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‘Mega Man Zero’: The Brutally Hard GBA Platformer That Could

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Mega Man X may be a narrative continuation of the classic Mega Man games, but it keeps its references subtle and establishes a clear identity as soon as possible.

In reference to redesigning the game’s eponymous hero, Mega Man Zero’s character designer– Toru Nakayama– said that he wanted to give Zero a more “human feel.” Specifically, a humanity that would contrast directly with Mega Man X’s “mechanical feel.” Despite Mega Man Zero serving as a direct successor to the Mega Man X sub-series, Nakayama felt it important to establish a unique artistic direction for Zero. Much in the same way X refused to make itself derivative of the classic Mega Man series, Zero couldn’t be derivative of his last appearance– not if the character were to frontline his own sub-series. Taking into consideration that the franchise’s heroes had always been Blue Bombers to this point, and Nakayama’s redesign can seem quite radical. At the same time, it was necessary. 

Series producer Kenji Inafune had been wanting Zero to serve as the main character of his own game since before Rockman X even started development. The character was initially conceived as the original Mega Man’s successor, the face of the X franchise. Zero actually would go on to be the face regardless, gradually stealing the spotlight away from X with each game after X3. In that regard, it would have been perfectly natural for Zero 1 to simply pick up where the last X game left off (to Inafune’s knowledge at the time, X5.) It would also have connected Zero to X more intimately than it needed to. 

Mega Man X may be a narrative continuation of the classic Mega Man games, but it keeps its references subtle and establishes a clear identity as soon as possible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mega Man Zero opts to do the same. Nakayama’s redesign was only the first domino in a chain reaction which would result in a game rich in its own identity, independent of its predecessors. What Zero strives for is more unique than either the Classic or X sub-series, incorporating the franchise’s penchant for action-platforming with RPG elements. 

Combat seems like typical Mega Man fare at first glance, but savvy players will spot some key differences right away. For starters, Zero has actual weapons this time around instead of absorbing boss powers like X or learning button combos like he once did in the X games. Players begin with a gun, gain a sword, and can then unlock two optional weapons, the Triple Rod & the Shield Boomerang. Curiously, weapons also level up this time around, with Zero earning weapon-specific experience by attacking and killing enemies. Shoot enough Pantheon Guardians, and Zero’s Buster Shot can be charged one more tier. 

Leveling isn’t based solely on XP earned, however. While attacking enemies and killing them does reward experience, Zero’s weapons are actually leveled non-linearly. Attacking in a certain way can unlock new abilities “out of order.” Zero’s first sword upgrade should normally unlock his 2 hit combo, but players who are slashing enemies while dashing will actually unlock a grounded rolling slash with their first level up. Conversely, anyone killing enemies primarily by jump slashing will unlock an aerial rolling slash. While not all of Zero’s weapons have as much progression wiggle room, all four can grow considerably over the course of a single playthrough. 

Unlike the franchise’s staple boss weapons which are unlocked over the course of the game, Zero can unlock all of his weapons by the fourth mission. As a result, players can not only familiarize themselves with their whole kit much earlier than usual, the enemy design can likewise reflect & counter Zero’s arsenal earlier than it would otherwise– most likely the very end of the game. In typical Mega Man fashion, Zero’s first weapon is a long-range gun, the Buster Shot. What fans of the series might notice, however, is how weak it is. 

Not only can the Buster Shot not be upgraded right away, it can only fire out three measly pellets at once. In many respects, it’s as if Zero is embodying the classic Blue Bomber in his purest form. Of course, Zero can also dash & wall jump, and it doesn’t take long for players to unlock their weak charge shot. From there, the Buster Shot’s firing capacity can be upgraded for a total of four pellets on-screen while the Buster’s charge can be leveled twice over: once for a full charge, and then again for a quick charge. 

Along with the aerial and grounded rolling slashes, Zero’s Z-saber can string longer combos the more its leveled. Out of the gate, Zero can only do a single slash. Kill enough enemies with the Z-Saber, and Zero can now perform a 2-hit combo. Repeat the process, and Zero maxes out at a classic & comfortable 3-hit combo. Like the Buster Shot, the Z-Saber can learn a charge slash followed by a quick charge. Typical Mega Man weaponry, the Buster and the Saber are the only two mandatory weapons in the game. 

The first of the unlockable weapons (obtained after defeating Maha Ganeshariff) is the Triple Rod. A melee weapon like the Z-Saber, the Triple Rod bestows upon Zero the gift of multidirectional prodding. Zero can sab enemies in eight directions with the Triple Rod. Each level increases how many stabs Zero can do at once– each stab actually lengthening the Triple Rod’s range– capping off at three, followed by a charge attack where Zero spins the Rod at his enemies, and finally a quick charge.  Along with its unlockable abilities, the Triple Rod can allow Zero to bounce off enemies by down-thrusting into them.

A weapon best used to keep distance between Zero and his enemies, the Triple Rod pairs well with the newly introduced Shield Boomerang. As its name entails, the Shield Boomerang can shield Zero from projectiles. Simply hold the attack button and Zero will lift up his shield. It’s worth noting that the Shield Boomerang can’t block every projectile, and simply having it out locks Zero’s dash, but it gets rid of pesky enemy fire and becomes a chaotic razor blade when thrown, capable of being flung directly into enemies while curving upwards or downwards depending on where Zero is throwing his Boomerang from. Unlike other weapons, the Shield Boomerang already has its full charge, with levels simply increasing the throwing attack’s range. 

