THE MINI SNES SAGA 3: SUPER MARIO KART – “A GRIM RACE/WAR”

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INTRODUCTION

I had a bad feeling about this one before I even began. See, Mario Kart as a franchise was always one of those slightly dodgy series in my mind, not innately bad but with a few gaping flaws in the formula, like a waterslide which nobody remembered to add water to. I mean, even if you like these games you must be able to see it? Like the fact that dealing with the blue shell is obviously bullshit because there’s no way to defend against it, the way that item distribution means that races become more boring the better you’re doing, and the fact that every installment usually has about two or three fun tracks and the rest are just not worth the effort.

Which isn’t to say they can’t have their charms, only that even the best Mario Kart games come with a string of asterisks so long they look like a constellation map, and some of them have more caveats than they can bear. So yeah, bad feeling overall when coming to the first of the line. I hope to proven wrong.

STORY

There is no story in Super Mario Kart – or any Mario Kart, that I know of – but screw it, I’m going to invent my own. Wealthy, vacuous, airheaded dilettante that she is, Princess Peach decides that she’s grown bored with her rule of the Mushroom Kingdom (and why wouldn’t she be bored, she never does anything but bake cakes) and in a decision born of years of consequence-free living and too much rosé wine, she decides that she’s going to gift the royal crown to whoever can win a series of bloody death races in weaponised vehicles, a la Mad Max via Wacky Races. Meanwhile, Peach herself will retreat in obscene luxury to live in a series of beachside villas and holiday mansions, spending the rest of her life being serviced by moustached gigolos and dead-eyed servants.

Side note, who the hell actually are Princess Peach’s parents? There must’ve been a King and Queen Peach at some point (not including those being Mario’s nicknames for her buttocks), and either they’re still alive and ruling, in which case I feel we should hear about them more often, or they’re dead/abdicated/kept in a living state of torturous hell in one of Bowser’s dungeons, in which case Peach should be an actual Queen, not just a Princess, right?

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Old tracks manage to be just as lethal as the new ones, if less flashy.

Oh, whatever. Her challenge is accepted by over half a dozen lunatics each with their eyes on the nation-spanning prize, and each with their own different motivations. Princess Peach is racing herself, of course, because she needs something to do between her 11.00 AM manicure and 2.00 PM appointment for vacantly staring out of the window, but a series of allies and enemies have also appeared on the starting line. Mario is in the pocket of Big Plumbing and also wants to instigate prima noctae, Luigi hopes to have his brother executed, the lowly Toad wishes to make a communist utopia and massacre the bourgeoisie, Bowser wants a totalitarian state through which he can carefully begin his extermination plan of the Toads themselves (spoiler alert: it’s a frying pan), Yoshi and Donkey Kong Jr. each want to dissolve the governmental system in preparation for a primal, survival-of-the-fittest world where the advantage goes to those with the ability to swallow objects larger than themselves or the ability to throw barrels respectively, and that one measly Koopa Trooper who showed up just wants to create a fair, just state where personal freedoms are balanced equally against sensible legislation to protect the disadvantaged, which may go some way to explaining why he never, ever wins. No, seriously – NEVER.

Now the race is on to see who can claim several thousand square miles of fungus farmland for themselves, as they battle to the death on weaving race tracks covered in more death traps than an Indiana Jones temple, slinging scavenged munitions, old fruit and whatever else they can find at each other until everyone is dead or until the final flag flutters across the burnt, bloody battlefield and somebody can stagger onto the victor’s podium.

Well, then, let the games begin. Ave Imperator Peach, qui nos ad lapsum ariera salutant!  (Which I think translates as “Hail Peach, we who are about to slip on banana skins salute you.” I’m sure the Latin Nazis will leap down my throat if there’s any of it wrong, and I’d like to retort by reminding them they bothered to learn Latin.)

AUDIOVISUAL DESIGN

Oh boy howdy, I’d forgotten about the visual horror of that period in time where 3D polygons weren’t around yet, but everybody was still trying to do 3D anyway, using 2D sprites arranged on various planes to awkwardly move around each other like the world’s most complicated line dancing routine.

