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Top 10 Games with Staff Writer, Izsak Barnette

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Top 10 Games is a new, semi-regular series that hopes to offer a bit of insight into the twisted minds of Goomba Stomp’s writers, editors and podcasters by allowing them to tell you about their all time favorite games, and why they love them to such an unhealthy degree. 

About Izsak:

For my seventh birthday, my grandparents let me pick between a PS2 and a GameCube. I chose the GameCube and I don’t regret it. Why would I? After all, the Big N, while it suffered from plenty of issues, gave me plenty of good, quality games to play as a kid, a rarity in today’s world of mobile-focused shovelware and mature, AAA-focused titles. In the following piece, you’ll find ten games, from childhood favorites to relatively recent releases, that I cherish above all others. I hope you enjoy the list!

10) Super Mario Maker

I’ve always loved Super Mario platformers. From the incredibly creative Super Mario World to the maddeningly tedious Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels, they’ve been the one game series that I’ve played consistently throughout my life. My love for them has stayed consistent, even as my tastes in gaming have matured or diverged entirely.

However, when Super Mario Maker was first announced in 2014, I remember feeling, well–not much of anything at all actually. I genuinely didn’t care about the game in the slightest (a side-effect of waiting eagerly on Xenoblade Chronicles X, I suppose.) The graphics looked pedestrian and while the game’s concept seemed interesting, the presentation most certainly wasn’t.

Fast-forward to September of 2015, however, and my opinion had changed entirely. I hadn’t bought the game at launch so I was watching videos about it courtesy of YouTube channel GameXplain instead. It was then that I realized that the game being released was not only much more polished than the product originally introduced in 2014, but that it also looked like a lot of fun.

Pretty soon, I was playing the game (courtesy of a well-timed birthday gift from my parents) and my family and I fell in love instantly. What normal Super Mario platforms had lacked in difficulty, depth, and variety was improved by a community dedicated to creating some of the most fun, diverse, and difficult Super Mario levels that I’ve ever seen.

Nearly four hundred hours of collective playtime later, its safe to say that Super Mario Maker became not only one of my favorite games of all time, but one of the games that I’ve had the most fun playing with my friends and family. We’ve spent dozens of hours playing through 100 Mario Challenge and countless more designing and polishing our own levels, which you can find here.

In a world where games are often criticized for how they separate people, Super Mario Maker is a rare example of a game that does the opposite, a game that not only brought my family a lot of fun, but also brought us closer together.

9) Super Paper Mario

While often considered the black sheep of the Paper Mario series, Super Paper Mario is a classic. I forget how many dozens of hours I spent as a kid roaming the world of Flipside while on my journey to save the world from the all-encompassing Void. While certainly not as well-polished as The Thousand Year Door, or the portable Mario RPGs, Super Paper Mario successfully manages to create a fun and engaging experience nonetheless.

Aside from its oftentimes banal combat system, the story is one of the better ones in the Mario RPGs, pursuing a depth and maturity that has yet to be topped. It is ultimately a game about love, loss, and the end of the world. The main villain, while lacking the traditional evilness and grativas associated with Mario RPG villains, is excellent.

A character reeling from pain and reacting in kind, his actions paint him as perhaps one of the most complicated characters in Mario series history; a welcome addition to a series whose villains often possess paper-thin motivations.

While its gameplay leaves much to be desired and it lacks the breadth of previous Mario RPGs, the depth of its storytelling coupled with a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek and original script, makes it not only one of the best Mario RPGs, but one of the best Mario games of all time. Super Paper Mario truly is a game worth experiencing.

8) Super Smash Bros.

The Super Smash Bros. series has been a favorite of mine since I played Super Smash Bros. Melee on the GameCube. The series’ fun mechanics paired with a roster full of  Nintendo characters from almost every one of the Big N’s franchises has given me countless years of enjoyment. However, picking between the different titles in the series is simply too difficult for me; each game is simply too good in its own way.

Super Smash Bros. Melee has a fun, engaging Adventure Mode as well as the most fun (not to mention the most challenging) Events in the series. Super Smash Bros. Brawl has the Sub-Space Emissary which, while not a favorite of all fans, features two of the most most impactful and memorable cutscenes in Nintendo history. Finally, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U has (in my personal opinion, don’t flame the comments Melee fans!) the most well-balanced and fun combat mechanics, balancing the combo-heavy nature of Melee with the easy-to-pick up floatiness of Brawl into a package so fun that it can be enjoyed by Smash players of any skill level.

