .”

     Only, the struggle was nowhere near as real as it had been with Rebirth. Almost immediately I was unlocking content left and right. I had to work my thumbs off for everything I got in the previous version. Since I’ve been playing Afterbirth, I have already unlocked a decent amount of stuff and I haven’t even defeated Mom’s Heart enough times to unlock IT LIVES, Sheol, the Cathedral, the Hush, the Chest, etc.

     However, none of that means I’m free from crappy runs. It’s just something that comes with playing any sort of procedurally generated game. The fact that Afterbirth  has an extended pool of items that are often better than the ones in Rebirth can often lessen the blow. Most days. Sometimes, a round is just going to limp along from start to inevitable death.

Stealth Inc. 2: A Game of Clones

Released: Oct. 23,2014 (on Wii U); Apr. 7,2015 (everybody else)

Developer: Curve Studios

Publisher: Curve Digital

Platform(s): Wii U, Playstation 3/4/Vita, Xbox 360/One, Microsft Windows

Genre(s): Stealth, Puzzle platformer

     I was first introduced to this hidden jewel of a game a little over two years ago. I think it was the same weekend as NekoCon 2014. (I should have gone to that thing.) Anyway, I ended up purchasing then downloading this title as a distraction to cheer myself up and spent the entire weekend playing it. The mind stretching gameplay alone almost made me forget about not getting to play with the other anime/video game nerds.

     I got super far into Stealth Inc. 2 through many hours of wracking my brain and trial and error, as I recall. And many, MANY deaths. And then, for no particular reason in particular, I just stopped playing without completing it. Yeah, I never got to see its ending, or endings if it indeed has more than one. I did think about buckling down and seeing it all the way through over these past two years, but I soon found myself with so many other things to do and so many other games to play . . . and eventually review.

     That all changed a few weeks ago. I had just finished my Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon review so I had an empty spot in my gaming lineup and needed something to fill it. While I did consider finally giving other games in my digital collection a go, my thoughts repeatedly came back to completing Stealth Inc. 2, the humble little game that I had needlessly left in limbo for WAY too long. It was time to set things right.

     Before I could begin this review, there was something I needed to take care of: deleting my old save file so I could replay the game from the very beginning. It was the proper thing to do. Anyways, on with the−

*Story*

     Stealth Inc. 2 opens up with an image of hundreds of clones in test tubes within some sort of laboratory. This is where we first see Malcolm Alderman, award-winning scientist at PTI Industries(?) and our main antagonist for the evening. He was on top of the food chain until one of his colleagues by the name of Colin Rickman comes along and outclasses him. Our boy Malcolm isn’t about to take this lying down and sets out to “[restore] the natural order” of things which somehow involves the big-headed, small-bodied, goggle-eyed clones we saw in the opening.

     The first moments of gameplay have you take control of one out of maybe five or six of these little guys. From there, you are all sorted and separated until there’s only one of them left: you. And suddenly you’re off to the races puzzle-platforming your way through many obstacles, testing out PTI’s various products, and making your way around the facility. This is all while Dr. (Professor?) Alderman watches your progress with increasing concern.

     If I had to guess, I’d say that you were supposed to be slaughtered along with the others you started out with. You were never meant to make this far. And I think that’s way the good doctor flies into a rage-fueled panic when you suddenly find yourself face to face with him. “You’re just a clone!” he roars before sealing himself within a monitoring room. That’s exactly where you’ll find him for quite some time, all curled up on the floor like a little bi−−

     *Ahem* Moving on, it is here that you are presented with the main objectives in Stealth Inc. 2: pass every single test thrown at you while rescuing as many of your clone brethren as you can while making your way to the very heart of the PTI complex.

*Presentation*

     Stealth Inc. 2 is a 2-D side-scroller with very refined graphics, about what you would expect from an Indie game of this caliber. Everything just looks so smooth, clean, and well animated. What I find the most interesting about the visuals is the lighting effects. Light and how if affects things actually ties into the gameplay, reflected by the color of the lenses in your clone’s Super Spy Glasses.

     This game has a very fitting soundtrack. It has a sort of heist film meets Metroid Prime thing going on. The music here is quite atmospheric with little in the way of strong, iconic, or memorable melodies. However, it IS good thinking music that gets you in the right mood for some stealthy puzzle-platforming action. Which is fine by me. Not all video game music can be a classic like the main themes from Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda or be as cherished as Undertale’s entire musical score.

*Gameplay*

     Let me get something out of the way before I go on: if you play this game, you WILL die. A lot. And in horrible ways − getting crushed, eviscerated, blown to pieces, etc. This is why generous checkpoint systems exist. There are several elements that combine to create the more-complicated-than-it-initially-appears gameplay of Stealth:

     Stealth – You know, ‘cause it’s in the title. You are going to spend the majority of your time with this game sneaking past things without being detected.

