A Trip Through Game Boy History in 15 Games – Metroid II

July 17, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten
Metroid II: The Return of Samus

(NA November 1991; JP January 21, 1992)

Despite Nintendo having had a mostly good track record with its Game Boy output, it still felt as if they had some weird sort of reluctance to take the console as seriously as they did the NES. Most of their releases were either quirky spin-offs or one-off titles that they seemed less confident in, and characters like Wario, who saw his birth on the console, almost felt allegorical for how the Game Boy was being treated – as this weird, goofy cousin of the NES there to scoop up money.

Gunpei Yokoi – the designer of the Game Boy, the man who once tutored Shigeru Miyamoto, and co-creator and producer of the Metroid series – saw using his console as a way to hopefully bring Metroid into being as successful as Zelda and Mario had been. Confidence in his idea brought to life one of Nintendo’s most impressive exclusives to the console, Metroid II: The Return of Samus.

One of few outlying titles in Nintendo history revealing a genuine effort on their part to take their handhelds as seriously as they did their home consoles, Metroid II was one of Nintendo’s only stabs at a direct sequel to a popular NES game on the Game Boy. Taking place shortly after the events of the first game, Metroid II saw Samus leaving the planet of the space pirates and focusing her efforts on SR388 – the mysterious homeworld of the eponymous Metroid.

Her mission? Genocide. The threat of the Metroid creature was considered so great that they were deemed a threat to all life, and the only person talented enough to handle this was none other than the baddest bounty hunter in the galaxy. Take a minute, here, to reflect on the climate of games at the time, and how they were largely considered something meant for boys and young men. Take another minute to consider that the most influential gaming company in the entire world was releasing a game where you were the lone woman capable of saving all life from a terrible threat.

It’s a little bit empowering, isn’t it? As a transgender woman under thirty who came across Metroid II at a young age, long before I was “out” and when my feelings on gender were something still maturing in my head, it’s important to mention just how much this meant. Girls could be just as cool as all my other heroes, like the blue guy from Contra or Mario on his adventures to save the princess. Seeing a woman being sold to someone my age as something other than a helpless damsel or incompetent third wheel was extremely meaningful.

The fact that Samus’ characterization was so minimal and her dialogue completely nonexistent only furthered my ability to project who I wanted to be onto her. I didn’t want to be a handsome boy hero who got all the love and accolades, I wanted to be the badass woman in a suit of armor, alone on an isolated planet and surrounded by nothing familiar. When you explore the strange alien world in the game, you are not alone with Samus, you are alone as Samus.

Metroid II often stands in stark contrast to most games available on the console, both literally and figuratively. Gone are the bright white backgrounds filled with the occasional detail, now exists only the black void of the cavernous interior of an alien world. Forgotten are the upbeat tunes of joyful adventure, instead they have been replaced with brooding, ambient sounds. Bright cartoonish enemies are nowhere to be seen, and their counterparts are frightening life indigenous to a strange and violent world.

Most Game Boy games are meant to be played in a very wide variety of conditions, but Metroid II is almost custom engineered to be that game you play past when you know you should be awake, alone and wrapped in a blanket on your bed. It was a vastly different – albeit entirely legitimate – way of tackling the Game Boy than most developers has tried.

Much like the original before it, Metroid II places its focus on atmosphere and exploration above all else. Rather than be divided into linear stages, the game is a sprawling, interconnected map. However, differing from its previous installment, your progress is gated by whether or not you’ve eliminated all Metroids within a given area, instead of if you’ve got the right power-up to get past a particular roadblock. This paces the game a bit more linearly than either its predecessor or immediate sequel, and gives the game a slightly more guided – yet still relatively open – vibe.

The sense of isolation in the game is palpable, and the atmosphere is heavy. The world around you is filled with things out to get you, and every move you make is guided by your ultimate goal of eliminating a species from existence. Pausing reminds you how many Metroids are in the area, and the counter for how many remain in total is something present every moment of play, never to leave your mind. As your mind wanders during the games many atmospherically empty corridors, it’s always brought back to your ultimate and ghastly intent.

A disappointment I have with the game is that perhaps everything is a little too violent. Very few enemies lack the capability or intent of harming you. Most enemies are placed in such a way that you could argue they’re minding their own business, but the game knows exactly what it’s doing by using them as obstacles and rewarding you with health and missile pick-ups for killing them. This makes SR388 seem almost nonsensically hostile. While this could be argued as the intent, it seems slightly more like it’s a byproduct of being a video game in a day and age where having non-hostile entities was seen as a neat aside rather than something the game could focus on in a meaningful way.

