Saturday, March 5, 2016

Take Two Reviews: Equinox (SNES)

Written: February 27th-March 5th, 2016
 
Hello everyone, StarBoy91 here; passionate about video games, big retrophile, and fan of all things 16-bit.  Well, it's been awhile since I've done with one these, so let's partake in another installment of my Take Two Reviews.
This is basically the result of what happens if I want to give another shot at a game I've talked about in the past because I either changed my thoughts on it in some capacity or in other cases the old review does not hold up well (regardless of my feelings for the game), or it might just be both.  I haven't done these all that often, only twice--for Super Castlevania IV and Arcana.  Today I'm proud to present my third chapter of the Take Two Reviews series, but a little background first.
Image from Wikipedia
In 1990 a little company called Software Creations crafted an action/puzzler for the Famicom and NES console by the name of Solstice: The Quest for the Staff of Demnos, which had the wizard Shadax trying to save the world from the evil clutches of Morbius; what made it noteworthy on the Nintendo 8-bit was that it was entirely isometric (being viewed from a 3/4 angle), having drawn inspiration from Knight Lore and Pentagram (both Ultimate Play the Game properties that helped pioneer and popularize that perspective).  I haven't exactly played Solstice myself but from what I gathered it was deemed impressive at the time but has not exactly aged all that well.
Image from Wikipedia
Then a year later in 1991 the Game Boy handheld received the action/puzzler Altered Space: A 3-D Alien Adenture where you got to play as an astronaut trying to survive as he's trapped inside an alien-infested ship.  This bears no relation to Solstice aside from the fact that it too was isometric (a first for the system) and that Software Creations developed it also.
 
Most games during the '80s and '90s were either viewed from the sidelines or from the bird's eye view, but once in awhile some games braved the isometric realm and helped popularize that viewpoint (regardless of genre); eventually Solstice would get followed up by something special for more reasons then one and greatly contributed to the isometric action/puzzler genre hybrid:
 
Received: June 28th, 2010
Alternate Title: Solstice II [|O|]
Year: 1993 | Developed by: Software Creations
Published by: Sony Imagesoft
 
Behold as we enter the world of Galadonia
A few years after Solstice's release the Super Famicom received Software Creations-developed and (John and Ste) Pickford-headlined Solstice II on November 1993 published by Epic/Sony Records in Japan, followed in March 1994 by the American and European releases of what would become retitled as Equinox (not to be confused with the 1986 Mikro-Gen ZX Spectrum game of the same name) published by Sony Imagesoft back when they were still on good terms with Nintendo.  In my original 2011 review I praised it and gave it a 9, and honestly that score still applies here; but it's been over five years since I covered it and a lot could happen in that amount of time (especially since I played more games since then)--not to mention the fact that my paragraphs were overlong (and since late 2012 I learned to make smaller ones) and I wanted to talk about it with the improved writing capabilities I currently prowess.  While Equinox got good word of mouth by the gaming press in its initial run it wasn't really until the days of the internet that it would pick up its popularity and garner a cult following.  Let's talk about one of my favorite Nintendo 16-bit games of all time!  =D

The land of Galadonia had long prospered in peace since the wizard Shadax defeated Melkior (huh, I guess the translator forgot that Morbius was his real name, but whatever) ages ago.  One day the old wizard went out to teach his pupil Sonia, but when he ventures out something went wrong: monsters began to plague Galadonia and ruin the land.  Shadax got betrayed and imprisoned by Sonia, the very mastermind behind it all.
All is not lost, however, for in the time since Solstice Shadax bore a son named Glendaal, and he will brave through all the monsters and obstacles in his path if he is to salvage Galadonia, defeat the evil Empress, and rescue his father before it's too late; and become a man in the process.

Before you cross to the next segment you must
defeat the current guardian underground
Since Equinox is pure isometric fare that means that you can only walk in four diagonal directions as opposed to all eight of them, which especially rings true during the overworld.  While you're on the surface you must search for any one of the various entrances in order to get started, also outside are were-bats and trolls that you might have to fight sometimes.  The meat of the action all transpires underground as the goal for each dungeon is to collect all twelve blue orb-like objects called "tokens" so that when you reach a peculiar room you'll not only be summoning the boss in question but have to fight it as well, because until then their spiritual form will still haunt the land and block passage to the very next part of Galadonia.

"Can we work as enemies in your game?  This world seems
to have actual dignity and integrity unlike Pac-Man and
the Ghostly Adventures"  <=(
But as you can probably surmise it is not that simple a task as these dungeons are maze-like and ridden with a myriad of obstacles and enemies.  Glendaal works with not just his might but with his magic as well, for the currently selected weapon can be used with the Y button while the magic is conjured via the X button (how much MP is used depends on the spell you that you wish to use, so it's best to use magic sparingly); and to personally select your weapon and spell just toggle the Select button to bring up your inventory.

*insert dumb "axe" question pun here*
Some enemies you contend with are ghosts, shining metal knights who can only be struck from behind, Tazmanian Devil-like creatures who tire out after a while of spinning, and bouncing blobs; and in most rooms you will encounter one or more of these enemies, never fighting two different kinds of enemies in the same space.  Every now and then are blocked doors for which the gates will only open if you have the proper key with the corresponding color; fortunately your health and magic can be replenished again when you find an apple and potion respectively (one of four different colors), sometimes left behind after the last enemy has been vanquished in the room or found if it's just sitting on a platform.  Any time you find a new weapon you should fight a troll with it on the surface to augment your health capacity by one, and every time you gather a magic spell your magic capacity will increase by one, and the defeat of each boss will give you an extra bit of health and magic.  Any time you go back to the surface, defeat the dungeon bosses, and when you eventually obtain the Save spell your progress will be saved; and at this point you're given the choice to either continue or to take a break and go back to the title.