     Puzzle platforming – This is the other big one. You are going to face many challenges throughout the PTI building that test your wits and reflexes as well as a handful of products developed by the company, but I’ll get to that in a minute. You must survive these tests to be given access to every area in the complex. Notice, I said ‘survive’ and not ‘pass with flying colors.’ And if you can rescue every last one of your fellow clones, more power to you. It’s just another facet of the many brutal deaths that await you. Just accept it: YOU. ARE GOING. TO DIE.

     Metroid-vania – Not as obvious as the other two, at least not until the second part of the game. Remember all that product testing you’ve been doing. Well, if you make it through every test thrown at you using one of these items, you eventually get to keep it. That’s right. You get to keep that item and use it outside of the testing areas which means having an easier time getting past all the hostile robots and around the PTI building. This also allows you to access new testing areas that, when completed, open up even more of the place for you to explore. Yay! Don’t be surprised if you keep getting this nagging feeling that you won’t like what you will ultimately find when everything is said and done. Maybe that’s just me though.

     Malcolm Alderman – Despite the fact you don’t see him in person all that often, he is still a significant presence during your quest. He tracks your every move from his impenetrable control room and can communicate with you via white text that can appear randomly on any given wall. And this is how he mercilessly trolls you throughout the first part of the game. The tone he takes with you shifts gradually from totally mean-spirited to trying to bargain and reason with you to honestly begging you to abandon your endeavors. Then, much later, good ol’ Malcolm tries to get you to give up again, only this time he starts talking about how an exceptional clone such as yourself will just be dissected in the end. What exactly is he getting at here? I don’t know, but something tells me that there’s more to this guy than what he’s been projecting all over the walls. I guess playing Stealth all the way through is the only way to find out for sure.

*Final Thoughts*

     When I decided to replay Stealth Inc. 2, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I thought it was just going to be a fun, mind-bending, reflex-sharpening little stealth game with a bit of metroid-vania tossed in for good measure. And that’s what I got . . . at first. Then that dreaded second part of the game kicked off when your intrepid little clone throws himself down the literal rabbit hole (okay, ventilation shaft) to escape getting ambushed by an army of freshly made clo-bots. They are you’re average clones stuffed with robot parts from what I can tell. For some reason, I find this cruel. Anyway, our boy Malcolm created these things and sent them to take you out when everything else failed to do the job. He desperately wants to stop you from completing your quest. But I’m still getting this feeling that there’s more, just beneath the surface.

     As of the writing of this review, I have yet to finish this game. I’m still kinda metroid-vania-ing my way around the facility using my brand new Adventure Light to get to areas, test chambers, and stranded clones I couldn’t reach before. I’m also struggling to find the rest of the chambers in the lower portion of the complex. I have several questions about Alderman’s motives. I want to know what it is about this clone in particular that has him freaking out like that and why such a clone would be deemed a threat to the “natural order” of things. And I’m dying to know how all of this craziness ends.

     I have no freakin’ idea. However, I can make a few guesses. I predict that everything will come to a head in a final confrontation with Alderman. I also predict that the ending you receive will depend upon how many clones you were able to save. I don’t know about the rest. #nospoilers, please.

     At any rate, I had better pick up that WiI U gamepad and move my ass if I want to find out about all that while I’m still young.

Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon

Released: (in North America) March 24th, 2013

Developer(s): Next Level Games, Nintendo Software

Publisher: Nintendo

Platform: Nintendo 3DS

Genre(s): Action, Adventure

     I’ll admit that I didn’t pay much attention to this game when it came out. All that I knew about it was that it was a sequel to Luigi’s Mansion, which was a launch title for the Gamecube that I never got around to playing. I just wasn’t interested in Dark Moon at that time and I certainly wasn’t interested in paying $40 for it either. The game would not catch my eye again until the middle of September of this year when I saw that it was on sale as one of the *Nintendo Selects . . .um . . .selections. (*Note: this is when Nintendo takes their best/highest rated games and basically cuts the price in half.) Since I was browsing around the Nintendo eshop hoping to score a decent game for a good price, I went on ahead and bought it for $20. My only hope that was this game was on that list for a good reason.

*Story*

     Dark Moon opens up with a peaceful night in Evershade Valley with Professor E. Gadd tinkering in his lab while a couple oddly colored ghosts mess about nearby. We see a crescent shaped crystal hanging in the night sky. Everything seems fine until a giant boo wearing a crown adorned with I similarly colored crystal appears and shatters it. This somehow makes the ghosts in the lab flip out and attack the professor who makes a beeline for his bunker. From here, he gets in touch with Luigi, ghost-wrangler extraordinaire, and ‘pixelates’ him to his location because his specter hunting skills were indispensable in the last installment.

     So Luigi is sent right into action. His first task is to locate the Poltergust 5000 that the professor abandoned when the ghosts attacked. I honestly don’t think the game truly begins until Luigi actually finds the glorified vacuum cleaner in the garage of the Gloomy Manor. Under the hood of a car. Still wanna know how it go there.