It’s worth noting pointing out a misconception with Mega Man Zero’s leveling system. While it is indeed quite grindy, how much experience Zero earns is actually dependent on which attack he’s using at which level. If Zero is, say, trying to level up his Z-Saber so he can unlock the 3 hit combo, players earn the most experience at this level from the second hit. Once the 3 hit combo is unlocked, the third hit will start to net Zero the most experience. Understanding this doesn’t make grinding any less tedious, but it does save a decent bit of time. 

Although these four weapons ostensibly replace boss weapons, Mega Man Zero does try to maintain some of that old school Mega Man flavor. No bosses bestow upon Zero their attacks, but three of them do drop Element Chips, equippable chips which augment Zero’s charge attacks. The Thunder Chip deals extra damage to Fire based enemies while shocking them; The Fire Chip is super effective against Ice based enemies, while also burning them; and the Ice Chip is best used when fighting Thunder based enemies, freezing them in the process. 

Element chips are especially useful because combat doesn’t really prioritize combo potential. Zero may be able to pull off a three-hit combo with his Z-Saber followed by a three-pronged stab, but the fact of the matter is that the game will never allow for a scenario like this to happen naturally. That’s simply not how enemies or bosses are designed. Invincibility frames are simply too long for players to realistically get the most out of a three-hit combo. On the flip side, figuring out how to regularly stunlock bosses will turn the tide into your favor 99% of the time. 

That’s easier said than done, however, as the first Mega Man Zero is home to some of the hardest bosses on the Game Boy Advance. They also happen to be some of the best-designed bosses on the GBA, making excellent use of boss arenas, sound design, visual cues & telegraphs, while generally playing off Zero’s core mechanics well. Take the boss against Aztec Falcon, for instance. He’s the first real boss in the game– or at least the first where Zero will have access to both his Buster & Saber from the get-go. In turn, Aztec Falcon is designed specifically to challenge how well players both use and understand their weapons. Not only that, the boss arena takes place in an incredibly tight space where Zero will need to dash jump off walls to reliably avoid Aztec Falcon’s attacks. All the while, a timer is ticking down that slowly descends a spiked ceiling onto allied Reploids down below. 

The battle against Aztec Falcon is tense by design, but he can come off extremely aggressive to the unprepared player. Aztec Falcon will dash back & forth across the screen, stop to fire arrows, cling to the walls to change his arrow trajectory, and even magnetize his arms to pull Zero into a slam attack. While contact damage is actually quite forgiving in Zero, getting hit by a single attack dead on can change the course of an entire boss fight. Zero only has so much health, and defeating bosses requires being able to read visual telegraphs while picking up on audio cues. The majority of bosses have unique voice clips for each attack, making it possible to counter everything– so long as you actually know-how. 

In the case of Aztec Falcon, it’s possible to comfortably counter everything he throws at Zero (especially since he only has one courtesy health bar, instead of the usual two for bosses.) Zero actually pulls his sword back on the Z-Saber’s first swing. Perceptive players can use this to their advantage, letting the magnet pull them close to Aztec Falcon before slashing him with a backwards swing and dashing away. As far as his arrows go, it’s just a matter of being patient, recognizing where his attacks are landing and reacting accordingly.

This react and attack design philosophy (combined with the appropriate stunlocks) makes up the bulk of Mega Man Zero’s boss design. These are one on one fights to the death, but Master X’s Guardians take things to another level. For the majority of players, these will be the hardest bosses in the game. Coming in unprepared, without the correct element chip, truly demands if not mechanical mastery, a deft understanding of how to control Zero. The most challenging of the bunch is, not coincidentally, the only one who can’t be reliably stunlocked: Phantom. 

Weak to nothing, players have no choice but to endure Phantom’s relatively long fight. He creates shadow clones of himself, throws out Shurikens & Kunais, has his own set of sword combos, and will actually try to kamikaze attack you at the end of their second fight, potentially taking Zero with him. This is a tough boss fight with no easy workaround, but it’s one of the most fun in the game, offering players plenty of variety in how they approach Phantom. When Phantom starts making his shadow clones, Zero can either: attack the real Phantom by spotting his unique glow amongst the clones, or fire his Buster into the first clone he sees, triggering Phantom to spawn directly above him. 

The first time players trigger this will likely be a mistake, but once you know he reacts this way, it’s possible to bait Phantom out of his cloning technique, turning his opportunity for espionage into an opportunity for you to attack. On the flip side, allowing him to go through the full technique can potentially net Zero several free hits if you have a keen eye for visual details. Instead of jumping over Phantom’s Shuriken, players can dash under it, prod him from below with their Tri Rod, and then dash out of the way when he leaps down, potentially scoring another hit depending if they can react fast enough. With the right timing, players can even land a quick two-hit combo by following a slash with a Tri Rod prod. All this might be easier said than done, but building up the skills to get to this point is half the fun of Mega Man Zero

Of course, for those struggling, there is a way to alleviate Zero 1’s at times obscene difficulty. Boss weapons have ensured that player progression has been a part of the Mega Man series since day 1, becoming an even more intimate aspect of the series beginning with X, but Zero’s more personal, RPG inspired approach to game design allows less skilled players to comfortably build the skills they need to do well without feeling perpetually blocked. A nice dose of science fantasy, Cyber Elves replace Heart Tanks, Sub Tanks, and armor pieces as upgrade systems. All the bonuses associated with these collectibles can still be obtained, but the process now involves currency: E-Crystals. 

It isn’t enough to find a Cyber Elf in the wild. Instead, they need to be leveled individually. Zero can go to any Trans Server (essentially the game’s warp point) and feed Cyber Elves with E-Crystals he obtains from stages. Once fully fed, Cyber Elves can then be equipped and consumed by Zero. Large squared Cyber Elves bestow permanent upgrades (a health boost, a permanent Sub Tank, double defense) while smaller squared Cyber Elves offer temporary bonuses (quick heal, stun enemies, rescue Zero from a bottomless pit once.) This can be quite the grindy process on what players choose to prioritize, as well. 

