Super Mario Land (isn’t So Super)

The Game Boy was a dominating brand for over an entire decade. While technically superior, many competing handhelds stepped up to the plate and struck out year after year. With it’s humble 4-shades-of-grey, no-backlight,  no-color (except green-tinted) screen, the Game Boy defied all odds and was put into the hands of every child. Also thrust into the hands of children everywhere was the “classic” Mario game, Super Mario Land. Mario’s first portable adventure and for some people, their first Mario game ever, Super Mario Land was an attempt to capture the magic of his console adventures that has continued to captivate gamers for decades.

Super Mario Land-title

This Ain’t No Mushroom Kingdom

Having defeated Bowser during his adventure in Super Mario Bros., Mario’s services are temporarily no longer required in the Mushroom Kingdom. Instead, we follow Mario through the world of Sarasaland as he saves the other important woman of nobility, Princess Daisy. Being in a different world, in a different time, and on the Game Boy instead of the NES, it is expected that Super Mario Land is not going to be exactly like Super Mario Bros, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What is a bad thing, however, is that the product we received feels like a game that wants to be Super Mario Bros. but couldn’t quite make it.

Big Mario, Small, Messy World

The awful Superball power-up will give you a new appreciation for the firebals…

To accommodate the lower resolution of the Game Boy, Nintendo had to rework how a Mario game looks. The Game Boy has a bit less than 2/3 the available screen space as the NES which meant that there was a lot less room to show details. With this in mind, certain things had to be sacrificed for the sake of gameplay. Most noticeably, the size of individual blocks became much smaller, as did many other objects. However, as Mario is an iconic character, they left Mario rather large allowing the player to recognize him. The overall size of the character immediately begins to cause some problems with his surroundings and sadly, this is just the beginning of Mario’s difficulties.

While you can clearly see Mario, it feels like you can never really tell where he is. The collision detection, even compared to the admittedly loose collision of the original Super Mario Bros., is poor, confusing and frustrating. The blocks are too small compared to Mario which lends to situations where you aren’t quite sure what spot to stand in to jump through a one block hole. Not only this, it seems like Mario is always jumping partially inside of a block. This turns extremely simple things, such as jumping onto a small platform, into an exercise in frustration. While I am probably making it seem worse than it is, the situation is exacerbated by the equally bad controls / movement mechanics.

Shown here: Poor collision and the difference in falling speeds.

Shown here: Poor collision and the difference in falling speeds.

As the icing on the cake, the levels themselves are extremely uninspired and just not fun. While not all of the levels are bad, many of them look and feel like a hodgepodge of various ideas. None of the levels feel like they are building up to something. They overall design is illogical and often just plain boring.  There are a couple levels that feel like the level designer thought “I almost forgot about moving platforms!” and in haste to finish the level filled it such things. This sort of repetitive, shallow level design fills almost every level.

Out of Control

I’m not sure what happened but Mario has become much more difficult to control. While there is still a bit of acceleration, it feels very inconsistent. Sometimes it feels like Mario reaches top speed instantaneously and other times it feels like it takes a bit of running. Mario also appears to have two distinct falling modes with one being his “post-jump” falling and the other being his “ran-off-the-side-of-a-platform” falling.The former feels natural and has a nice falling acceleration. The arc of the jump is nice and you have a lot of control over the jump height which is a necessity in a Mario-type platformer.

Super Mario Land - input

Jumping while turning keeps you from moving horizontally. Observe Mario’s movement in conjunction with the button input shown.

The latter fall type has an annoying instant-top-speed effect. This means the moment you walk off of a platform, you’re falling at Mario’s in-game terminal velocity. While other games suffer from this, such as Castlevania or Ghost ‘n’ Goblins, those games are known for their intentionally clunky controls. In a related annoyance, any time Mario jumps and hits he head on something he instantaneously hits a maximum falling speed. If you attempt to jump over a gap and hit your head, you will zoom straight down into the void below.

One of the biggest annoyances is the presence of a particularly frustrating movement bug. Whenever you move in one direction and turn around, there is a brief period where Mario performs a brief “turning around” animation. If you jump during this time, you will be unable to move left or right until you hit the ground. This will happen constantly to the point where you’ll have to become conscious of it to avoid it.

