It’s not easy making a list of the 200 Best Nintendo Games…
Nintendo is celebrating what is arguably one of its greatest years in the company’s history and so what better way to celebrate Goomba Stomp’s Two Year Anniversary than with a list of the 200 best Nintendo games. The list started with roughly 500 titles, and after careful consideration, we trimmed it down to 300 based on the following criteria. Of the 300 remaining titles, we voted multiple times, slowly eliminating 100, and arguing extensively as to what should and shouldn’t qualify. For a game to be eligible for inclusion on this list, it had to be developed by an internal Nintendo studio, or developed by a second-party developer and released exclusively for Nintendo platforms.
We also included Nintendo-owned brands handled by a third party, in close cooperation with Nintendo itself and any video game that was exclusive to a Nintendo console during its first year of release. Games such as Beyond Good and Evil, Shovel Knight or even The World of Goo were eliminated since gamers were able to play those titles at home on other platforms. There are three exceptions which you will notice while browsing the list, but we felt we had a solid argument as to why the ports of these three games had to be included. We’ve also decided to put the list in chronological order based on the release date of each game. In other words, think of this as a timeline listing just some of the amazing games exclusive to Nintendo console, and not so much a ranking. However, for those of you curious, we do mention the top ten games as voted by our staff at the very end of the list.
Part One: 1980–1990
The Japanese video game giant Nintendo emerged as a global leader in the video game industry when it unveiled the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985. The NES went on to become the best-selling gaming console of its time, and decades later the NES still exerts a major influence on the entire industry. We’ve heard the argument that the admiration toward the NES is largely due to nostalgia, but one can make that very same argument towards anything we hold dear. The fact of the matter is, the 1980s are arguably Nintendo’s greatest and most influential decade, and of the 300 games we had to eliminate, I would estimate a good 50% of those titles were released during this time. The NES alone boasts a grand total of 826 titles to choose from (713 licensed and 113 unlicensed games), including a number of groundbreaking hits, so trust us when we say it was really hard to choose what and what not to include.
1) Donkey Kong
Developer(s) Nintendo Research & Development 1
Release: July 9, 1981
This classic launched the careers of Donkey Kong and Mario (here named Jumpman), but nobody ever bothered to ask what happened to the beautiful Pauline, who is trapped within the paws of the giant ape. The game was the latest in a series of efforts by Nintendo to break into the North American market, and was developed by first-time video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto. The rest, as they say, is history. Drawing from a wide range of inspirations, including Popeye, Beauty and the Beast, and King Kong, Miyamoto developed a critical and commercial success that helped establish him as a key player in the industry. If you happen to be a nostalgic gamer — or even a huge Nintendo fan who wants to explore the company’s back catalogue — this is essential to your collection. (Ricky D)
2) Mario Bros.
Developer(s) Nintendo Research & Development 1
Release: June 1, 1983
The origin of what later evolved into the iconic 2D gameplay of Super Mario games, Mario Bros. holds its own and stands today as possibly one of the most terrific titles Mario has had his name put on. Here you play as a rather slippery-on-his-feet Mario (and Luigi, when playing two players), who is tasked with banishing baddies from the sewers by striking the ground beneath them, then running into the enemies to kick them off the screen, all the while platforming on floating…well, platforms. Enemies include Koopa Troopa prototype turtles, angry crabs named Side-Steppers, and fly things that make a horrible sound effect that is nostalgic for me at this point. If it all gets a bit too much, you can always hit the POW button to shake the ground under your enemies’ feet, but the amount of times you can use this is limited.
The NES was home to many great remakes and ports of classic arcade games, and Mario Bros. is no exception. While the arcade version is technically superior to the NES release, offering better graphics, enemy AI, and gameplay physics, the NES version is perhaps second-best (and for many, the best) we had available at home. This is a game I have very strong fond memories of, and one I go back to often. It’ll never age, never feel outdated, no matter how much Mario evolves and advances in the present. These are his true platformer beginnings. (Maxwell N)
3) Duck Hunt
Developer(s) Nintendo Research & Development 1
Platform(s) NES, Arcade
Release: JP: April 21, 1984 / NA: October 18, 1985
Genre(s) Light Gun Shooter
For the unfamiliar, Duck Hunt sees players use the NES Zapper to shoot ducks that appear on the television screen. The ducks appear one or two at a time, and the player is given three shots to shoot them down. If the required number of ducks bite it in a single round, the player will advance to the next round; otherwise, the game will end. It sounds simple enough, but the further you advance, the faster the ducks move across the screen, and the harder it gets.
Duck Hunt has been around as long as the NES itself. It was originally packaged with the NES console for some years, even sharing a game cartridge with Super Mario Bros., and for many gamers, Duck Hunt — alongside Super Mario Bros. — was their introduction to gaming. While the light gun shooter may seem dated today, in all honesty, it’s just as fun and challenging as it was when first released. In fact, this is one of the few NES games to make good use of the Nintendo Zapper, and in my opinion, one of the best launch games ever made. Almost everyone can agree that the pack-in cartridge was monumentally influential for the entire video game industry, and Duck Hunt, along with its colorful visuals, catchy soundtrack (by legendary Zelda composer Koji Kondo), and adorable mascot, holds a special place in the hearts of many old-school Nintendo fans like myself. (Ricky D)
Developer(s) Nintendo R&D1
Release: November 30, 1984
Have you ever popped a wheelie with your bicycle, avoided a disastrous wipeout on a patch of gravel with a sweet maneuver, or built ramps to jump Evel Knievel-style over the stretched-out bodies of your overly trusting friends? Who am I kidding — if you grew up on a BMX then of course the answer is yes, and this mysterious childhood draw may explain some of the appeal of a game so simple and addicting as Excitebike. Arena motor bikes careening over dirt hills, dodging each other and the various oil slicks that dot the track, all while furiously pushing an engine that’s always on the brink of overheating will always be awesome, even if the 8-bit visuals and two-button controls Excitebike sports don’t exactly simulate the complexities of the real thing.
But realism doesn’t matter when you’re hypnotized by the whiny hum of your wobbly hog, weaving in and out of traffic, sticking a perfect landing after flying off a mountainous mound before coasting to victory with a one-wheel taunt. Hell, even if you spend most of your time mashing the A button after crashing for the thousandth time, spurring your racer back onto his seat while offering up a profane tongue-lashing as extra motivation, the temptation to give the chaos one more go is ever-present, a clear sign of design success. Excitebike made a living off of taking 80s racing fantasies to Napolean Dynamite levels, and validates its impressive longevity by still doing so today. (Patrick Murphy)
5) Super Mario Bros.
Developer(s) Nintendo R&D4
Platform(s) Nintendo Entertainment System
Release: September 13, 1985
It’s hard to imagine a video game industry today without Super Mario Bros. Here’s the title that single-handedly revitalized the gaming industry and solidified Nintendo as the King of the video game market. While the vast majority of early video games at the time were largely designed by the programmers coding them, Super Mario Bros. was instead made by Shigeru Miyamoto, an artist first and foremost, who graduated with a degree in industrial design. As with Donkey Kong, character mattered most. Players would control Mario, accompanying him on his journey through the Mushroom Kingdom on his quest to rescue Princess Peach from the vicious Bowser, King of the Koopas. It quickly became synonymous with the Nintendo Entertainment System, and helped the NES become the top-selling console of its time. The video game crash of 1983 was officially over, and the famous brick-busting duo became household names.
Super Mario Bros. is one of the most iconic video games ever conceived due to the sprawling level design, clever enemy placement, hidden secrets, optional sub-routes, superb physics, legendary soundtrack and gorgeous sprite-work. Without it, the video game industry wouldn’t be the same. (Ricky D)
6) The Legend of Zelda
Developer(s) Nintendo Research & Development 4
Platform(s) Famicom Disk System/Nintendo Entertainment System
Release: February 21, 1986
Shigeru Miyamoto’s masterpiece laid the groundwork for almost every action-RPG that came after it, and has become a staple franchise for Nintendo that decades later is still going strong. When it was released, The Legend of Zelda was a first in so many categories. Not only was it an early example of open world and non-linear gameplay, but it also introduced a battery backup to save your progress. Serving as the foundation of many modern adventure games, it introduced now-basic concepts like dungeon maps, utility equipment, and boss formulas that we still see used today.
Zelda can be cruel and often bewildering, but it’s also mysterious and beautiful, and every accomplishment you make in-game, no matter how small, is legitimately satisfying. I would argue that its unapologetic open-world approach and lack of hand-holding are what makes it special. More importantly, The Legend of Zelda has aged surprisingly well thanks to a brilliant soundtrack, creative visuals, and a masterfully layered adventure. It is, without a doubt, one of the most influential games of all time, and one of the greatest games ever made. It was ahead of its time and it stands the test of time. Very few games can make that claim. (Ricky D)
7) Dragon Warrior
Release: May 27, 1986
Many will argue that at its core, Dragon Warrior (originally released in Japan as Dragon Quest) is the quintessential JRPG, and set the template from which nearly every Japanese role-playing game drew inspiration. It came out long before Final Fantasy, and at the time of release, it was one of the early smash hits for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Dragon Quest was so popular in fact that it became a national phenomenon in Japan, and at one point was dubbed Japan’s national game. You’d be forgiven for never once playing the game given that it is indeed dated, but regardless, this may be one of the ten most influential games featured on this list. (Ricky D)
8) Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels
Developer(s) Nintendo R&D4
Platform(s) Famicom Disk System
Release: JP: June 3, 1986
Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels (known as Super Mario Bros. 2 in Japan) gets a bad wrap outside its original market. The game was a true sequel to the original Super Mario Bros., and naturally unable to live up to the impact of its predecessor. When the game was shown to Nintendo of America’s Howard Philips, he declared it too hard for release in North America, later saying that “Not having fun is bad when you’re a company selling fun.”
Philips was probably right to hold off on the release of The Lost Levels, but he is incorrect about the game not being fun. It’s a delight to play and master, truthfully not much more difficult than the original Mega Man games. While Super Mario Bros. 3 rightfully gets credit for evolving the Mario franchise, The Lost Levels was the first Mario game to require exploration. Finding hidden boxes makes the seemingly impossible jumps doable, and after beating the main game, several bonus worlds unlock. The difference between Mario and Luigi’s jumping and weight began here as well.