It’s simply too great of a task for me to separate such iconic titles from each other, with too much nostalgia at stake for me to even attempt it. They are in a class of their own, a testament to the genius of series creator Masahiro Sakurai and a visual reminder of just how great a treasure trove of IPs the Big N has at its disposal.

7) Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares 

It would be an exercise in foolishness to try and count how many hours I spent playing the Master of Orion series as a kid. I owned both Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares and Master of Orion III for the PC. Courtesy of watching my father play them when I was young, I fell in love with the series quickly. While Master of Orion III doesn’t hold up particularly well today, instead playing like an instance of “Excel Spreadsheets: The Game,” the second game absolutely does, a testament to how well good game design can carry a game that’s even older than I am.

Released over two decades ago, Master of Orion II possesses gameplay that, while rudimentary by today’s standards, is impressive for a game older than the Millennium itself. A complicated meta-game evolving around balancing special attributes and a punishing AI highlight what is perhaps the greatest feature of Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares, its nigh infinite replayability.

I have seldom found a game that I can come back to, whether after a week or a year, and still have just as much fun as the day that I first started. Master of Orion II is an exception to that rule, a game so fun and enjoyable that I still return to it, even today.

Master of Orion II doesn’t hide its age well and it doesn’t have to. Much like any classic, it can instead rest upon its timeless brilliance, brilliance that transcends the rapid development of PC hardware and the space-strategy genre. Master of Orion II is a classic space strategy game, and one that needs to be experienced by anyone who loves PC gaming or strategy games. It is a masterpiece of timeless game design.

6) Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga

While the Mario and Luigi series has hit something of a snag recently with two good, but not great, entries in the series, its debut game is still as great as it ever was. Another gift from my childhood, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga maintained a constant presence in my Game Boy Advance’s carrying bag as a kid.

Fun, cartoony visuals punctuated with a masterful score by legendary composer Yoko Shimomura make most every moment of playing Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga a zanily enjoyable experience. Although I had played Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door by the time I received Superstar Saga as a Christmas present, it was my first true RPG; a fact that made it very hard for me to finish as a kid.

I can’t remember how many times I got stuck on a boss, puzzle, or just got lost in the game, but Superstar Saga‘s difficulty paled in comparison to its final boss, easily one of the most difficult final bosses that I’ve ever played against.

It wasn’t that the game was particularly hard, but that, like most children, I was impatient. Not content to spend the limited time I had to play games defeating enemies for experience points, I often ran from encounters, increasing the difficulty of the game further. Looking back, it’s a wonder that I ever finished it at all.

Regardless, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga is a superb adventure, and one well worth revisiting either on the Wii U eShop or when its remakeMario and Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions comes out on the 3DS this fall.

5) Chrono Trigger

It is very, very easy to make a bad JRPG. Trust me, I’ve played plenty of them. Even today, the genre struggles with crafting experiences that differ significantly from JRPGs that were released twenty or thirty years ago, with a few notable exceptions.

While most older JRPGs (such as the perennially loved Final Fantasy VI) show their age through use of by-the-book JRPG design, Chrono Trigger‘s originality and timeless gameplay still holds up as well as any RPG released today. An excellent, well-written time-travel story, an engaging battle system, and lovable characters made Chrono Trigger an easy game to fall in love with.

And the characters are what makes Chrono Trigger so different from many other JRPGs. From the enigmatic Magus to the indisputably honorable Frog, each characters stands out from the crowd of traditional JRPG archetypes, a testament to the game’s memorable presentation.

All of this goes without mentioning the spectacular soundtrack, which, as a first production by now-legendary composer Yasonori Mitsuda, is rivaled only by a select few. Its timeless melodies and luscious synth-jazz trills still give me chills to this day. It’s a masterpiece in sound design, and a testament to how well timeless music can set the stage for an excellent game.

Timelessness really is Chrono Trigger‘s greatest strength as, even 22 years after its initial 1995 release, it still holds up remarkably well. True timelessness is rare among games, but especially among RPGs, whose greatest tool is their ability to immerse players within a world. Despite releasing on hardware less powerful than the modern smart thermostat, Chrono Trigger still impresses today, a monument to what can be accomplished with enough pure talent, even on severely outdated hardware.

4) Final Fantasy XIV

There is no game on this list whose memory is more bittersweet for me than Final Fantasy XIV. The MMO genre is known for its ability to draw people in, to have them consider a fictional world of polygons and vectors their second home. FFXIV was no different for me.

I’ve written about it extensively before, but I played FFXIV during a time of great dynamism and change in my life. It relieved a lot of the stress from my final year of college and gave me goals that, while essentially meaningless, provided a release from what writing 15 papers in 14 weeks will often do to a person.

