A Trip Through Game Boy History in 15 Games – Mega Man V

October 18, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten
Mega Man V

(JP July 22, 1994; US September 10th, 1994)

Known as “Rockman World 5” in Japan (a much less confusing name when keeping up with the absurd, sprawling continuity of the property), Mega Man V is the fifth “Mega Man” game available for the Game Boy. Released in the middle of 1994 and during a growing apathy among players for newer handheld games, it didn’t fare as well as its previous installments and acted much like a swan song for both the developer and quality action games for the console, in general.

As with Bionic Commando, the development of this game having been handed over to Minakuchi Engineering is relatively poorly known. The existence of the company is something that only recently came to an even remotely popular light with the release of the Rockman Complete Works book. In it, Keiji Inafune, the man often credited (very undeservingly, but that’s another subject) as the biggest force behind Mega Man, acknowledged that the games were outsourced and that the outsourcers often understood the series better than Capcom did.

Their first time handling Mega Man was with with the first Game Boy entry, Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge (Rockman World), and despite some rough edges, they showed an excellent grasp of the design basics of the series. Perhaps wanting to catch the handheld entries up with the NES/Famicom ones, Capcom also contracted a second company to work on the sequel and managed to release it within just a few months of the first. The second company’s work was of a notably poorer quality than Minakuchi Engineering, however, and Mega Man II has since been seen as a black mark on the Game Boy entries. Justifiably upset with the incredibly mediocre work done for the sequel, Inafune pushed for Minakuchi Engineering to be the handlers of all subsequent Mega Man titles on the Game Boy.

With a demonstrably growing grasp of where to improve themselves, their four attempts at the series ranged from good to truly excellent and hit their pinnacle of quality with Mega Man V. Each previous handheld Mega Man game had borrowed heavily from the NES games and were a mixture of new and old assets arranged in entirely new ways, but this time around, all content was original and designed specifically to make this the best one yet. Inafune even pitched in original character designs for the game, and we saw the introduction of the feline counterpart to Rush, Tango the cat.

Although it featured an almost identical format to the last two games, with two sets of 4 stages to be completed followed by an especially difficult final stage, we saw a departure from the usual “Robot Master” bosses and instead saw the introduction of the Star Droids, a group of robots hailing from beyond Earth and intent on the singular purpose of destroying all inferior life. Based on each of the 9 planets within our solar system (okay, well, 8 planets and Pluto), the Star Droids took the aesthetic of the game in a direction that had previously been relatively unexplored.

If you’re unfamiliar, the usual Mega Man game features 8 separate Robot Masters, all with their theme prominently and plainly featured in their name. For example, a robot master named Skull Man featured a level predictably full of bones and skeletal enemies. Another named Clown Man has a level much like a circus with upbeat music and silly enemies. This theming is a tremendous part of why Mega Man has been so enduring within the minds of its players, because the variety allows for a lot of distinct and memorable content.

In universe, most Robot Masters were created with a practical, peaceful purpose in mind and then altered slightly to be repurposed for fighting. The hulking Guts Man from the first game was meant to be a humble construction robot, for example. However, the evil Dr. Wily betrayed the good Dr. Light and repurposed these robots for world domination. Rock, the robot that Dr. Light created to act as his son, then volunteers to be modified into a fighting robot to help preserve peace among man and robot-kind, thus giving birth to Mega Man (Rock Man). These themes were very kid-friendly and echoed things that the creators had loved growing up, most prominently Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom).

Certain fans of the series had been loudly asking for the eponymous hero of the series to “grow up” and become more serious, however (a popular demand of games in the early 90’s), and the Star Droids were, in a way, a response to that. Featuring slightly more aggressive designs than your typical Mega Man fare and with their leader, Sunstar, being considered a doomsday weapon, their intent of genocide of the human race rather than just world domination set Mega Man V’s tone a slight bit darker than the series had dared to tread up to this point (but still much lighter than Mega Man X, released about half a year prior, had begun to take it).

This shift in tone brought a slightly greater uniformity to the otherwise more flexible theming present in previous Mega Man games, and each level was now working within more of a warlike aesthetic. For example, the Star Droid Neptune is loosely modeled after the Roman god of the same name, and his level has an understandably aquatic theme to it. However, it all takes place on an enormous battleship amidst the sea, with you beginning to raid it from the deck before entering. Most levels push the common themes to the side a little bit and focus more on the unified Star Droid aesthetic.

While I’d normally argue something like this might be a tad unappealing and now lament the encroaching “edginess” of games around this time period, Mega Man had so many chances to previously explore goofier themes that this acts as a breath of fresh air and helps make the game considerably unique amongst its peers. Musical compositions for the game are also completely original, catchy tunes, rather than ones borrowed from NES/Famicom series – which is what the previous Game Boy games did – and not a single basic enemy design repeats itself from a previous game. There are some returning bosses, but they act as a warm tribute to the previous Game Boy games and their inclusion is used as a knowing send-off to the series.