It’s unfair that countless deaths and poison mushrooms take the headlines when talking about Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. It’s a fantastic platformer that anyone who enjoys the challenge of Odyssey‘s “The Darker Side of the Moon” is sure to love. Truthfully, if I had to play one Mario game for the rest of my life, Super Mario Bros. or Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, I’d choose Lost Levels. (Tyler Kelbaugh)
Developer(s) Nintendo R&D1
Platform(s) Family Computer Disk System, Nintendo Entertainment System
Release: JP: August 6, 1986 / NA: August 15, 1987
Genre(s) Action-Adventure, Platforming
For Metroid, director Yoshio Sakamoto chose to combine elements of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda — with a clever twist. Yokoi wasn’t interested in creating anything groundbreaking, but he did want to experiment with what had made Nintendo’s two biggest franchises a success. Metroid fused ideas from both to create something new and offbeat. Like Super Mario Bros. it adopts a side-scrolling perspective and puts a large emphasis on platforming. Unlike Super Mario Bros., it allows players to scroll either left, right, up and down, instead of forcing them into constant forward motion. And like Zelda, Metroid places an emphasis on nonlinear gameplay, weapon upgrades, and a decidedly darker tone and atmosphere.
Of course, one of the most notable aspects of the original Metroid is the simple decision to make Samus Aran a woman. It wasn’t planned that way, but one casual remark helped give birth to one of gaming’s first leading ladies, and one of gaming’s most beloved protagonists, male or female. While Metroid is groundbreaking in many ways, it would be nothing without its gender-role trailblazing. That famous unexpected reveal at the end of Metroid proved women could be more in gaming lore than eye candy, and regardless if Ridley Scott’s Alien was a clear influence or not, it was at the end of Metroid that a gaming legend was born, and one who would help pave the way for more female characters in gaming.
For a game of its era, Metroid’s graphics and sound also truly hold up. Anyone who tells you that it’s dated clearly doesn’t understand the meaning of the phrase. Metroid is not a product of its time; it was ahead of its time in every way, and boasts one of the best soundtracks of any NES title. Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, the composer of the original Metroid, aimed to create a score that made players feel like they were encountering a “living organism” and had no distinction between music and sound effects. In fact, the only time the main Metroid theme is heard is after Mother Brain is defeated. Metroid created an audio experience like no other, and the game’s soundtrack helped to create the ambiance through music that detached itself from other soundtracks of the era. Tanaka’s contribution defined the music for the series and became a huge step for the video game industry as a whole. (Ricky D)
10) Kid Icarus
Developer(s) Nintendo R&D1 / TOSE
Platform(s) Family Computer Disk System, Nintendo Entertainment System
Release: JP: December 19, 1986 / NA: July 01, 1987
Genre(s) Action, Platforming
Kid Icarus was directed by Satoru Okada, and produced by the general manager of the R&D1 division, the same team who developed Metroid a year earlier. Both games ran on the same engine, shared similar level designs and even a few notorious enemies, and so one of the most striking aspects of Kid Icarus is how similar it feels to its sister game. Yet Pit has always been overshadowed by Samus Aran, making Kid Icarus something of a black sheep among all of the NES classics. While this game has a devout legion of followers, there are just as many people who dislike it, and after its debut in 1986 (and a lone sequel for the Gameboy), Nintendo made the decision to clip Pit’s wings. The series lay dormant for 21 years — a baffling choice, considering Pit is one of Nintendo’s most iconic protagonists. Every system out there has at least one wildly underrated game, and on the NES it’s Kid Icarus. It may not be on the same level as its first-party NES peers, but it shares a lot in common with Nintendo’s ‘Big Three’ — and thanks to Super Smash, the Nintendo icon finally got his dues. (Ricky D)
Platform(s) Family Computer Disk System, NES
Release: September 26, 1986
Genre(s) Action, Platforming
There was a time when video games were simply played for the enjoyment of reflexively pushing buttons to get a high score, but who knew these things could actually give off vibes? Though the console landscape had for some time been populated by alien invasions, pursuant ghosts, and murderous giant apes, isn’t wasn’t until 1986’s Castlevania that a successful attempt was made at giving off an air of horror. Sure, Oregon Trail made many players cringe from grisly deaths by drowning or (ugh) dysentery, but the Gothic setting and classic monsters of Konami’s breakthrough title (released on the 90th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s Dracula) made an even deeper impression, opening up future possibilities in immersion and storytelling. Throw in satisfying gameplay, a steep challenge, and an iconic, whip-wielding hero in Simon Belmont, and that’s a good recipe for a classic.
Right off the bat Castlevania sets a moody scene, with Simon’s approach to the titular fortress ensconced in gloomy fog and eerie moonlight, heralded by grave tune. Or maybe I just remember it that way — such is the power of the minimalist visuals and an ominous score. He is there to defeat Dracula, and must climb to the highest stone tower to meet that mythic goal. Along the way there will be fights against hyper hunchbacks, maddening Medusa heads, and the scythe-swinging danger of Death itself, all set against a creepy castle decaying from the inside out. It’s a grueling journey that demands both fortitude and plenty of wall meat, and after surviving the monstrous onslaught and numerous pitfalls, the long stairway to fate is full of the kind of anxiety and dread not seen before. Emerging victorious in the final vampire fight is among the many sources of bragging rights from the NES era, in no small part due to the platforming skill required to get there.
The linear layout and unforgiving nature of Castlevania might bear little resemblance to what the franchise has since become, but its solid gameplay and masterful presentation ensure that this platforming monster lives on. (Patrick Murphy)
12) Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Developer(s) Nintendo R&D4
Platform(s) Famicom Disk System/Nintendo Entertainment System
Release: January 14, 1987
Genre(s) Action-Adventure, Role-Playing
The second installment in The Legend of Zelda series is often considered the black sheep of the family. Despite being one of the best-selling games in the entire series, many fans hate it, and with good reason. The game is tough, and I do mean tough. Anyone who has played Zelda II can tell you how difficult beating the simplest of enemies can be, nevermind the boss battles. Players must be prepared for repeated failure when sitting down to play Zelda II, but that is kind of what makes the game so great. The sense of accomplishment a player feels when finishing Zelda II is unmatched by any other game in the series.
The Adventure of Link was an incredibly assured attempt to rewrite the rules of the entire series back in 1988. It introduced elements like Link’s “magic meter” and the Shadow Link character that would become commonplace in future Zelda games, while role-playing elements such as experience points, as well as the platform-style side-scrolling with multiple lives, were never used again in canonical games. In addition, Zelda II introduced a number of Zelda standards, including a larger focus on storytelling, as well as sidequests. Yes, it is difficult, and yes, it is different, but for better or for worse, that is what makes it stand out from all the other entries in the series. Zelda II is unique but frustrating, flawed but brilliant, and without question an important game that helped define what the Zelda games would ultimately be. (Ricky D)
13) Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
Developer(s) Nintendo R&D3
Release: NA: October 18, 1987
Genre(s) Sports, Fighting
Punch-Out!! isn’t your traditional boxing game — the gameplay design is all about pattern recognition, fast reaction times, and some patience. Little Mac has 5 different punches at his disposal, the most powerful being the star punch uppercut, and his opponents each have their own unique bag of tricks. In order to defeat each member of the rogues’ gallery, players must figure out how to counter their special moves. What makes Punch-Out!! such a success is that each match plays like a mini-boss battle — and every opponent has different boxing styles. In each fight, the opponent has certain mannerisms that act as clues to when he will perform his special move. Because of this, in some ways Punch Out is like a puzzle game — the major key to beating it is recognizing patterns. Time is also a major factor, since each fight consists of only three rounds that are each only three minutes long, which doesn’t allow players to waste any time.
Each opponent is increasingly difficult to beat, but if there is any boss that plagued gamers back in the days of the NES it had to be Tyson. Tyson doesn’t use the same rules as the other fighters; there is no pattern to his attack, no method to his defense, and no obvious way to know when he is going to strike. Mac can duck, dodge, jab, hook, and uppercut his way through the match, but one punch from Iron Mike and you’ll find yourself down on the mat. Mike Tyson was an extremely difficult boss for the time, and players couldn’t rely on straight button mashing to defeat him. Beating him not only gave you bragging rights over your friends, but was one of the most satisfying game accomplishments back in the day. While he may have been removed from future installments of the series, Mike Tyson remains one of the best boss battles in Nintendo history, and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! may still be the best boxing game ever made. (Ricky D)
14) Mega Man
Platform(s) Nintendo Entertainment System
Release: December 17, 1987
Genre(s) Action, Platforming
Before Mega Man, Capcom primarily made arcade games, and their console releases were mostly ports of these titles. In the mid-1980s Capcom made plans to develop a new franchise specifically for the NES, and hired a small, young, talented team of six people — including artist Keiji Inafune — to develop an action-platformer, then known as Rokkuman, the first installment in what would go on to become one of the gaming industry’s most prolific series of all time. Of all the games released on the NES, the Mega Man series is the one that never feels dated. Featuring amazing visuals, charming characters, amazing music, and most importantly, near-perfect gameplay Mega Man nonlinear approach, which allows players to choose the order in which to complete its initial six stages, was a game-changer.
Each level culminates in a boss battle that awards the player/character a unique weapon. Gamers could then figure out which weapon to use against which boss, giving the game great replay value. The original Mega Man is best-known, however, for its difficulty. It remains the hardest game to beat in the franchise, and one of the hardest NES games to finish. Some have criticized the series for failing to evolve throughout the years, but I believe there is a simple and logical explanation for this: the first entry started out with such a perfect template — why change? Mega Man may not be the best in the franchise, let alone the best released for the NES console, but it is the first, and beating it remains one of the most satisfying accomplishments of my NES days. (Ricky D)
15) Final Fantasy
Release: December 18, 1987
The game that started it all, Final Fantasy was a bit of Hail Mary when it was released for the NES by Squaresoft, with the developer and publisher facing financial ruin. Spurred on by the sales of the recently released Dragon Warrior, they decided to take a punt on another role-playing game, and one of the most beloved franchises in video game history was born. Going back to Final Fantasy today isn’t as jarring an experience as you might assume, given the many advances made in the series in the subsequent fourteen proper entries; the combat system is surprisingly well thought-out, and the simple, linear storyline could even be considered preferable to the labyrinthine narratives of some of the later games in the franchise.