It helped that the game was a masterpiece in MMO design. While more “amusement park” MMO than sandbox, FFXIV was filled with so much content and so many callbacks to previous entries in the series that I often felt like it was a game designed specifically for me. A great story, epic soundtrack, and addictive content treadmill made playing FFXIV feel rewarding. Even if it took fifty hours to get the exclusive loot that I was after, it ultimately felt worth it in the end.

For more than a year and a half, all of my gaming-related decisions revolved around playing FFXIV. After I first played the game on PC, I bought a copy for the now-shuttered PS3 so that I could play while the computer was being used. When I got a PS4, I upgraded from the PS3 version so I could enjoy better graphical fidelity and smooth frame rates while in the living room. When I upgraded my computer to be able to play FFXIV at 1080p and 60FPS, I purchased a new keyboard and mouse, specifically to enhance my FFXIV experience. Everything I did, gaming-wise, at least tangentially, considered FFXIV, something I haven’t done for any other game, before or since.

I stopped playing FFXIV shortly after the release of Patch 3.1 in the Fall of 2015, when I made an attempt to come back and play it again. It simply wasn’t the same. Most of the members of my Free Company (FFXIV‘s version of guilds) had moved on. As a result, my desire to return slowly dropped away.

However, my memories of Eorzea haven’t. They remain as poignant today as they did then, a reminder of how games can move us in unexpected ways and make a discernible impact on our lives; a reminder of how powerful gaming is as an entertainment medium.

3) Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door

I remember the first time I heard about the Paper Mario series. I was standing in Wal-mart with my parents, watching one of those old CRT TVs that used to droop down from the ceiling, when an advertisement for The Thousand Year Door came on.

I was skeptical of the game’s appeal, as its cutesy, paper aesthetic immediately made me label it as a game for really young kids, and an uninteresting one at that.

Fast-forward a few months and, lo and behold, I received The Thousand Year Door along with Super Mario Sunshine for my birthday. As soon as my father and I began to play the game, I realized just how wrong my initial impression had been.

Far from the boring, Mario Paint-esque art game that I was expecting, The Thousand Year Door was one of the best games that I had ever played. An initially simple battle system unfurled into the subtly nuanced Badge System and a story that could have been mailed in was, instead, unfolded with great care. Side-missions involving Princess Peach and Bowser added variety and flavor to the game without interrupting its pacing.

Such brilliance was also evident in the design of each chapter of the game’s story. While there is one relatively weak chapter in the game, Chapter 2, the rest stand out as among the best in Mario RPG history. Adventures such as Mario’s trip to Glitzville and journey on the Excess Express are as memorable as anything the portly plumber has done over his nearly four decades of existence.

Despite paper-thin graphics, the game world comes alive brilliantly, the ultimate evidence that visual creativity often trumps pure graphical fidelity, especially as a title ages. Beautiful colors and an excellent paper aesthetic decorate a world that’s as beautiful and creative as any in the Mario series.

It’s a shame that Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door hasn’t been re-released yet. Such creativity ought not to be held back by the poor sales of a middling console, and one of the greatest games of all time ought not to linger behind while lesser games absorb the spotlight. It’s long past time that Nintendo reminds gamers of its brilliance and re-release The Thousand Year Door so that a new generation of gamers can see its greatness.

2) Metroid Prime

I received Metroid Prime in a bundle along with my GameCube for my birthday in 2004 and it’s the quintessential nostalgic tale of my childhood. I’ve discussed Metroid Prime at length before but, simply put, it’s one of the greatest gaming experiences of all time.

While previous Metroid games were excellent in their own right, Prime took the series to new heights. By taking the player within the suit, Nintendo and Retro Studios allowed one to truly experience the game, taking immersion to an entirely different level. Such excellent immersion, when paired with true in-game isolation, allowed Prime to craft an impressively quilted atmosphere that the series has yet to match in subsequent entries.

That goes without mentioning the excellent graphics, which hold up even today. While working with laughably antiquated hardware, Retro Studios managed to produce a game that looks as sharp as any Nintendo game ever has. While zones mainly stick to their themes, each is populated with detailed, believable flora and fauna that fit perfectly in their environment. From the fearsome Baby Sheegoth that stalk the Phendrana Drifts to the oh-so-annoying Shriekbats that haunt every corridor, Metroid Prime‘s biodiversity is one of its greatest strengths.