The visual design present in Mega Man V is the best the series has seen on a handheld and some of the best that anything with Mega Man attached to the title ever reached. It features an absolutely excellent grasp of how to use contrast to bring out the most detail in both the characters and the environments. Levels are also bursting with highly detailed pixel art and multiple animated tiles, making them feel both extraordinarily engaging and alive. Backgrounds are slightly timid with mostly using only two of the available four shades at a time, but still feature both high detail and and extremely competent looking art.

Many other titles around the same time period would use only two shades for the background and then also use that as an excuse to keep them utterly vacant, but Mega Man V managed to create a striking foreground and background balance with them. It makes the cartoony-looking character and enemy sprites really pop out, and they absolutely deserve to be showcased with how distinctive and animated they tend to be. One of Mega Man’s high points as a series on the NES/Famicom has always been incredible visual readability with no prominent artistic sacrifice, and the Minakuchi Engineering Game Boy titles manage to carry those ethics over with flying colors.

The design trajectory for their earlier Mega Man games had them feature a much more stop-and-go pacing to better acclimate Mega Man-styled play to a smaller resolution screen. As the entries went along, they got better at making that play more consistently smooth and getting the absolute most out of the tiny little screen. Needless to say at this point, Mega Man V managed to hit the very peak of that design and features the smoothest and most enjoyable pacing out of their four titles. It’s essentially action-platforming on a handheld at among the best it’s ever gotten, and this title requires the least adjustment for a fan of the NES/Famicom games to do to get used to it.

Levels copiously feature new and creative platforming gimmicks or old ones arranged in more meaningful ways, and enemy design and placement are also at all-time highs. While the game does feature currency dropped from enemies, something I feel to typically be a big warning sign for an action title, there’s enough of it meaningfully placed in slightly hard to get to areas of the game for it to be enjoyable to pick up, and the items available at the shop are largely unnecessary or very slight passive performance boosts. While the game is definitely balanced around attempting a one credit or no death clear without needing to use the shops, you can always buy the familiar crutch in the form of e-tanks from there to cheese your way through every encounter if it’s really giving you that much trouble.

Mega Man’s charge shot has been changed to a detaching and returning arm to make players put a little more thought into mindlessly charging constantly, which is something the series really needed. The limited range and return time makes it a slight bit riskier to use, but more rewarding to execute properly. An item from the shop can be purchased to make it able to grab distant items, too, and getting it early allows you to grab items that would otherwise require tricky platforming or specific Star Droid powers to obtain. This kind of clever usage is something I heartily appreciate, because it never makes anything from the shop purely necessary for anything – just something neat that advanced players will be able to take advantage of.

Boss design is also what is quite possibly my favorite in all of Mega Man. Despite working within such jarring screen limitations, they manage to have some of the most engaging and creative boss fights the series has ever seen, and the game ends on what I consider to be the best final boss fight in any Mega Man game, to date. Bosses are all extremely flexible in that they’re balanced around being able to be fought with just your primary weapon, so it never feels like you need to grab their weakness before you get a fair crack at them. While easier than some of the previous games and leaving me a little dryer than I’d like in my thirst for a challenge, I can’t help but very strongly admire the creativity and presentation put on display here. To spoil one of my favorite innovations, one of Mars’ attacks is an undodgeable salvo of fire. The only way to avoid damage is to fight him on his own terms by rapid-firing back at him, deleting his projectiles one-by-one and getting a few hits in on him, too. This all happens very quickly and naturally in terms of how the fight flows, but adds greatly to both his thematic presentation as a representation of the god of war, and mechanically in terms of making a well-paced and interesting fight.

All-in-all, Mega Man V is one of the finest games to grace the series both despite and because of its arduous technical limitations. It looks, sounds, and plays up-to-par or better than the best of them, and it’s probably the most accessible game out of the handheld bunch for someone new to the series to just pick up and get into. The production values and design quality put into it stand in disappointingly stark contrast to how successful it seems to have been, however, and it acts as a somewhat of an unsung magnum opus to all 8-bit Mega Man design.

The later entries in the series being unable to outsell the earlier ones despite their overwhelmingly more obvious quality seems mostly due to the fact that interest in handheld gaming was beginning to decline at this time, and that once people had one or two handheld Mega Man games, they had enough. Handheld gaming was considered more of a novelty, and being able to say you had “[popular entry],” but on your Game Boy seemed to be what a lot of people wanted more than quality, original games.