A Smooth Landing

It is probably obvious by now that I don’t consider this to be a good game. Even so, Super Mario Land has a few aspects that aren’t bad. Luckily, the music is fairly well composed. The composer,  Hirokazu Tanaka, did a good job at turning the simple Game Boy “beeps” and “boops” into catchy, memorable tunes. This is to be expected, though, as “Hip” Tanaka was responsible for the amazing music in the NES titles Kid Icarus and Metroid. It’s nothing particularly special but you might find yourself humming the main tune a few hours later.

Super Mario Land_water_excerpt

The submarine and plane levels are (sadly) the best Super Mario Land has to offer.

Super Mario Land features a couple occurrences of non-platformer action. Instead, you control Mario in a scrolling shooter type of gameplay that involves Mario in a submarine and plane. Both the scrolling levels control exactly the same which is a good thing. These two levels are the most polished the game ever feels. The controls are, for once, very precise and easy. Just move and shoot as the screen scrolls to the right. It’s a bit sad that the best part of a 2D platformer is the parts where you don’t have to do any platforming. Nevertheless, these sections are brief, only occur twice, and give a much needed break from the rest of the game.

Stepping Stone to Greatness

I’m not going to say that Super Mario Land is terrible. I’m not going to say you shouldn’t play it. I will, however, suggest that you play any other traditional Mario platformer. Super Mario Land could be perceived as a necessary evil. The game itself is severely lacking, frustrating, and almost incompetent in some aspects of gameplay but it is, however, responsible for spawning some of the best games the Game Boy (and Game Boy Color) have to offer. Next time you have the urge to play Super Mario Land, find it deep within yourself to skip it and play Super Mario Land 2, any of the Wario Land games, or one of the many good games Nintendo has made for the Game Boy.

Advertisements

The Adventures of Rad Gravity (isn’t so Rad)

The problem with dumpster diving is that you need to sift through trash to find the useful things. The Adventures of Rad Gravity is the closest thing to dumpster diving that the NES library contains.  You know that there’s something good in there but aren’t sure if it’s worth digging. There is a reason why some people don’t go dumpster diving and it’s the same reason why nobody ever talks about The Adventures of Rad Gravity: regardless of what you find, it still stinks.

Adventures of Rad Gravity, The (U)_title

Who can resist a game with the word “rad” in the title? You can!

This Could be Rad!

The Adventures of Rad Gravity is a planetary exploration 2D platformer featuring a character you’ve never heard of. Rad Gravity is a large-headed, big-chinned space-man who is on a mission to do something you probably do not and will not ever care about.  The game starts off very simple with a traditional side-scrolling level. The first level is not very difficult and is actually pretty fun. The game has all the standard 2D platforming fare such as jumping, shooting, killing things but as you progress it introduces a lot of adventure and exploration elements.

Adventures of Rad Gravity, The (U)_gameplay

Level One! Rad’s adventure begins!

Each level in Rad Gravity consists of a different planet. It’s pretty nice as each planet looks different and has different enemies in it. There is also a small level of non-linearity as certain planets can be explored in the order of your choice. Exploring the planets can be fun once you realize that there are plenty of new items and upgrades to discover. Taking a page from the classic NES title Metroid, there are maximum health expansions, armor upgrades, weapon upgrades and multiple different weapons to find.  There is a lot to do and an equally large amount of ambitious gameplay elements. In addition to exploration, there are many interesting novelty elements that spice up the game. One level has a series of doors that need to be unlocked by finding a key and tossing it onto it. Another level is played almost entirely while upside-down! These experiences are frequent, varied and make the game feel less repetitive.

Not only are there several planets to travel to but there are several required story events that pop up. Once one occurs, you are required to complete it before returning to your planet exploration. One involves your computer being stolen requiring you to chase down some thugs to get it back. Another has your ship breaking down requiring that you acquire replacement parts from a nearby derelict ship. These events bring an odd cohesiveness to a rather scattered looking game. In particular, these special levels make you feel as if you are making progress through the game rather than randomly exploring planets.

Have you ever wanted to explode a triceratops? Look no further!

