Thursday, January 27, 2011

Equinox (SNES) Review

AKA Solstice II [JP]
1993 Software Creations/Sony Imagesoft
3/5/16 Update: Check out my updated thoughts on it here  =D
It seems to me that every now and then I learn about a game that I didn't know existed at the time until I looked it up (screenshots relating to certain sites being one way, or when certain titles pop up on certain websites), and once I looked it up I become interested in them. This game is one of them; I remember having learned about it years ago when I saw it on FlyingOmelette's (outdated) Top 100 Favorite Video Games list. When she started making the shrine for this game back in '08 (if I recall correctly), I started to become very interested in it. When I saw the gameplay footage of the first dungeon, man, was I impressed. It was at that moment that I wanted to try the game. Of course, it wouldn't be until the summer of '10 that I finally got a chance to experience this game. I read on the website that this game is the sequel to the NES game Solstice, which I've never played. My experience with this game has been a very good one, and a unique one among isometric titles.
Peace had prospered the land of Galadonia after Shadax defeated the evil sorcerer Melkior long ago. All was well, until he went to go train a student named Sonia one day; however, little did Shadax know that she would use her magic against him and imprison him. All the monsters were roaming around the land of Galadonia, no one was safe. There's only one savior who will prevent this madness, and that savior is Shadax's young son, Glendaal. Can he save his father from Sonia's Ice Palace on Death Island and rid the land of evil once for all? Play the game and find out. Glendaal will be traversing many areas of Galadonia, and on his way he shall eradicate the spirits of the evil guardians that haunt the land. But it won't be easy, because the dungeons are filled with many hazards and obstacles. The areas are all varied, and are very unique. The atmosphere is really great, and the dungeons are a sight to behold, but I'll get to them later. What I find very interesting is how an English-style wizard became the father of an Arabian Knights-style hero; even more interesting is that Glendaal looks like he has elf-like ears, considering that Shadax looks like a human wizard.
Equinox is an action/puzzler adventure game viewed from an isometric perspective. The goal of each dungeon is to defeat the guardians; however, you cannot face them head on. In order to summon the boss, you have to obtain all twelve tokens (blue rotund objects) in each dungeon and bring them to the boss room. Each dungeon will have you do a lot of exploration, with a lot of rooms that are ingeniously designed. Some doors will block your progress unless you find the key with the corresponding color. Crowding the dungeons are enemies like ghosts, knights, Tazmanian Devil-like spinning devils, and jumping blobs. Their characteristics are varied, color-wise (i.e. green is weak while white is strong), and sometimes they'll go slow and sometimes they might go fast. In each dungeon, you will acquire a new weapon and magic scroll should you find them. Each weapon you equip will be different and more powerful, and the amount you can shoot at a time really varies; what's cool is that with a couple of weapons you can shoot in front and behind you simultaneously. Once you find a magic scroll in a dungeon, you will be able to conjure up the spell by the press of a button. However, make sure you have enough magic points on your magic meter, so only use them when necessary. Examples of useful magic spells are the healing spell (used to heal yourself, little by little), the freeze spell (which stops enemies and/or gates which rise and fall from moving for several seconds), and the save spell (which lets you save anywhere, except during boss fights). Most of the spells you find are very useful; however, save for the healing spell, you cannot use magic during boss fights, meaning you'll have to deal in a lot of physical damage on them. In the overworld, you can encounter either a troll or a werebat; if you find a new weapon, go to the overworld and if you defeat the troll with that weapon, then your health capacity will increase by one. When you find a new magic scroll, your magic capacity will increase by one. However, when you defeat the dungeon boss, both your health and magic capacities will increase by one. When you defeat each of the first five bosses, you'll earn a string for your harp, and should you stand on the cross while playing all the strings of the harp, then you'll transport yourself to another part of the world. I haven't discussed how the controls are; they are quite responsive and pretty solid. Shooting and jumping are the main actions of the game, and you can even bend your jumps while you're in midair. What's cool is that you can also jump while you're in the overworld, only higher. Most of the dungeons have different entrance/exit areas, meaning in some cases you'll have to go back to the overworld and find another entrance/exit area. There are some areas in the dungeons where there are different-colored apples (to refill your health) and/or potions (to refill your magic); either of which can be obtained by either by getting on the platform, or by defeating a(n) (certain amount of) enemy/enemies. Platforms can be pushed, and there are moments where you'll have to jump from platform to platform (whether it be a stationary one or a moving one). Considering it's isometric, it can be quite challenging, but I'll get to that later. You can toggle between the weapons and magic spells by accessing the menu.
The soundtrack, composed by the legendary Follin Brothers (who also did the music for Plok and Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade's Revenge) is absolutely spectacular!!! Each time you enter a dungeon it starts off with a short melody, and after that it then segues to a long period of ambience. The introductory melodies are quite eerie and prepare you for what's to come; some that come to mind are the beautiful harp-stringed melody of Atlena, the awe inspiring wonder from the melody of Tori, and the dangerous-sounding tone of Afralona. The melodies, though short, are very nice to listen to, and each dungeon has their own varied sound. But what really steals the show is the ambience. After the melody's over, there will be moments when it can be quiet and moments when you hear background sound effects in the game. Some examples of ambience will be metal clanging, bubbles, water splashing, whooshing wind, waterdrops, and even snoring (yes, you read that right). All these sound effects add a lot of atmosphere, which can feel quite ominous at times, and it works so well in-game (not so much out of context). At times the background sounds will make feel like you're there. The title theme is absolutely fantastic for the ears, and the overworld theme is airy and fun to listen to. The battle and boss themes rock, and I like how they'll both speed up after a certain amount of time passes by. The regular sounds are nice, too; I like the sound of the weapon being shot, and I love the sound of the door rising up after it's been unlocked. Glendaal's footprint sounds are different depending on which dungeon you're in. My least favorite sound is the shriek from Glendaal whenever he dies, as it can be a bit irksome. Otherwise, I think this game is aurally great.