Rather than focus on the somewhat depressing cynicism that arises from being forced to view a favorite game of yours in that particular light, I try to focus on the positive, though. Despite however people looked at it at the time and despite the developers most likely knowing full well they were seen as disposable help creating yet another novelty game, they tried their hearts out and created something truly remarkable. Though unsung and largely unrewarded, they worked ardently to create something for people to love and enjoy, and I have truly loved and enjoyed it. Why not join in celebration of these works and try the game out, yourself?

A Trip Through Game Boy History in 15 Games – Batman The Animated Series

October 2, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten
Batman: The Animated Series

(NA November, 1993; JP December, 1993)

As I’ve already discussed to some extent, the curse of the Game Boy was to slowly be flooded with unending amounts of poorly made, licensed games. Why bother to design these games well when it’s not the quality of your product that’s making it sell, but rather the name? This cynicism ruled the design ethics of this time period, and one need look no further than another Batman game on the Game Boy, Batman Forever, to see how hatefully awful these games could be and still get away with making significant profit.

Developed by Konami long before their decline and while they were still champions of classic game design, Batman: The Animated Series was released roughly one year into the beloved cartoon’s much extolled run, and was the only game to be made for it prior to its title changing to The New Batman & Robin Adventures. The development team shared a good portion of staff from Cave Noire and Gradius: The Interstellar Assault before it, and if that wasn’t indication enough, this title rose far above the standard set by other licensed games – enough so that I would genuinely consider it the team’s magnum opus.

To see a well-made licensed title in this era (or perhaps any era) was rare, and this tends to have an obvious effect on the discussion and appreciation surrounding them. The standards by which we tend to judge their quality are lowered to the bar set by other licensed titles, and our love of the brand becomes priority above all else. I could sit here and tell you why I believe this is the finest game to bear the “Batman” title, but what would this mean to you – or anyone – when put on the same plane as the other excellent titles on this list?

The fact of the matter, here, is that I chose to talk about Batman: TAS not because it is “a good Batman game,” but because it is one of the most shining examples of excellence available for the Game Boy, relevance to a cartoon that I do admittedly love be damned. It features what I consider to be the most consistently gorgeous visual quality of any game on the console, as well incredibly moody, atmospheric music and some really underappreciated, nuanced mechanics. This isn’t to say that the game’s quality is not partially owed to its property, however, but unlike a typical licensed game, it builds on the player’s relationship with it rather than depending on it like a crutch.

Set early on in the series, Batman: TAS tries to wedge itself somewhere within the story of the cartoon by ambiguously placing its events shortly after some key characters are introduced, but before any of their character arcs move too wildly into a certain direction. The team’s love of the source material feels almost palpable right down to the game’s structuring, which begins with an imitation of the cartoon’s opening sequence and continues with referring to its first level as “Episode 1: The Joke’s on You.”

This structuring tries to imitate the cartoon’s format as faithfully as it can, and it lends itself surprisingly well to being a video game. Levels begin with a brief bit of storytelling using detailed portraits of the characters and bits of dialogue to help establish the tone, and then flow with typically little interruption in a linear structure before reaching boss fights that either conclude the level or move it into its second segment (structured roughly identically to the first). Every boss used is a popular villian from the cartoon, and their personalities are wonderfully captured via the portraits, in-game sprites, and themed levels.

Where Batman: TAS shines brightest is in its absolutely superb visual work. Limited to only 4 shades, mastering the visual capability of the Game Boy is locked within requiring a deep understanding of how to manipulate contrast. Most games – even many of the best looking – resort to taking easy routes that avoid using particular shades in recurring instances. Certain shades will almost never be used in the background, and background art, in general, is often left deliberately scarce as to maintain visual readability for the player.

Compare my screenshots for this to literally any other game on the list, and observe how incredibly masterful the game is in using each of the 4 shades all over every individual screen of the game. It puts other games to near embarrassment, and makes their backgrounds seem boring or incredibly vacant. Visual detail, here, is what I would consider to be genuinely unsurpassed on the console. The cartoon was well known for its dark and brooding visuals, and this is a perfect translation of that to the Game Boy’s visual language.

Levels are large and well-illustrated, and the brilliant use of contrast is fascinatingly used to really dig into illustrating the perpetual night that the game takes place in. The frosted window panes in Mr. Freeze’s level, for example, stare out into an eery pitch black. The Gotham City skyline stands imposingly in the distance as you traverse the harbor, lightning occasionally striking to briefly light up the moody, night sky. The cavernous sewers leading up to the Joker’s hideout are lit by the occasional fluorescent light piercing the otherwise total darkness.

You will frequently be introduced to complex background art in levels and then immediately see the same elements repeatedly, but now shaded much differently. This helps in maintaining the ability to read what is going on without sacrificing any attention to detail, and also makes it so that even the briefest areas feel distinct thanks to the attempts at imitating lighting. The foreground will also commonly contain portions that Batman travels behind (i.e. fences, gates), which help to thematically illustrate Batman’s stealthy nature to the player, and to show off the capability of the designers.