*Presentation*

     The Nintendo 3DS is an amazing little machine. The graphical output for this game is simply spectacular with its smooth lines and vibrant colors. From the little of it that I have seen, Dark Moon definitely looks better than the original Luigi’s Mansion. Nothing here looks blocky or pixilated.

     Sound mixing in this game is also spectacular. Every drop of rain, clap of thunder, and even the sound of treasure being sucked into the Poltergust 5000 is music to the ears. There is a main theme that plays constantly and gets several different ‘remixes’ over the course of the adventure. It’s pretty catchy and fits perfectly well with the game’s atmosphere. Even Luigi himself hums along with it if you leave him idle long enough.

     That brings me to the best part of the presentation: our green-clad hero. He often mirrors the player’s own thoughts and feelings. Facial expressions, vocalizations, body language and posture − you always know exactly what’s on Luigi’s mind.

     You see, Dark Moon was released in 2013, The Year of Luigi. And it shows. It is apparent that so much love and care went into him for this game. His personality is fully seen. You can clearly see just how brave he truly is despite being a HUGE coward (and a bit of a nervous wreck) and that he has a heart of gold. Such a charming characterization won me over rather quickly. It’s funny, but I can’t really recall a time when Mario, Nintendo’s official mascot, was given this much of a personality.

*Gameplay*

     Let me get something out of the way right off the bat: I have NO idea how Dark Moon’s gameplay stacks up against its predecessor Luigi’s Mansion. Like I’ve said before, I never got to play that game and I probably never will . . .unless the rumors floating around about the Nintendo Switch turn out to be true. Anyway, there’s no need to have played the first game to appreciate and understand how Dark Moon works. From what I can tell it’s practically the same with a few tweaks here and there. And let me get something else out of the way while I’m at it: this IS NOT a Mario game.

     There is no high-speed, high-energy platforming to be found here. Since this game emphasizes exploration, puzzle solving, and catching those pesky ghosts it is an overall slower experience. Now let’s get into the meat and potatoes of how it all works.

     This installment of Luigi’s Mansion takes place in several key locations throughout Evershade Valley, with these areas themselves being divided up into different missions. The last one is always defeating a boss and recovering a shard of the Dark Moon Crystal to unlock the next set of missions in the next area.

     Searching every nook and cranny as you travel from location to location is a wise investment of your time. Treasure is everywhere. I’m talking about gold coins, gold bricks, gems, and straight-up stacks of cash. There’s even these golden bone thingies that you can’t find until after you’ve lined your pockets a bit and discovering exactly what these bones do is a pleasant surprise. (Hint: y’all remember that ghost dog from the previous game?)

     Along with all the looting, there is the matter of busting ghosts. They come in a bunch of different colors which let you know just what subspecies of ghost you’re dealing with. I found them all to be fleshed out pretty well with their own character, behavior, tactics, defenses, and weaknesses. Despite all that, every variety of ghost is taken down in almost the exact same manner: stun ‘em then suck ‘em up with the infamous Poltergust 5000 which has to be professor E. Gadd’s most iconic invention.

     Before I talk about that though, I must briefly talk about the boos. You know, the ghosts that used to chase after you if you turned your back to them. They are all over the place in Dark Moon and even sneakier than ever. They hide themselves by making certain objects invisible and can only be revealed by shining a special light on said objects. They can be extremely difficult to find. Early on in the game I decided that I wasn’t going to beat myself up if I couldn’t find them all.

     Now back to the Poltergust 5000. I don’t really know how it functioned in the original Luigi’s Mansion but I can tell you all about its features and how it gets the job done in Dark Moon.

  • Strobe Light – Momentarily stuns ghosts. Except for those sneaky boos.
  • DarkLight A sort of black light that reveals objects that have been hidden by those dang boos.
  • Bottomless (subspace) Bag – Pretty self explanatory. Never gets full no matter how many ghosts or how much treasure it sucks up.

*Final Thoughts*

     Dark Moon is definitely one of the many gems to be found on the Nintendo 3DS. Because I missed out the Gamecube original I didn’t quite know what to expect. But, man, was I pleasantly surprised with just how good this game turned out to be. Playing through it was a generally awesome experience. The whole thing is like a love letter to Luigi fans and a proper way to celebrate The Year of Luigi. However, there were a still a couple that I found frustrating:

  1. A few of the boss fights − I got my ass handed to me a number of times.
  2. Luigi’s lack of speed and agility − I get it. He’s wearing a big, heavy vacuum cleaner on his back. Taking on those ghosts would be a lot easier if I was able to jump. Or at least move faster.
  3. Finding those sneaky boos − This is WAY harder than it needs to be. You have to find one INVISIBLE object in every last large mission area. “Nuff said!