Which is not to say early 3D polygons necessarily looked better (they were usually just as bad, giving the appearance that you were being attacked by origami horrors from the land of the geometry people, see Ocarina of Time for a prime example) but two-and-half-D, as it’s often referred to, comes with its own batch of problems, namely the perspective. Playing 2.5D games makes me feel like somebody stole my glasses and one of my eyeballs to boot, so judging relative distances with any kind of precision is an exercise in futility and optician bills. Judging when to fire your green shell is so inaccurate that you might as well just shoot it into the lava pit straight away and save yourself the bother, and none of the character models feel like they any kind of depth, looking like cutouts wobbling around the track on tiny little Roombas.

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Environments and characters don’t even look especially good for SNES era graphics, missing out on any distinctive style or flair that isn’t eye-gouging.

None of this would be as bad if the actual visual design looked any good, which it doesn’t. Nintendo, what the hell happened to the gorgeous, arresting, and above all else clean style of Super Mario World from the previous year? All the character models look too small for their own good, meaning there aren’t enough pixels for any elegant design, and the landscape is a garish, swirling, weaving vortex of primary colours, like pouring several tons of food colouring into a whirlpool and trying to sail across it without drowning or getting seasick. And though the music’s actually quite good in a chipper sort of way, it’s hard to hear when there’s a sound effect triggered every other second, not to mention the constant hairdryer whine of everybody’s go-kart beetling around the track.

GAMEPLAY

Like I said, I went into Super Mario Kart with a notable sense of unease, but after playing half a dozen matches with a close friend and coming out the other side with a smile on my face, I realised I was having fun! Yes, finally! Maybe I’ll get lucky and have it happen more than three times this year! I already saw that hedgehog get run over on my way back from the cinema, so there’s been two solidly enjoyable days in 2017 already.

Unfortunately a thought occurred and I tried playing Super Mario Kart on my own, and within ten minutes my smile had frozen and warped into a stiff-lipped expression of startled disappointment. Because hanging out with friends is fun all on its own, and Super Mario Kart… well, not so much. After all, it’s basically impossible to review any game objectively when you’ve got the bonds of companionship elevating the overall experience. Having somebody on hand to share the trauma of Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties might’ve lessened the horror considerably, but that doesn’t make it good. Likewise, I used to think that Grand Theft Auto V was fairly solid, up until the point where I played it on my own and realised it was basically a string of loosely-connected rich-kid’s toys strung weakly together by witless humour and low intentions.

But Super Mario Kart isn’t bad in the same way, it’s just kind of dull, with relatively stale track design and items that don’t really have any punch to them. I’m not really angry about this because I know I’m looking at a very old game that’s had years of upgrades and sequels since it came out, but here’s the thing: Nintendo are still charging money right now to play it, so yeah, it has to be judged on how it holds up against other, current games. After all, it’s operating in the same market as those sequels at time of writing, and anybody who’s browsed the retro games section on the Nintendo market has almost certainly felt that sharp intake of breath when they see the slightly outrageous pricing on games from over twenty years ago.

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Aw, split-screen. Remember split-screen? Remember how you could play games with people without having to go online and pay a subscription fee? Good times.

I think the word that best describes Super Mario Kart gameplay is “drunkenly.” Everything feels a bit unwieldy and tends to slide around more than you want it to, probably partly due to the aforementioned perspective problem caused by the graphics tech of the time. I never feel like I’m actually up against the other kart racers, because their AI is so simplistic it could be out-strategised by a patch of dry rot. What you’re actually battling is the controls and simple physics, and that’s not quite the same thing, nor is it necessarily as enjoyable. It feels like I’ve been sabotaged before the race began, having my tires replaced with icy cylinders with all the gripping power of an arthritic seal. As a result, all the items and little shortcuts exist for me not to battle equally with my enemies, but to hamper the other racers long enough to let me catch up, like adding a fat guy to the Olympic 100 metre dash and claiming it’s fair because he’s got a stun gun.

The long and short of it was that once I got a handle on how to compensate for all the sliding around, the game became so insultingly easy that no difficulty increase could compensate. I know that’s like saying “once I became the world’s greatest marksman, all those archery contests were a doddle,” but I’m rubbish at driving games, and the gap between being an inexperienced crap-out and becoming the apparent reincarnation of Schumacher took less than an hour, which coincidentally marked the point at which I found my patience beginning to seriously wane with Super Mario Kart. Because if all the items are boring, and the courses don’t feel meaningfully different, and the challenge was quickly evaporating, and there was nothing else to build up towards because everything’s unlocked from the start, then what was I playing for? When the answer didn’t really provide itself, I realised it was time to stop playing.