I feel as if violence certainly has its place in games, but exploring an alien world would be kind of nice if you could simply exist peacefully among its environments for a few moments, rather than struggle to survive. The joy of discovery is often hampered by the constant sense of dread and anxiety, with the oppressiveness of the environment rarely leaving time to soak it in without an entire absence of life accompanying that. The game also tries to rush you to the end on replays, having made you aware of its time counter that grades your progress with a jarringly sexist and out-of-place use of its protagonist undressing herself. How finishing a game this atmospheric with a time limit seeks to add anything to is outside of my understanding.

Beyond that, much of Metroid II’s combat is left far less to skill or cleverness and more to checks of attrition. Your missile count and health bar are usually more important to whether you’ll survive an encounter than your tenacity to persist, which I feel contradicts both the game’s atmosphere and the character of Samus. The game also decides to yank you around at a few points, taking you on long detours to kill just one or two Metroids in what feels less like of an expansion of the game’s lurid atmosphere and more like obvious padding.

All of these complaints, however, are things that become more and more apparent when looking at the game from a modern point of view, and its design was still stupendously progressive for its time. I just wish to make a point that it does bear mentioning that Metroid II’s design wasn’t perfect, and that many of its worst elements are what have been capitalized upon in modern day. Rather than immortalizing its carefully crafted atmosphere, what’s worshipped are things like that feeling you get when you pick up a new item expansion. That’s something that should have quickly been considered ancillary or irrelevant to the progress of designing a better experience.

For every step that Metroid II made forward, its legacy has been pointedly disappointing and since lost all of that steam. I still love the game, but returning to it after having played game after game that cite it as inspiration but completely fail to understand what it did right has left it with its flaws absurdly apparent and difficult to see past. I can hardly enjoy it on replays, but its not for lack of strength that it demonstrated, but rather that seeing this with a fresh pair of eyes is nearly impossible after years of point-missing knock-offs and imitations.

Let’s not forget what it did right, however, and press forward. What’s important to consider here is not that Metroid II wasn’t capitalized upon, but that it’s still there to be learned from. So, let’s knock off the remake culture and move on in the way we were meant to – taking the pieces that mattered and letting them scatter and blossom.

A Trip Through Game Boy History in 15 Games – Gradius

July 4, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten
Gradius: The Interstellar Assault

(JP August 9, 1991; NA January, 1992)

Another stellar title by Konami, Gradius: The Interstellar assault was released shortly after Cave Noire, and shared a reasonable portion of the same staff. Teams for Game Boy games were often small, and from what best I can tell, Konami seemed to have two primary ones (and perhaps a tertiary) they shuffled around a bit on Game Boy titles. Throughout the primary bulk of their titles, you’ll see shared staff split roughly between two different halves.

Staff for Game Boy games can be very small (as little as for 4-7 people with researchable credit given for a couple of these big name Konami titles), and it seems from the rarity of shared staff and their frequent lack of previous experience that turnover was common and timetables were incredibly hectic. That makes the surprising excellence of many of these titles all the more impressive, especially given how rare prior experience on the NES was among the majority of staffers.

The Gradius series is much loved among fans of old space shooters like these, and it’s not hard to find an abundance of talk over the series and its quality in many online spaces where older games are appreciated. However, handheld titles are often overlooked in favor of ‘bigger’ games, and Interstellar Assault is, with little exception, considered an amusing aside to the franchise, at best. I obviously disagree.

Admittedly, though, handhelds hardly seem like the best place for space shooters. The screens are smaller, the controls are more cramped, and the space on the screen is limited – all things that intrinsically make it more difficult to develop a game that requires such skill, reflex, and visual readability. To make matters even more complicated for The Interstellar Assault, specifically, it apparently shared no staff with any previous Gradius game.

Despite all of this, however, the team was absolutely determined to leave their mark as best they could, and I feel like it shows in every aspect the game has to offer. Both mechanically and aesthetically, this does more than simply fit into the series, it excels at it. Gradius was a series that was happy to revel in self-referential content as quickly as its immediate sequel, and Interstellar Assault is an oft-forgotten title that attempted to break free of just endlessly repeating Moai heads and stationary final bosses.