The game's visuals are incredibly magnificent. All the dungeons boost very vibrant colors and are very detailed, plus they all look like they were cel-drawn. Each of the eight dungeons have their own varied styles. A few examples of these dungeons are the underground cave of Tori, the Aztec-like area of Deeso, the underwater location of Atlena (represented by color-layering water effects), the overly vegetated and abandoned Quagmire, and the abundantly wintry Ice Palace. All the platforms and spikes look different in each dungeon, and at times the dungeons will have differently colored walls and floors. Glendaal animates very fluidly, and I like how his chartreuse hair flaps on his back whenever he walks. The enemies animate nicely, too, and I like how the stars appear whenever you hit them with your weapon. The bosses are huge and wonderfully-designed; it's fun to fight against guardlians like a gigantic skull, a living totem pole, a humongous crustacean, and a behemoth-sized dollop. The overworld creatures (the troll and werebat) are huge and detailed, too. Whenever you hit the guardian or the creature, an explosion effect appears while said creature flashes different colors for a few seconds. What's cool is that if you damage the guardians enough, they'll start changing their color to a reddish one, signifying that they're almost done for. The overworld is a different story: while not as detailed like when you're zoomed in inside the dungeon or when you're fighting the overworld creatures, it still looks very nice. Glendaal looks decent in the overworld, and I like his harp-playing animation (should you press the Y button at that time). What's pretty cool is that you can rotate the overworld via the L or R shoulder buttons, and when you see the objects and the map rotate simultaneously, it's pretty impressive, and it still blows my mind whenever it happens; for 1993, that's really impressive.
As I mentioned before, this game can be a bit difficult at times, and I'll get to why that is. The first challenge you'll face upon playing this game is getting accustomed to the walking controls, because you can only walk diagonally. This isn't like Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars or Sonic 3D Blast where you can walk in every angle you please, in Equinox you can only walk in four directions. There will be moments where you'll have to weave inbetween platforms and spikes. But, once you've got the walking controls down pat they'll become second nature for you; however, the game will still become challenging later on. The first three dungeons will have you accustomed to the controls, but after that the difficulty will augment itself once you reach the fourth dungeon, Atlena. In these dungeons, there are two main hazards: enemies and spikes. The most dangerous of the two being spikes, because there is a big amount of spikes in each dungeon. You'll be required to jump on moving platforms sometimes, and you'll have to be very careful about it due to one little detail: no shadows! The platforms don't have any shadows, which means that unless you touch them or land on them, you'll have a hard time discerning if it's above, below, or in front of you. Glendaal's shadow is a vital indicator that tells you if you're standing on the platform. The next dungeon is always longer than the last, and from the second dungeon onward there will be hidden doors (which can be found by "feeling through" certain rooms). There are some moments when you'll have to push platforms to reach certain places. The thing about this game is that once you get hit once, you lose a life; and if you lose a life in a room you'll have to start said room over again (say if you got a token or a key in a room and died before exiting, you'd have to get it all over again until you leave the room with it). Spikes are a big threat, so you'd do best to try to not touch them. I'm not trying to scare anyone, as this game is manageable; it's challenging, sure, but not impossible. It can also get exciting because there may be times during later dungeons when the platform you're standing on might move when you land on it, act as a conveyer belt, (dis)appear once you get on and off it, tumble down fast if you don't step on it lightly, and disintegrate itself the moment you step on it. While you may have an unlimited array of your weapons, your magic meter is not. You'll have to be conservative when it comes to using magic, otherwise you won't have any until you either get a potion in a room or obtain a potion from fighting a werebat in the overworld (how much magic it refills the meter depends on what color it is). Many bosses have a pattern, which can be hard unless you memorize it. Sorceress Sonia is a pretty hard final boss. This game is also very long, meaning you cannot beat it in one sitting. Any time you enter or exit an entrance/exit room, the game will save. Even after defeating a guardian, the game will be saved (and you can choose whether to keep progressing or take a break). However, later on you will acquire a magic scroll which will let you save in whichever room you please (except during fights), as long as you have some magic with you. It's a very important spell, and you must acquire it (as well as the other weapons and magic scrolls) before going to the penultimate dungeon because once you step in there you can't come back. I find the rooms very fun to explore, and I like the variety of each area as well as how ingeniously all the rooms have been designed. Here's a hint: if the last enemy you defeat drops an apple or a potion in the room, you can grab it so the enemies won't come back whenever you enter that room.
I find Equinox a very fun game. I like how challenging it is, and the variety of it all is awesome. The visuals are beautiful and the soundtrack is mesmerizing with all the ambience playing in the background. The controls are solid, and the puzzles are really cool. The plot is okay, but the atmosphere more than makes up for it. The boss fights are really fun to bout, too. This game often gets miscategorized as an RPG; it's really an adventure game with action and puzzle elements thrown in together. This game does have some lines of dialogue and words, but it only shows up in the second and third demos of the game, whenever you meet the spirit of a guardian, after you defeat a troll or a werebat, after vanquishing the guardian, and during the ending. What's very interesting is how, if you wait until the fourth demo in the title screen, the game actually advertises itself (it's true, it really talks about its features during this time). I cannot think of another game that ever did that before, but it's pretty unique. The font is well-done, and the overworld map is really impressive when you rotate it. The game is really great, but I can only recommend it to those who love challenge from a video game and those who like to persevere; this game might be frustrating for those who prefer to play easy titles. It's not impossible, but it is beatable if you stick with it 'til the end. The final boss is hard, but the ending is well-deserved. I haven't played its predecessor Solstice on the NES before, but I hope to try that game someday. But, for now, I'm glad I got to play Equinox. It's a really sweet experience, and it's grown to be my top favorite isometric-viewed title. I once experienced a weird glitch during my second playthrough while I was in the Ice Palce where Glendaal's head was misplaced from his body after having died a few times in a room by either the red or white blob, but not before seeing the room pause by itself as the room flipped; once I left the room, the glitch stopped (I wish I got screenshots of that). Weird glitches which only happen once aside (I just felt like sharing); this game has a real sense of adventure to it, and is very unique among the other isometric-viewed video game experiences I've had before.