     Dark Moon is still an amazing game from beginning to end despite my few, minor grievances. In my opinion, a proper sequel should accomplish two things. First, it should foster feelings of appreciation with or without experiencing the original and then it stir up a curiosity about what its predecessor was like. Done and done. I now sincerely regret passing up on Luigi’s Mansion during the Gamecube’s life cycle. I traded that system in years ago and that game never got a digital re-release. (Man, this system really got the shaft when it came to digital marketplaces and such.)  I can’t even emulate is as things stand now because the software is hard to run for no damn reason.

     My only hope now is the Nvidia-powered Nintendo Switch. If the rumors I’ve heard about this new system are true, then maybe all the Gamecube titles that have been sitting in digital purgatory for the past decade will get a chance to shine again. Come on, Nintendo! This is your ONE shot at blowing Sony and Microsoft out of the water for a change!

Adventures in Emulation

     Once upon a time (back in the mid-00’s), I found myself in possession of an Xbox. This wasn’t just any old Xbox though, this thing was packed to the brim with all sorts of games from several systems: NES, SNES, TurboGrafx16, etc. There were even a few Xbox games crammed into it. This was the first time I’d ever had so many games available to me at once and it. Was. Glorious! Games, especially decent ones, used to be frickin’ expensive. And there were no such things as digital download services that periodically have crazy sales and offer retro games for chump change. And I didn’t have my own computer anyway.

     I didn’t realize it then, but I had just experienced my first brush with the wondrous world of emulation. I remember being kinda sad when I had to give up that Xbox; I was gonna miss all those games. Over the next decade or so, thoughts of all those games I would never get to play again never fully left my mind. I would also think about all those games I missed out on as a kid. Then Youtube came on the scene. All I could do was watch other people play them. How I envied those Youtubers. I didn’t have heaps of cash for antique games and systems, so I just let it go . . .

     . . .until about the middle of May of this year. I had been on Steam for about four months by then and loving it. As I mentioned before, I had taken to plumbing its depths, searching for tittles released during previous generations of gaming. I’d already found pretty much all of the Sonic games, Jet Set Radio, Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath. Wish I could’ve found more though. And then it hit me: Why didn’t I just figure out how to use emulation software so I could possibly play all the stuff I wasn’t able to find. I mean, I had already grown accustomed to playing video games on my laptop.

     When it came to learning to effectively use this type of technology, the struggle was real.

  • Sorting out the functional emulators from the straight-up garbage
  • Finding functional ROMs (games)
  • Tinkering with all those damned configurations
  • Endlessly obsessing and wracking my brain over what to download next and for what system
  • The copious amounts of trail and error
  • The hours and hours I poured into the whole endeavor
  • And all the constant testing

It was enough to give me a headache.

     After all that nonsense, I can now successfully emulate the following systems: NES, SNES, Sega Genesis and Saturn, Gameboy/Color/Advance, Nintendo DS, Game Cube (sort of), and the TurboGrafx16 (aka the PC Engine/CD). I am having a kick-ass time playing all these games I’m now able to get my hands on. I’m truly enjoying taking a look at all those games I missed out growing up and the ones I played the crap out of on that special Xbox. I have even dove head-first into a bunch of obscure titles that no one talks about anymore.

     Everything is going swimmingly so far, however there have been a few . . .problem children:

  • The Nintendo Game Cube. I’ve read that the dolphin software (practically the only emulation programs for the system) is difficult to run in general. It does make me feel a bit better about my total failure to get this thing running faster than 30-ish FPS and at about 50% speed. Only two of the ROMs I’ve downloaded are decently playable with only sporadic lag.
  • The PS1 and the PS2. The stupid emulation programs I’ve been able to find for these systems will only run at about 50% speed on my laptop. I can’t figure out how to configure those many plug-in thingies to remedy this.
  • The TurboGrafx16/PC Engine. There was only one emulation program for this system on emuparadise.com. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it because it was in Japanese. But on the bright side, I was able to find another one that worked perfectly . . . for exactly five minutes. I decided to tackle this issue from a different angle: downloading an emulator the PC Engine CD instead. It was a complete success and now I can play all the TurboGrafx16 games my heart desires. Still makes me scratch my head.

     As with my delayed arrival to the Steam-y World of PC Gaming, I often wonder why I didn’t just bite the bullet and go for it sooner. Oh, well. Let the (literal) games begin! Whoo!

The Steam-y World of PC Gaming

     Hey, guess what? I’m on Steam, y’all! I officially entered the world of PC gaming back in January of this year and it has been pretty sweet. I think I’ve been having waaay too much fun, especially when there’s a sale.

     I had been flirting with the idea of joining the Steam community since late October/early November of last year. It was right around the time when the Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth DLC was released. I was honestly considering setting up and installing Steam just to play it because I knew there wouldn’t be a snowball’s chance in hell that Afterbirth would ever come to the WiiU.

     However, I wasn’t exactly on board for totally restarting my entire journey with the Binding of Isaac. I decided to see what else Steam had to offer. I was suddenly very tired of missing out on all those interesting looking games I saw my favorite Youtubers playing. It was time to put that perfectly good laptop I’d bought earlier in the year to use.