Those wanting to use large elves without grinding too much will likely only have enough E-Crystals for one natural permanent upgrade by the end of the game (if that.) On the flip side, players will naturally find enough E-Crystals to afford to use a bunch of smaller Cyber Elves, making individual stages easier at the expense of permanent upgrades. There’s a give and take that needs to be considered, but that the variety is there at all is not only nice, but makes an overwhelming game far less daunting. Players just need to bite the bullet on the Cyber Elves themselves. 

Once used, a Cyber Elf is permanently gone. Using a Cyber Elf also lowers Zero’s end of stage rank, but there’s more to the ranking system beyond whether or not to use elves. Rank is based on: the time it takes to finish the stage, how much damage Zero has taken, how many enemies Zero has killed, whether or not Zero completed his stage-specific mission (protect Ciel, keep a Resistance member alive,) and– as mentioned– Cyber Elves used. A rank system is a great idea in theory that encourages players to better themselves at the game, but its execution is flawed. 

The most glaring issue comes from enemies killed criteria. More often than not, stages will not place enough enemies in the natural path towards the boss door. If players want to earn as high a rank as possible, they’ll need to backtrack and respawn enemies to kill– but this eats up time and players risk damaging Zero. You need to go back and do this for a perfect rank, but doing so is a risk that could result in players ending the stage with an even worse rank than they would have otherwise. This is especially jarring because level design isn’t even primarily focused on platforming, instead prioritizing action and enemy placement.

Zero 1 does feature a fair bit of platforming, the best of which tend to lead to tucked-away Cyber Elves, but the worst of it is crippled by camera issues. The very same mission where Zero engages in an incredible boss fight against Phantom is immediately followed by platforming hell, as players are tasked to platform through an area with a continuous bottomless pit, all while avoiding enemies & hazards, on the lookout for bombs the entire time. Oh, and there’s a time limit. The GBA’s screen size makes it very difficult to see where everything important is. It’s entirely possible to miss a bomb because of the zoomed-in camera, forcing players to backtrack through the hardest level in the game. This is a stage that all but guarantees player deaths. 

It may seem at odds with the core design, but Zero 1 doesn’t expect you to rank well right away. In fact, most players are better off ignoring rank altogether for their first playthrough. Go with the flow and learn the game before committing to the extreme that is Mega Man Zero without Cyber Elves. That said, it should be pointed out that Zero 1 is arguably at its best on hard mode. Cyber Elves can still be used, but the majority of Zero’s skills are now locked. His sword is stuck with a 1 hit combo, the Triple Rod only has its base prod, and the best the Buster Shot & Shield Boomerang can do are hit their first tier charges. But it’s in stripping Zero of his best abilities where the boss design shines even more. 

Players can actually still make use of stunlocks courtesy of element chips & the Shield Boomerang, but Zero now takes 50% more damage from enemies, meaning there’s even less room for error than before. With a limited move set, it becomes clear that Zero 1 was blatantly designed with hard mode in mind. Why don’t Zero’s combo chains work against bosses? Because they’re not a part of hard mode. Instead hard encourages players to use everything Zero has access to. Complacent players will go through normal with just their Buster and Z-Saber, but getting through hard without using the Triple Rod to kill enemies at an angle or the Shield Boomerang to stun bosses is a recipe for disaster. 

A and S Ranks even unlock new attacks for bosses, which should be especially fun for skilled players. This may seem like a punishment, but all these moves do is add a desperation move of sorts for bosses. These arguably should have been a part of their default kit, but it’s certainly kind of IntiCreates to reserve the hardest-hitting attacks for only those players who have proven themselves capable of handling it. This is not an ideal ranking system by any means, but it gives Zero flavor. It also gives Zero codenames. 

Perhaps the core idea that the original Mega Man Zero pushes is that Zero himself is a hero. Time and time again, characters reference his lost legend. This is a world that has seemingly forgotten Zero– or at least one whose leaders want him forgotten. Every time players defeat a boss and complete a mission, it’s not just a victory for Zero, it’s a victory for his status as a hero. The ranking system plays with this, giving Zero a codename that conveys what he is to the people of this world: a Warrior, a Sniper, a Hero. But the codenames do swing both ways, with lesser players being bestowed the Slowpoke, Fearful, and Lazy codenames to list a few. This flies in the face of the themes Zero 1 is pushing on a surface level, but the theme arguably resonates more when players are actually forced to prove themselves. 

Narratively, Zero shows the consequences of the world seen in the X sub-series. Reploids who the Maverick Hunters used to protect a century ago are now being hunted by them, and players find themselves playing as an amnesiac Zero assisting a terrorist organization that’s actively conspiring against X and his utopia, Neo Arcadia. It’s ultimately revealed that X is a copy, but this in itself is important. Neither Zero or Copy X have a genuine connection to the past. The former remembers nothing while the latter “remembers” everything. That said, while Zero can’t remember anything, he’s nurtured & guided by Ciel. The leader of the Resistance, Ciel recognizes the legend Zero left behind during the course of the X series, awakening him to help the persecuted once more.

Compare Zero’s role, and his relation to Ciel, to that of Copy X. Copy X was a clone of the original X created by Ciel. For all intents and purposes, he is a perfect physical recreation of X. The difference here being that because Copy X had all of X’s memories, Ciel left him to his own devices. On his own, however, with no personal attachment to Reploids grounding him or a sense of nurtured empathy, X’s philosophies become warped, turning him into a fascist dictator in the name of Justice. Where Zero’s legend was lost, X’s was twisted into something that ideologically opposed everything he once stood for. 