The music, composed by Kenji Yamamoto, remains some of Nintendo’s best. Soft, mellow glaciality highlights the expanse of Phendrana Drifts while the bubbly harmonies beneath the main melody of Magmoor Caverns showcase not only its incredible beauty, but also its danger. Perhaps no other Nintendo game executes so well on its soundtrack as Metroid Prime does.

Overall, Metroid Prime is, in every way, the quintessential Metroid game and one well worth experiencing. From its impressive vistas to its groundbreaking immersion, the original Metroid Prime isn’t only the greatest Metroid game ever made, it is also one of the greatest games ever made.

1) Xenoblade Chronicles

Once one witnesses true greatness, it becomes that much harder to stomach the dullness of mediocrity. I witnessed this greatness when I first played Xenoblade Chronicles in 2012, and I have yet to witness a game that approaches its stratospheric excellence.

I have spent the better part of five years searching wide and far for a JRPG capable of dethroning Xenoblade. I haven’t succeeded. Despite playing through almost the entirety of the Final Fantasy series and playing Xenoblade’s own spiritual successor, nothing has come close.

And, that’s not because they lack quality, it’s simply because Xenoblade supersedes them in every way.

Xenoblade’s story is breathtaking, a testament to the passion of director Tetsuya Takahashi. Unlike previous projects of his, such as Xenogears or the Xenosaga trilogy, Xenoblade doesn’t suffer from rampant issues in pacing nor the game’s own obtuse need to repeatedly remind the player how smart it is. While there’s still plenty of philosophizing (Xenoblade borrows heavily from Gnosticism), it is kept under control for most of the story, allowing the player to keep at least a tangential understanding of what is occurring on screen.

As a result, Xenoblade maintains its pace throughout the entirety of the adventure. While most JRPGs have either a slow beginning, a glacial middle, or a soul-crushingly difficult end, Xenoblade stays, with the exception of one ultra-challenging boss toward the end, incredibly well-paced. From the beginning until the end, there isn’t a single section that overstays its welcome. For a game that can stretch to over 100 hours, Xenoblade moves at a remarkable pace.

The story is assisted by an even better soundtrack. While I’ve heard a bevy of great music from a variety of JRPG maestros such as Nobuo Uematsu, none of them can match the consistent quality of Xenoblade’s soundtrack. Tracks such as “Unfinished Battle” and “You Will Know Our Names” are truly some of the greatest tracks in not only the history of JRPGs, but also of video games.

In fact, Xenoblade remains the only game whose soundtrack I listen to on a near-daily basis. Its vast collection of 91 songs covers nearly every perceivable emotion. Sad? Xenoblade has a song for that. Happy? Xenoblade has a song for that. Feel like crushing robots with the power of your magical sword? There’s a song for that too.

Every aspect of Xenoblade, from its incredible setting upon the bodies of two titans, to its excellent gameplay, seems designed to create the perfect JRPG. It aims for excellence and soars way above its mark, hitting true greatness.

And that, ultimately, is why Xenoblade Chronicles is my favorite game of all time. Its excellent story, superb music, and creative setting outclass every other game that I have ever played. While it isn’t perfect, it is far and above the greatest game that I’ve ever played, proof that JRPGs, despite stagnating as a genre, can still tell stories worth hearing.

10 Honorable Mentions: Civilization V, Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 (Wii), Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Super Mario Galaxy, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story

Although a gamer since before I can remember, there is not a better definition of me than these three words: Christian, moderate, and learner. I am steadfast in my Faith, my Beliefs, and in my Opinions, but I am always willing to hear the other side of the discussion. I love Nintendo, History, and the NBA. Currently a PhD Student at Liberty University.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Ricky D

    August 30, 2017 at 11:32 pm

    How … why … how … no Zelda on the top 10?

    • Izsak “Khane” Barnette

      August 31, 2017 at 7:28 am

      Zelda games are objectively good games, with Wind Walker being my favorite. However, I’ve never enjoyed playing them as much as the games on this list. If this was a perfectly objective top 10, Ocarina would certainly be on here.

      • Ricky D

        September 2, 2017 at 7:04 pm

        Refresh my memory but did you play and like Xenoblade Chronicles X?

        • Izsak “Khane” Barnette

          September 3, 2017 at 8:15 am

          I played it and I really didn’t like it in the slightest. The story was poor and very boring, the character models weren’t that good, and it lacked the appeal of the first game. I remember being so disappointed when I played it. After all, I had waited almost three years to play the game and it didn’t meet my expectations in the slightest. Tops my list as my most disappointing game of all time. A lot of people like it, though, and I have no problem with that.