      So from the tail end of 2015 until the middle of January of this year, I made it a habit to regularly troll Steam’s massively insane library. It soon became my favorite thing to do whenever I was “talking with” a former associate of mine. (Of course I’m just gonna play with my phone while you drone on and on about nothing, you old fart!) It didn’t take me very long to decide that I definitely needed to make this wondrous thing a part of my life.

     The next thing I did was to create an account and password. (Hi there! garnet_gamer, here!) After this first step, I dragged my feet for quite a while when it came to taking the next one: installing the service so I could properly get my game on. You see, I had a few lingering concerns about playing games on a PC having been a console person my whole life. Stuff like:

  • having to learn how to use a keyboard and mouse to play a game. Virtually no experience with that.
  • whether or not PC-compatible controllers were even a thing. (That’s how clueless I was when it came to this particular topic.)
  • the whole data vs. available memory space issue.
  • the learning curve to overcome when dealing with all new software . . .and possibly hardware.
  • whether or not I’d be able to pull this off without a hitch

     At the turn of the new year, I pulled the trigger. I bought an F310 Logitec PC controller from the local Target then promptly came home to install Steam onto my laptop with that username and password I had created months prior. Then I spent a considerable amount of time mining the depths of Steam’s archives, looking for old games I hadn’t been able to play in years. Did y’all know that Jet Set Radio was on here? The original one that came out for the Sega Dreamcast? Or how about Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath? The version here has been remastered in HD. It’s probably had its difficulty bumped up a little bit because, I swear, I don’t remember this game being this frickin’ hard! My first ever download was a demo of Bastion. Damn thing was totally non-functional so I purchased the full game the very next day. (Then I went back for the other two games I mentioned.)

     I went absolutely nuts during the Lunar New Year Sale that took place during the following month. I must have spent $25 on five or six games that I installed onto a 32GB SD card I found in my room some time ago. (Seriously, where did that even come from . . . and why was it in my room to begin with?!) But the craziness didn’t end there: I went out and bought a thumb drive with 64 gigabytes of memories just so I’d have the chance to play that kick-ass reboot of the Tomb Raider series.

     Despite all the fun I’m having now, there were initially a few bugs to work out.

  1. Installing the games I purchased to my SD card and thumb drives and not the system folder that was created when I installed the main software. Ending up with a few games on your hard drive is extremely easy to do when you’re not paying attention.
  2. Getting Steam to consistently recognize all the stuff I put on those external storage devices. Getting this one right involved A LOT of trial an error. Fixing this problem involved doing something that most of us probably wouldn’t immediately think of: “reinstalling” a game to the same file location. It makes said game instantly playable . . . along with every other game in that same file.

     There is one more issue that I’m having with Steam that I have not been able to effectively resolve: actually finding the time to sit down and play the titles in my library more often. I’ve only managed to complete three of them so far. And I’ve still got about 30 more of them to get through!

 

Dust: An Elysian Tail

Released on Windows: May 24th, 2013

Platform(s): Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows, Linux, OSX, PS4, iOS

Developer: Humble Hearts

Publisher: Microsoft Studios

Genre(s): Action, RPG, Adventure, Beat-‘em-up

     Dust: An Elysian Tail is a heavily story-driven game. There are lots of likable characters due to the actual character development. That’s always a treat to see. Especially when it comes to Dust himself. He seems like a decent enough person and comes across as unselfish and a bit reserved. My only issue with him is that he wears that weird had that covers most of his face for almost the whole game.

     One of the most impressive things about Dust is his willingness to be a beacon of good, going out of his way to help every single person that he meets. It seems to come naturally to him. Even more impressive than that is the fact that Dust does all of this while having absolutely no idea who he is. Maybe the amnesia is a blessing in disguise after all.

Presentation

     Dust both looks and plays like a decent animated movie or a top-notch Saturday morning cartoon show. The animation is just so smooth and clear. And the musical scores, though not very memorable, are very fitting to the environments and events that occur throughout the story. Speaking of the environments, all of them are just so gosh darn beautiful to look at with their rich colors and ambient weather effects.

     Every single cutscene and character interaction is fully voice acted which really brings the story to life and helps the player get invested in what’s happening. Dust does have A LOT of dialogue after all. The entire cast delivers a solid performance that’ll draw you into the world Elysium. Hats off to Lucien Dodge, the actor who provided the voice for out titular character. That was some choice casting right there! Dodge’s voicework makes Dust a more sympathetic character.

Story

     This game’s story is actually a bit more complicated than you might think. Everything kicks off with some narration over two shadowy figures having some sort of duel. Then it cuts to Dust waking up in a clearing with total amnesia. The voice of the mystical Blade of Aharah begins calling to Dust, telling him of the journey ahead. Ahrah is closely followed by Fidget, a flying creature called a Nimbat and the sword’s guardian. I still can’t wrap my head around how exactly that works. Just how in the world is such a small, weak, and borderline-adorable creature supposed to protect a sword that can just fly off whenever it wants?!