From the moment you start the game and have control over your ship, Interstellar Assault is already showing progressive design by emphasizing the game’s presentation. Starting with a high speed chase from an enormous enemy ship amidst your allies being devastated from an attack, you’re immediately caught with tense music and high stakes. Flying through an asteroid belt and then taking refuge in a massive, cavernous asteroid just small enough to deny the enemy entrance, the game has already left players with a tremendous impact in its ability to visually tell a story before you’re even able to shoot something.

Just the first level of the game goes from that chase to an ancient civilization’s ruins, then through an organic mess of alien life ending with a battle against a terrifying, enormous monster. This titillates the player’s mind with thoughts of what in the world happened on this asteroid without ever really answering anything. It’s this kind of thought-provoking content that you see in the best of science fiction, and it’s cleverly relayed to the player without word.

From there, the story continues to unfold in ways that rarely take control away from the player for more than a few seconds, and only to visually relay to the player the transition between stages. Starting with the beginning of stage 3 and to the very end of the game, the player only loses control of their ship when the ending sequence plays and credits begin to roll.

There’s not even a moment’s pause between levels to nonsensically transport you to the next area. Each time you go somewhere from there on out, you remain in control of the ship as you watch it happen. Atmospheric re-entry immediately after a boss fight, descent into the core of a hostile alien planet – all detailed with no imagination required on how you came from one place to the next, and all with player control over the ship still enabled.

This sense of continuity is something very rarely seen in a video game of this nature, and titles that bother to explain how you got from here to there usually do so through exposition, lengthy transitions, or tedious exploration over vacant environments. Interstellar Assault defies that and does so in a clever, concise, and subtle way that does not disrupt the flow of play or beat the player’s attention span to death. It realizes that storytelling matters, and its efforts to push forward the creativity of a space shooter’s narrative is mostly unique and incredibly progressive for its time.

Beyond that, environments are rendered with lavish attention to detail and the mechanical design is rock solid. Rather than try to perfectly emulate the visuals of the previous Gradius games, Interstellar Assault took an approach similar to Super Mario Land and decreased the size of your player avatar and the enemies it did battle with. Although mostly unremarkable, perhaps we have Nemesis (the first Gradius game for the Game Boy) to thank for setting down this template. The music is also very aptly done and bears much similarity to the best Gradius games, using similar sounding instruments and queues as to give it that distinct sound the series is so well loved for.

Although you’re limited two using only two of the series’ famous ‘option’ power-up, few other concessions are made, and this title suffers very little for the limitations of its hardware. Interstellar Assault understood, as all the best Game Boy games in landmark series did, that trying to be just like the originals was a fool’s errand. It’s disappointing to consider that R-Type, a series I’m more fond of than Gradius, featured no unique entry on the Game Boy, but rather ports of its first two arcade games.

While it’s “nice” to have R-Type on the Game Boy and see what they could do with it, it’s far nicer to have The Interstellar Assault than it would have been to see a port of an existing Gradius game. This sentimentally is shared widely across Game Boy titles, with even those stuck in existing series commonly doing something creative or different to try and stake their own claim. It reveals an environment radically different than what we see today, and I refuse to let the passions that were stoked here be forgotten.

A Trip Through Game Boy History in 15 Games – Rubble Saver

June 19, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten
Rubble Saver/The Adventures of Star Saver

(JP May 17, 1991; NA March 1992)

Perhaps the most unlikely choice for this list, Rubble Saver (or as it was known over here, The Adventures of Star Saver) is a game close to my heart for its incredibly bizarre visuals and mechanics creating an almost surreal, dreamlike game. The history of this game is somewhat obscure to me, but it’s a remake of sorts of an early (1987) Famicom game titled Miracle Ropitt: 2100-Nen no Daibōken (or “Miracle Ropitt’s Adventure in 2100”).

Miracle Ropitt was an attempt by King Records (one of Japan’s largest, indepedantly owned record companies) to kind of cash in on the sudden and immense popularity of video games in Japan. According to a good friend of mine who originally recommended me this game, this wasn’t an entirely uncommon activity – book publishers and other unlikely groups also got in on the trend, willing to throw money at what they thought would be an easy return on their investment.

Continuing on about Miracle Ropitt, because it’s quite important to Rubble Saver’s history, it is very genuinely one of the most awful platformers I have ever played in my entire life, and I’m by no means exaggerating. It was developed by the infamous Micronics, who are probably best known for their incredibly bad ports of popular Capcom arcade games to the Famicom/NES before Capcom, themselves, took over. And, well, despite their diversely miserable portfolio, it might honestly be the very worst game they ever put out.