CONCLUSION

I still struggle to say Super Mario Kart is bad, because I’m not sure that it is, I just think it’s suffered quite a lot over the passage of time and been surpassed more often than is really good for it. I’d probably be recommending this back in 1992 (you know, if I’d been born), but standards of what to expect from racing games has changed in the quarter-century since then and some things just don’t apply anymore. I’ll give Super Mario Kart this, the more reasonable items and low-tier attacks make it feel like there’s more focus on racing than just pulling the right weapon from random crates, but it’s lacking a certain panache that would definitely come from the later games like Double Dash.

COMPARATIVE RATING: LIKE BUYING A BURGER AND DISCOVERING THAT IT’S GOT ALL THE WORST FILLINGS AND SAUCES, EVEN IF THE MEAT ITSELF IS BASICALLY FINE.

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THE MINI SNES SAGA 2: EARTHBOUND REVIEW – “HARDLY DOWN TO EARTH”

INTRODUCTION

I know I hinted at Contra III last week, but I’m still working on Bloodborne DLC and I needed some sort of stress break. Maybe next time, though let’s be fair – maybe not. Probably not.

Instead, I finally carved another meaningful notch into the chipped, paint-flaking bedpost of my gaming knowledge. Earthbound was one of those titles I’d been hearing about for years, spoken about with the reverent tones of somebody discussing a religious event. Fair enough, but I couldn’t help but be a bit baffled by all this rumour, like hearing somebody talk about Bigfoot sightings. I know UnderTale raised the game’s profile in recent years by planting its flag firmly as one of Earthbound’s descendants, and the Mother series does stretch beyond this single game, but it was weird how all I’d heard was the rumour, you know? Almost no memorabilia, no posters, no sign of a wider continuity, none of the things you’d expect to see for a game that was so apparently legendary. Occasionally I’d get the equivalent of a silhouette amongst the trees, such as a cameo in Smash Bros. or a single, Earthbound-themed Amiibo (the second one of which shouldn’t count for much because even the Wii Fit Trainer got a bloody Amiibo), but I still felt I had no idea about what the game was.

Well, now I got my Mini SNES, I finally get to photo Bigfoot myself, so let’s see if people remember it too fondly, or whether they forgot about it too quick. Earthbound, that is, not Bigfoot.

 

STORY

“Oh, goodie, a chance to name my character and all the members of my team,” I thought as the game started. I ended up calling the hero by my own magnificent moniker, because that’s a cheap and easy way to provoke a bit of investment, but then I decided that if this was a role-playing game then I was going to roleplay, namely somebody characterised by poisonous levels of misanthropy. So when it came to labelling Lil’ Joel’s ragtag bunch o’ buddies and harrowed household pets, I named them Slave, Serf, Woman and Dog, not in reference to what I thought they might be called, but to how my absolute bastard of an avatar would be thinking of them. Though just to keep things interesting, those names weren’t assigned to the characters you think they would be.

And then just to make matters better, I got to pick out my character’s favourite food and hobby. Oh, Earthbound, you spoil me! Lil’ Joel’s psychotic tendencies meant a plate of congealed blood was his meal of choice, and what he liked to do in his spare time is best left unmentioned, though it kept the bodily fluids theme going admirably.

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I bet you didn’t think that Grimer could let itself go even more.

So the rough plot starts thusly: whatever your name, you play a small boy in a baseball cap living in small-town America (oh, sorry – I mean small-town Eagleland), who wakes up in the middle of the night when a meteorite lands on the next hill over, and right away I worked out something very peculiar about Earthbound that seems to give it an identity all of its own – it’s genuinely creepy in a way that’s hard to put your finger on, yet doesn’t feel totally intentional, and now I shall have to explain why.

It all comes down to a matter of not feeling quite real enough. The town of Onett feels a little too American, a little overly-emblematic of what it’s supposed to represent, but at the same time doesn’t quite seem to understand the particulars and keeps getting small but important details wrong. It’s almost like being in a sequel to The Stepford Wives, one in which the androids seem to have replaced all the townsfolk except for you and a couple of other people. Sure, everything will seem normal, but then your loving mother will give you a vacant smile and say “Sure thing, sweetie, why not go out sneaking past armed police barriers at two in the morning to find a burning meteorite we don’t know anything about? And better bring your sister’s baseball bat in case you have to defend yourself from the increasingly aggressive townsfolk. Boy, I do love drinking this Ovaltine.” Or look to a scene later on, when you ask the local police chief if you can get past a barricade, whereupon he takes you into a backroom and sets five burly cops on you just to see if you can handle yourself.