Interestingly, Copy X being a copy doesn’t get the real X off the hook. Turned into a Cyber-Elf, X reveals at the very end of the game that fighting without Zero jaded him, turned him cynical, and eventually led him to a point where he was totally apathetic towards all the violence. For a character who agonized over the nature of forever wars at the end of each entry in the X series, this puts into perspective just how dramatic the Zero series is going to be in comparison to its predecessors. Mega Man X had always promised a darker, more mature storyline for the series, but it arguably didn’t reach that point until the very end of X4. Even then, X’s ideals always ensured there was a hope at the center of the sub-series. 

Zero 1 puts in no uncertain terms that X and Zero fundamentally failed. What peace X could temporarily achieve in Zero’s absence morphed into something totally uncontrollable, with Reploids actively hunted for no reason other than Copy X’s extreme prejudices. Interestingly, there’s actually not too much in the way of story. Every mission has dialogue at the start and at the end, but the plot generally happens in the background, with players needing to infer the consequences of Zero’s actions and speak to NPCs in the hub world. 

Which in itself is worth mentioning. Rather than selecting stages from a menu, Zero has access to the entire Resistance base, one filled with NPCs to talk to. The base is even littered with free E-Crystals between missions to encourage Cyber Elf use as early as possible. The idea of a “town” with NPCs who say new things as the plot progresses isn’t alien to Mega Man (see Legends,) but it hadn’t been done in the 2D games yet. Not just that, Zero can actively repopulate the base by completing missions, lending the impression that the hub world is livelier and dynamic than it ultimately is. It’s an illusion, but a necessary one for Mega Man Zero’s identity. It doesn’t want to be the next chapter in the Mega Man X sub-series. This is the start of something new entirely. 

Even the mission failure/success system is an attempt at circumventing the typical 8 Robot Masters formula. Upon getting a game over, certain missions can be outright locked out, with Ciel informing Zero that they canonically failed. This can naturally result in players missing quite a bit of content, but the fact Zero is willing to punish players so harshly is commendable to an extent. Real consequences in games are rare, and a novel take on a familiar structure that can make you feel just as much as a hero as a zero is a very clever way of addressing that. Even if it isn’t all that fun when it happens to you. 

Mega Man Zero’s RPG elements are frankly as odd as they are at odds with the game’s design, but they allow for less skilled players to take a crack at Zero 1– whether to learn the game as best they can before their next playthrough, or just for the fun of it. Not just that, weapon leveling and Cyber Elves simply add a nice dose of variety into the game. Mega Man Zero 2 would immediately course correct the first game’s failings– notably the rank system, level design, and grindiness– but it only makes sense in hindsight why Nakayama redesigned Zero so radically. Zero was always its own beast. IntiCreates would better refine the series as they went along, but the original Mega Man Zero was a charming fresh start for one of gaming’s premiere franchises. 


An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and The Legend of Zelda, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. pearhead7997

    July 27, 2020 at 6:32 pm

    I really like this review. I’ve been a longtime fan of megaman with the X series as my favourite (yes I like even X6…). I picked up Megaman zero last year… and put it back down most likely due to the difficulty. However, I came back to it recently because I’d heard the music of megaman zero games was really good and I’ve come to really enjoy it – it’s probably 4th to Megaman X, 3 and 2 in my opinion (sorry for the generic choices…next is X5). I really enjoyed how the levels were designed more about combat – it was really fun zipping around the levels with the Z saber and Triple rod. Unlike what you suggested, I got used to the new weapons instead of Cyber Elves because it wasn’t really interesting to grind – I think I only used 3 cyber elves to heal myself and didn’t bother levelling them up.

    Regarding the story of the X series, I felt it was a lot darker than Megaman classic as the stakes were much higher and many people and reploids died – X1 starts with a destroyed highway (likely after the missiles Sigma launches in Day of Sigma) and X4’s Sky lagoon crashing down kills thousands. It also feels like since Sigma just never stops trying to destroy, there’s some sort of fundamental fault with reploids in that there will always be mavericks and megaman zero seems to be a logical continuation of these ideas (no spoilers for Zero 2-4 please!) About difficulty, Zero 1 is far harder than anything in the X series (even when it’s difficulty for the wrong reasons like X6) as well as having a more consistent level of difficulty as opposed to spikes like X1’s Sigma and X6’s Gate Stages. The major thing I found difficult in Zero 1 was failing missions forever – I couldn’t be bothered reloading saves to avoid it so I just used save states to save time. As for the classic series, I’ve played 1-5 only but I’d argue only megaman 1 is harder than Zero 1; any megaman 4 and after doesn’t seem too difficult at all especially (unless 6 and onwards got a lot harder!) Anyway, thanks for the interesting read – I can’t wait to play the rest of the Zero series.

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Games

‘Oracle of Seasons’: A Game Boy Color Classic

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Oracle of Seasons

“It is an endless cycle of life… the changing seasons!”

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages & Oracle of Seasons are very much two halves of the same grand adventure, but they’re both worth examining on their own merits. Seasons in particular brings with it quite an interesting history. The game that would eventually become Oracle of Seasons began life as a remake of the original Legend of Zelda. This remake would be accompanied by five other games– a remake of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and four original titles– all developed for the Game Boy Color. These games would not be developed by Nintendo themselves, but by Flagship– a subsidiary of Capcom that was also funded in part by Nintendo and Sega.