     Anyway, Fidget reluctantly ‘lends’ Ahrah to Dust until he’s finished doing . . .whatever it is he’s supposed to be doing. The three make their way through the Glade to Aurora Village while fighting monsters along the way in hopes they’ll be able to find insights into Dust’s past and identity. Who is Dust anyway? And why must he be the one to wield this mystical talking blade? Well, this is where the complicated part comes into play.

     It is soon revealed that there is a violent war between the anthropomorphic animals (or warmbloods) of Elysia lead by General Gaius and the anthropomorphic lizard people called moonbloods. And the moondbloods are losing. Many of their people have been mercilessly slaughtered by the general and his armies as they now find themselves on the verge of extinction. There have been many warmblood casualties as well; any of them caught attempting to aid the other side are killed just as ruthlessly. All seems lost for the moonbloods until . . .

     Remember those two shadowy figures that were having that duel in the game’s opening? We eventually find out that they were Cassius, one of Gaius’s elite assassins, and Jin, one of the people who was trying to help the moonbloods. Jin and Cassius simultaneously kill each other and their souls combine to create a being that the moonbloods refer to as the ‘Mithrarin’ or ‘Sen-Mithrarin’, the only being capable of wielding the Blade of Ahrah and saving their dying race. Dust is this being. Doesn’t it just explain so much about his character and abilities? The only thing this doesn’t explain is what Dust will do once he is able to access both sets of memories. It’s probably not hard to guess, though.

Gameplay

     You are in for a smooth ride all the way through your adventure thanks to the tight controls. They are highly responsive. Whether you decide to use a keyboard and mouse or a USB controller, Dust and Fidget always handle beautifully. You’ll notice that this game takes inspiration from several different genres of gaming including: action, adventure, RPG, and metroidvania. There’s even a little beat-‘em-up thrown in there for good measure. Yeah. Sometimes, you won’t be able to leave an area if there are too many enemies onscreen. Now back to the big four I just mentioned.

  1. Adventure – Dust boasts several decently sized, complex areas to explore. And loot. They are filled with interesting characters, quests to go on, and secrets to discover. Also, there’s treasure everywhere for the plundering. So much treasure that I gave up trying to find it all. As much as I enjoyed the journey that is Dust’s gameplay, I eventually got to a point where I was like, “OK. I’ve found enough loot. Let’s go kick General Gaius’ ass and end this thing.”
  2. Action − Plenty of action to be had here. You’ll be battling against all sorts of creatures from beginning to end. . . plus a few boss fights. Those weren’t as difficult as I thought they were going to be. Anyway, Dust’s combat system is primarily built around stringing together as many combos as possible. The bigger the combo chain, the more bonus points are rewarded and the chain is broken whenever Dust takes damage.

              The other integral part of the combat system is a maneuver called the Dust Storm. Dust rapidly spins the Blade of Ahrah which creates a mini-vortex that can strike enemies multiple times. This ability can be combined with Fidget’s puny magic, fire and lightening projectiles to create something quite remarkable.

     Now let’s talk about the enemies themselves for a little bit. The mass majority of them are relatively easy to take down, only posing a threat when they gather in large groups. I get the impression that they’re somehow aware of this because you’ll hardly ever see a critter all by its lonesome during the entire game. Other dangers to watch out for beside sheer numbers are burning, poisoning, and silence (this one effects Fidget directly). One enemy in particular needs to be avoided as often as possible: the Necromancers, spectral beings that haunt the Sorrowing Meadows. These bastards summon wave after wave of zombies and cannot be directly attacked. Until you are fairly leveled up, run!

  1. RPG − Beneath all that actioning and adventuring, Dust is still an RPG at its core. The reasons behind the constant fighting are gaining experience points and leveling up

            make Dust stronger. You also gain experience points from turning in quests.

            Going up a level is quite the occurrence. First, Dust gets struck by a bolt of blue

            energy from the sky, then he gets a skill gem you can use to beef up his HP, attack,        defense, or Fidget’s projectiles. Level up whatever stats you like to suit your play

            style. Personally, I like to keep everything fairly balanced. One more thing: try

            not to shy away from a little (okay, a lot) of strategic grinding. It just may save

            you some trouble later on in the game.

       Dust even has a crafting system. You meet a blacksmith early on in your playthrough.

She can craft augments for your weapon, armor, and other accessories if you provide her with the right materials . . .and funds. You can get some insanely powerful equipment this way. I had A LOT of trouble with this system until about I was well into the game. The best materials are pretty rare and I never had enough money because I was always spending it on food.

  1. Metroidvania − Any game in which the player must unlock new abilities to reach

                               areas that were previously inaccessible is widely considered to be

                               a Metroidvania-type game. And I’m a sucker for those. There are

                               four such abilities within the world of Dust and they will help you

                               reach every nook and cranny of Elysium. Happy hunting.