Animated elements are frequently introduced into the environmental art, as well. Shortly after meeting Catwoman, you’re indulged with light snowfall amidst a flowing fountain and christmas trees blinking their festive lights. Moments like these are abundant within the game, and several lack enemies to further seek to emphasize the heavy aesthetic. Nothing is spared when it comes to the level design, and detail is crammed into every little corner. Water flows, candles flicker, stray cats patrol abandoned houses, warning lights flash, et cetera. Please keep in mind when looking at screenshots that due to all the many complexities that go into the design of these environments, it’s hard to grasp how alive they become without actually traversing them, yourself.

Character sprites are also incredibly detailed given their small size, and the artist shows a commanding understanding of how to use as little as possible to say as much as possible. Boss villains are particularly well animated, with much attention going into their design. The Joker, for example, characteristically shrugs his shoulders and will often disappear behind a revolving door before you can strike him. Given enough space between the two of you, he’ll even point and laugh, with an illustrated “HA! HA! HA!” appearing above his head. These animations ooze character and help to display a surprisingly intimate understanding and appreciation of the source material.

In terms of play, Batman: TAS is something that’s very easy to quickly and dismissively judge as an unfairly difficult game, especially when considering how few licensed games deserve a better look than a cursory glance. Batman’s punch is short ranged, his health allows him to make few mistakes, enemies are dangerous and bosses are much more potently so, and you’re only given three lives before your progress is put to a permanent end and you’re asked to restart the entire game.

While this may seem like cruel and spiteful padding to keep you from reaching the end of the game too quickly, the truth of the matter is that the design is actually incredibly careful and deliberate. This is perhaps best shown through the game’s enemy design and placement, which goes above and beyond what you might have been expecting. Each enemy type in the game is given a unique behavior, and understanding how these work (and how to place yourself in the environment) is key to working your way through to victory.

The Joker’s goons, for example, act like you might expect them to – like buffoons. They mindlessly patrol back and forth, stopping to attack you with their fists if you’re in their way. By observing their route, easy to get the drop on them and avoid harm. The Scarecrow’s goons are a bit smarter, however. They patrol as the Joker’s do, but will now turn to attack with their pistols if they detect you close enough behind them. Their patrol routes also end with panicked turning, showing their fear and thematically tying them to their boss. Each stage has different goons with different behaviors, and the game reveals itself to be about very much about calculated learning to overcome its strict requirements for beating it.

Play the game like you would another action-platformer, and you’re almost certainly damning yourself to never enjoying the experience. Because of enemy’s strict patterns, verticality proves to be Batman’s biggest advantage, and your grappling hook and wall jump frequently become key to victory. Enemies can’t attack what they can’t see, and operating above or below their field of view or while they’re turned allows you to consistently get the drop on them. Bosses also work on fixed patterns, but are much more dangerous and consistently aware of Batman’s position. With every encounter, mindlessly rushing headfirst into things and expecting to come out on top just because of honed reflexes is going to rush you to the game over screen.

The game requires patience and then quick, flawless execution – as you would hopefully come to expect from a game where you play as Batman. In almost all interations of the classic hero, his key element of dispatching villains is stealth followed by very deliberate action, and despite being a modest Game Boy game, Batman: TAS captures that incredibly well. I would even go as far to argue that it understands the character significantly better than modern games, where your control over what Batman is doing is far more automated and focused on constantly gratifying the player with overt power fantasy.

The music, much like the game’s mechanics and visuals, is heavily focused on atmosphere. Each track (barring the incredibly well covered opening and ending themes, which are direct imitations) is heavily inspired by the themes in the cartoon, and borrow from Shirley Walker’s incredible style to help further establish the game as an aesthetic powerhouse. Rather than focus on a more classic, video gamey sound, Batman: TAS’s music is much more moody, ambient, and paced-out. It’s nothing you’ll particularly want to listen to outside of the game, but it serves its purpose of drawing you into the world as well as it possibly could.

The game is thoughtfully paced to accomodate for pure mechanical, visual, and auditory engrossment. Thematically, the strength present in the game’s design can’t be beaten. Catwoman’s stage features not a single enemy and is possibly my favorite of the lot in showing this, as it plays out like a game of cat and mouse, with her toying with you and gauging your ability up until you engage with her in a deadly encounter. Bells are placed on the walls that jingle as you walk past them, acting as further aesthetic decadence there only to deepen the game’s atmosphere and illustrate how she’s staying one step ahead of you.

Batman: The Animated Series is one of the starkest examples of a hidden gem in plain sight. It stands out as an obvious title in the library because of its license, yet talk about it is rare beyond the evaluation that it either does or doesn’t do the brand justice. It deserves much more than simply being relegated to that, however, as its craft is far beyond that of its peers. Whether or not you like the Batman cartoon certainly helps to strengthen one’s appreciation, but it is far from required – this game can be experienced well on its own, and its excellence is truly something beyond what could have possibly been expected.