Thanks, Officer Crazy. You’re the only one we can depend on to Protect and Serve (me my own teeth).

And when it’s not being weird it’s being downright Lynchian, such as one early scene where your next-door neighbours coldly tell you that your parents have borrowed so much money off them that they’re going bankrupt as a result, and I felt myself squirming uncomfortably as though I’d just found out something that I wasn’t supposed to. It certainly makes the fact that dad just wired me twenty bucks feel a bit awkward, though I’d be buggered if I was going to give it back at that point.

I’ll say now that none of this is bad, far from it. Earthbound’s combination of twee, childish innocence and subtle darker themes is pulled off in a way I’ve rarely seen before, mainly by ensuring that the nasty stuff is kept infrequent and to the background, and as a result it feels like the central group of kids never really understands its significance.

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Er… Hooray?

But the point is we go to see the meteorite, whereupon a bumblebee from the future shows up and tells us that ten years from now the world will be destroyed by a monster named Giygas, and the fact that everybody is getting more and more aggressive is a hint of what’s to come. In order to stop this, you have to go and collect eight funky beats from around the world that’ll apparently mellow out the Lovecraftian horror to the point where he’s just content to groove back to the 8th Dimension without destroying anything. That’s the theory at least, except even though I haven’t beaten the game yet I still get the feeling we might have to personally rap Giygas on the knuckles before this is all over. Call me paranoid, but it’s just this hunch I have.

 

AUDIOVISUAL DESIGN

I’m sorry to harp on about this, but even here it’s creepy! Whereas last week Megaman X had a whole style and aesthetic to call its own, Earthbound just feels peculiar. Environments look perfectly fine in the forty-five degree perspective, but the characters feel like they’re a few pixels too small for all the detail that the artists want to cram in, and consequently they look distorted and bizarre, such as the people who have three-quarters of their head taken up by a gurning, red-lipped mouth. Hindsight counts for a lot, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the years since Earthbound, it’s to draw character models with neutral expressions, because the audience can impose emotion over the top of that without too much mental strain. But when somebody with aggressive intentions and a fixed smile is advancing on you, it’s scarier than the rednecks in Resident Evil 7. Things improve immeasurably when you go into combat and the sprites have more space to breath, but there’s still elements that feel peculiar and a bit unnerving.

It’s given an extra layer of WTF by the fact that the whole thing feels like it was made by adults channeling the ideas of children, with mixed success. The visuals certainly look like pixel-art recreations of a kid’s drawings, which would certainly explain away all the misaligned facial features and the occasional wonky perspective. And even when it looks good, it has the style of a cartoon, right down to the extraneous features added on that makes it look like something from a Saturday morning show. I’ve no idea why the crows all wear sunglasses or what makes a pogo stick a formidable weapon in the hands of a gang member, but that’s playground logic for you. The day it stands up to proper questioning is the day it stops being what makes it special.

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Ah, the creepy circus at nighttime. What could go murderous? Wrong! I meant wrong. I definitely meant to say… Well, let’s just forget about it for now.

GAMEPLAY

So I walked out of momma’s house with my bat and baseball cap equipped, and immediately saw a little sprite of a snake wriggling towards me. One human/serpent collision later, and I was presented with a battle screen and what appeared to be the usual kind of turn-based combat we’ve all come to expect from early RPGs.

What makes this combat unique is a certain amount of nuance and a pleasantly laissez-faire approach to the whole thing. Taking damage doesn’t immediately take a chunk off your health bar, instead it ticks downwards over a period of time and can be alleviated by ending the fight quickly. Or if you’re up against a weak enemy, there’s an auto-fight button that allows you to slap at the guy in front of you, and reflexively use your healing power when you get into serious trouble. And best of all, if you’re attacked by an enemy so piddlingly pathetic that there’s no challenge whatsoever, Earthbound doesn’t even bother to let the fight start. The enemy automatically dies and you get the measly experience reward and items without having to lift a finger.

This last one is a brilliant idea and one which I really wish had become standard practice in the decades since. Yes, turn-based combat can be fun when done properly (I’ve been playing a lot of Darkest Dungeon over the last few months and so should you), but being set upon by enemies who can’t provide challenge isn’t anything more than busywork. Taking them out of the equation is like having an option in Pokémon Blue that stops you getting abused by cave-dwelling Zubats or all those bloody Tentacool.