Mechanically, Final Fantasy is a little sluggish, and there’s way too much grinding required later on in the game, but as a time capsule to an era, before the series was famed for anime haircuts, teenage angst, and protracted development cycles, the title has lost none of its potency. Many of the conventions that would become staples of the series were started right here in the 1987 game, including some recurring musical pieces, like the iconic victory fanfare that plays at the end of a battle and the opening theme that has been featured in numerous other titles since. It doesn’t hold up as well as other games in the long-running series, but fans who are willing to persevere with some of the more clumsily implemented systems in play will likely find their time spent with Final Fantasy a worthwhile exercise in nostalgia, and an adventure that exists as a reminder of an inescapably vital moment in video game history. (John Cal McCormick)
16) Blaster Master
Release: JP: June 17, 1988 / NA: November 1988
Genre(s) Action, Platforming, Metroidvania
Blaster Master was once the most underrated game to be released for the NES, but thanks to a dedicated cult following and positive word of mouth, it managed to spawn two sequels (Blaster Master 2 and Blaster Master: Blasting Again), two handheld spin-offs (Blaster Master Boy and Blaster Master: Enemy Below) and even a recent remake on the Nintendo Switch (Blaster Master Zero). The game about a boy named Jason, his pet frog named Fred and a tank named Sophia that Jason uses to battle radioactive mutants, is without a doubt, one of the best games of the 8-bit era. The game was praised for its smooth play control, impressive level designs, detailed graphics, and a stellar soundtrack, and it was criticized for its high difficulty level and lack of passwords or save points. Blaster Master’s bosses are some of the largest seen in a game at that time as they take up a good portion of the screen and offer a pretty big challenge in later levels, that is, if you even make it that far. Trust me when I say, this is one of the toughest games of that generation and left many players frustrated. There are many great games from the NES days but Blaster Master was a game ahead of its time and for the time, it was absolutely brilliant. (Ricky D)
17) Bionic Commando
Release: JP: July 20, 1988
Genre(s) Action, Platforming
Loosely based on an arcade game of the same name, Bionic Commando is another Capcom classic that every self-respecting old-school gamer has fond memories of playing. A side-scroller with an interesting slant, Bionic Commando is best known as the unique platformer that actually removes the feature of jumping, and forces you to instead use a grappling hook to swing and climb through every level. At first, the game’s emphasis on swinging seems counterintuitive and frustrating, but those who spend the time needed to really master its controls will feel ultimately rewarded. Taking cues from open-ended adventure games like Metroid, Bionic Commando is more about exploration and combat than running from one side of the screen to the next. There’s an assortment of weapons and equipment your main character picks up along the way, and sometimes you’ll find yourself returning to a stage to complete your mission.
In the Famicom incarnation, a group of modern-day Nazis attempts to resurrect Adolph Hitler and take over the world, but in the US release, all references to Nazism in text and imagery were removed, and the Imperial Army’s Swastika insignia was changed into a new one resembling an eagle. Of all the games I own on the NES, Bionic Commando is one of my favorites, and one of the toughest to finish. (Ricky D)
18) Ninja Gaiden
Release: October 1988
Genre(s) Action, Platforming
Ninja Gaiden originally debuted as a two-player arcade beat-’em-up back in 1988, but this isn’t that game. The NES version is instead a follow-up, released about a year later, that follows a six-act story of Ryu Hayabusa, a rising warrior in his family’s clan whose main role in the world is to protect the Dark Dragon Blade from getting into the hands of evil. Ninja Gaiden (known as Shadow Warriors in Europe) amazed gamers with the degree of control it allowed over the main character and was praised for its deep control mechanics, despite needing just two buttons. Players are able to pull off wall jumps, super-swift attacks, and backflips, as well as pick up an assortment of weapons — including ninja stars — as they make their way through more than 10 grueling levels filled with various enemies and unique bosses. As the game progresses, the story unfolds using cinematic cut-scenes that make it feel like you’re watching a movie. These were a major innovation for the time, and the musical score is one of the finest to be found on the NES. In terms of NES platform action, it doesn’t really get much better than this; the game went on to win several awards in 1989, and ranks as one of the finest ninja-style games ever made (Ricky D)
19) Super Mario Bros. 2
Developer(s) Nintendo R&D4
Release: October 9, 1988
There are several design changes that make Super Mario Bros. 2 so different from its predecessor, starting with the pick-up-and-throw gameplay. The second difference is the elimination of the timer; this means players are no longer racing to the end, and therefore have plenty of time to fully explore each and every level. In addition, players can travel backward in a level if needed. However, the biggest change and improvement in this sequel is that Super Mario 2 opens up vertical gameplay. Whether it’s jumping up onto platform after platform or climbing vines and ladders, Super Mario Bros. 2 encourages players to move vertically just as often as they scroll to the side. Usually, when making sequels, game designers don’t like to make too many big changes, but with Super Mario 2 the gameplay was completely different, and the setting and enemies were totally unfamiliar. In fact, the game doesn’t even take place in the Mushroom Kingdom, and there are neither Goombas nor Hammer Brothers anywhere in sight. Shy Guys and Bob-ombs are the most notable common enemies, and Birdo is the recurring foe this time around. Super Mario Bros. 2 was also the first Mario game to allow players to choose from multiple characters (Mario, his brother Luigi, the mushroom retainer Toad, or Princess Peach), each with their own unique abilities.
But there’s a good reason why Super Mario Bros. 2 is so different from all the other games in the series: originally, it was not intended to be a Mario game at all. What became Super Mario Bros. 2 started out as a prototype for a vertically scrolling, two-player cooperative action game called Yume K?j?: Doki Doki Panic, a Family Computer Disk System game meant to tie-in with Fuji Television’s media technology expo, called Yume K?j?. The real sequel to Super Mario Bros. is actually quite similar to the first game, only more difficult to beat. All that aside, Super Mario Bros. 2 is a solid side-scrolling platformer that experimented in many new and daring ways — and thankfully for Nintendo, those risks paid off in spades. Super Mario Bros. 2 sold ten million copies, and was the third highest-selling game ever released on the Nintendo Entertainment System at that time. Nintendo Power listed Super Mario Bros. 2 as the eighth-best NES video game, mentioning that regardless of not being originally released as a Mario game, it was able to stand on its own merits and a unique take on the series’ trademark format. (Ricky D)
20) Mega Man 2
Release: December 24, 1988
Genre(s) Action, Platforming
If the first Mega Man is the alley-oop, then Mega Man 2 is the slam dunk. It captures so many things about the quintessential Mega Man experience: interesting thematic level design, memorable boss fights, and a catchy-as-heck soundtrack. Its impact on the series at large can’t be overstated. Mega Man 2 introduced so many staples of the franchise, such as the Energy Tank item, special movement items, the teleporter room, the 8-boss stage select screen, and the password system. Still, when looking at the change between 1 and 2, it’s clear to see that what truly stands out about Mega Man 2 is the simply fantastic level design.
Mega Man 2 was one of the few games that I couldn’t successfully beat as a child. It’s fairly demanding of the player, as it calls for quick reflexes and a cool head. However, the game is more than fair; if you die, it’s your own fault. Far from angering the player, it inspires them to do better. Once you’ve mastered the enemy patterns, know where platforms move, and start jumping and shooting to the beat, successfully completing the stage is all the more gratifying. To this day, Mega Man 2 remains a game that is satisfying to lose — and get better at. (Kyle Rogacion)
21) River City Ransom
Developer(s) Techn?s Japan
Platform(s) Family Computer/NES
Release: April 25, 1989
Genre(s) Beat ’em Up
More often than not, when people list off the best Beat ’em up games of the 8-bit generation, River City Ransom is often overshadowed by the likes of Double Dragon, Final Fight, and Streets of Rage, but River City Ransom remains one of the best, most overlooked games on the NES — and a favorite for those of us who played it back in the days. What elevates River City Ransom above most old-school Beat ’em ups how it incorporates RPG elements into the action and allows players the complete freedom to wander the streets, back alleys, and vacant lots of River City as you see fit. It helps too that for the time, River City Ransom featured colorful 8-bit sprites, a catchy soundtrack, and an art direction heavily influenced by Japanese manga, but what I remember most fondly about the game is how it allowed my friends and I to play cooperatively as Alex and Ryan. Many gamers will prefer Billy and Jimmy Lee, but for my money, they were the kings of side-scrolling brawlers. (Ricky D)
Developer(s) Bullet-Proof Software/Nintendo
Platform(s) Game Boy
Release: JP: June 14, 1989 / NA: July 31, 1989
It’s safe to assume that almost every video gamer has heard of Tetris, and most of us associate it with Nintendo, specifically their portable Game Boy system. Yes, Tetris had already existed in various incarnations since its creation in 1984, and was sold for both a range of home computer platforms and the arcades long before Game Boy ever existed, but the hugely successful handheld version for the Game Boy — which was launched in 1989 — is arguably the ultimate version of the perfect puzzle game. The famous puzzle game from creator Alexey Pajitnov is not only brilliant, but extremely addictive thanks to its simplistic design. With this particular version of Tetris came a competitive two-player mode made possible with the link cable, as well as an instrumental version of the Russian folk song “Korobeiniki.” Nintendo has made some of the best partnerships in the history of the gaming industry, and pairing Tetris with their new greyscale portable system back in the day is one of their best decisions in the company’s 125-plus years in existence. Tetris was a phenomenon, and literally laid the bricks for the foundation of the handheld gaming industry that Nintendo has continued to dominate ever since. (Ricky D)
23) Super Mario Bros. 3
Developer(s) Nintendo R&D4
Platform(s) Nintendo Entertainment System
Release: JP: October 23, 1988 / NA: February 12, 1990
Super Mario Bros. 3 was critically acclaimed, and with reason — there is not a fault to be found anywhere in the game. For the time, it was beyond anything you could ever dream. Super Mario Bros. 3 is a masterpiece, a perfect video game with eight worlds and 70-plus ingenious levels of side-scrolling awesomeness. One world is packed with giant renditions of every character, others feature underwater adventures, and some take you through spooky castles and dungeons. As you move ahead, you’ll discover that each level contains optional paths leading to shortcuts and extra lives hidden away. The best things are the power-ups and various suits you can use inside the levels. Mario can now slide down hills, knocking down enemies who get in his way, and the powerups from the original game also make an appearance.