Starring a semi-cute little robot thing and the girl who pilots it, Miracle Ropitt has very little to be positively said about it. It has some of the worst controls in a side scrolling game I’ve ever experienced, incredibly obtuse mechanics like jumping a specific number of times on completely unmarked blocks to lower a platform, and some very disjointed level geography and nonsensical enemies.

Why King Records decided to bring back Miracle Ropit is more or less beyond me. The prices for the game I see on Japanese auction sites are always very low (i.e. 100-500 yen with free shipping), but the volume is generally surprisingly low, as well. This gives me little clue as to whether it’s selling at those low prices more because of its horrible quality or because it’s very common, so I can’t really comment on whether it was a big enough success to deserve its remake.

What I personally like to imagine is that there was someone at King Records who really just believed in their weird little idea for a game where a girl pilots a roughly girl-sized robot, and wanted somebody other than Micronics to have a go at it. Unlike Miracle Ropitt, Rubble Saver was released over here with the new title “The Adventures of Star Saver” and a slightly more exciting box art.

The story for Rubble Saver is the same as that of Miracle Ropitt – A girl is separated from her brother by malicious aliens attempting to abduct them, and she must rescue him using a convenient robot that she can pilot. In the North American localization, however, the boy is the player character and is now described as an adult police officer, and the girl is a younger sister who is helplessly kidnapped. Let’s all take a moment to be very disappointed in the US publisher, Taito, and in ourselves as a culture that they felt that’s how they needed to market it, over here.

The sheer amount of stuff that Rubble Saver tries to adapt from Miracle Ropitt is curiously large in quantity. Most of the game’s levels are imitated in some way or another, many enemies and their strange 3-way-splitting behaviors return, and that weird “jump repeatedly on a block to activate something” mechanic even finds its way back into the game, although they now have the courtesy to mark the spots by blinking them rapidly.

Despite so many things returning, however, the game itself manages to defy the intense lack of care initially put into these ideas. Rather than use Micronics a second time, King Records contracted another small developer, A-Wave, to handle the project along with the help of the uncredited shadow developer, Dual/KLON (who, like the better known and more successful TOSE, often helped on game projects without credit).

What makes Rubble Saver so remarkable to me is the game’s bizarre sense of visual and mechanical logic ultimately crafting a game that feels like something you made up and played during a fever dream. The sprite art in this game ranges from almost entirely unreadable, jumbled looking tiles that make you wonder if the game even loaded properly to almost surprisingly impressive renderings of diverse environments, sometimes within mere seconds of game time.

Playing it, you embark on a journey through a variety of strange and sometimes uncomfortable places, ranging from a desolate desert wasteland suggesting a once inhabitated and thriving world not unlike Earth’s, to mechanical jungles full of strange devices and complex geometry that make little to no sense. It’s difficult to say whether the sheer range of what is displayed visually is entirely deliberate or not, especially considering that almost all of it is based on what was crudely displayed in Miracle Ropitt before it, but with an artistry that certainly hadn’t been present, then.

The player’s relative size to the enemies and worlds presented to them often seems abstract, with things either appearing larger than they should be (i.e. the Mettaton-from-Undertale looking TV you fit into at the end of a stage) or more commonly much smaller (i.e. the abandoned, rusted cruise liner or the castle). Again, whether or not this is deliberate elicits question – was this meant to be as abstract as it is, or was the artist merely struggling to render these concepts in a way that didn’t result in environments that were too large or objects too small to make out? If the artist can render some things so well, why is it that there are other parts where I cannot even tell what I’m looking at?

I can’t answer with certainty whether or not the game’s wavering amount of lucidity was intended, or if it was simply a byproduct of trying to remake a game as bad as Miracle Ropitt on the Game Boy. The controls to the game are now much more cohesive, but you’re still met with much of the original’s obtuse nonsense. Only now, it’s arranged in such a way that the player can reasonably get through it and gawk at the absurdity without feeling constantly frustrated by the slipshod programming.

A-Wave’s track record is nothing impressive (neither is Dual’s), and this could arguably be considered the finest title they worked on. There’s a lot of evidence to this game’s beauty being largely accidental, but I can’t accept it as merely that and am honestly in love with its weirdness, either way. While Rubble Saver is certainly hard to recommend to other people or speak highly of its quality in a way I think others will really relate to, I can’t help but feel compelled to talk about it with the hope my appreciation will spread.