These six games would eventually be trimmed into a trilogy slated to release in the summer, autumn, & winter of 2000, before settling as a duology that would launch simultaneously in 2001. Where Oracle of Ages was the sole survivor of the four original games, Oracle of Seasons was a brand new game morphed out of the Zelda 1 remake. Considering director Hidemaro Fujibayashi’s own reflection on Flagship’s Zelda proposal, much of what would define Seasons was always present;

 “The core of the game was pretty much decided. That is to say, the fact that it would be on the Game Boy Color, the use of the four seasons, and the decision to retain the feel of the 2D Zelda games. It was also decided that it would be a series.”

Not only was this remake never intended to be a standalone entry, it would kick start its own sub-series while featuring seasons at the forefront of the gameplay. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto likewise asked Fujibayashi to pen a new story for the original Legend of Zelda, suggesting a fairly comprehensive remake as the end goal. With so many inherent changes, however, The Hyrule Fantasy ended up leaving the region altogether. 

“I believe the Zelda series really only started to have scenarios after the hardware specifications improved. The original Zelda was a pure action-RPG and didn’t have much of a story to begin with. I wanted to combine both those aspects (action-RPG and an actual scenario) this time around. At first, we’d only planned on creating a game one-tenth the size of the final version. But it just kept growing as development progressed and gradually turned into an original game.” 
– Hidemaro Fujibayashi, Director/Planner/Scenario Writer

Oracle of Seasons takes after Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask by setting itself away from Hyrule– the kingdom only ever shown during the opening cinematic. Holodrum has one of the densest worlds in a 2D Zelda game, if not the densest after A Link to the Past & A Link Between Worlds. A kingdom geographically similar to Hyrule as seen in the original Legend of Zelda, Holodrum has its own northern mountainside, a final dungeon in the northwest corner, and dozens of old men hidden amongst the land. This all makes sense since Seasons is rooted in a remake of the first game, but it isn’t as if Holodrum is without its novelties. 

Holodrum is distinct from Hyrule where it counts. The kingdom itself is quite large, sprawling when compared directly to Koholint Island. Progression often feels like a puzzle, especially when working around roadblocks early on. Holodrum’s four seasons are out of order, with the weather changing on the fly between regions. Link has to work around snow banks, overgrown trees, flooded fields, and petrified flora to overcome Holodrum’s chaos. As easy as it is to get side tracked in the vast kingdom, it’s only because there always tends to be something around the corner. Getting lost isn’t a problem when the overworld is so secret heavy. 

Old men are frequently found hiding under trees, actually giving players a reason to burn them on sight now, but new systems are in place to make exploration even more rewarding. Link will come across patches of soft soil throughout Holodrum where he can plant Gasha Seeds. Owing their name to gashapon– Japanese capsule toys not too dissimilar to blind bag toys– Gasha Seeds grow into Gasha Trees which bear Gasha Nuts after Link has defeated 40 enemies. Gasha Nut contents are randomized, but they incentivize players to return to previously explored areas. 

Not everything a Gasha Nut drops is worth the effort of chopping down 40 enemies– the worst being five regular hearts and a sole fairy– but the best rewards make it all worthwhile. While the Heart Piece tied to the Nut is probably the best overall get, Gasha Seeds naturally feed into the Ring system. Rings add an inherent RPG layer to the Oracle duology’s gameplay, offering the earliest instance of genuine player customization in the Zelda franchise. Rings, like Gasha Nuts, are completely random. Link will find many in his travels, but he needs to appraise them at Vasu’s ring shop in Horon Village before they can be used. Except in a few rare instances, Vasu’s appraisals are randomized.

There are 64 rings altogether between Seasons and Ages, all with varying effects. Which rings Link obtains can influence how players go about their game. RNG also ensures that each new playthrough is unique from the last. While this poses an obvious frustration for any completionists, it’s a fantastic way of adding another layer of replay value to an already fairly replayable experience. The Expert’s Ring allows Link to punch enemies if he unequips his weapons, the Charge Ring speeds up the Spin Attack, and the Protection Ring makes it so Link always takes one Heart of damage when attacked.

With so many rings to choose from, the gameplay is kept in balance by Link’s Ring Box. Once appraised, Link can equip his rings into his box. While he can only equip one initially, players can find a Box upgrade on Goron Mountain. With RNG already influencing which rings Link has access to, it’s unlikely two players will have the exact same experience in Oracle of Seasons– rings offering more personalization than is still usual for Zelda. Besides Gasha Nuts, Rings can be found in the overworld and dropped by Maple, a young witch who makes further use of RNG. 

Maple is Syrup’s apprentice, the recurring witch who runs the potion shop in A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening. Riding in on her broomstick, Maple will appear after Link has killed 30 enemies. Should players bump into her, both Link & Maple will drop their treasures, prompting Maple to race the player for them. It’s almost always worthwhile to focus on what Maple’s dropped rather than what Link lost. Not only does Maple drop her own unique set of rings, she’s a convenient way of getting potions early on and will eventually drop a Heart Piece. Maple also gets progressively faster, upgrading her flying broomstick to a vacuum after enough altercations.

So much RNG can be off-putting, but Holodrum is such an extensive overworld that randomness isn’t much of an issue. Gasha Seeds drive exploration and Maple’s appearances reward it. These systems also encourage players to fight enemies head-on rather than avoid them when it’s convenient. If gameplay ever feels more involved in Oracle of Seasons than the average Zelda game, that’s because it is. This goes double when taking the very seasons into account. 

The four seasons influence overworld progression significantly and most non-dungeon puzzles center on Link using the Rod of Seasons to restore seasonal order to whatever region he’s in. Most of these puzzles solve themselves since seasons can only be changed on stumps, but concessions need to be made when an overworld features four unique versions of every region. Incredible use of the Game Boy Color’s hardware helps in this regard as well. The handheld was designed with making in-game colors pop and Oracle of Seasons– as an extremely late-life GBC game– stands out as one of the most vibrant titles in the system’s library. 

