Retro Round Up is a… uh, semi-regular feature (I’m bad at sticking to a schedule,) that takes a look at what’s new in the world of old games. This week: I lament over the wasted awesome-ness of the 3DS Virtual Console’s Game Gear emulator, and talk about Super Mario Bros. 2,Castle of Shikigami II, and more in this week’s rundown of retro re-releases.
Nintendo prides itself on the accuracy of the Virtual Console’s emulators: there’s no off color sprites, input lag or out of tune sound effects here — every game on the Virtual Console looks and plays exactly the same as they did on their original consoles. There’s no online leaderboards, achievements, special screen filters, etc.; just the original game presented in exactly the same way it was when it was originally released.
Retro purists probably wouldn’t have it any other way, but while I appreciate the lengths that Nintendo goes to to create the VC’s 100% accurate emulation, it’s hard to not feel like the Virtual Console should offer more bells and whistles with its games, especially considering the premium pricing that Nintendo charges (in comparison to the retro downloads available on other platforms.)
For instance, there’s no Super Game Boy support for the Game Boy emulator. Admittedly, I probably wouldn’t use it anyway since the Super Game Boy’s (and the Game Boy Color’s) way of retroactively applying color to games intended for black-and-white usually looks hideous, but still, it would’ve been nice if the option was there. Also, certain games, like Donkey Kong 94, were actually designed with the Super Game Boy in mind, so it’s strange that the Virtual Console version doesn’t give you access to the special SGB features (special screen borders and coloration that actually works,) that are built into the ROM.
There is one big exception to Virtual Console’s utilitarian take on emulation: the Game Gear emulator on the 3DS is frankly amazing, and it provides an example for what every other emulator on the platform should be like.
Unlike the other emulators on Virtual Console, the Game Gear emulator isn’t content to stop with simple pixel-accurate emulation, as it also offers all the special bonus features and options that are strangely absent from the service’s NES and Game Boy games. You can remap the controls however you like, and the emulator offers a number of optional screen filters that let you customize the look of each game (including an option to turn on screen ghosting and flickering, allowing you to perfectly recreate the look of the low refresh rate of the Game Gear’s color screen.) You can even chose to play games with a dot-by-dot recreation of the original screen’s resolution and dimensions, with the extra space on the 3DS screen taken up by a 3D representation of the original Game Gear hardware.
When you play Game Boy or NES games on the 3DS, it feels like you’re loading up ROMs into an emulator. When you play Game Gear ROMs on the 3DS, the emulator does everything it can to make you feel like you’re playing games on an actual Game Gear. It’s the first emulator to truly live up to Nintendo’s “Virtual” Console moniker.
The only problem with the 3DS’s Game Gear emulator is that… well, it’s a Game Gear emulator.
I know this statement will probably piss off a lot of Sega fanboys, but the Game Gear just doesn’t have that many games that are worth going back to now and replaying. The Sonic games on the platform suffer from poor stage design and loose controls (even by Sonic standards,) quality RPG’s are almost non existent on the platform, and while there were one or two decent ports of Sega’s big franchises (more on that in a bit,) most of Sega’s attempts at downgrading their 16-bit Genesis/Mega Drive hits down to the 8-bit Game Gear weren’t very successful.
Of course, there are a few exceptions to that statement — Tails’ Adventures is a surprisingly deep spin-off of the Sonic series that eschews Sonic’s traditional high-speed platforming for a slower paced, non-linear adventure with a focus on puzzle solving and exploration. Despite some awkward flying controls, the game is arguably a better portable “Metroidvania” than Nintendo’s own Metroid 2 (also available on the 3DS Virtual Console,) though admittedly that isn’t a high bar to clear. At the very least, it’s aged a lot better than any of the more traditional Sonic titles available for the Game Gear, which are frankly pure crap (please check the status of your nostalgia goggles if you feel differently.)
The Game Gear version of Shinobi (or as the game’s title screen puts it, “The GG Shinobi,”) is one of the few times where Sega managed to port one of their big franchises over to the Game Gear without completely sucking all of the fun and personality out of it. While the action isn’t as fast or as intense as Shinobi III, the GG Shinobi is a well-done action-platformer in it’s own right, and even has a few features that aren’t in any of Joe Musashi’s console adventures: while the Genesis Shinobi games cast you as a lone Ninja, the GG Shinobi gives you a whole team of color-coded Ninjas (just like the Power Rangers!) to control, each with their own strengths and weaknesses (just like the Power Rangers!)
But beyond those titles, I’m having a hard time thinking of any other must play Game Gear games: most of the games for the system weren’t that great even when they were new, and they’ve all aged about as well as Lindsay Lohan. The Game Gear was a neat piece of hardware, but there’s no denying that its software library is completely outclassed by the Game Boy and maybe even the Neo Geo Pocket. Hell, you could even argue that the Virtual Boy still has more games that are worth playing, and that was a system whose lifespan as a viable console is best measured in days rather than in months or years.
Don’t get me wrong, I love old school Sega: the Dreamcast, Genesis, and Saturn are respectively my personal top 3 consoles of all time, but it’s obvious that Sega saw handhelds as something of an afterthought. While Nintendo would often let their console development teams dabble in Game Boy development (resulting in classics like Super Mario Land 2 and Link’s Awakening,) it seems like Sega kept most of their A-list talent and resources on home console and arcade development and handed off development of their Game Gear titles to the B-team. Most Game Gear games are simply lacking the style and polish that made Sega’s non-portable offerings so great. To put it simply,most Game Gear games aren’t even worth the time it takes to illegally download the ROMs, much less the $4-$5 they charge for each of them on the 3DS.