A Trip Through Game Boy History in 15 Games – Chikyu Kaiho Gun ZAS

September 19, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten
Chikyu Kaiho Gun ZAS

(JP December 18, 1992)

Obscure outside of the realm of serious collectors, ZAS is what is quite possibly the most technically impressive game in the entire Game Boy library… Which is doubly impressive when you bother to consider that it was the first and last game the team working on it would ever put out for the console. Produced by a relatively little known company by the name of T&E Soft, it hit shelves not long after Trip World and unfortunately didn’t happen to fare any better.

By the time that late 92 had swung around, output for Nintendo’s famous device was already slowly declining in quality, and publishers had begun to fall back on easy solutions to bring in bigger profits. Quality entries like this were disappearing, and they were being replaced by floods of incredibly lazy and/or incomplete games, many of which were produced under a well-known license to ensure sales. Though the Game Boy would go without a successor until late 1998, the vast majority of its good games were released in 93 or prior, with only a couple of great titles in 94 and very few outliers beyond that.

Although it’s fairly widely considered that we began to see people grow out of perceiving games as nothing more than a sheer novelty at this time, this mostly applied to home console games. As I mentioned much earlier, people frequently saw the Game Boy largely as an opportunity to play versions of games they already loved on a device they could take anywhere. That, or they had no resources to evaluate the quality of new games and drifted to other familiarities, like games based on cartoons or movies that they or their children were fond of. T&E Soft had no foothold to really advertise their game, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, few people bought it.

The depressing reality of ZAS being relegated to much the same fate as Trip World is hard to bear, especially being a fan of the space shooter genre that it belongs to and as someone who so loves the hardware it was released on. What makes it impressive is a number of things I’ll be going over, but what it does best, above all of its many interesting facets, is that it controls and plays incredibly well in motion.

A relatively little-known fact is that the Game Boy, as a piece of hardware, was actually more powerful than the NES. Although we saw many late-life NES games do what the Game Boy never could, this was because additional hardware was added to the cartridges to make them more capable (companies like Konami and Sunsoft even had proprietary chips that could add extra sound channels). Though you couldn’t enhance a Game Boy game in the same capacity due to the restrictive size of the carts, you could get more out of a game without needing a fancy chip to do so.

ZAS was one of very few games to actually show what Game Boy hardware was capable of, and it did so with incredible finesse. Capable of rendering an absolutely remarkable number of enemies and projectiles on the screen at once, it was genuinely a sight to behold, and it managed to do this with only the occasional bout of slowing down. It plays remarkably smoothly for a Game Boy game that happens to have so much going on, and that’s intensely valuable to its mechanical design on a fundamental level.

The quality of its visuals are in some ways entirely unsurpassed by its peers, and the most notable way in which it distinguishes itself is made obvious shortly after beginning your game. On the very first level, ZAS treads territory that few Game Boy games dared to by featuring a transparent foreground layer in addition to the background layer. Then, taking it a jaw-dropping step further than that, it had them scroll independantly of each other (what is referred to as parallax scrolling).

How this is possible is a bit tricky, and very clever. To start, let’s explain what “flickering” is. Older hardware has strict limitations on how many sprites can be on the screen at once, and where those sprites can be. When those limits are exceeded, the hardware will attempt to resolve this by automatically choosing whatever things are most taxing and rapidly alternating what frames they are displayed on. The result are sprites that appear to the naked eye to be flickering on the screen, and it’s something so common you’ve almost undoubtedly seen it in many, many games.

A technique called multiplexing allowed designers to take the matter into their own hands and designate certain sprites to automatically be rotating which frames they’re visible on. This was most typically done with projectiles fired from weapons, as they could very easily fill a screen and tax the game. For example, have you ever wondered why the bullets in Contra for the NES are always kinda fuzzy looking? Multiplexing. It’s one reason why it runs so smoothly despite its impressive action, and how it can get away with a weapon like the spread shot not crashing the game.

Observing how flicker works on the Game Boy leads to something particularly interesting. Because of the Game Boy’s cheap LCD screen, it was victim to something that is referred to as ghosting, which is what occurs when an LCD screen is being relayed information at a rate faster than it can display it. This results in the picture briefly lingering on the screen before being updated, and together with what I’ve already explained, this means that when flickering quickly enough, sprites on the Game Boy’s screen would appear to stay visually consistent. Although they’d appear uniquely faded – as if differently shaded than everything else – the “flicker” would appear nonexistent (something that modern emulators can imitate with a particular option).