Each season has its own defining color palette– blue for winter, red for summer, green for spring, yellow for autumn– but there is always a wide range of colors on-screen. Winter matches its light blue with shades of white & gray; spring features an almost pastel color tone where gold & pink flowers bloom against soft shades of green; summer deepens most colors for a bolder effect; and autumn offsets its yellow with orange, red, and in some instances purple. Oracle of Seasons might very well have the best atmosphere on the Game Boy Color, each season stylized & recognizable with their own distinct tones. It’s a phenomenal presentation that outdoes OoS’ contemporaries. Seasons outright has better art direction than most early GBA games. 

The fact Oracle of Seasons commits to its premise in such a large overworld as strictly as it does is praiseworthy, but it’s even more impressive that there’s another world lurking underneath Holodrum. Subrosia is a bizarre underworld, easily the most eclectic setting in the franchise other than Termina (and in many respects more so.) Subrosians are culturally impolite, bathe in lava, and deal in Ore instead of Rupees. The Subrosian Market undersells a Heart Piece, volcanic eruptions are a welcome norm, and Link will be moving between Holodrum & Subrosia multiple times over the course of his journey. Players can even go on a date with a Subrosian girl, Rosa, that’s a clear play on his date with Marin from Link’s Awakening. Subrosia is so alien that it’s hard not to love every moment beneath Holodrum.

Beyond the four seasons and the dichotomy between Holodrum & Subrosia, what differentiates Oracle of Seasons most from Oracle of Ages is its focus on action. Seasons is a puzzle heavy game, but it lets combat drive the gameplay more often than not with a very action-centric tool kit. The Slingshot makes its 2D debut, replacing the Bow in the process, but its 250 seed capacity outdoes any of Link’s quivers. Its upgraded version, the Hyper Slingshot, even fires in three directions at once. The Roc’s Feather returns from Link’s Awakening to once again make jumping an important part of Link’s mobility. Not only is platforming far more frequent this time around– with the Ancient Ruins featuring quite a bit of jumping for a 2D dungeon– it upgrades into the Roc’s Cape which allows Link to glide.

The Boomerang now upgrades into a guided Magical Boomerang which players can control themselves; the Magnetic Gloves are ostensibly a better version of the Hookshot which can pull Link to & from magnetic sources, along with magnetizing certain baddies; and most enemies are designed with a combination of the sword & shield in mind. Oracle of Ages has its fair share of action as well, but not with quite the same focus as Oracle of Seasons.

In general, Seasons is a focused video game in the best ways possible. OoS always gives players a general direction to go in, but otherwise leaves Link to his own devices. There are little to no interruptions, and the gameplay loop emphasizes freedom in spite of the game’s linearity. There’s always something to do and you’re always making progress, whether that be narratively or checking in on some Gasha Nuts. The pace is perfectly suited for handheld gaming and quick burst play sessions. Only have a few minutes to play? Kill some enemies to trigger Maple. Got some time? Scope out the next dungeon and work towards saving Holodrum. 

There are also a number of side quests to round off gameplay. The main trading sequence ends with Link finding the Noble Sword in Holodrum’s Lost Woods; players can forge an Iron Shield in Subrosia by smelting red and blue ore together & bringing the refined ore to the Subrosian smithy; and Golden Beasts roam Holodrum, each appearing during a different season & in a set region. Once all four are defeated, Link can find an old man north of Horon Village who will give him the Red Ring– a ring which doubles the Sword’s attack at no expense to the player. 

All these side quests are worthwhile, especially since Oracle of Seasons is a bit on the tougher side when it comes to difficulty. Dungeons are very fast-paced, full of puzzles that are often deceptively simple. Dungeon items are used in increasingly clever ways, from traversing over bottomless pits with strategic use of the Magnetic Gloves to using the Hyper Slingshot to activate three statues at once. Notably, most bosses in Seasons are actually remixes of boss fights from the first Legend of Zelda

Aquamentus, Dodongo, Gohma, Digdogger, Manhandla, and Gleeok all return with a vengeance. Gleeok in particular puts up a serious fight, forcing Link on the offensive. Not only do players need to be quick enough to slice off Gleeok’s two heads before they can attack themselves back on, the dragon will persist as a skeleton for round 2. Explorer’s Crypt is a difficult enough dungeon where getting to the boss room with full health isn’t a guarantee, so Gleeok offers a surprising but welcome challenge as a result. 

Oracle of Seasons deserves a bit of credit for having one of the harder final bosses in the series, as well. Onox doesn’t have much in the way of personality, but he’s a tough boss to put down. His second form requires Link to use the Spin Attack to deal damage while making sure he doesn’t hit Din in the process, and Onox’s dragon form is a gauntlet of dodging, jumping, & surviving long enough to finally kill the General of Darkness. Players are bound to die once or twice, but the final dungeon is short enough where getting back to Onox takes no time at all. 

If Oracle of Seasons has one glaring flaw, however, it’s the story. The script reads like a massive step back coming off the heels of Link’s Awakening, Ocarina of Time, and especially Majora’s Mask. Link is summoned to aid the Oracle Din, already a seasoned hero and implied to be the same Link from A Link to the Past, but very little time is spent fleshing out Din as a character & giving players a reason to care about her. Her role is more akin to Zelda in A Link to the Past than Marin in Link’s Awakening. Similarly, Onox is an undercooked villain who shows up to kidnap Din and does nothing for the rest of the story. Of course, this light story stems from Seasons’ origin as a remake of The Legend of Zelda

Early press of the game– when it was still going by the name Acorn of the Tree of Mystery– indicates that the story was originally set in Hyrule and the seasons went out of order when Ganon kidnapped Princess Zelda, the guardian of both the Triforce of Power & the four seasons. Hyrule was changed to Holodrum, Ganon became Onox, Zelda turned to Din, and the eight fragments of the Triforce presumably became the eight Essences of Nature. While underwhelming, the plot’s structure if nothing else makes sense. 