(And yes, I know there were repels on sale in every shop you found, but that’s the game just selling you a solution to a problem it created, so shush yo’ mowf.)

But here’s the thing – these are all good ideas for the turn-based combat, but the core combat itself is just sort of… basic. It’s certainly serviceable and given a bit of spice by being quite challenging, but all the stuff above is only methods of alleviating the problems that come with this kind of gameplay. What they aren’t is a unique selling point that captures the imagination or adds a new layer of tactics to the gameplay, like XCOM’s base management, Steamworld: Heist’s ricochet mechanics, or Civilisation’s oddly nuke-happy Mahatma.

And again, I know what everybody’s going to say: the game was invented in the 90’s before the time when turn-based combat had become quite so standardised, and can’t be blamed for being part of the phase that caused that standardisation later; much in the way that you can’t blame Tolkien for every other fantasy writer stealing elements from Lord of the Rings.

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Hello, Mr. Saturn. Is it off to work you go?

And I certainly don’t think less of Earthbound for that fact, but this isn’t the 90’s anymore, and I’m more interested in seeing how these games hold up, especially considering that Nintendo is still charging money for them. The best thing Earthbound has to a defining USP is the fact that you can bring multiple characters into battle, but even then this wasn’t especially new and doesn’t really shake up the gameplay in the way you’d hope.

And while I’m getting comfortable complaining, the game is rather poor at telling things to you that could be very important. Remember earlier how I mentioned that my in-game Pa had wired me twenty bucks? Well, I presumed the way to make more money was to scavenge items from defeated enemies and flog them at the drugstore, because nobody had had told me any different and this was all I had to go on. But this turned out to be a very slow and unreliable method of saving up, because not all enemies drop items and when they do they’re usually not worth squat, as you’d expect for a stale cookie that’s had two previous owners (ew).

But I persevered until I’d scraped together about forty bucks, and went to stick my handful of crumpled bills in the ATM for safe-keeping. So it was only then that I realised that Dad had given me five hundred dollars and neglected to mention it. What?! No wonder the neighbours are bankrupt if we’ve borrowed enough cash to pay Joel Jr. several grand per week! And consequently when I went to buy all the best weapons and armour with my new wealth, my stats made me feel over-levelled, because I’d spent the last two hours kicking snakes to death for handfuls of spare change, not realising that my father was also try to play the role of my sugar daddy (again, ew).

 

CONCLUSION

Looking back over the review, I wonder why I like Earthbound as much as I honestly do, because I’m not entirely sure what it’s done to deserve it. I remember playing it and enjoying it, but now I feel hard-pressed to justify that. If the gameplay was a bit unimaginative, the visuals were janky and they weren’t telling me stuff I need to know, then what on Earth was I getting out of the experience?

It might be because of the difficulty, which became startlingly well-balanced for tension once I got over the initial up-down bump in the road caused by Dad holding out on me. Or it might be because of the item and power rewards, which are varied and palpable and motivate you to keep playing.

Or it might just because of how weird it all is. Yeah, I think that might be it. Even now I’m not entirely sure how much of Earthbound’s surreal, slightly uncomfortable atmosphere is intentional, but I don’t think it really matters, because it’s there regardless and certainly makes it feel different to anything else I’ve played.

In fact, nearly everything that’s wrong with this game is somehow made to work for it, turning the errors and lapses in style into a style all of its own, like a demented, flea-bitten puppy with several chunks taken out of its ears (shout-out to the mysterious dog who wandered over to my table at that moment to inadvertently provide inspiration for that simile, who’s a good boy?). It feels like the kids who starred in the game were the ones making it, and luckily they just happened to be very talented.

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I wanna see the bloody car crash! I wanna see!

So Earthbound gets a recommendation, but I think it’s worth discussing exactly what we can learn from a game that has created this enduring legacy despite everything wrong with it. being viewed poorly by critics at the time, and being the only game in the Mother trilogy to get a Western release, so unconvinced were Nintendo by its ability to stand on its own merits. In this era where the main industry is falling to more rampant homogenisation than ever and companies are stumbling over each other to cram in more brown-haired white guys and sodding loot boxes, how much goodwill does it really buy you? I don’t mean financial success, but how many places in people’s personal Top Ten Lists? How much ‘twoo wuv,’ to quote The Princess Bride?