Have you ever wanted to explode a triceratops? Look no further!

The Adventures of Rad Gravity is an ambitious game that has a lot going for it.  You can tell that someone worked really hard on the overall design of the game. It is impressive how many different areas, enemies, items, events and creatures you encounter on this little 8-bit adventure. Every couple years I find myself drawn back to its radical allure in hopes of reliving the planetary exploration goodness. And then at about 45 minutes into the game I begin to remember why The Adventures of Rad Gravity never received a sequel.

Not so Rad…

The Adventures of Rad Gravity is a brilliant game about dying over and over again until you shed a single tear, dripping it over the NES controller you’ve already destroyed in anger. This game will upset you. It was frustrate you. It will test your self-control. The Adventures of Rad Gravity is a game that is so frustrating that many will never experience all the “rad” stuff it has to offer. Let’s sift though the refuse:

There is One Song

Yes. Other than the title screen, credits and boss music there is only one song and it plays constantly. Plan on hearing this same song several hundred times. Although it’s not a particularly bad song, it’s seriously the only song in the game for all planets except for the final one (which plays the boss music). Keep in mind that this is not a short game. It will take several hours to beat if you’re willing to stick with it. With all the varied environments and enemies, you’d thing they could at least compose a few songs? Nope. Just listen to this theme over and over and over and over and over…

Movement Acceleration is Terrible

Rad Gravity has a problem with movement. There is acceleration when beginning to move and deceleration when stopping. While this doesn’t seem bad, it makes it extremely difficult to make precise jumps. You have to get a brief running start in order to jump long gaps which is totally fine except for the fact that sometimes you are only given a one block distance to gain this momentum. It makes doing full-speed jumps somewhat annoying. While acceleration is just an annoyance, the deceleration takes the first major step toward ruining the game. When coming to a stop, Rad Gravity slows down before stopping. As you can imagine, this makes jumping onto small blocks incredibly frustrating. You are constantly having to counteract your momentum by press the opposite direction. If you don’t there is a good chance that when you land, you’ll run right off the edge of a block. But you can’t over compensate or else you’ll not jump far enough and might miss the block entirely! Ugh…

Instant Death Pits
DIEEE

Get those tears ready. You’ll be crying in no time!

This is absolutely the worst offender of the game. In a stellar example of poor game design, many levels are filled with pits that kill you instantly, regardless of your health. One wrong move will send you back to the beginning and into a rage. There are several levels that have certain portions designed around tricking you into falling into an instant death pit. This is absurd! Why design a game based on tricking the player into dying? It’s not fun and severely detracts from the game. In particular, the planet Volcania is a lava planet. Everything on this level is designed to knock you into the lava, killing you instantly. This level is terrible. This level is amazingly terrible. Playing this level is the precise moment I decided that The Adventures of Rad Gravity could not be redeemed. It is forever, irrefutably, and officially a bad game.

Confusing Progression

The game occasionally throws you into a situation where you have no idea what to do. While I know how to beat the game, I pity any body who goes into this game blind. In one particular case, there is a part where you must jump up through and off the top of the screen in order to progress. There is nothing telling you that you can do this and if it weren’t for my years of gaming experience, I probably would have never tried that. A few boss fights play more like puzzles than actual fights. During my childhood, I actually thought the first boss had a “random” amount of health as one time it died almost instantly while the next time I spent 15 minutes shooting it with no success. It caused me to give up several times because as it turns out, they are invincible. You can not hurt them with your weapons. I spent far too long shooting them thinking that they just had an absurdly large amount of health. It feels like many situations in this game have a “trick” to it that is not explained. You will get stuck. You will not like it.

Lack of Useful Checkpoints

The Adventures of Rad Gravity is a hard game. I like hard games so that’s usually not a problem for me. What I do have a problem with is that when you die, you must start the level all over again. The game is unforgiving in its difficulty and sometimes feels cheap. You can work very hard and on your 15th try, finally make it to the end only to be killed by some dumb, random thing. Seeing you start at the beginning of the level really sucks the urge to continue playing out of you. Only very small number of levels have checkpoints, notably the first and last level of the game. What happened to the middle levels? Those are hard too! You’re probably thinking, “If you just get better at the game you won’t need checkpoints!” That would be true except for the horrible and frequent instant deaths that I’ve already explained.