A few designers realized this, and then tried to take advantage of it. Gradius: The Interstellar Assault, for example, used it to keep its options from being too visually distracting (and from taxing the game). Trip World used it to make sprites that were underwater visually distinct from what they’d look like above water. Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge used it in one level to make mountains in the background seem as if they were further off in the distance. And ZAS? Well, the way ZAS uses it takes it far beyond what others attempted.

Many designers saw the LCD screen as a tremendous hurdle to action games, but T&E Soft saw it as an opportunity. The Game Boy can’t do genuine parallax (though there techniques that imitate it), it can’t do transparency, and it can’t render more than one background/foreground layer at once. So how does the first stage in ZAS appear to do all these all things? Multiplexing on an LCD screen. What looks like all of these effects going on is actually just the game taking turns drawing two separate backgrounds on different frames, and then scrolling them at different rates.

Instead of succumbing to compromising the quality of their design and building themselves around the limitations, they worked with them. There is literally not one other game (to my knowledge) within the entire library of the Game Boy that does exactly what ZAS does, and it was released more than 5 years before the Game Boy would become obsolete to the next iteration of hardware. It doesn’t stop with its incredible command of the hardware on the first stage, either, and does amazing things in subsequent stages that I could still go on about.

All this impressive technical wizardry would of course fail to really matter if the game didn’t look gorgeous, but it absolutely does. Beyond the cleverness of its technical feats and smooth display, ZAS is also lovingly rendered with luscious sprite work and some incredible animation. Basic enemies are often given multiple frames of animation, and level detail is incredibly carefully rendered to create detailed environments that never get in the way of being able to decipher what is going on. Every boss enemy tends to surprise in multiple ways as well, with the just the first transforming from a simple sphere into a massive battleship.

Exceeding expectations hardly ends with the visual work, as the music’s exceptional quality cannot be understated, either. Compositions are varied and complex, but never need to borrow from the channel that the game’s effects are playing on (a common problem with complex music on old hardware). Music from the first stage sets the tone for a memorable, light-hearted adventure, while the track for the stage’s boss is frightening and hectic, as if the realization of the weight of your journey has struck you with a terrible anxiety.

As the game continues, the second level’s music lightens things up a bit, but the shocking encounter you just survived feels as if it’s set a distinct tone of apprehension for what comes next. Each level features a unique music track, as does each end-of-stage boss. The lack of repeated tracks helps establish a sense of progression rarely seen in other games of the era, and the attention given by the sound designers to ensuring that ZAS distinguishes itself from lesser games is immediately apparent.

When considering it on a mechanical level, ZAS is everything you could ask for out of a game on the system. Where T&E’s space shooter series for the MSX, Laydock, borrowed from games like Xevious, ZAS is much more reminiscent of more recent games like Gradius, Aleste, and especially R-Type. Similarly paced to each of those titles, you find yourself on a journey through five slowly-scrolling, different levels before reaching the end.

Each level features distinct enemies, visuals, gimmicks, sub-bosses, and bosses. The variety and abundance of these elements is almost unbelievable given the hardware limitations and obscurity of the title, and their carefully spaced usage make each level have a remarkably powerful identity. While ZAS imitates a vast array of other shooters with a high frequency, it never really outright steals from them and has its own unique twist on everything. Beyond just homaging light elements exclusively from well-known shooters, the scope often extends beyond that. Stage 2, for example, has several bits that feel as if they pay tribute to Quarth, a game that only tangentially belongs in the same genre.

Everything is executed to near-perfection, leaving the game to impress you with its mechanics on far more than just the status of its delightful variety. In terms of difficulty, it hits somewhere between R-Type’s constant tension and Gradius’ flow of disarming ease between serious moments of frenetic challenge. The tools to cruise your way through the game are there in front of you, but it ultimately comes down to execution and proves itself to be the most enticingly made shooter on the console without competition. A hard difficulty is there to push the game even further past both its limits and yours, with bullets now frequently filling the screen and the game requiring greater aptitude and strategy to conquer.

T&E Soft’s incredible grasp of both space shooters as a genre and the Game Boy as a piece of hardware are something that put almost all other designers for the console to shame, and yet this was the only game they’d ever grace the thing with. On the one hand, it’s easy to be consumed by how disappointing it is that this title wasn’t successful and we couldn’t have seen more like it, but on the other, we’re kind of lucky to have gotten it, at all.

I frequently see people lament that ZAS wasn’t released on a more capable console, but let’s consider here that great art defines its medium as much as that medium defines its art. ZAS is an excellent title specifically because of its medium, the climate it was released in, and the determination of its designers, and it would be an inherently different game were it to have been made for something else. The Game Boy didn’t hold it back, it defined it and allowed it to be precisely the beautiful thing that it is.