Despite what it says, this game never got a follow-up. According to the Pickford Brothers' website, a sequel was planned to be made for the PlayStation (at least, the initial concept of it was) called Spyral Saga, but it was never finished.

Monday, January 3, 2011

An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (SNES) Review

1994 Hudson Soft

Ah, Fievel. Who could forget that heroic Jewish mouse and his great adventures? Not I, for I remember having watched his movies when I was little, and I liked them, too. To be honest, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West was the first movie that introduced me to the series of movies. At first I thought it was the original, but when I found out years later that there was a movie that preceded this one, I was surprised. Maybe not as well known as Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse, but I find Don Bluth's character a great mouse character as well. I remember watching the second movie a lot when I was little, and the last time I saw the movie was before I moved here to Texas. Several years later, when I found out that there was an actual video game adaptation based on this movie (on RVGFanatic's site, if I recall correctly), I was completely taken aback. I had no clue that a video game adaptation had existed of it when I was little; and having judged from his review, it sounded like a fun game. In April of 2010, I decided to order the SNES game, along with the manual and the box. I had a good time with it, but the fact that it was based on a movie that I used to watch over and over made me want to watch it again; I could remember a few scenes from it, but not all of it. On the 2nd of January, I had decided to watch the movie again on YouTube (I have the VHS tape, but I wanted to watch the movie in its original wide screen edition). The movie is just as fun to watch as I remember, and now that I have watched the movie, I am now ready to review this game.