It’s worth pointing out that Oracle of Seasons seems to recognize that story is its weakness and lets the gameplay drive the experience. Unlike Oracle of Ages which takes its plot seriously and has a clear thematic arc, Seasons really is just a remix of Zelda 1’s plot. Which is perfect for the kind of game OoS ultimately is: a fast-paced, action-packed adventure through an ever-changing world. When played as a precursor to Ages instead of its ending, Seasons’ story comes off comparatively better. The stakes aren’t that high or defined, but that’s more than okay for the first half of an adventure that spans two full-length games. 

In a departure for the franchise, Oracle of Seasons actually features a proper post-game, marking the first time any Zelda acknowledges that the main threat is over. NPCs will comment on how they haven’t seen Link in a while, the weather has stabilized as spring has set in Holodrum, and you’re free to wrap up any side quests left unfinished. This is especially noteworthy because players can link their progress from Seasons over into Ages and transfer any rings they have on hand. 

An epilogue makes for a charming send-off to one of the most charming games on the Game Boy Color. Oracle of Seasons underwent a strange development, intended to be little more than a suped-up remake of the original Legend of Zelda. Instead, Flagship ended up developing one of the finest games on the GBC– a vibrant adventure filled with personality and some of the best action on the handheld. Oracle of Seasons isn’t just one half of a greater game; it’s a classic Zelda in its own right.

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Games

PAX Online: ’30XX’ and ‘Cris Tales’

Our coverage of PAX Online continues with a Mega Man-inspired roguelike and a charming, time-hopping RPG adventure.

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30XX and Cris Tales

Our coverage of PAX Online continues with a Mega Man-inspired roguelike and a charming, time-hopping RPG adventure.

30XX

30XX

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and Steam
Release: TBA

I’ve already given some of my thoughts on 30XX back when I took it for a spin at PAX East. To catch those who didn’t see that report up to speed, 30XX is a 2D side-scrolling roguelike with a hi-bit art style and gameplay reminiscent of many Mega Man games. It’s generally more forgiving than Mega Man in the sense that there’s a distinct lack of instant-death spikes and pits, but the tradeoff is that when you do die that’s the end and you have to start the whole game over from the start. Classic roguelike rules for ya.

This PAX Online demo was very similar to the one I played at East. I chose between the blaster Nina or swordsman Ace then I went on my merry way throughout the two levels. One key difference is that I did not start out with any specials this time around and my maximum health was much lower. This is probably in-line with what it would be like to start a new game completely fresh as opposed to some upgrades as the East demo had. As a result, I actually failed my first attempt at this demo.

That’s where the first additional aspect of this build came into play, though, in the form of global character progression. Beating bosses in 30XX not only grants you a new weapon ability but also a currency called Memoria. Memoria can be spent at a shop in-between playthroughs to obtain permanent upgrades for Nina and Ace for every subsequent attempt. The pickings were rather slim for the demo, such as increased health and energy, but a wider variety is promised for the full release, and if anything it’s exceptionally clear how useful they’ll be to fully clear the game’s ten planned stages in one go. I also await the inevitable “no upgrade” runs that will assuredly come out of this, though.

30XX

The other neat addition to this demo is Entropy conditions, which are essentially modifiers. You can make it to where shop items cost more Nut currency to purchase per run, impose a time limit, and/or increase the amount of HP enemies have. Enabling these options also increases rewards gained from runs, adding a nice risk vs. reward factor that will probably keep things engaging even after you master the game’s earlier stages. More Entropy conditions are promised to be added into the full game that will allow you to fine-tune your experience even further.

The one concern I have for 30XX at this point is the number of dead ends I encountered with no reward to show for it. This is probably a result of the procedurally generated nature of the game, but the number of times I thought I was so clever for platforming up to a hard-to-reach area only to be greeted by a wall was more than I cared for. This is the “30XX Very Pre-Alpha Demo”, though, so it’s a flaw that can still be fixed in future development and with everything else that is being done right so far — the tight platforming, varied progression, and delightful aesthetics — it’s not hard to be hopeful for 30XX‘s future.

Cris Tales

Cris Tales

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Steam, and Stadia
Release: Nov 17th, 2020

I went into the Cris Tales demo after hearing nothing but its name in passing here and there. After finishing the demo, I’d recommend you do the same. If you’re a fan of turn-based RPG’s just download the demo and see it for yourself.

Cris Tales managed to constantly surprise and delight me throughout the entirety of its 45-minute long demo, firstly being the visuals. Playing through the game is like watching stained-glass art come to life with its hyper-stylized character designs that emphasize general shapes rather than specific details and environments chock-full of geometrical sharp edges. I was in awe from the word “Go”.

The story follows Crisbell, a chipper young orphan girl who spends her time happily doing chores for the orphanage and her dearest Mother Superior. After chasing a dapper young frog to a church, Crisbell inadvertently awakens the powers of Time Crystals hosed there and gains the power to see both the past and future at the same time. This manifests as the screen fractures into thirds with the left side showing the past, the middle the present, and the right the future at all times.