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Games

PAX Online: ‘Inkulinati’ and ‘Pumpkin Jack’

The PAX Online celebrations continue with the strategy game, Inkulinati, and spooky Halloween themed Pumpkin Jack.

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Inkulinati and Pumpkin Jack

The PAX Online celebrations continue with a strategy game whose tales are writ in ink and a game sure to put you in an early Halloween mood.

Inkulinati

Inkulinati

Platforms: Switch and Steam
Release: 2021

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Competitive strategy games stress me out. Chess? Stresses me out. Checkers? Stresses me out. Star Craft? Stresses me out. Managing that stress as a form of stimulation is what makes the best strategy games shine, though, and Inkulinati is so far demonstrating all the facets of such a game.

The titular Inkulinati are masters of a craft that brings their inked creatures to life on parchment, including a caricature of themselves. The two Inkulinati do written battle with each other until only one is left standing. The battles are carried out in a charming medieval art style that looks like it was taken straight out of a manuscript you’d find carefully stored in a library. These aren’t the masterpieces of Da Vinci or Van Gogh, but the kinds of scribbles you’d find the layman making on the edges of pages either out of boredom or mischievousness. The playful art makes for a playful tone and jolly times.

The core thrust of the gameplay is that each Inkulinati utilizes ink points to conjure units, or “creatures”, onto the parchment in a turn-based manner and sends them into the fray. There were a fair amount of creatures available in the demo — ranging from a simple swordsdog with well-rounded stats to a donkey capable of stunning foes with its trusty butt trumpet. Many many more creature types are promised in the full game, but I found even with the limited selection of the demo the gameplay was still able to be showcased well.

Your primary Inkulinati also has some tricks up its depending on the type you’ve chosen to take into battle. Instant damage to or healing a unit were the two shown off in the demo, as well as being able to shove units. Shoving is particularly useful as you can push enemies into the hellfires that encroach the battlefield as the battle wages on, instantly defeating them.

Doing battle with an opponent it all well and good, but what’s the point if it’s not immortalized for generations to experience down the line? Inkulimati understands this need and will record every single action of the battlefield in written word. It’s infinitely charming, and the amount of variations in how to say what amounts to just “X unit attacked Y enemy” is astonishing. How can you not chuckle at, “Powerful Morpheus killed the enemy and may those who failed to witness this live in constant pain and regret”?

Pumpkin Jack

Pumpkin Jack

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and Steam
Release: Q4 2020

Halloween may be a little over a month away but that didn’t stop the 3D action platformer Pumpkin Jack getting me in the spookyween mood. The human realm is suffering from the Devil’s curse and have elected the aid of a wizarding champion to save them from it. Not to be outdone, the Devil also chooses his own champion to stop the wizard, choosing the despicable spirit Jack. With the tasty reward of being able to pass on from hell, Jack dons his pumpkin head and a wooden & straw body on his quest to keep the world ruined. The premise sounds slightly grim but make no mistake that this is a goofy game through and through, a fact only emphasized by a brilliant opening narration dripping with sarcasm and morbid glee.

The demo took us through Pumpkin Jack‘s first stage, a dilapidated farmland full of ambient lanterns abandoned storehouses. The visuals are compliments by a wonderfully corny soundtrack full of all the tubas, xylophones, and ghost whistles one would expect a title that is eternally in the Halloween mood.

We got the basics of traversal, like dodge rolling and double jumps, before coming upon a terrified murder of crows. Turns out their favorite field has been occupied by a dastardly living scarecrow and they want Jack to take care of it. One crow joins Jack on his quest, taking the form of a projectile attack that he can sic on enemies. Jack also obtains a shovel he can use to whack on the animated skeletons with a simple three-hit combo. There’s nothing particularly standout about the combat, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be this early on. More weapons such as a rifle and scythe are promised in the full game and should go a way towards developing the combat along with more enemy variety.

Pumpkin Jack

Collectible crow skulls also dot the map and seem to be cleverly hidden as even when I felt like I was carefully searching the whole stage I had only found 12 out of 20 by the end. Their purpose is unknown in the demo, so here’s hopping they amount to something making me want to find those last eight in the full version.

After accidentally lighting a barn ablaze and escaping in a dramatic sequence we came across the scarecrow in question. Defeating it was a rather simple affair that was just a matter of shooting it out of the air with the crow then wailing on it with Jack’s shovel. We were awarded a new glaive-type weapon as a reward but unable to give it a whirl in the demo, unfortunately. All-in-all, Pumpkin Jack shows promise as a follow-up to action 3D platformers of yore like Jak & Daxter, so here’s hoping to a solid haunting when it releases later this year.

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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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