Also new to the series are mini-games and an overhead map screen to track progress and collectible warp whistles (much like the one Link used in Zelda II) that teleport you to later worlds in the game. In addition, there is the music box that puts enemies on the map to sleep, as well as the anchor to stop the Koopaling’s airship from flying off around the map so that you don’t have to chase it. Juergen’s Cloud allows you to skip a level, and Kuribo’s shoe, easily one of the most beloved power-ups in Mario history, can be found in only one level! The familiar Mario sound effects are present and accounted for, along with a batch of new musical compositions concocted by Koji Kondo, and dozens of new enemies like Boom Booms, Boos, and Chain Chomps make their very first appearance in the Nintendo universe. Super Mario Bros 3 is often considered to be the best video game of the 8-bit generation. In my opinion it is, and it is also the best game in the Super Mario series. It’s a timeless masterpiece, full of innovation and surprises, one that will forever stand the test of time. (Ricky D)
24) Baseball Stars
Release: JP: May 19, 1989 / NA: July 1989
The game of baseball garners devoted fans for many reasons, and with its multi-faceted approach to offense and defense highlighted by the pitcher vs batter duel, as well as an emphasis on stats, it has long been a perfect fit for video games. Rarely, however, have any truly captured that pure feel of the sport with as much joy and balance as the NES’ Baseball Stars. What makes it stand out from the rest of the top gaming prospects is not only the careful way in which it approaches the many aspects of the sport, but also its heart; Baseball Stars understands what makes taking the field or stepping into the batter’s box magical, and that happens during innings, not in menus.
While obviously a limitation of the console it was released for, the beauty of Baseball Stars‘ two-button system is that the player’s focus can stay where it belongs, on the game, instead of half-concerned with worrying about input combinations. Throw the ball with A, run to a base with B; swing the bat with A, steal with B — easy as a 4-6-3. That doesn’t mean a high baseball I.Q. won’t help catch your buddy straying too far off the bag, though; the tools just don’t bog down the action. Whether jumping at the fence to rob a friend’s go-ahead homer or executing a flawless suicide squeeze with a perfectly placed bunt down the third base line, Baseball Stars is about great moments, the sort that kids dream of while they work on their curveball against a chain-link fence. Smashing that walk-off home run or picking your buddy off at second brings the sort of gleeful smile that reminds one of why we love this game in the first place. I’ve never played a video game that captured my favorite sport better than Baseball Stars. There’s something about strapping on a dusty leather mitt or digging my cleats into the gravelly dirt that simply feels right, and the same can be said for SNK’s original NES release, even after all these years. (Patrick Murphy)
25) Tecmo Bowl
Release NES: February 1989
I cannot stress the importance of Tecmo Bowl. Originally an arcade game, Tecmo Bowl was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System by the makers of such classics as Ninja Gaiden, Mighty Bomb Jack, and Solomon’s Key, and it took everyone by surprise by just how good it was. Nobody expected the Japanese developers of puzzle games and 2D platformers to succeed in creating a sports game, much less an American sports game, but they did. Named NES Sports Game of the Year, Tecmo Bowl provided players with the best football experience found on the NES console back in 1989, and it paved the way for what became the biggest trend in sports games to this day.
Tecmo Bowl is a seemingly effortless game in which everything falls neatly into place as if ordained by nature. It stripped football down to its basic elements and created a fun arcade experience anyone can enjoy. Tecmo Bowl was Madden before Madden was a household name. It’s the game that started the football franchise craze in video games, and laid the groundwork for the even better Tecmo Super Bowl. American football games have come a long way over the years, but what hasn’t changed is the sheer enjoyment any football fan can have when playing Tecmo Bowl.
Tecmo Bowl is without a doubt the granddaddy of football games, and there’s something to be said for the back-to-basics formula that Tecmo Bowl employed. With technological enhancements in gameplay, graphics, power, and speed, the original Tecmo Bowl seems incredibly dated in 2016, but surprisingly the gameplay holds up nearly three decades later. (Ricky D)
26) Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
Platform(s) Nintendo Entertainment System
Release: JP: December 22, 1989 / NA: September 1, 1990
Genre(s) Action, Platforming
Having tasted critical and commercial success with the original NES outing, Nintendo took a big risk in giving its direct sequel an entirely different spin. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is a game which is fondly remembered by some fans and hated by others (including myself). Thankfully, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse reverts back to the platform game roots of the first Castlevania title, keeping every fan happy. Unlike Castlevania, however, Castlevania III is non-linear, set 100 years before the first installment. Players once again assume the role of a vampire hunter extraordinaire, only this time it’s Simon’s ancestor, Trevor Belmont. In addition, Trevor can be assisted by special companions that he can switch places with at any time — Sypha Belnades, Grant Danasty, and Alucard — who have since become part of the fabric of Castlevania lore.
Konami spent a lot of time fine-tuning the gameplay here, and the result is almost perfect. Musically, Dracula’s Curse also improves on its prequels dramatically, offering up some of the best songs you’re likely to hear in any game, period. Many devoted followers will argue that this NES game is the best in the franchise, while others will be split between Symphony of the Night and Super Castlevania IV. Either way, I think we can all agree that Dracula’s Curse is one of the finest NES titles ever made. (Ricky D)
27) Ninja Gaiden 2: The Dark Sword of Chaos
Release: April 6, 1990
Genre(s) Action, Platforming
Ninja Gaiden 2 is everything a sequel should be and more, improving on the original’s faults while pushing the gameplay forward. Ninja Gaiden 2 features far better graphics, better sound, and slightly less frustrating gameplay than its predecessor. The Nintendo Entertainment System was home to many punishing games, and Ninja Gaiden was one of those games but this sequel isn’t as unforgiving. That’s not to say this game is a walk in the park because it still is difficult but it is much more balanced than in its predecessor, making it more fun to play from start to finish.
The sequel also manages to surpass the original with better level design and allows Ryu the ability to climb walls, run faster, jump further, wield his blade with exceptional speed, and use other special weapons as throwing stars or flame attacks. And let’s not forget the new power-up that creates clones of Ryu who mimic his every action, making him even deadlier. Last Christmas I revisited Ninja Gaiden 2 and despite the amount of time that has passed since the game was first released, it was still a joy to play. Here’s just one of many, many NES games that stand the test of time. (Ricky D)
28) Dr. Mario
Developer(s) Nintendo Research & Development 1
Release: 27 July 1990
There have been quite a few incredible platforming feats over the many years of Mario games, but his attainment of a license to practice medicine may be the most impressive logic-defying leap the little-mustachioed man has ever pulled off. Dr. Mario is essentially just an attempt at injecting some Nintendo charm into a Tetris-type effort, but its weird concept keeps the derivative gameplay feeling hale and healthy if a little odd. After all, this is a game about a former plumber who somehow became a doctor that fights angry viruses with a variety of multi-colored capsules. How the little misshapen beasties got into his oversized bottle is anyone’s guess, but those pixelated globs look ready to start some trouble, and who better at dealing with mutant weirdos than the guy who stomps sentient mushrooms and flying turtles?
So it’s up to Nintendo’s very own Dr. House to save the day by throwing as many pills at the problem as possible until something sticks, matching the color of the capsules with those of the viruses, which somehow causes them to disappear. It may sound like quackery, but it works, and most importantly is plenty of chaotic fun. However, the real lifeblood of Dr. Mario comes from the multiplayer mode, where two aspiring physicians offer competing treatments, shaming any misdiagnoses with an increase in their opponent’s pill supply. The pace is fast and furious, the premise is absurd, and Dr. Mario is still a great cure for puzzle fans. (Patrick Murphy)
29) Duck Tales
Release: September 14, 1989 / JP: January 26, 1990
Produced by key personnel from the Mega Man series, DuckTales would go on to sell over a million copies worldwide on both the NES and Gameboy, becoming Capcom’s best-selling title for both platforms. Of all of the games built on Capcom’s famous Mega Man blueprint, Duck Tales is the absolute best, and one of the must-have games in any collector’s library. With Mega Man veterans like Keiji Inafune and Yoshihiro Sakaguchi involved, each level has a unique theme and feel to it, and the controls are easy to master. Gamers take the role of Scrooge McDuck, who travels around the world in search of five treasures to further increase his fortune. If the gamer manages to finish with $10 million in funds, and collects two special hidden treasures, an additional bonus ending can be unlocked.
Furthermore, much like the Mega Man series, you can choose between stages in any order, and with three difficulty settings to choose from, it’s always fun to revisit Duckberg again and again. But seriously, this game is so much fun to play and still looks amazing to this day — without a doubt, it is the best looking game released on the NES. (Ricky D)
Art Books for Video Games: Persona Franchise
Art books for video games can create a greater appreciation for the game itself. Some of the best examples come from the Persona franchise.
While video games are increasingly appreciated as an artistic genre, art books for video games still fly under the radar. Video game art books show a game’s design process from start to finish. At their best, they can help fans better appreciate their favorite titles. Some of the best examples of recent video game art books come from the massive Persona franchise.
From main-line entries to spin-offs, most recent Persona games have art books. Whether its made for a main JRPG entry or spin-off, the books feature promotional art, early character sketches, concept and final images for settings, and commentary from each game’s artists.
This article will look at three recent main-line games, Persona 3, 4 and 5, (original releases) as well as two spin-offs: Persona 4 Arena and Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. This will be a good starting point for understanding Persona art books and video game art books in general.
Art Books for Main-line Persona Games
The Persona franchise has, over recent years, nailed down the art book to a science. Each book has publicity illustrations, character design pages, and a “world of Persona” type section. Every book works within this framework to showcase its art style and design process.