So it’s kind of a shame then that the best emulator available on the 3DS Virtual Console is dedicated to a system that doesn’t have all that many games that are worth revisiting. Hopefully Nintendo will eventually patch the Game Gear emulator’s cool features into the other Virtual Console games as well, or they’ll include them with any other classic consoles that they may eventually add to the service (still keeping my fingers crossed for the Neo Geo Pocket Color and Virtual Boy.)
This Week’s Retro Re-Releases
Donkey Kong (Wii U, $5)
What’s there to say about Donkey Kong that hasn’t already been said? This is still one of the most influential and important games ever made — the game is generally considered the first real platformer, and it established the rules and tropes that the genre continues to abide by to this day. Every other platformer (or game with platforming elements in it) — Mario, Pitfall, Sonic, etc. — ever made owes something to Donkey Kong, so its importance in the history and evolution of game design cannot be understated.
The Donkey Kong released on the Wii U Virtual Console today is the NES version of the game, which omits the cement factory level and features some other minor graphical and mechanical changes from the original arcade game. Still, despite not being a perfect port, it’s probably the version of the game that most people nowadays are familiar with, and if you somehow don’t own a copy of Donkey Kong yet (Nintendo has pretty much re-released in one form or another on every system they’ve released since the N64,) you might as well get it now — the game still provides a lot of simple, quick fun, and besides that, it’s worth playing just to see the origins of the platforming genre.
Metroid (Wii U, $5)
The original Metroid is also one of the most innovative and unique titles in gaming history, but unlike the simple and more accessible Donkey Kong, it’s a hard game to recommend to modern gamers. Perhaps I’ve just spoiled by Metroid’s more polished sequels (especially Super Metroid,) but the original game’s brutal difficulty and lack of an in-game map make it hard to go back to. Don’t get me wrong: the historical significance of the original Metroid is immense, but its also a game that’s been rendered completely obsolete by most of its sequels, which improve on every element of the first game in pretty much every single way.
It’s worth mentioning that this game also received an excellent remake for the Game Boy Advance, entitled Metroid: Zero Mission. Zero Mission is arguably the best game in the whole series (yes, there are a lot of people out there who would feel that it’s a better game than Super Metroid,) so if you’re interested in seeing Samus’ origins, you might as well pick up that version of the game instead. Unfortunately, physical copies of Zero Mission fetch a premium price on the secondary market, but trust me, it’s worth it. Nintendo has said that they’ll be adding Game Boy Advance games to the Wii U Virtual Console sometime soon (but not the 3DS, strangely,) so there’s a good chance that Zero Mission will come out on the Wii U eventually. Unless, you’re really, really dedicated (protip: buy some graph paper and colored pencils and get ready to draw your own maps) you should probably wait for that version of the game instead of picking up the original NES version, especially if you were one of those Y CANT METROID CRAWL people.
Super Mario Bros. 2 (3DS, $5)
The lone 3DS Virtual Console release this week is Super Mario Bros. 2, the Mario game that isn’t really a Mario game. If you’re into retro games or the Mario series, I’m sure you’ve heard the backstory behind Mario 2’s development and American release already, but here’s the TL;DR version for the uneducated: basically, Nintendo didn’t think that Americans would be receptive to the real Mario 2 that was released in Japan years earlier (which would eventually make it’s way to the US as “The Lost Levels,”) so they took another one of Miyamoto’s games, Doki Doki Panic, re-sprited the game with Mario characters, and released it in the US as Mario 2.
Still, despite not originally being developed as a Mario game, the American version of Mario 2 has arguably had a bigger influence on the series than the “real” Japanese Mario 2: besides introducing reoccurring characters like the Shy Guys and Birdo, Mario 2 was also the first game to give Mario’s cohorts their own unique play styles, an idea that’s been carried over to the upcoming Super Mario 3D World. The game has aged very well; the controls are tight and the level design is still spot on, so if you somehow haven’t played Mario 2 all the way through yet, it’s worth picking up on the Wii U.
Castle of Shikigami 2 (PS3, $10)
Castle of Shikigami 2 is probably best known for its infamously terrible English translation (which includes lines like “I like girls, but now it’s about justice!”) and its equally shitty voice acting, but besides being a cautionary tale about the dangers of translating Japanese too literally, Castle of Shikigami 2 also happens to be a pretty decent SHMUP.
Castle of Shikigami’s main gimmick is that the game offers multiple characters to play as, all of whom require wildly differing play styles and strategy. This gives the game a level of replay value not found in most other SHMUP’s, since each character is so different that it’s almost like playing a different game every time you switch protagonists. The action isn’t quite as polished as in the SHMUPs made by Cave (Akai Katana, Deathsmiles, Doudonpachi) or Treasure (Radiant Silvergun, Ikaruga,) but if you’ve already played those games to death or don’t have access to an Xbox 360, then Castle of Shikigami 2 is a worthwhile alternative. At the very least, you’ll derive enough entertainment from the game’s Engrish translation to justify it’s $10 price point.