It’s a tricky question, because being enjoyable isn’t actually synonymous with being memorable, or even interesting. Take Overwatch, for example. Overwatch is fun to play and I wouldn’t ever claim otherwise, but everything unique about it was hammered into the ground in order to force it to be as marketable as possible, with one of the most tedious superhero plots I’ve ever heard (and I’ve read Youngblood) and the vast majority of its characters reduced to maybe two basic ideas at most, and as a result there’s nothing there that has me thinking about it when the match is over. It’s filler, it’s fast food, it’s Modern Family.

By contrast, I can think of some heavily flawed but fascinating games that I would recommend in a heartbeat, and that stay in my thoughts far longer than Blizzard’s polished perpetual profit machine. Sunless Sea, for example. Or Bioshock Infinite. Or Quadrilateral Cowboy, Elite: Dangerous, Papers Please, and, for that matter, Earthbound.

 


8.5/10 

If Calvin and Hobbes made a video game, I suspect it might be a lot like this. Immature, clumsy, patchwork and downright surreal at times, it all somehow comes together and becomes something very special for it. Play it if you get the chance, because you probably won’t find this sort of thing anywhere else.

THE MINI SNES SAGA 1: MEGAMAN X REVIEW – “X-CITING, X-TREME, X-CRUTIATING”

INTRODUCTION

So recently I was fortunate enough to acquire one of those oh-so-unreasonably-rare Mini SNES’s, mainly through a combination of insomnia, cosmic good fortune and the kind of reflexes more commonly associated with professional gunfighters, only a lot less useful/cool.

And it provided me with an interesting opportunity both to see how Nintendo’s back catalogue holds up over twenty years later, but also to see what I missed from the decade that I was born in, the dark era documented in tattered scraps of persevered history as the Nineties. Sure, I remember playing video games as early as four years old, but even by then it was 1998 and the SNES was dutifully making way for the approach of the Nintendo 64 and the Playstation (not to mention whatever the hell Sega was putting out, I think it might’ve been the Saturn).

So most of what I know about the SNES had to be retroactively hunted down in the years hence. I’d played a few of the Mini SNES library before – I not sure you can call yourself a gamer without playing Street Fighter II at least once, and I still consider Super Mario World to be one of the best platformers of all time – but I hadn’t tried all of them, and the one I went to first was something that had slipped me until now: Megaman X. As a matter of fact, I’d never even played a Megaman game before, but certain infamous box covers had led me to believe it concerned the adventures of a wonky, middle-aged man dancing in the middle of a Dubai firefight. Time to see if I was on the money.

 

STORY

It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on in Megaman X, because I’m not convinced the game itself is entirely sure. To begin with there’s a rather prolonged Star Wars text crawl that dumps a ton of information on you, most of which I glazed over and forgot within minutes. I was genuinely trying to pay attention and I can usually swallow some of this stuff, but it’s a mish-mash of uninteresting science-fiction ideas on a glaringly ugly background without any humour or pictures to lighten it up.

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“Take that, Mecha-Moleman! My 80’s hair compels you to return to whence you came!”

At some point you’ve seen something like it, either in games or film. IN THE YEAR 20XX MANKIND HAS CREATED WORKING ROBOT SLAVES THAT CAN THINK AND FEEL AND FOR SOME REASON HAVE A LOT OF WEAPONRY AND NO OFF-SWITCH AND THEY MIGHT GO EVIL, AND APPARENTLY ASIMOV’S LAWS OF ROBOTICS ARE PROGRAMMED IN, BUT THEY’RE MORE LIKE PLAINTIVE SUGGESTIONS THAN ANYTHING REALLY CONCRETE, SO I GUESS THE PROGRAMMERS BUGGERED THAT UP ROYAL, AND I’VE MADE THIS NEW ROBOT CALLED “X” THAT NEEDS THIRTY YEARS OF HAVING HIS BALL-BEARINGS TWIDDLED BEFORE HE’S PROPERLY FUNCTIONAL AND NOT EVIL, SO SOMEBODY SET THE TIMER PLEASE SO WE CAN HAVE HIM BLOW STUFF UP WHEN HE’S DONE.

I found this whole concept slightly weird, and more than a little nonsensical, even getting past the robotics and sci-fi laser fighting. Don’t get me wrong, the ability to create artificial, autonomous life that is sentient and can make choices is a perfectly serviceable premise, but I’m not sure it’s much of a choice if “X” has to spend three decades having all the nastiness wired out of his robot brain. You go to all the trouble of building an AI with self-determination, and your first instinct is to try and undo that? And why are they being mass-produced when they could all potentially decide NOT to do whatever we want them to, and just become an enormous problem to be dealt with? Oh, guess what’s happened now.