Persona 3: Official Design Works
The Persona 3 Official Design Works book spans 144+ pages. After being treated to several polished promotional images, including the game’s box art, the book dives into its character designs.
For its character art, the Persona 3 art book focuses on line-art sketches. The key point here is to see how characters did (or did not) change design from conception to final product. For instance, while the sketches for Mitsuru Kirijo are similar to the final design, Yukari Takeba’s pages show noticeable changes, particularly with hairstyles and facial features.
The book splits its in-game art between dungeon-crawling sprites and the more “anime” style dialogue portraits. This shows a range of equipable character weapons more thoroughly than other games.
In the “World” section, the pages have enigmatic, early-concept art, some expanded upon and used, and some put to the side. There’s also art for key settings, including Gekkoukan High School and Pawlonia Mall.
The book is compact, and makes the most of its character pages, without feeling cluttered. This collection is packed with content, and provides a stunning behind-the-scenes look at the original Persona 3.
Persona 4: Visual Data
The original “visual data” book for Persona 4 (2008) is substantially shorter than other games (barely 100+ pages). However, the art book makes the most of its pages.
The book comes with a killer introduction that connects to the game’s story. On the first page, mascot character Teddie gives a poetic spoiler alert, warning players, “…we recommend holding off on savoring this art book until after you’re done. Truths are meant to be hard-earned, not viewed safely from afar!” This message ties in with the game’s emphasis on working gradually towards uncovering the truth.
After Teddie’s warning, the book dives into promotional images, and then its character art. For the main cast, the pages show in-game portraits as well as early sketches and creator commentary. Some characters look completely different than their earlier art. For instance, Rise initially looked closer to P4’s Ai Ebihara. Also, Chie’s creator commentary explains that she initially looked closer to past Persona characters, specifically Persona 2‘s Lisa Silverman and Persona 3’s Chihiro Fushimi (page 17).
The art and commentary continues with supporting characters. While these come with fewer designs, the sketches are still fascinating. (Nanako originally looked quite similar to a certain late-game Persona 5 character–no spoilers!)
The rest of the book has sketches for personas and shadows, and ends with key images. These pages show concepts for settings, in-game moments and character uniforms. There are also unused illustrations, showing what could have been a different Persona 4 altogether.
The Art of Persona 5
The Art of Persona 5 art book is massive in scope–compared to the last two video games, this feels more like a textbook. However, the book remains sleek and stylish throughout its 440+ pages, just like the game itself.
Each character section emphasizes the sharp divide between daily student life and the phantom thieves’ dungeon crawling adventures at night.
While the Persona 3 and Persona 4 art books focused on line sketches for the characters, the Persona 5 art book also includes pen-and-ink brush images, and more full-color images.
The book goes the extra mile with its creator commentaries. Breaking this down fully would make its own article, but a great place to start is the commentary for the main character (aka “Joker”).
The creator commentaries for Joker show how his design changed as the team worked through larger questions for Persona 5‘s story. The commentary mentions the question of how “the protagonist and party members should look like as thieves” (creator commentary, page 44). The commentary also describes game director Katsura Hashino asking the questions, “aren’t these designs too realistic?” and “wouldn’t a Phantom Thief show off when they fired a gun?” (creator commentary, page 44). This commentary shines a light on the design process for creating this 60+ hour JRPG.
Other highlights include Morgana’s and Futaba’s pages, shown below.
The book also shows art for side characters (particularly Sae, an integral character to the game). There’s also art for in-game NPC menu screens, antagonists with detailed boss-battle designs, and profile pages for the rest of the supporting cast.
Finally, there’s the “world of” section. Once again, many of these images hint at would could have been a very different game. The exciting part here is that unused images may be used for future games. Given the time lapse between the original Persona 4 and Persona 5 (about 8 years), this content may serve as the only means of speculation as fans wait (and hope for) a possible Persona 6 down the line.
Until then, fans can look forward to a growing list of Persona spin-offs and a new crop of art books.
Here’s a look at two Persona spin-offs with phenomenal art books.
Two Very Different Persona Spin-Off Art Books
The Persona franchise has many spin-off games. This includes rhythm games, arcade-style fighting games, and more. (Soon, Persona 5 Scramble will join the list, a hack-and-slash game for the Nintendo Switch, scheduled for release in Japan on February 20, 2020).
Two recent Persona spin-offs with great art books are Persona 4 Arena and Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. These are both crossover games, combining cast members of Persona 3 and Persona 4 for a brand-new experience.
Persona 4 Arena
Persona 4 Arena, released in North America on August 7th, 2012, is an arcade-style fighting game bringing together the cast of Persona 4, and several Persona 3 characters, with a small batch of original characters.
The book starts off with key illustrations, which look like splashy spotlights of characters in the heat of battle.
The biggest difference, however, comes with the character pages. The pages display the line art used for showing movement and action, in a way the main-line art books don’t. This is because of the game’s combat system, and its re-use of many original character designs. These pages show how much work goes into creating a fighting game.
While this art book highlights the game’s combat and high-drama narrative, the final art book shows a more upbeat, cooperative crossover game.
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth was released for the Nintendo 3DS in North America on November 25th, 2014. This is a first-person dungeon-crawler, featuring the full Persona 3 and Persona 4 casts, along with two brand new characters.
The most obvious difference with this spin-off is its art style. All characters are in chibi form, highly stylized, minimized, and “cute.” This keeps with the up-beat, sugar-sweet positivity of the game, where both casts become friends and work together to resolve the game’s conflict.
The game’s main selling point comes from the characters meeting each other and working together. Unsurprisingly, the illustration pages show how the game’s designers experimented in bringing different characters together.
As always, the book has individual character pages. This time, the art focuses on how original characters are translated into chibi form. The only exceptions to this are the two new characters Zen and Rei.
The book also has art for the game’s opening animation and cut-scenes. These show how the art team created scenes showing the dramatic reveal of the casts meeting each other. They also include the slice-of-life events the casts experience together.
The Beauty of Art Books for Video Games
Art books made for video games can show fans the hard work that goes into designing their favorite titles. Some of the best art books in recent years come from the Persona video game franchise. These books compliment their title, showing the hard work and creativity that goes into developing each video game.
‘Pokémon Sword and Shield Expansion Pass’ Announcement Deep Dive
A deep dive into the announcement of the Pokémon Sword and Shield Expansion Passes.
What? Pokémon Sword and Shield are evolving! The eighth generation of Pokémon brought many changes to the tried-and-true formula of the beloved franchise, but perhaps none so drastic as the Sword and Shield Expansion Pass. Presumably replacing the third or sequel installment title of previous generations (ie. Platinum or Ultra Sun), the Expansion Pass will be a continuation of players’ adventures in Sword and Shield using existing save data and not a brand new adventure.
There’s certainly a lot to be gleaned from the announcement trailer and accompanying Pokémon Direct, but, given more than a cursory glance, the Direct provided a surprising depth of information for those willing to dive for it. Here’s a deep dive into the announcement of the Pokémon Sword and Shield Expansion Passes.
New and Semi-Familiar Faces
The footage, broken up between the two sets of new content (The Isle of Armor due out in June, and The Crown Tundra coming in the fall) begins with some very quick cuts followed by a map of Galar before the camera pans east and settling into setting concept art. If Galar were an upside down map of the UK, The Isle of Armor could be comfortably situated on the Isle of Man, a theory the title of the expansion supports.
This is immediately followed by the reveal of the expansions’ seeming representative Galarian Slowpoke and a brief tease of a concealed Galarian Slowbro, notably with no Shellder on its tail and whose face is briefly visible just before the zoom into Slowpoke, eliminating the possibility of something on its head like Slowking. Perhaps something will have latched onto its left arm?
Similarly, the second half of the trailer unveils the existence of a Galarian Slowking that’s also being obscured. While nothing was shown of Slowbro and Slowking beyond a few purple appendages and a cape in the case of Slowking, a lot can be inferred about the enigmatic evolutions. For starters, the existence of a poison move in Slowpoke’s movepool, Acid, might suggest the mono-psychic type will become psychic/poison when it evolves, as does the purple coloration.
The preferred typings of the Isle of Armor’s new rivals, poison in the case of Sword‘s Klara and Shield‘s psychically-inclined Avery, further purport this assumption as both rivals could then use the new forms. What looks like a bent spike on the right of Galarian Slowking’s face already has some speculating Slowking’s new form came about by being bitten by a Mareanie in place of a Shellder, not unlike how Team Rocket’s James is frequently bitten by his Mareanie in the Sun and Moon anime series. That’s all assuming Slowbro and Slowking retain the same typing as one another like their water/psychic Kanto and Johto counterparts and Slowking’s cape isn’t in reference to, say, Lance, the dragon user from Kanto’s Elite Four.
Speaking of Klara and Avery, they too might be hiding information in their designs. Klara’s bow, for instance, matches Dustox’s wing pattern perfectly but is colored white and black with pink circles as opposed to two shades of green and with reddish circles. This could indicate the Pokémon’s inclusion in the expansion, likely used by Klara as a bug/poison type, or could even indicate a new regional variant of the third gen Pokémon.
There’s less to note about Avery save that he’s sporting the psychic gym uniform available to players in the game, the insignia of which is two spoons twisted together. This same icon is also on his top hat. Again, this design was already in Sword and Shield prior to the expansion, but it could implicate the presence of Alakazam, the psychic Pokémon that infamously wields two spoons.
Some new Gigantamax Pokémon are shown off (yes, Intelleon has a sniper finger) before the first set’s title and logo are given, The Isle of Armor. There’s a lot to note about this alone. To begin, the design is very similar to Sword and Shield‘s with the central figure looking straight forward as opposed to left like Sword or right like Shield. It also concludes the armaments of a knight: sword, shield, and armor, putting Pokémon Gun to rest (though, again, sniper finger). The logo’s color is notably yellow, simultaneously representing all primary colors between both games and the expansion. This isn’t unlike the original non-Japanese titles and appropriately concludes the CMYK color model Zacian and Zamazenta started (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key). What’s particularly intriguing about this is that the central legendary, Urshifu, may not singularly complete the model.