In 1986, we were introduced to Fievel Mousekewitz and his family, who are all Jewish, who all fled from Russia and decided to move to America, "the land of opportunity", in the animated movie An American Tail. But during the migration, Fievel got lost from his family and tried to get back to them, but along the way he met up with Tiger (voiced by the late Dom DeLuise), a furry and loveable cat who does not eat mice, unlike the majority of the cats in the land. Once Fievel catches up with his family, but not before facing a few struggles, they all live happily ever after and start enjoying their new American life. Five years later, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West hit the theatres, and it follows the events of the last movie. Several years later, the Mousekewitz family is having a hard time living there as of late, due to lots of distractions and hardships, and is starting to wonder if moving to America was a good idea. After an attack from a squad of cats, the mice all escape to the sewers and meet up with a mysterious mouse promising the mice an easier lifestyle in a Western-like town called Green River, working with the cats to build it. Little do they know that the promoting mouse is actually a puppet controlled by smoothtalking leader of the cats, Cat R. Waul, who has an evil scheme in store for them. On the way to Green River, Fievel gets separated from his family once again, in the desert. Fievel manages to catch up with his family later on, and knows what Cat R. Waul's true intentions are. When he gets there, he meets Wylie Burp, an old sheriff dog (voiced by the late James Stewart, his final film performance) who Fievel idolizes as a Western hero. Will Fievel save all the mice from Cat R. Waul and his cronies, and will everyone enjoy their new life in the Wild West? Watch the movie and find out. It's really good, and I think you may like it if you haven't seen it. Rest in peace Dom DeLuise and James Stewart, for you both did such a great job in bringing so much personality to these characters.

So, how did Hudson Soft handle this game's plot and atmosphere in this game conversion? Atmospherically, they did a terrific job! All the areas have been lifted straight from the movie; the streets of New York, the sewers, the train, the desert, and Green River itself, and it is all represented so well. Plotwise, it's not quite as accurate. For one thing, there are size inconsistencies between Fievel and the cats; in the movie, there were ginormous compared to him, but in the game they are like twice or thrice his size. But, that was done because it was in video game format, so it's understandable. The bosses that he encounters (except Cat R. Waul) are ones that he tries to evade from in the movie. In the box art, Fievel is shown using a lasso, which he never once used in both the movie and the game. After each stage save for the last one, Fievel meets up with Wylie Burp (who appears out of nowhere) in what is a Grand Canyon-like setting, which makes absolutely no sense. But, hey, without slight inaccuracies to the original source material, we wouldn't really be having video game conversions of the movie they're based on, now would we? So I won't hold it against them... mostly.

Controls for this sidescrolling platformer are pretty basic and simple. Fievel can move around, duck, climb up and down the stairs, jump, and shoot with his pop gun. It's a game with fun controls. There are certain power-ups that allow you to shoot up to two or three corks at a time. Fievel takes up to three hits until he loses a life, but there are two different heart power-ups: the small one which restitutes the health by one, and a big heart which increases Fievel's health capacity by one (until you lose a life and/or move on to the next stage). Touching a star will render you invincible for a few seconds. Power-ups are always concealed inside blocks which can be shot at. There are even big boxes with Tiger's face that can be shot up to multiple times to reveal either a power-up or a life. Getting $100 (in coins) nets you a life, and it can be easy to gain a life in this method. There are enemies you can shoot at, either once or a few times to do them in. If you hold Up, then the screen will slowly scroll up to the top so you can see what's above you, same for when you hold Down, only below you. The shooting controls are simple, but the jumping controls are another story; not to say that it's impossible to jump from one location to the other, it's just that they could've been tweaked a bit. The stages each have up to two or three portions, and after that you face the boss. You can even do some swimming in the game, but it only happens in the sewers, and it mostly requires that you tap the jump button repeatedly. In the first stage, you can even shoot water to douse out burning platforms. Each portion of each stage has a timer, but it's always easy to outtime the timer, so you never have to worry about getting a "Time Up". In all these stages (in some portions), you can decide whether to take the high road or the low road, and it'll still take you to the end of the portion. Plus, it's quite fun, and you never have to worry about running out of ammunition. You only have three continues, though, and it has to be beaten in one sitting.