Final Thoughts

     Overall, Dust: an Elysian Tail is a solid game. The story kept me interested and invested all the way to the end and there was a whole cast of characters I actually cared about. I think it was the combination of writing and voice-acting that did it for me. Specifically, with Dust himself. He was the kind of character you hope finds what they’ve been searching for in the end. Seriously, if someone wanted to convert this property into an animated series I’d watch the crap out of it.

     This is the sort of game that both older and younger players alike would definitely enjoy. Older players might get a kick out of the mechanics and children just may like the overall character style. It is a bit on the pricey side. So if anyone else out there wants to give it a go, I suggest waiting for a good sale.

 

 

 

 

The Lion King

Released: 1994-1995

Developer: Westwood Studios

Publisher: Virgin Interactive

Platform(s): SNES, Genesis, Amiga, PC, NES, Gameboy, GameGear, Master System

Genre(s): Platformer

     Lion  King is one of the most beloved games from my childhood. I played more times than I can even remember over the lifespan of the Sega Genesis console I had back then. It was a sad day when that little black box of a machine breathed its last. No more Lion King (or Sonic, for that matter) for me. And then I got a brand new Nintendo 64 and I moved on to more complex games with 3D graphics and more involved gameplay.

     Over the next twenty years, and several generations of consoles, my thoughts would return to all those happy days and hours I spent just playing this game and how I wasn’t ever going to get to experience that again. I was content to just hold on to the memory of what Lion King once meant to me . . .until about two months ago. That was when I at last figured out how to run emulation software.

Presentation

     Lion King is beautiful callback to the glory days of 16-bit gaming. The colors are bright and vivid and seem to almost pop off the screen. And all the animation is so smooth. I once heard that actual animators from Disney itself were responsible

And that music . . .Oh my! The Genesis-style renditions of the hit songs from the film have been beautifully reinterpreted. Even the stuff is a pleasant listen.  There were many times during my playthrough when I would catch myself humming or singing along with it. Is there anyone out there that can hear “Can’t Wait to be King” or “Hakuna Matata” without singing the words? Even after over twenty years?

     Anyway, everything looks and sounds really clean and has aged extremely well. This game would easily fit in with this modern resurgence of retro gaming and I’d happily recommend it to anyone who’s into the independently developed (or Indie) scene. Or anyone who has finally been able to figure out just how emulators work. Like me.

Gameplay

     Lion King, first and foremost, is a platform game which means there’s going to be a lot of jumping, climbing and general acrobatics. It’s a good thing that Simba is so nimble because he’s gonna need that in order to avoid all the enemies, obstacles, and bottomless pits. So you begin the game as young Simba who defeates said enemies by pouncing on them. He can also use his ability to roar (possibly lifted straight from the movie) to solve puzzles and weaken foes.

     When you first boot up the game, you’ll see your number of lives on the bottom left of the screen and two bars occupying the top left and right corners. The one on the top left is what I shall refer to as the “roar meter.” It indicates how powerfully Simba can roar at any given moment. The more filled in the bar, the more effect a roar has on nearby enemies. It refills automatically but is totally depleted when used or when Simba takes damage.

     The bar in the upper right corner of the screen is where Simba’s health is displayed. It’s just like every life bar in every video game ever. You lose a life if it gets totally depleted.

     Both bars can be replenished by collecting certain beetles scattered around the levels. There are even special beetles you can find that will permanently extend either one or the other. These beetles are exceptionally rare so you must do whatever you can to grab them if you should happen to see them. And speaking of special beetles there are other special ones that will grant you access to the 2 bonus stages this game has.

  • Bug Toss. You take control of Pumbaa while Timon runs back and forth dropping bugs that you need to catch.
  • Bug Hunt. This time, you take control of Timon and grab as many bugs as you can while avoiding all the spiders and flies. Those will cut your game short.

Collecting lots of bugs in either bonus stage will net you extra lives and continues to make your journey through the game a little more comfortable.

     Lion King has three difficulty settings you should be aware of. The first is ‘easy’ mode where you get nine lives per continue and just about every enemy goes down like a lead rake. I always play on this difficulty because #noshameinmygame. The second is the default ‘normal’ mode. You’ll have e lives per continue and the enemies all put up a reasonable fight. #Neveragain, by the way. And then there’s the ‘difficult’ mode. You only get ONE life per continue so you’re gonna need to bring you’re A+ game and the enemies might as well be invincible. Why would anyone do this to themselves?! I should mention that you will always get the same number of continues no matter what difficulty setting you choose. I guess that’s one way to somewhat keep everything on even ground.

     Now that I’ve covered both ‘presentation’ and ‘gameplay’ it’s time to tackle those 10 gorgeous levels I briefly mentioned earlier.

1. The Pridelands

A short level that serves as a sort of tutorial. This is where you’ll learn about the mechanics of Lion King as well as the tight controls and just how wonderful they feel. You will also learn how to defeat the various enemies and what all the different kinds of beetles and bugs do. Savor “The Pridelands” and its non-threatening atmosphere because things will only get harder from here . . .