From markings to fur patterns, Urshifu…bears…striking resemblance to Zacian and Zamazenta. Evolving from Kubfu into one of two forms depending on the player’s choices in the expansion, each of Urshifu’s Gigantamax forms seem to echo the coloration of the lupine legendaries. However, just before Kubfu and Urshifu are properly revealed, a black screen with white text describes Urshifu as “the legendary Pokémon that holds the key to the story,” with key highlighted in yellow. Following this, Kubfu is introduced with a black background and white text, how key (black) from the CMYK model is always represented. This seems to signify that Urshifu is key in the color model and the Pokémon’s coloration echoes this. Does this mean there’s another lupine or perhaps ursine legendary associated with rusted armor and the color yellow? Is there a Zazellow out there?
Continuing this color scheme, the mentor who trains the player in this set is coincidentally named Mustard and his apprentice’s uniforms are appropriately yellow to match with the logo and this potential missing legendary and complimentary armor. That is, unless it’s all just Urshifu–both yellow and key–in which case he really Urshi-fooled me.
Following The Isle of Armor‘s title reveal, the screen goes dark before the camera zooms through wind and snow and finally fixes on a map of Galar once more. The camera pans south, situating the next set of content, The Crown Tundra, in Scotland, this time taking heavy inspiration from the Scottish Highlands. Seemingly central to the set is a cathedral-like structure atop a mountain with an immense white tree or unrevealed Gigantamax Cursola behind it (I choose to believe the latter regardless of the fact that I just made it up). A mysterious new character and the player characters are shown wearing mountain expedition gear, alluding to the theme of exploration for the Expansion Pass’ second part.
The footage then reveals several ruins themed after Hoenn’s “titan” trio Regice, Regirock, and Registeel, who are presumably catchable here and are the first of many legendary Pokémon shown to be returning. This isn’t too remarkable by itself save that the titans are integral to the appearance of Regigigas, a Sinnoh native Pokémon notably absent here. Sinnoh remake confirmed! Well, not really, but fans can hope.
Connections to Kalos
A fourth ruin is, in fact, shown, though not representative of Regigigas. Instead, there are two all-new Regis who appear to be an electric (Regilectric?) and a dragon-type (Regivern? Regiwyrm? Regidrake? Arceus forbid, Regidragon?). This is exciting in and of itself–especially considering the sensational designs–but there is a lot potentially hidden here. The dragon Regi’s design, for example, seems like a call back to the enigmatic dragon of Hammerlocke’s past, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Gigantamax version of the Pokémon shaped like a more traditional dragon, perhaps with wings matching Hammerlocke’s unique central structure.
Even more curious, the Pokémon’s coloration is not only identical to that of Yveltal, Pokémon Y‘s cover legendary, but the formation of its eyes–again, identical in color to Yveltal’s–are in the formation of a “Y.” Conversely, the seemingly electric-type Regi’s coloration might not be exact, but it’s vaguely reminiscent of Xerneas, the cover Pokémon from X, albeit with a more electric hue of yellow and a distinct “X” formation of the eyes. With X and Y taking inspiration from France, it’s understandable that Sword and Shield–based on the UK–would have ties back to the Kalos region and the sixth generation of Pokémon.
In fact, that’s far from the only call back to Kalos in the announcement trailer. Talonflame, a fan favorite and iconic Pokémon from Kalos, is prominently featured on a monitor at the very beginning of the trailer and again featured in some of the concept art, potentially simply informing the Pokémon’s return (though that hardly seems coincidental). Further, the mysterious individual wearing mountain climbing gear from The Crown Tundra expansion bares resemblance to Grant, the rock type gym leader from X and Y known as a proficient rock and mountain climber.
What all of this amounts to has yet to be seen, though many fans have clamored for the opportunity to return to Kalos, the only generation of Pokémon to not receive a third or sequel installment. Perhaps Game Freak is teasing such an opportunity via Sword and Shield, perhaps in an additional Expansion Pass, or it could simply be establishing the regions and melding them together.
Stuff of Legend
The footage quickly flows from one legendary trio to another, this time with the reveal of Galarian forms of the original trio, the legendary birds Articuno, Zapdos, and Moltres. Since Gigantamax transformations don’t alter a Pokémon’s typing, it’s fairly safe to assume these are Galarian forms and not Gigantamax transformations. As to those new typings, the appearance of each Pokémon and the animation during their reveal gives a pretty good indicator of what to expect.
The screen visibly darkens as it focuses in on Moltres, whose new fiery black and red design further suggests a dark/fire typing. Articuno’s new soft purple and black coloration with blaring blue eyes and an accompanying glare animation brings psychic/ice typing to mind. Finally, Zapdos’ ostrich-esque appearance with strong legs and shocking accents, paired with its clashing animations, is presumably fighting/electric. This would not only allow each bird to retain its signature elemental type, but also create a proper effectiveness triangle for the birds courtesy of the dark, fighting, and psychic typings.
At the center of The Crown Tundra and featured in the logo’s artwork is Calyrex, the psychic/grass type “King Pokémon.” Interestingly enough, the revealed form of Calyrex doesn’t perfectly match the logo, likely meaning the new legendary has a Gigantamax form or some other alternative form in the expansion. And, no, that isn’t the Triforce prominently featured in Calyrex’s design (Pokémon is merely published by Nintendo and not actually developed or produced by them, after all).
The symbol is actually Mitsuuroko, translated as “three scales” and the family crest of the Hojo clan. Nintendo repurposed it in The Legend of Zelda way back in the day. Calyrex isn’t the king of Hyrule or even a promotion for Breath of the Wild 2. I’m not sure what the implications of this are (perhaps a tie-in to the three birds?) but it’s still worth noting.
The People Behind the Pass
Speaking of Game Freak, the developer behind the Pokémon franchise has overlapped the production of its games since the days of the Japanese Pokémon Blue, Gold, and Silver. This is still the case. Sword and Shield‘s director, Shigeru Ohmori, is not working as the director of the Expansion Pass; that title has been passed to Hiroyuki Tani. Instead, Ohmori and the main team are likely hard at work on the next main series title and/or remake. What that is remains to be seen, though one would think a Diamond and Pearl remake is in order for 2021 as that marks the titles’ fifteenth anniversary. Sword and Shield producer Junichi Masuda has previously professed to enjoy surprising players, though, so there’s truly no saying.
What’s emphatically clear is that there is a lot to look forward to with the Pokémon Sword and Shield Expansion Passes. With so much going on in the brief trailer and the Pokémon Direct, I don’t doubt that there are countless secrets I missed and many others waiting to be unveiled when the first half of the Expansion Pass, The Isle of Armor, launches later this June. Be sure to let me know if you catch something I didn’t, and I’ll see you in the far reaches of Galar as our adventure continues!
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories – The Best (and Only) Card-Based Action RPG on the GBA
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is memorable more for what it did differently from the original than for anything else.
Card-based RPGs aren’t for everyone, especially not for those expecting an action RPG. Such was the case for many fans of Kingdom Hearts when Chain of Memories was released for the Game Boy Advance in 2003. Announced and developed alongside Kingdom Hearts II, Chain of Memories was designed to fill a one-year gap that series director Tetsuya Nomura had envisioned between the first installment and its numbered sequel. That alone was enough to sour fans of the original who didn’t own a GBA, but the sudden shift in both core combat and game design philosophy resulted in a title that, while aesthetically similar to Kingdom Hearts, was its own beast entirely. One could say “for better or worse,” but the fact of the matter is that Chain of Memories is undeniably all the better for it.
Kingdom Hearts’ 3D combat was never going to translate to a 2D plane, at least not without some heavy compromises. Rather than attempting to replicate the original game’s gameplay outright, cards would serve as a justification to shake up what series protagonist Sora could pull off during gameplay. Early concept art for Chain of Memories even seems to indicate cards were to be used in a turn-based capacity, a rather traditional approach to the card-based RPG. While such a tried & true approach certainly would have worked, and likely well, a turn-based Chain of Memories would likely feel too out of place in the context of Kingdom Hearts. The series has always had Final Fantasy flarings, but the first game established a very clear mechanical identity independent of Square’s flagship franchise.
Kingdom Hearts is fast. It’s a game about moving in combat, flowing from target to target. Some enemies are spongier than others, but Sora’s mobility and skill set allow him to chain in and out of combos, dodge, and access a rather generous roster of magic. Better yet, the game’s “Command Menu” allows players to access all of Sora’s unlocked abilities at any given time through the use of the D-pad. It’s a rather ingenious approach to the action RPG genre, and while the original Kingdom Hearts doesn’t exactly excel when it comes to combat, its unique approach to action ensures that it’s an engaging playthrough even today. It goes without saying, but Chain of Memories lost quite a bit of what defined the first game’s combat. At the same time, this results in an opportunity for Chain of Memories to define its own identity.
“To find is to lose, and to lose is to find.”
To Chain of Memories’ credit, there is a clear link between itself and its predecessor as far as the very basics of combat go. Battles no longer take place on the overworld, but running into enemies trigger fields that Sora can move about freely. While attacking requires cards, Sora’s swings can be chained together into combos not too dissimilar to what he could pull off in KH. On top of that, while the Command Menu is gone, a player’s deck essentially fills the same role, albeit with more customization and far less freedom. Beyond all this, however, Chain of Memories wastes no time in asserting its unique gameplay identity.
Cards dictate everything in Chain of Memories, from what Sora can accomplish in battle, to where he can go in each world. On the subject of worlds, World Cards are the first of the three major card types that players will interact with. While the first world will always be Traverse Town, Chain of Memories allows players to pick their next five worlds in any order via the World Cards. After exhausting those five worlds, Sora is then given four more World Cards which can again be tackled in any order. Traverse Town, Twilight Town, Destiny Islands, and Castle Oblivion will always fall on the 1st, 11th, 12th, and 13th floors respectively, but the rest of the game has no intended order, making for some nice replay value.