Whatever, I leapt into the game proper, and then became even more confused, especially when I started going on the internet for clarification. The first thing we get is a rather nifty tutorial stage with X running along a highway blasting robots, but the Wiki page went on about the ruins of a research lab and the enemies being called “Mavericks,” a name which I don’t think I saw anywhere in the game whatsoever. I’m guessing this is all found in a wider continuity from cartoons and manga that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot barge pole on the end of another, longer barge pole. I ain’t reading “Baby’s First Philip K. Dick,” no matter how confused I get.

So I’ll stick to the stuff I did comprehend, like the first mission. X leaps into the fray and bounces through several highways laying waste to various robo-thugs, but then has the bad sense to leap into a supposed-to-lose boss fight with a guy named Sigma, who looks like Shovel Knight got dragged into the Marvel 2099 continuity. Sigma promptly pounds X into the floor and is about to permanently send him to the big blue error screen in the sky, whereupon some ostentatious git named Zero leaps in to save him with the power of his blonde ponytail and 80’s fashion sense. Sigma flees back to his fortress and Zero says, “Blimey, you arsed this up. Maybe we should meet again when you don’t suck quite so much and have another go at this, hmm?”

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X chooses his next target for destruction, much like Agent 47 would…

And that’s the storytelling engine, such as it is. X goes around defeating robot bosses and scavenging their parts to add more weapons onto himself, and one thing I actually really like is that you can tackle the bosses in whatever order you want, which feels like the “X has a choice” concept actually coming into gameplay in some fashion, so good work there. Admittedly the bosses aren’t narratively developed in the slightest beyond an animal theme and some incidental height/weight stats (including the bewildering news that the ten-foot tall metal elephant somehow only weighs seven hundred pounds), but I still want to beat them, because I want to eat their processors from their crumpled chassis, and gain their courage and strength for myself. Besides, once I’m done I’ll get to beat up Sigma properly and show up Zero to be the ponce he is, though spoiler alert: that hair-swishing bastard will still find some way to hog the spotlight, whatever it takes.

 

AUDIOVISUAL DESIGN

Call me a sucker for well-crafted pixel art, but I really liked how Megaman X looks, with a few X-ceptions. It’s bright and vibrant and colourful in that way that most SNES games are, though at times becomes a bit too much and gets into that slightly garish level that feels like it’s taking the top layer of skin off your pupils (which presumably would be your eyelids).

But this feeling was generally quite rare, and in most cases each location has a good colour scheme that doesn’t feel overly obtrusive, though the artist might’ve eased up on the use of gunmetal colouring. When even the trees have cybernetic parts hanging off them, you might want to ease up a tad on the concept.

That being said, I’m not as enthused about the music, though it’s not bad by any means. As a matter of fact, I went back to listen to it afterwards, and it’s actually fairly solid, if a little unmemorable in that “can’t really hum it” sort of way. But I never really noticed it in-game, for two reasons. First of all, the crazy-stupid difficulty means I’m diverting all the brainpower I have just to keep blasting bots, so there’s nothing left for the music appreciation club, and secondly it’s that X’s charge attack generates a horrible, high-pitched whine that makes me want to turn the volume down and obscures the music anyway. Between combat sections there’s no reason not to have your blaster charged and ready to fire, but you have to deal with the noise of a mosquito in an echo chamber as a result.

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By the power of Greyskull!

Overall Megaman X does come across as rather good-looking even now, sleek and detailed in a way that some artists still struggle to match. In comparison to the games of its time, some of which could barely create an aesthetic tone to begin with, it’s nearly a Da Vinci painting, achieving things the likes of which other titles couldn’t conceive of without limitless ambition and a couple of hallucinogenics.

 

GAMEPLAY

If you’ve played Megaman before, you know the core of what to expect. It’s a 2D platformer in which you are a little bionic Boy Blue who’s had one arm turned into a giant death cannon, because Doctor Light is many things but he never approved of masturbation. You’re teleported into a mission to do what you always do in platformers: keep running to the right and don’t stop until somebody puts you back into the map screen. If something gets in your way, you blast it, and if it drops something that isn’t rapidly flashing red, you pick it up. This particular instalment ups the ante by adding optional powers and the ability to wall-jump from the start, which certainly helps with exploration, but it’s a shame that everything that made Megaman X feel unique at the time has been copied and recopied to death by thousands of other games in the decades since then, sort of like what happened with fantasy books and Lord of the Rings.