2. Can’t Wait to be King

     In case anyone out there was wondering: yes, the whole song plays on loop for the entirety of this level. Anyway, this is where the real platforming challenges begin. You’ll be hopping across towers of hippos and giraffes, riding ostriches across the savannah, and getting tossed from branch to branch by some oddly helpful monkeys. Using Simba’s roar will be integral to getting through this craziness in one piece. There are these pink monkeys that change the direction they’ll throw you when you roar at them. Arrange them in such a way that one of them actually throws you all the way into the next level

3. Elephant Graveyard

     The famous villain theme song “Be Prepared” accompanies your trek through this dark and macabre place. You must maneuver and platform your way through piles and piles of elephant bones, taking down hyenas and vultures all while Uncle Scar watches in dismay. Yeah, you actually see him once you make it to the end. He still manages to look really pissed off even though he’s completely covered in shadow. Oh, and look out for those steam jets that are green for some reason. They cause the insta-death if you touch them.

4. The Stampede

     This stage is wildly different from every other stage in the game. You automatically run forward as you dodge the rocks that appear in your path and the wildebeests that come up from behind. Survive the onslaught long enough and it’s on to the next stage.

5. Simba’s Exile

     Avoid the falling rocks, giant boulder, patches of thorns and bottomless pits to escape Scar’s hyenas. If you ever come back, they’ll kill ya!

6. Hakuna Matata

     I sure hope you’ve mastered young Simba’s controls because you’re gonna need every skill you’ve hopefully been honing up to this point. There are a lot of nasty spiders and jumping frogs in the most inopportune locations and a treacherous climb up a waterfall. It all ends with a face-off against a huge, coconut-throwing gorilla. I spent FOREVER stuck on this level until I figured out that I could knock those coconuts back at him by rolling.

     The gameplay shifts quite noticeably after this level mostly because Simba goes from a cub to an adult lion that can use his claws. This introduces combat into the mix. Your main enemies for the remainder of the game are the same hyenas you’ve already been dealing with (only smaller) and these . . .um . . .cheetah-looking things.

7. Simba’s Destiny

     I suppose this is the game’s representation the scene in the film where Mufasa pops out of the clouds and tells Simba that “he must take [his] place in the Circle of Life” after following Rafiki through some dense jungle. This is where the ‘cheetah’ things make their appearance and rock-throwing monkeys are a constant nuisance.

     This level is relatively tame compared to Adult Simba’s other levels. It’s reminiscent of the first level in the game because its purpose is to acclimate you to playing as a fully grown lion with deadly claws. I remember all of this being long.

8. Be Prepared

     Lion King sure knows how to up the ante. From what I can tell, this stage is all about Simba making his way back to Pride Rock to face his uncle. But seriously, where did all this lava come from?! What, does Simba have to pass through the center of the earth to get back home?

     “Be Prepared” can really chew you up and spit you out if you don’t take your time and plan your moves accordingly. Lava is just all over the place: there is the molten lake of insta-death, lava jets, and it also drips from the ceiling for some reason. Those smaller hyenas I mentioned earlier decide to join the party and the ‘cheetahs’ make a comeback. Keep an eye out for the annoying-as-hell bats. They can knock you into places that you don’t need to be.

9. Simba’s Return

     Like the movie, the level show that Pride Rock went to hell in a hamster ball during Scar’s reign. You will have to navigate a maze-like system of caves and deal with the serious hyena infestation plaguing the Pridelands. Getting through the maze and dealing with the hyenas is already hard enough, but here’s the little detail that makes it all so much worse: you will be unable to leave a room until all vermin occupying it are defeated. Hope your combat prowess is on point.

10. Pride Rock

     This is the final level of the game. Hooray! You made it! This is the epic showdown with Scar that the previous few levels have been leading up to. “Pride Rock” is all about chasing Scar all the ay to the top with a few skirmishes along the way. All you have to do is beat up on him for a bit until he runs off. There’s some sort of lightening storm going on during the whole level, starting many fires and making your treacherous climb even more so.

     The real fight with Scar doesn’t begin until you reach the very top of Pride Rock and your goal here is to weaken him enough so that he flies farther whenever you flip his scrawny ass. Once he’s weak, simply flip him so that he sails over the side to be presumably eaten by hyenas AND burned alive (just like in the movie!) And you’re done. You have successfully completed The Lion King.

     I fully acknowledge that this game’s ending is rather underwhelming, but I honestly don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I don’t see it as a detriment to its legacy at all. The visuals, music, tight controls, and the engaging and often challenging gameplay more than make up for it. I would encourage my fellow 90’s kids who grew up with this game to show it to their children. Please, show them what gaming was like when you were young. You’ll either have a good laugh or a wonderful bonding experience. Or both. And while you’re at it, show them the movie. There’s a reason why it’s considered a classic.