Map Cards play a similar function within the worlds themselves. Worlds are no longer traditionally designed and are instead wholly randomized. At the end of each battle, enemies will typically draw a Map Card, a card that allows players to choose the next room they enter into. While the layouts of stages are random, the actual structure of each World is at the mercy of the player. Map Cards themselves are divided into three types: Enemy, Status, and Bounty – represented by the colors red, green, and blue respectively. Enemy Cards summon rooms ripe with battle, Status Cards either buff Sora or nerf enemies, and Bounty Cards allow players to summon chests, shops, or save points.
While players will have plenty of freedom with how they approach each world, the majority of the gameplay is dominated by combat – and Battle Cards are significantly more hands-on than either World or Map Cards. Although Sora can fit a maximum of 52 cards in his Deck, players need to deal with CP (Card Points). Each Battle Card has its own CP value, and the total CP in Sora’s Deck cannot exceed his maximum CP at the time. CP can be increased via leveling up, but leaving it at that would only be scratching the surface of CoM’s leveling system.
Battle Cards aside for right now, players can choose one of three options whenever Sora levels up: raise HP, raise CP, or gain a new Sleight (more on those much later.) It seems straightforward, but having to choose only one stat per level ends up having serious consequences for the early game. Players who go all-in on health will soon find themselves lacking the CP to make competent decks. Conversely, players who dump everything into CP will have next to no health, demanding near mechanical mastery just to stay alive. The key to having a good experience with Chain of Memories lies in understanding that while CP is Sora’s best friend, he’s going to want at least one full health bar before the final boss.
Leveling up can be very frustrating in this regard, especially for players who skew towards HP and find themselves lacking the CP necessary to comfortably keep up with late-game bosses and their aggressive decks. Even with low CP, however, it’s entirely possible to beat the game by playing strategically. Players are offered so much variety with how they customize their deck, that there’s always some solution to the hardest bosses. Before getting into the nuances of deck building, however, it’s important to understand how Battle Cards actually work in battle.
Battle Cards are divided into six distinct types: red Attack Cards, blue Magic & Summon Cards, green Item & Friend Cards, and black Enemy Cards. Enemy Cards will be the most expensive fixtures in a player’s deck, along with the least prominent. Every single enemy has its own droppable Enemy Card, but whereas bosses will always drop their cards, enemies are more likely to drop Map Cards. Anyone who actively fights enemies will have at least half a dozen non-boss Enemy Cards by the end of the game, but no two players will have had the same drops. Perhaps this can be frustrating for completionists, but it’s an element of randomization that keeps the game perpetually fresh.
There’s an inherent entitlement that comes with playing video games where we want to be able to consume all the content without factors like luck or randomness preventing us. That’s a fair and reasonable want, but it’s important to recognize that RNG does have its place. Random drops in Chain of Memories mean players can’t just coast on other people’s deck ideas. You need to work with what you’ve got. That leads to a far more compelling playthrough, one where your fingerprints are left all over the game. Naturally, all this to say: don’t be too bummed out when CoM inevitably does you dirty with Battle Card drops.
There are only three consistent ways of getting Battle Cards in the game: by summoning a Moogle shop & purchasing them, by summoning a room with a treasure chest, or by interacting with the overworld. It goes without saying, but there’s no way to guarantee what Sora gets from any of the shops, a chest, or the overworld. It’s all random. If nothing else, Moogle shops will always give Sora five free red Battle Cards whenever they’re summoned, ensuring that– if nothing else– a diligent player will have a healthy amount of Attack Cards to work with.
Magic, Summon, and Item Cards are more scarce in comparison with the Moogle shop the only reliable place to buy them. Moogle Points aren’t easy to come by either – only found via interacting with the overworld – so it’s not unusual for players to find themselves hurting in that regard. Magic Cards are the only consistent means of healing in battle, which speaks for itself. Even if players do have a surplus of Magic and Item Cards, there’s no way to control value. Ranked from 0 to 9, each card has its own value which affects CP cost and Breaks. The lower value a card is, the less it costs, but low valued cards can also be broken by higher value cards in-battle.
To finally dive into combat, Breaks make or break any given battle. Both players and enemies can activate their cards at any given time during combat. Naturally, this is going to result in a lot of clashing. Should two cards of the same value be played at the same time, they’ll cancel each other out. Otherwise, the higher value card gets priority. Unless, of course, the card being played is a 0, in which case it can break any card. At the same time, a 0 can be broken by any card. By double-tapping right or left, Sora can dodge some attacks, but if an enemy’s card is locked in, it’ll usually hit the player head-on.
Should players use a card in battle, said card will remain exhausted until Sora either plays an Item Card to refill his deck or manually reloads by holding A and standing in place. Each reload makes the subsequent one longer until reloading caps out at taking three times as long as default. Not just that, reloading shuffles the deck in real-time meaning that larger decks will take even longer to reload – something important to take into consideration with deck building, especially since Item Cards can reload instantly. Combat isn’t as simple as just fishing for Card Breaks and reloading, however.
Any card that’s broken by a 0 is removed from either the player or the enemy’s deck for the rest of the battle. It becomes important not to just blindly throw out Attack Cards. There’s an impulse to play aggressively because that’s the style of gameplay the original prioritized, but Chain of Memories requires a strategic and thoughtful approach to combat. Players can still fight aggressively, but they need to arrange their deck properly to do so while also keeping an eye on what cards enemies are tossing out.
As a result, it’s easy to dismiss Chain of Memories’ as a numbers game where RNG determines how well a player can progress. It’s not hard to see why someone might feel that way, but there is never a scenario where just “having the right cards” will just get one through the game. It’s entirely possible to brute force some bosses, but CoM constantly throws roadblocks at players to remind them to actually engage with the core mechanics. If bosses like Hades, Captain Hook, and Vexen are frustrating, it’s not because you don’t have the right cards, it’s because you’re not using your cards in the right way. Chain of Memories is just as much an action game as it is a card game.
“What, you still want to fight?”
Beyond card breaks, values, and CP, there is an incredible amount of depth within the combat. Sora can actually still chain in and out of traditional combos in Chain of Memories, but it requires an understanding of the nuances at play. Just frontloading a deck with high-value cards gets a player absolutely nowhere. Each Attack Card Sora plays is actually just one part of a longer combo chain and the key to doing consistent damage is realizing when to pursue a chain and when to go for a Break. This isn’t an easy task, however, as Attack Cards have unique stats that affect how useful they ultimately are in battle.
By checking the Journal, players can cross-reference when it’s best to use a certain card in a combo. Attack Cards are broken down into seven key stats: Strike, Thrust, Combo Finish, Swing Speed, Element, Break Recovery, and Required CP. Of these seven stats, the first three are the most immediately important to make note of while also the most difficult to make sense of.
If Sora is in short range of an enemy, or not locked on to anyone at all, he’ll Strike at the start of a combo chain before following into a Thrust. If Sora is locked onto an enemy but further away, he’ll start his combos with a Thrust before going into a Strike. All combos end in a Combo Finish only after Sora Strikes and Thrusts. This is important to take into consideration since certain cards are better suited for Striking, Thrusting, or ending combos. Swing Speed also speaks for itself and a faster swing means there’s less time for an opponent to trigger a Break in their favor.
Although Chain of Memories has 17 different Attack Cards that Sora can choose from, for the sake of simplicity we’ll only focus on the following three: Kingdom Key, the weakest but most reliable Attack Card in the game; Olympia, one of the most inconsistent Attack Cards for better or worse; and Divine Rose, a powerful late-game Attack Card with otherwise glaring weaknesses.
Kingdom Key has a D+ in Strike, Thrust, and Combo Finish, meaning that it can fall anywhere in a combo chain and do consistently reliable damage. Olympia, however, has a C+ in Strike, a D+ in Thrust, and a B in Combo Finish, whereas Divine Rose has an A in Strike, a D+ in Thrust, and a C in Combo Finish. Logic would dictate to strike with Divine Rose before thrusting with Kingdom Key and finishing with Olympia, but there are other important factors to consider. Notably, Break Recovery. As Divine Rose is tied for the worst Break Recovery in the game (a C), leading with it only to suffer a Break leaves Sora vulnerable for an uncomfortable amount of time. A smart strategy around this would be to start a combo by triggering a Break with a 0 value Divine Rose from close range.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Certain enemies attack faster than others, and fighting some bosses close range is just asking for trouble. At the same time, it’s just necessary to face danger head-on. Chain of Memories is a game that wants aggression. It wants to test one’s reflexes just as much as it wants to test one’s mind. Coupling these two ideas together mid-battle makes for some of the most memorable boss fights in the franchise– where it’s just as important to think fast as it is to react fast. In many respects, it’s like solving a puzzle that’s trying to kill you. There are three bosses in particular that shine a spotlight on how well designed CoM’s core combat is, and, interestingly enough, they’re all fought back to back to back on the 12th floor.
The first fight in this Holy Trinity is against Darkside. His boss battle is slower-paced and more strategic than the usual boss. Players can’t go in expecting to wail on him, even with a high valued deck. For the most part, attacking him requires pulling off an aerial combo, and more often than not he’ll pull away before Sora can inflict a Combo Finish. In turn, this is a boss fight where players should bide their time and try to react to Darkside’s attacks instead of instigating themselves. More importantly, this is also an endurance match– a test of how long players can keep their cards active.
Darkside takes a long time to kill, and anyone trying to throw too many Sleights at him will soon find themselves lacking the cards to continue. On that note, now’s probably a good time to finally discuss Sleights. Sleights are going to be a player’s best friend and their worst enemy. By pressing L & R together, players can stock cards away in the upper right-hand corner. A maximum of three cards can be stocked at any given time. Certain combinations of cards end up triggering Sleights. The first Sleight Sora can learn at level 2, Sliding Dash, can be triggered by stocking away three of the same Attack Cards valued at a total of 10 – 15. When triggered, Sliding Dash lunges Sora across the field, doing some decent damage in the process.
Not only do Sleights hit harder than chaining combos, but they’re also just more fun to play around with. Blitz, which is learned at level 15 and triggered with three differing Attack Cards valuing 10 – 15, lets players just go hog wild on enemies, bashing them with the A button until the Sleight is either broken or the players miss a button press. Sonic Blade, Blitz’s successor now valuing 20 – 23), lets Sora zoom across the screen with A presses, doing great damage whenever he connects with an enemy. Ars Arcanum is a dangerous Sleight to play, valuing at a measly 6, but players can potentially hit enemies thirteen times if they can pull off the full Sleight. It’s incredibly fun experimenting with different Sleights in different boss fights. Whether they’re just to cover distance or gain a brief advantage.