Progress Resets

Briefly mentioned above, there is a section of the game where you  are forced to enter a derelict space ship to find a replacement part. This level has the horrible habit of completely resetting your progress when you leave ship area. Since the ship is a bit of a puzzle which involves you having to find and place these fuse-like objects into certain sockets, it can be very confusing to figure out, especially initially. What is even more horrible is that upon exiting the main ship area, your fuse-socket progress is completely reset. I am almost positive this was not intentional as it doesn’t make any sense. It is just unfortunate and frustrating when there is a part where you can “fall” out of the ship and have to re-enter, erasing any progress you’ve made in the last 20 minutes.

The Broken Translocator was Intentional
The translocator is slightly more than broken

The translocator is slightly more than broken. Shown here: passing through walls, the Volcania secret, and falling into glitch-land.

At one point, Rad Gravity acquires a totally radical teleporter item which I like to call the translocator (after Unreal Tournament’s item of the same name). This item allows you throw out a small beacon and then teleport back to it at any time. This item completely destroys any semblance of collision detection that the game ever intended. Using this item and using a small series of obvious movements, you can break the game, skipping whole areas, passing through walls, and in one case that I found, crashing the game entirely. In a shocking twist, it turns out the developers actually knew the translocator was broken. In the level Volcania, there is a secret area that can only be accessed by passing through a wall with the translocator. I do not comprehend why a developer would allow their game to have a portion of it based on a potentially fatal programming flaw. Someone please explain this to me because I do not understand.

How to Make Rad Gravity Rad

The Adventures of Rad Gravity has got a lot of cool things going on and has a lot of great ideas are on display but in order to experience those things you’re going to have to look through layers and layers of garbage. It seems for every one great thing to experience there is at least three pieces of garbage. The good news, however, is that much of this garbage could be cleaned up with a surprisingly few number of tweaks.

Remove or Modify Instant Death Pits

Instead of dying, these pits could hurt you instead of outright killing you. Some games implement a design where falling into a pit hurts you and places you back onto the last solid ground before you fell in. This method could keep the challenge of jumps and oncoming enemies but still allow you to be penalized without having to start the entire level over again. With this, you wouldn’t even to change the level design (of which I actually think is interesting and fairly decent).

Tighten Up the Movement

Rad Gravity feels very slippery. Just be glad there is no ice planet or else Rad would completely out of control! The amount and acceleration and deceleration should be greatly lowered. If you could reach top speed or stop from a full run in about 1/4 the time, Rad would be much more manageable. I’m not a physics expert but I’m sure it wouldn’t take much more than some trial and error to find decent settings.

Fix Translocator and other Minor Bugs
asda

This should not be able to happen. Thanks, translocator!

I am not sure how The Adventures of Rad Gravity checks for collision but it sure doesn’t do it correctly. Without getting too technical, many of the translocator bugs could be fixed by making two programming fixes. One would be resetting Rad Gravity’s velocity to zero before he is teleported to the beacon. The other would be to remove and reset the beacon or eject the beacon if it becomes too far embedded into the wall. In addition, the progress reset bug would just be a matter of not resetting a few memory locations when exiting the derelict ship. These are relatively simple concepts that could be implemented by a moderately skilled programmer without too much difficulty.

Compose More Music

This one is obvious. Ideally, give each planet its own theme. It would considerably help the overall presentation of the game. Enough said.

It Should be Rad!

I really, really want to love this game. There are so many little things going on that I adore. Considering how much quality game there is beneath all the trash, I feel as if it’s an experience worth having but just not in its current state. Though it will never happen, The Adventures of Rad Gravity is in need of a remake. If you take the exact game, same levels, same overall graphical design and just improve upon the areas which I mentioned, you might just have one stellar game on your hands.

Ultimately, I admit that I like The Adventures of Rad Gravity. I do, in fact, think it’s a rad game. It’s just too bad I have to be waist deep in garbage to play it.