It was a trick that took a minute or two to register with me, but once it did I immediately set about traipsing all about the town I had just chased the frog through in order to see how it has and will change. It was a positively fascinating experience that put a big stupid grin on my face the entire time.

Crisbell can use this knowledge of that past and future to make decisions in the present such as locating a missing potion label or creating a concoction that will prevent wood from rotting and leading to dilapidated houses. Choosing which house to restore is also an irreversible choice that will lead to different outcomes depending.

Cris Tales

Time manipulation also plays a major part in Cris Tales‘ turn-based combat in extremely novel and creative ways. Enemies attack Crisbell and co from both the left and the right, and you can attack them with your standard RPG basic attacks and skills. Enemies on the left side, however, can be forcibly sent to the past while enemies on the right to the future by expending Crystal Points. This means reverting a big brawny goblin into a harmless little child or aging it into an elder that can barely move.

That’s not all, though. Douse an armored enemy in water then send them to the future to cause it to rust and shatter their defense. Poison an enemy that has already been sent to the past then brings them back to the present to force them to take all that poison damage at once. Plant a damaging mandragora that would normally take a few turns to sprout then send it to the future to cause it to sprout instantly. These are the examples demonstrated in the demo but it’s abundantly clear that this is only the tip of the creative iceberg. It’s genuinely thrilling to imagine all the possibilities such a system is capable of. The best part is that we won’t have to wait long to find out as Cris Tales launches on all major platforms in just two months.

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Game Reviews

‘AVICII Invector Encore Edition’ Review: Rhythm and Melancholy

‘AVICII Invector: Encore Edition’ is a music and rhythm game perfect for newcomers and fans of the genre.

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AVICII Invector Encore Edition Review

Developer: Hello There Games | Publisher: Wired Productions | Genre:  Rhythm | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch


In terms of a pure adrenaline rush, nothing tops a well-designed rhythm game. Good rhythm games let players feel a euphoric sense of flow and even excitement. But the best the genre has to offer taps into the heart of music itself. AVICII Invector Encore Edition is a rhythm game perfect for newcomers to the genre but also works as a moving tribute.

I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start

Whether it’s tapping buttons in time with the beat, smashing feet on a dance pad, or moving an entire body in front of an IR camera, rhythm and music games have always been popular. AVICII Invector Encore Edition takes inspiration from music games that came before it but stands firmly on its own. It’s wonderfully accessible, truly a music game for anyone. From diehard fans of the rhythm game genre to people who are simply AVICII fans who also have a console, Invector checks a lot of boxes.

Levels across AVICII Invector play largely the same. The player picks a track and a difficulty level, and is off to the races. They control a slick spaceship moving forward along a track, and must tap or hold buttons as the ship passes over them. This “falling jewel” style has been popular from the Guitar Hero franchise and beyond, but Invector finds ways to make it feel unique. The art direction is breathtakingly stellar, taking players on far-out trips through cyberpunk-esque cities and crumbling pathways. There are even portions of each level where the player can steer their spaceship Star Fox-style through rings and around pillars to keep their point multiplier up.

Invector feels like it’s trying to affect as many sensory inputs as it can. Though Encore Edition is fully playable on handheld mode on Switch, Invector shines brightest on a big screen with a thumping sound system. The neighbors might get annoyed, but who would hear them complaining?

Tracks are divided up by worlds, with four to five tracks each. Worlds must be cleared sequentially, by scoring at least seventy-five percent on each level in that world. While this may sound initially restrictive, Encore Edition gives players access to two extra worlds with five tracks each right out of the gate, so players have plenty to play with at the start.

There are three difficulties available, and each mode offers a different experience. For players who just want to experience AVICII’s music in a low-stress way while enjoying amazing visuals and ambiance, Easy mode is the way to play. Anything above that amps the difficulty up significantly, with Hard mode escalating the required precision to an unbelievable degree. Building up a competitive high score can only be achieved by hitting multipliers and keeping a streak going. At higher difficulties, Invector feels challenging but exhilarating. Scoring above ninety percent on any difficulty mode above Easy feels extremely good, and the online leaderboards are the perfect place to boast about that achievement. During high level play, earning a high score feels transcendent.

Worlds and levels are strung together with brief, lightly-animated cutscenes. It’s a slim justification for a rhythm game, but they’re better than nothing and provide just enough context to keep things interesting. AVICII Invector is both visually and aurally pleasing, but even if the player isn’t a diehard fan of EDM or House music, there is plenty to love.

This world can seem cold and grey
But you and I are here today
And we won’t fade into darkness

AVICII Invector is a truly fantastic rhythm game. But it’s also more than that. It is impossible to play Invector and not feel a twinge of melancholy. The game is a tribute to a hard-working perfectionist, but the man behind the music had his demons. Though the visuals are enticing and the gameplay electric, it is difficult not to feel sad from the opening credits. It is to Invector‘s credit that all throughout, the game feels like a joyful celebration of Tim Bergling’s music. It is a worthy tribute to a man who revitalized and reinvigorated the EDM and House music scene.

At the end of the day, almost every aspect of AVICII Invector reflects a desire to connect. For players connected to the internet, global leaderboards are a great opportunity to share high scores. Invector is much more forgiving than Thumper or Rez or even anything in the Hatsune Miku catalog. Players can cruise through this game on Easy mode if they want, and they won’t be punished. The Encore Edition even includes a split-screen multiplayer, which is fantastically fun.

In his music, Bergling worked across genres to expand what pop music could look like. With Invector, music lovers and players of nearly any skill level can have a pleasing experience. In video games, that’s rare, and it should be celebrated.

According to publisher Wired Productions’ website, all music royalties from AVICII Invector Encore Edition will support suicide awareness through the Tim Bergling Foundation.

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