But you know what was really stupid of me? The other game I was playing this week was Bloodborne. Jesus, I do myself no favours. I’d get squashed by Ebrietas, Daughter of the Cosmos, and think “this is getting to me, I’ll play some Megaman to cool off.” Then I’d get pummelled into the dirt by that sodding chameleon and think “God damn it, I’ll go and relax with some Bloodborne.” It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking a lot of caffeine, or I think my heart would’ve physically torn itself from my chest in abject rage and frustration.

Yes, Megaman X is hard, and whilst I’m normally OK with that, there are bits of it that come across a bit cheap. Actually, a lot cheap, and that bird boss is somehow the least of it. I think it’s the movement speed that provides the biggest problem. Fighting regular enemies is usually fine, but most of the bosses seem to have been designed for a protagonist about thirty percent faster than X, and with a bit more manoeuvrability; not to mention that they have the agonising tactic of backing you against a wall and forcing you to take damage again as you push through them to escape. And god help you if you decided to play Percy Penguin’s Icy Igloos after all the other levels, because without the dash ability you get there, you’ll really struggle against all those nimble bastards who will try and sit on you if you stop for even a second.

But the idea of armour mods is innately a very cool one. You always get a new weapon at the end of every level, but actual modifications to your core armour and abilities are optional unlockables, hidden throughout certain levels. Some of these are boring (a contextual ability to smash the right kind of brick with your head, snore) but some are a lot more exciting, like the power to charge up your main weapon even more and fire the Curly Purple DNA Helix of Death, which’ll instantly destroy anything that doesn’t get its own theme music. One armour mod even halves all the damage you take, which seems a bit much, especially considering that it’s very, very easy to miss most of these. I hope you’re not scaling the challenge on the assumption that I have all these trinkets, Capcom, because that’s one hell of an assumption to make when you’re hiding the Master Blaster behind an entirely unintuitive path that demands a fiddly pixel-perfect trick jump using an ability the player probably doesn’t have yet, you bastards.

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Take THIS, Lonesome George!

And oddly enough and in contrast to common sense, the difficulty actually goes down as you progress. All the levels, potentially consumed in any order, therefore have to provide the same level of challenge, so whilst they do start off hard eventually you’ll get lucky and come out with a new weapon. Then it’s a matter of finding which of the bosses is vulnerable to that weapon (there’s always one) and finishing him off. Now you have two new weapons, and things are really starting to snowball now. By the time I was picking off the remnants of Sigma’s henchmen, I was just hanging on the edge of a wall and firing homing rockets at anywhere there was room for them. The last level against Sigma himself ramps up the challenge again (partly by being longer than one of those desert super-marathons, and about as physically draining), but it’s still easier than those early missions that’ll slap you around like they’re being paid to do so.

 

CONCLUSION

At the end of the day, Megaman X is still good, which is something it should be proud of. It’s certainly aged better than one might’ve hoped, and I think part of the reason for that is the conspicuous absence of the very kind of story I was dreading. The game almost seems to know that its narrative is the most eye-rolling kind of hokum, and as a result I think there’s about a dozen text boxes over the course of the entire thing. Maybe that was the point of the plot dump at the beginning, getting it out of the way so we can enjoy some running-shooting-jumping action.

Because it is enjoyable, and that’s easier to explain. Despite being difficult, the fact you can pick your levels from the start means you’re never stuck in one place, because you can say “sod this” and go kill somebody else halfway across the world. And whilst the core gameplay is almost too simple, the game knows how to drag every scrap of potential out of it that it can, testing the player’s reflexes, strategy and skill all at once and not relenting until you’ve really earnt your robo-killer badge.

So Megaman X is a really solid game both then and now, a little less unique and certainly not world-changing anymore, but neither is The Three Stooges and I won’t tire of eye-poking and nose-tweaking any time soon.

And now I’m done, I’m going to cool my frayed nerves by playing something less challenging. Hmm, how about this… Contra III?

 


8/10 

Megaman X remains a favourite of the era today, and it’s not hard to see why. Now a bit less special but still designed incredibly solidly, the game justifies its teeth-grinding difficulty with a sense of freedom and advancement that’s not easily found in a 2D platformer.