Adventures of Rad Gravity, The (U)_endingv3

I congratulate you on reaching the end! Until next time…

Abadox (is Pretty Good)

Scrolling shooters are not rare or special. Pick any console you want and you’ll find dozens if not hundreds. They come in horizontal scrolling, vertical scrolling, possibly even diagonal scrolling. And don’t forget some games have scrolling to the right and others have scrolling to the left or scrolling up or down. What can be said about shooters, then? Well, in short, every direction has been scrolled into and lot’s of things have been shot. So now you’re probably wondering, “What can be said about Abadox?” Well, as it turns out, a lot.

Abadox (U)_title

This intro is super subtle yet does a great job to set the mood: you against the planet.

The first thing you’ll notice when you power up that NES will surely be the amazingly hardcore title. I’m no expert on rating goo and goo-like substances but the Abadox title, dripping with whatever that stuff is covered with is the best NES alien goo I have ever seen. It is just amazing. The title is almost too awesome and feels a bit intimidating. Don’t worry though, as the game is, at the very least, as awesome as the title. As the introduction shows, you, the loyal player, control a lone spaceman on a quest to infiltrate a giant alien planet creature to do… something awesome. Press start a couple times and send spaceman on his way!

abadox_horiz

Space-guy on the surface of the dreaded planet-alien.

Abadox starts you in a horizontal scrolling scrolling level with awesome music. The game wastes no time in throwing creatures and power-ups your way. The first thing you’ll notice is how intense this game can be, graphically. In just the first level you enter the mouth of the creature and pass by it’s teeth and tongue.In a wholly-unoriginal-but-still-interesting twist, Abadox will switch between horizontal scrolling and downward vertical scrolling . The vertical sections play identically to the horizontal sections but in a different direction. It’s a nice switch in perspective that adds a lot to the fun and mood.

The 8-bit graphics feel right at home and give the whole experience a perfectly creepy vibe. Whenever I play this game, I am in awe of the whole look and feel of the game. Every level is filled with strange or gruesome creatures, especially the bosses. Getting to the bosses might be a bit of a problem, though not as bad as you’d expect from a shooter.

While many shooters are intimidating in difficulty, Abadox starts slow and does a pretty good job of raising the difficulty rather linearly. There is little to no randomness involved which means you can easily begin to learn the levels and get much better at it. If you are familiar with shooters, Abadox should feel familiar in controls and gameplay; you shouldn’t have any problems. Even after not having played it for several years I was able to get to level 3 on one life just after two tries. That says something about the difficulty, although I’m not quite sure what. Regardless of difficulty, Abadox is worth getting better at just to see the whole game.

abadox_vert

The pulsating organ stuff and sudden grasping muscle-arms… Abadox is made of nightmares.

Abadox manages to be a very cohesive shooter experience. It does an incredibly good job at feeling varied. Each level has it’s own aesthetic and you really will feel like you as progressing through this giant creature’s body. Specifically, the vertical scrolling levels greatly add to the feeling that you’re traveling deep, down into the bowels of the huge creature. You travel into it’s mouth, through it’s digestive tract, pass by some other organs, visit its… robot factory (remember that part of the body?) and eventually come out of it’s alien-planet butt (so so it seems). In addition to the cool areas, each level has a wicked-rad song, although some you’ll hear more than once.

Shooters can be boiled down to two different aspects: shoot things and don’t get hit. While Abadox doesn’t push the boundaries of the genre, it plays very well. In addition to shooting things and avoiding getting hit, there are plenty of power-ups to pick up along the way. The main weapons are spread guns or lasers but there are also several additional power-ups. Missles, shields and small satellite orbs that block shots all expand your viable not-die tactics. It all makes for an enjoyable alien-shooting experience.

The controls are tight, the graphics are great and the music is rocking: Abadox is much more than just a competent shooter, it’s a great example of a lesser-known, high-quality title in the NES library. It’s a tough game, but not too hard to consider it unfair. It’s worth a play just to see all the creepy aliens but even better to play for it’s well crafted experience and gameplay. Play this game or at least watch someone else play it. You’ll be glad you did.

Abadox (U)_Boss_montage_indexed_8_color

As a little treat, here’s a gallery of all the awesome bosses in Abadox. Yes, I used invincibility to record this.