The root of appreciation for all things comes heavily down to context, and ZAS demonstrates mastery of its own. There is a sincere artistry in the way it defies its trappings, and it encapsulates a time when boundaries meant something significant to game design. To constantly look at games as “held back” is to never truly appreciate what they did, and to fail to appreciate what came before is to realize that everything we hold dear will merely be made obsolete by the notion of progress.

A Trip Through Game Boy History in 15 Games – Trip World

September 5, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten
Trip World

(JP November 27, 1992)

Quickly growing to be one of my favorite games of all time, Trip World is an incredibly brilliant little title that falls victim to being too far ahead of its time. Criticisms of Trip World tend to focus on it being either too short or too easy, and even those who write positively of it seem to frequently consider it a collection of half-baked ideas that didn’t quite make it into the masterpiece they were meant to be part of. It’s acknowledged the game is technically impressive, but rarely much beyond that.

Titles like this and the Famicom’s Gimmick (also by Sunsoft, and bearing many similar design sensibilities despite the lack of shared staff) often fall under a type of game that rarely gets the genuine attention it deserves. Because they’re both quite expensive and heavily sought after by collectors, and because collectors are often tepid adults who are building a monument to the idea that they liked video games as a child, much of the discussion about both games has little to do with their many amazing qualities and more to do with whether or not they’re “worth it.”

Despite the current popularity of emulation and the incredible ease by which people can play Trip World for free, the idea that it is a collector’s game persists throughout and leads many willing to play it into the experience with the idea that people only talk this game up because of the value of its cartridge (which happens to be unfortunately true). Those few that stumble upon the game without this popular bias tend to still go in with years and years of expectations of ways to play a platformer, and approach Trip World with all the wrong sensibilities.

Something that platformers and games in general have taught us over the years is that the purpose of every game is to beat it. What lies between the beginning and the end are merely obstacles to conquer that impede your progress, and that the end screen is what matters above all else. We look at games as methods of empowering ourselves, and being able to “beat” them is the ultimate way of reaching that empowerment. When a game denies us victory, we say that it is too hard, but what we often really mean is that we didn’t feel strong while playing it.

Likewise, when a game is too easy, we criticize it for not bringing enough of a challenge, for not making us feel clever or capable. Trip World is a game that, even to a greater degree than Kirby’s Dream Land, avoids challenging the player almost entirely. Few enemies in the game can harm you, and boss fights are often very easy to master with a few attempts. While the game does have the common platformer trappings of hit points, lives, and boss fights, it’s fairly easy to reach the ending in just sitting down with the game for an hour or so, and to clear the game on consecutive playthroughs in roughly fifteen to twenty minute periods.

When you approach Trip World with the sensibility to treat it as you would a Mario game, as you have been taught by countless platformers, you reach the ending quickly and feel unsatisfied. That tends to be as deep as we evaluate any game with even the most superficial similarity to Mario – as a Mario game. That’s fine when that’s what a game is trying to be, but it’s absolutely not when we fail to see something trying to escape those boundaries and establish a new identity.

Immediately upon starting the game, Trip World’s subtle efforts to guide players into the realization that this is not a typical platformer are threefold. To begin, the very first object the player comes across is a fruit that will power-up your player character, Yacopu. It places a flower upon his head and replaces his kick attack with a projectile that will place a similar flower upon the head of any enemy it comes into contact with. While powered up in this way you cannot harm enemies, and the flower merely pacifies them and keeps them in place.

If you allow that power-up to run its course and evaporate or miss your target, the game demonstrates its second method of attempting to guide the player – the behavior of the very first enemy. Rather than attacking you, the friendly creature you first come across seeks only to jump on your head and remain stationary. It cannot harm you, and it tries to nudge you into realizing you may not want to harm it. This attempts to help inform you that maybe, just maybe, not everything in this world is dangerous.

The last way in which the game tries to guide you into a different play perspective is by the use of the score counter at the bottom of the screen. People familiar with games are well aware that when you get points, you’re doing something well and intended, and that when you don’t, you’re doing poorly. Attempting to communicate with the player in a language they’re already heavily influenced by, you are rewarded a small amount of points for placing a flower on the head of your first enemy… but none for attacking them to the point they are defeated.

These methods all exist as ways to ask the player in the least patronizing tone possible to rethink what they consider “play” to be in a platformer. Even as early as when Trip World came out, players already had years of training to treat any enemy as a dangerous obstacle on your path to victory – obviousness of this as apparent as the widely used term, “enemy.” This was so ingrained that even in a game as delightful and thoughtful as the then-recent Kirby’s Dream Land, nearly everything existed to be able to hurt or impede you along your way to victory.

Enemies as sweet and cute looking as Kirby’s Waddle Dee or as innocuous as Mario’s Buzzy Beetle were still capable of hurting the hero and therefore seen as threats. Violence against them, as cartoonish at it is, is something that is seen as accepted and empowering. It’s what you’re supposed to do. They’re animate objects that exist within a platformer, and if they don’t power the player up, then they’re enemies, there only to be exterminated. Upon said extermination, you, the player, are then rewarded by pleasant sounds, points going up, and possibly even an item to collect. You feel good about it.