It’s not one of the best playing Game Boy games, but it’s something unique beyond its often middling play quality. Rubble Saver did receive a sequel which captures almost none of what made the original so charming, and that kind of helps endear it as this one-off, quaint little adventure. I doubt I’ll ever find out about the intent of those that worked on it and what they thought of it, but perhaps that’s the enduring part of why I can’t get out of my head.

– + – Thanks to my friend sharc for being the one to initially recommend this game to me some time ago, as well as for gathering most of the information about the game’s history. P.S. I still have no idea what a “Rubble Saver” is. – + –

A Trip Through Game Boy History in 15 Games – Cave Noire

June 2, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten

(JP April 19, 1991)

Released only in Japan, Cave Noire is a somewhat obscure title both in terms of the relative exposure it receives overseas and in the type of game it is. Mixing elements from both roguelikes and puzzle games in a delightfully bizarre combination of genres, it’s a game meant to be enjoyed in multiple, shorter bursts over a long period of time.

The game features four different varieties of procedurally generated dungeons, each of them with a unique tileset and objective that you’re meant to accomplish. While in most roguelikes, the objective is to go as deep as possible and eventually survive to a far-off end point after many attempts, Cave Noire’s focus is more on completing the objective with as little loss as possible and then finding the generated exit. Its pacing is adjusted perfectly with the portability of the game in mind, making it easy for it to be played during a break or on the go.

Story is largely minimal and unimportant to the overall game. The real narrative told is – as with any good roguelike – through your close encounters, narrow victories and crushing defeats. As such, your identity is largely whatever you decide to project onto your player character. A rarity amongst most Game Boy games, you’re able to choose from either a girl or a boy to play as, which adds some much needed personality.

Games where you’re actually able to play as a woman are unfortunately quite rare all throughout gaming history when measured relatively to those that have you play as a boy, and the Game Boy sadly ends up being no real exception to this trend. Being a woman that has a burning passion for classic game design, these scarce titles where I can more easily project my identity on the character are something I try to never underappreciate.

Mechanically speaking, the way that Cave Noire operates features a very important key difference from the average roguelike. Like most, it is grid-based and operates on a turn system, but where it differs is how the phases in each turn operate. After the player’s actions are sorted out in the first phase (you can wait, move, move and attack, or use an item), the enemy’s phase begins. Rather than moving and then performing a check to see if it can attack you as with most roguelikes, the enemy’s phase works in reverse – it performs a check to see if it can attack, then it chooses to move.

What this does is allow the player to be in situations where so long as they’re continuously moving away from an enemy, it won’t be able to attack them. Further capitalizing on the cleverness of this design, every enemy type has a specific behavior that will always be the same regardless of when it appears. In a typical roguelike, enemies will endlessly hound you once they become aware of you. In Cave Noire, on the other hand, very few enemies behave that way and most are content to stay adhered to their set path.

This makes it so that nearly every room has a way to be fully explored without ever bothering its enemies, and in rooms that don’t, you’re asked to dig into your limited inventory to cleverly use an item you’ve gotten to try and mitigate that. It’s extremely rare that you’re required to use brute force, and in only one game type is combat ever the objective. On top of that, the game has no experience points or anything of that like, meaning it’s not only possible to avoid combat most of the time, it’s recommended.

These elements make the game play almost like a puzzle game, and ask you to come up with clever solutions rather than simply brute force your way through situations and hope enough things go in your favor that you can beat the bar of progression required to finish. It’s gratifying to come up with solutions on the go, and even though you’ll often see rooms and enemy placements repeat themselves to a certain extent, no two playthroughs of any of the four dungeons will have any realistic likelihood of being entirely the same.

Rather limited inventory space prevents you from hoarding items and further encourages you to be resolute in your decision-making. To help with this, few items have complicated uses, and it becomes easy to quickly identify what an item will do simply by its icon. This allows a player willing to spend a few minutes experimenting to excel at the game with zero understanding of how to read Japanese.

Almost needless to say at this point, the game is very accessible and easy for anyone to pick up. While Cave Noire can be described as a “challenging, Japanese puzzle-roguelike” fairly accurately, along with that descriptor come almost none of the imagined pains of sussing out a complex system to master what is there. You simply need to be willing to grasp some simple mechanics and jump in.

And that’s really the beauty of this game – a glance may make it sound or seem like an incredibly complex piece of work only suited to hardcore import enthusiasts, but the reality is that it’s a game made for children to play at school and adults to play on a subway ride home. One of the many benefits of Game Boy’s key elements of design is that its games are almost always focused on the simple and appealing draw of being able to pick up and play a satisfying amount anywhere, at any time, for anyone.