The movie's soundtrack was composed by well-known James Horner (The Land Before Time, We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story, Once Upon a Forest, The Pagemaster), and I think the music in that movie is quite good and reflects the various atmospheres so well. I wanted to find out if any of the songs in the game came from the movie, and I was very sad to find out that none were lifted from it at all. That's outrageous! Though that's just me, and I'm not gonna make a big deal out of it here. Hudson Soft may not have emulated Horner's music in video game format, but they did a good job in creating their own music. The title theme is absolutely spectacular, too bad that you're only allowed to listen to about forty seconds of it before it forcefully fades to the demo (if you want to listen to the full version, try YouTube). The rest of the game's music is fun to listen to as well; the streets have a happy-go-lucky jingly tune, and the desert theme feels completely Western and like you're in a heated place. The thing I find very cool is that a lot of the music is revolved around brass instruments; while maybe out of place sometimes, it is quite neat. The boss theme is appropriately intimidating, and the sewer theme is nice, too. When you pause, you may think that the music has stopped, but it actually still plays while "muted"; you'll understand if you try it while playing the game. The sound effects are very decent: Fievel makes a Sonic-like jumping sound, the splashing sound effects are interesting, and the screeching sound of the mine cart is appropriate. Any time Fievel takes a hit, he makes a cute high-pitched sound. The sound for when you defeat a boss sounds a bit explosive. I wish this game had a sound test, but overall I like the sound of this game (though I wish it had a sound test).

The visuals of this game are very nice to look at it. The colors are nice and there is a tiny bit of detail in certain places. Immediately in the first stage you'll be treated with mist effects, and in the desert stage there are sizzling effects all around, which is awesome. As I said before, all the areas have been directly lifted from the movie, and the way they were converted in video game format is quite great. The title appears in the game the same way it does in the movie, with that transition same effect. There are even a few moments when there is moving foreground, to give off some depth. Before each stage starts, there will be a Mode 7 effect zooming in, which is sweet. The characters and enemies, while not as smoothly animated like in the movie, animate real well. Enemies range from cat gangsters, dogfish, hawks, and more. The enemies are done away with in different effects. Some basically fade away, while the cats explode once you defeat them (not violently, of course). The bosses are huge and decently animated, and one of them even uses Mode 7. All the boss battles take place in dark or glowing areas.

How do I describe this game's difficulty? Well, the main goal of each portion of each stage is to head as far right until you reach the goal. Even if you take slightly alternate pathways, you'll still have to head to the right. This game is easy, really; not mindnumbingly easy, but easy enough to get through with just a few struggles. The enemies are easy to deal with, but they won't have a hard time attacking you either. Some enemies take one shot while others take more. The stages as a whole are mostly easy to navigate, and there are a few obstacles that will try to stop you. The bosses have a decent attack pattern, but are mostly easy to follow. If you lose a continue, then you have to start from the beginning of that portion of the stage where you lost your life at. The game has a decent bit of challenge in certain areas, and there's enough challenge to satisfy starting gamers. The game has to be beaten in one sitting, though it's not really that bad, as it can be beaten in about three-quarters of an hour or about an hour's time. There were no exclusive areas that were added just to lengthen the game, but I think it's a good thing, as the areas have a decent amount of length. It's a bit short, but luckily not that short of a game.

I had fun with An American Tail: Fievel Goes West on the SNES. Sure it's easy, but I didn't mind that so much as it's quite nice, and sometimes it can be a nice diversion in case I feel like taking a brake from challenging games. Control is solid good, but the jumping could've been worked on. The atmosphere has perfectly been brought over from the movie, and the visuals are nice and vibrant. The music used in the game was good, though to discover that none of the tracks were lifted from the movie made me a bit sad. I would've liked for there to have been more, but in the end I thought what was there was good. It's too bad that appearances from certain vital characters were largely scarce, especially Tiger; but, I'm cool with it. It's not perfect, but it's a good game in its own right. So why did this game fall under the radar many years ago? Well, there a few reasons: the first one (mine) being that I focused on buying Game Boy games whenever I went shopping at Toys'R Us or any other store when I was little, resulting in me missing out on a lot of SNES and Nintendo 64 games I had the chance to buy back then, but missed the opportunity; the second being that this game was created three years after the movie, and Fievel's popularity was starting to wane little by little; and finally, this game is incredibly obscure. Not many gamers own this SNES game, as far as I know, but for those that do they either like it or dislike it. I'm a bit worried that I might be the only NintendoLife user who owns this game (I hope I'm wrong). Interesting to note is that the movie got a spin-off animated series that took place after An American Tail: Fievel Goes West: Fievel's American Tails, which only lasted thirteen episodes, and the animated series is something I have little to no recollection of (and I was such a cartoon fanatic when I was little). There were even a couple of direct-to-home prequels that both took place after the first movie and before the second movie which I do not think are bad but I can see why some would think so: An American Tail: The Treasure of Manhattan Island (1998) and An American Tail: The Mystery of the Night Monster (1999). An American Tail: Fievel Goes West for the SNES is the one and only video game that ever starred Fievel, and it's quite decent. If you're interested in this game, then go ahead and give it a try, should you find a decently priced copy. I think you might like it. If you haven't seen the movie, I recommend you watch it.