While it’s difficult to argue or believe that games necessarily breed sociopathy, they certainly rarely go out of their way to teach any degree of empathy. Trip World allows you to play it as you would any other platformer without stopping you or slapping you on the wrist with a bad ending, but it tries to tell you that the real joy here is in playing with your enemies – not hurting them. The number of unique enemies in the game to help support this is nothing short of absolutely astounding.

Only a single enemy in all of Trip World repeats itself between stages, making encounters as unique and memorable as they are fleeting. Few enemies even repeat between screen transitions as you progress through the stages, and many of them are one-of-a-kind. Despite the intense diversity of enemy types and sheer number of unique encounters, every single enemy type on the game features unique behavior that you will never again see exactly copied.

This, coupled with the game’s incredible animation, makes it an absolute delight to try and see exactly how everything will react to you. Enemies are gorgeously detailed and feel alive, and their body language contributes as much to their abundant personality as their behavior does. Will this one want to be friendly with me? Is this one a bully here to get in my way? Is this one just existing in its natural environment and curious about why I’m here?

These are all behaviors you can miss if you elect to play this game like an ordinary platformer, and they’re all what compose the very heart and soul of Trip World. In Mario, we feel good when we step on a Goomba’s head and squish him on our way to the goal, but what if he weren’t so intimidating? What if he just wanted to be your friend? What if we were allowed to touch without harm? Wordlessly, Trip World answers these kinds of questions with excellent visual storytelling and interaction that allows you to feel the sum of this adventure within the span of a few seconds.

Modern games often explore the idea of non-violence in what players have come to understand as typically violent environments and trappings in a variety of ways, but they often tend to reach this success through openly condemning the player for what they’ve done. They scold the player, rather than gently urge them, and they respect the player’s intelligence much less in doing so. Player agency is often secondary in these games, and your objective is frequently as simple-minded and singular as what they’re trying to rise above. A game like Spec-Ops: The Line asks me to feel bad for committing violence, but it can only communicate this to me through forcing me to perform it over and over again.

Trip World is a game that is now over twenty years old, and it feels like it was nailing these concepts in a much better and more concise way, far before people popularly considered this a legitimate method of game design. While the end of each stage forces you into a boss fight with a violent solution necessary to proceed, the game world is filled with life that you slowly gain the determination to protect from the threat that has loomed over you since the beginning. Your actions are given motivation, and they’re relayed to you in a way that is much cleverer than a text dump at the beginning or as a forgotten aside in a manual about how what you’re doing is justified and there are probably things somewhere out there you’re doing this for.

While you could attempt to frame Yacopu’s journey as one of revenge, I feel like the ending outright makes the idea of that silly. He’s there to help and protect, and conflict (which is typically only gently kicking something) is only forced to reach an ultimately peaceful solution for everyone. The elegance of Trip World’s storytelling allows for me to be enriched in its narrative simply by taking my time and wandering through it at a leisurely pace.

The various power-ups often fundamentally alter how Yacopu interacts with the world, and he can freely transform into an aquatic or airborne form at any time. Ease of control is consistently well implemented, and there are often subtleties to understanding the nuances of movement that help flesh the game into a deeper experience than first glance would indicate. The trick to sharp vertical ascent when flying may feel clumsy, at first, but it will eventually reveal itself to be as clever and rewarding of skill and understanding as the game’s tougher boss encounters.

Visual quality, as mentioned briefly earlier, is breathtaking, especially as far as the Game Boy is concerned. Easily one of the best looking and most technically impressive games available for the console, the environments are lush and carefully rendered, and the enemy animations are so superb they’re more or less without equal. Trip World jumps to life with an enthusiasm unlike almost anything else available for the system, and easily deserves its many accolades in this regard.

Sound-wise, it’s almost equally impressive. The instrument samples on display are incredibly diverse, and the composer clearly demonstrated mastery over what the Game Boy was capable of producing. Compositions are memorable and surpass expectations, although the repetition of the game’s primary boss theme is one of few things that ends up ever-so-slightly grating on me. I’m particularly fond of the first level’s theme and its marked air of determination – it feels surprisingly intense and helps establish Yacopu’s strong sense of bravery, despite his harmless, cute appearance.

When all is said and done, there is nothing to deny that Trip World is a very brief game, but it’s very rare in all of video games to see so much said with so little. Its story of a lack of sales and success is well known, but as I hope I’ve illustrated, it’s not for what people usually argue. Extremely deliberate in its gentle, caring design, Trip World is like a sideways look into a universe where game design became more thoughtful, rather than less.