Logically, the name of the game should be Sleights then, right? It can be, but keep in mind that the first card in any Sleight is removed from Sora’s deck once played. Too many Sleights played back to back and suddenly there aren’t enough cards to play Sleights, let alone Break or chain combos. It’s certainly doable (and even safer) to front-load certain bosses with Sleight after Sleight, but a boss like Darkside can be hard to deal with if you exhaust everything right away. He’s easy enough to break and counter, but he takes punishment. Thoughtlessly throwing Sleights at a boss can leave Sora defenseless. Worse if players decide to lead with cards like Cure in their stocks.
Darkside is a boss about patience. It tests whether or not a player is actually paying attention to the cards the game throws at them. You can always tell what a boss will play next. Their stock is always on screen, as is their next card. It’s here more than ever where Chain of Memories tasks players with understanding the game they’re playing. This is a nice lesson because the next boss is the single hardest in the game.
The fourth fight against Riku comes immediately Darkside, and his boss battle is a playthrough killer unlike any other. Riku is viciously fast, hits unreasonably hard, and uses the most dangerous Sleights in the game against Sora. He might very well be the best boss in the game. This is a fight that’s going to be over quick whether you like or not. Riku is basically Darkside’s antithesis as far as boss design goes. Both require you to fight strategically, but where the former has plenty of breathing room, the latter offers no respite. Riku also has five cards valued at 0 in his deck, meaning that he can realistically remove some of your most important cards at any given moment. Playing conservatively isn’t going to fly, and players are going to need their Sleights to keep Riku in check.
At the same time, it’s important not to go too gung ho. Riku’s a fast fight, but sooner or later you’re going to have to reload, and if you use too many Sleights too early, Sora won’t be able to chain basic combos during those brief windows where Riku can take uninterrupted damage. A smart player will have Sleights ready while prepared to Break Riku with any 0s they have lying around. A smarter player will have their deck set up so they can Break, chain into a combo, Break again, and then Sleight. Riku’s not an unpredictable boss even if he can be an overwhelmingly hard one.
It’s good that Chain of Memories indulges in this level of difficulty. It has such a unique battle system that it would be a shame to not have at least one brutally hard fight that demands some semblance of mastery. Players can dodge some of Riku’s most dangerous attacks, and it’s not unusual to go back & forth Breaking one another for a bit. It’s important to close the gap between Sora and Riku, and chaining combos at the right time can keep Riku relatively in place. Beyond that, Sleights and 0s are a necessity, and any Sleights that take too long to fire up are at risk of being broken by Riku’s 0s.
Magic Sleights can go a long way in making the fight against Riku feel less hopeless. Beyond just healing with Curaga (Cure + Cure + Cure), Fire Raid (Fire + two Attack Cards) has Sora toss a flaming Keyblade from afar for solid damage and Omnislash (three Cloud cards) summons Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud to tear into everyone on screen. Even with the hardest bosses, Chain of Memories offers some kind of workaround. Building a magic deck won’t make Riku easy, but it might make him easier. Maybe a physical deck wasn’t your forte all along and magic is. There’s no way to know without engaging with the cards.
After defeating Riku for the final time, players face off in a rematch against Larxene. She’s not as difficult as Riku, but she can be quite punishing. Where her first fight was frantic but otherwise short, her rematch is chaotic and reflex heavy. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think of Larxene as a faster, more hands-on version of the Darkside boss fight. It’s important to react to her strategically, but react a hair too late and she’ll launch into a devastating combo of her own. Larxene also has nine 0s in her deck, which she loves to Break Sora with. Let her, and Larxene can even kill Sora with a single Sleight. She’s manageable, but she leaves very little room for error.
Larxene’s make it very dangerous to even attempt using a Sleight, so a good chunk of the fight will be spent weaving in and out of regular combos, with the hopes of Breaking Larxene in the process. Since Larxene is fast, however, players run the risk of just spamming their Attack Cards, recklessly whiffing their best attacks. Navigating the deck in real-time with L and R becomes an important skill in fights like these, where players need to jump between different valued cards in their deck so they’re not wasting anything. It can lead to a lot happening at once on the GBA’s relatively small body, but, for what it’s worth, the Game Boy Advance SP is practically tailor-built for Chain of Memories’ control scheme and makes for very comfortable playing.
These three fights also shine a light on an important aspect of the combat: deck variety. No one deck is going to get you through the entire game. In fact, it’s encouraged that players rebuild their decks every few floors, perhaps every other. Chain of Memories is a game that punishes complacency. No two bosses are alike, even the few that repeat over the course of the game. Anyone who tries running the same deck the whole game will very quickly find themselves beaten into the ground. It’s honestly kind of surprising how much depth lies under the surface with a game that many right off as a spin-off that’s not really worth playing. Chain of Memories is one of the most engaging games on the Game Boy Advance– and one of the most high quality from as presentation is concerned. So why isn’t its reputation better?
Well, because it’s still a sequel to Kingdom Hearts. And an important one.
“Forgotten, but not lost.”
Chain of Memories is such an essential entry in the series’ canon that skipping it outright simply isn’t reasonable. Naturally, this makes it quite a frustrating entry for fans who don’t want to play with cards. Chain of Memories is an incredibly well-designed game in its own right, but it’s still the direct narrative sequel to a pretty straightforward action RPG. Not helping matters is the fact that that Chain of Memories is the only means of understanding certain details in Kingdom Hearts II that otherwise get left to the wayside.
Chain of Memories inherently loses much of what made the original game compelling. It’s not in 3D, there’s no real sense of exploration, all the Disney Worlds are repeats from the first game, and the story is far more limited in scope, taking place in a single setting. But to lose is to find as far as Castle Oblivion is concerned, and everything Chain of Memories loses from its predecessor simply led to the developers finding new ways to make the Kingdom Hearts experience engaging. A 3D space isn’t necessary when the card system keeps combat fast & hands-on. Randomized level layouts keep Worlds unfamiliar, keeping with the theme of memory loss, and the reuse of Worlds from the first game reminds us of what’s being lost in the process. Above all else, this approach just lends itself to a stronger story.
This is not a sequel that shies away from embracing how much it resembles its predecessor on a surface level. The level design wears its reused Worlds with pride, with a considerable amount of effort put into ensuring the first game’s aesthetic translates near flawlessly over to a much weaker, 2D oriented handheld. Chain of Memories wants players to expect the original Kingdom Hearts, but not out of spite or as a trick. Rather, it’s as a means to explore the complicated theme of memory in a very digestible and immediately understandable way. Revisiting the first game’s Worlds immediately telegraph to the audience that they’re diving into Sora’s memories. At the same time, anyone who’s played the first game will recognize that each World’s story is completely different.
Instead of Worlds following traditional three-act plots, Sora and company mainly just find themselves stumbling from beat to beat with no real regard for character or plot development. This doesn’t mean nothing happens inside the Worlds, though. Familiar characters and plot points are twisted to highlight not only how Sora’s memory is failing him, but how even in losing his memory he can still reconnect with the emotions behind what he’s lost. Worlds taking a narrative backseat also suit the sensibilities of playing on a Game Boy Advance better. This ensures that players can pick up and play Chain of Memories at any time without much in the way of distraction.
Not that the story is distracting. For many, it’ll be the highlight of the game and it’s not hard to see why. Chain of Memories’ script is both thematically rich and genuinely mature. Sora is an angrier protagonist than he was before. Losing his memories leads him down a path of insecurity, one that results in him lashing out and clutching onto fake truths just to cling onto his “reality.” It’s an arc that forces Sora to lose the bonds that define him, and he only realizes what’s happened when it’s too late. Sora even abandons Donald and Goofy on the 12th floor, paralleling how they abandoned him in Hollow Bastion in the first game. Chain of Memories plays with these similarities, but twists them, often resulting in more interesting storytelling.
“Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is a game intentionally at odds with its own predecessor.”
The story’s greatest strength ultimately ends up being its role in the series’ chronology. As a bridge between Kingdom Hearts I and II, Chain of Memories can afford to end with the heroes at an absolute low. Sora, Donald, and Goofy have forgotten just about everything important to them. While Sora’s managed to take out a few villains along the way, he’s fundamentally lost a massive chunk of his identity. All he “remembers” is a false attachment to Naminé, the witch who manipulated his memories over the course of the game. Naminé herself is a profoundly sad character, and her role in the story only adds to the somberness that comes with the ending.
Even knowing that Naminé’s manipulated Sora’s memories and forced herself into his heart against his will, he still chooses to protect her. Sora has every reason to hate her by the end of the game, but he chooses to embrace what he feels, even if they aren’t genuine. It’s enough to give you the impression that Sora will embrace amnesia so he can maintain his connection to Naminé, but to lose is to find, and that goes both ways.
After giving up everything for Naminé, Sora has to give up Naminé for everything. It’s not that big a loss for Sora himself, but all Naminé has ever had is a brief, disingenuous tie to Sora. Their friendship was never real, and whatever bond they developed after the fact is thrown away as the credits roll. Naminé is left alone and friendless as Sora forgets the entirety of Chain of Memories– a poignant ending to what is otherwise a card game.
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is a game intentionally at odds with its own predecessor. It hopes audiences will be open-minded enough to embrace this fact, but it commits to its core principles the point of potential (and inevitable) alienation. CoM is Kingdom Hearts making a bold statement few franchises can lay claim to: things change. Sure, Kingdom Hearts II serves as a direct mechanical sequel to the first game, but Chain of Memories set an important precedent that would keep Kingdom Hearts experimenting with handheld titles for years to come. A story-driven card-based action RPG that’s a direct sequel to one of the PS2’s most critically acclaimed games, Chain of Memories shouldn’t work. Yet it’s somehow one of the most thought-provoking and mechanically gripping games on the Game Boy Advance. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is one of a kind.
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