Damage Spell
Equinox is an extraordinarily gorgeous and visually arresting Nintendo 16-bit game; its strong attention to detail is incredible and the colors attached to each environment of Galadonia are so succinct.  =D  Some of the areas that spring to mind are the mushroom-infested rooms of Tori, the Aztec-like corridors of Deeso (with unusually big busts here and there), and the eerily-designed deserted tombs of Afralona with the upside down pyramids and the sarcophagi hanging on its walls.  Two of my favorite areas overall are the underwater dungeon of Atlena where it is not only beautifully designed but is completely lathered in smooth water-layering wavy gradients of blue which adds so much atmosphere (up until you fight its boss); another favorite is in the overly vegetated ruins of Quagmire (shut up!) where it looks as if it had not been set foot in for centuries, adding to the intrigue is the way its walls are showing their age and how some windows fell down from their very foundation.  What was this place in its former glory?  O.O
During the surface segments of the game you control Glendaal in zoomed out format atop a Mode 7 overworld which you could rotate left or right with the shoulder buttons to your heart's desire.  The way these lands and waters rotate as you do while the props (wells, entrances, trees, mountains, et al) follow suit staying glued to their mapped coordinates is mindblowing considering how early it came out for the console.  =)

So much green vegetation
The main protagonist Glendaal has got a really good design with his chartreuse hair and incredibly fluid walking, pushing, and jumping animation to boot.  Any time you enter a dungeon (from any entrance) there is a brief but cool loading sequence where a huge and detailed Glendaal is falling into action.  =D  Equinox has got plenty of themes, but one you'll notice the most is the green-cyan-magenta-white theme; the enemies you'll encounter are this exact color (and flash in all four colors when you attack them with your projectile), the locked doors and keys share this exact color, some sequences of rooms in each dungeon while have either brighter or darker walls and floors that are green or blue or red or white, and the apples and potions come in one of these four colors as well (but in either case the green replenishes the least health and magic at your disposal while the white variants refills it all up).
The bosses you fight in both the surface and underground in the dungeon are huge and incredibly well-designed with minimal usage of animation by comparison, and their entrance is great as they emerge from the flames during summoning.  Among them is the huge rock monster Sung Sung with a menacing visage, a crustacean crab called Pincha who's intimidatingly bigger than you are, a giant Dollop, and even a sentient pyramid with an eye at its apex by the name of Eyesis.  =)  Even Sonia has got an eerie design and look to her as she towers over you.

Aboard a creaky ghost ship
The Brothers Follin Tim (who did the music for Solstice) and Geoff (who provided the songs to Altered Space) would team up together this time to create one of the most immersive scores ever heard on the Nintendo 16-bit console, and it is phenomenal.  =D  Each dungeon begins with a brief interlude but then when that portion is done it segues into several minutes' worth ambient sound effects playing in the background; and while that might not work so well when heard out of context, when played in context to the game it does wonders to Equinox for it adds a looming sense of great (and at times quiet) atmosphere (especially when played in the dark).  Honestly if the soundtrack were done any different then this action/adventure would still be good... but nowhere near as effective and immersive as it thankfully turned out to be.  Even better is that (save for the boss battles) the music does not start over any time you die but still continue regardless.  Score!  =D

Let's hope you don't inadvertently find and bring
Imhotep back to life inside Hamunaptra
Some of my favorite interludes play during the dungeons of Tori where it sounds huge but inviting, Atlena with the very calming and relaxing harp melody, Quagmire where it sounds desolate and scary, and Afralona where it sounds very ominous but with its apt Egyptian flare.  The sounds that are heard during the ambient segment impress the most for me, because there's a sense that you're there; among those sounds you hear in the background there's banging meal (Galadonia), water drops (Tori), bubbles (Atlena), and even snoring (Quagmire), and Afralona's ambience is downright creepy and scary at times.  Not all songs rely on ambience though for the title theme is amazing, the overworld theme is soft yet adventurous, the boss themes can get real intense (especially since it speeds up depending on the progress of said fight), and the ending theme is somewhat satisfactory after having gone through all that.  =)  The in-game sound effects are well-chosen such as the various sounds of Glendaal's footsteps depending on the location he's at, the sound of the weapons being thrown (and sometimes deflected by the metal of the knights' armor).  My least favorite sound, however, is Glendaal's high-pitched shriek as he loses a life for it's something that you're going to hear a lot due to its challenge value.

Image from Wikipedia
Before I delve into this aspect I'd like to show everyone Equinox's beautiful NTSC cover art which does a good job at setting the tone of the game in part due to the masterful and subtle usage of oil paint and largely on account of its composition.  We've got two moons in the sky, Sung Sung posing as an island, and Glendaal standing near a tree looking at an island unaware that a troll is hidden underneath said tree.  =)  Simply put it is gorgeous and says so much about the game at the same time; unfortunately this only showed up in North America.
Image from MobyGames
The cover art that PAL got instead?  Absolutely pitiful in an out comparison!  X(  This person looks nothing like Glendaal, he's riding on a cloud which Glendaal never does in the game (but a troll does fall down from it), there are gargoyles and sea dragons on the cover that do not exist in the actual package, the orange color is too strong and the dark green shading just looks unappealing.  What probably happened was its artist spent a long time crafting it for a different game but it was rejected so because they did not want it to go to waste they treated it as Equinox's PAL cover art, but at the expense of presenting an entirely different game than the actual game it's supposed to be.  -_-  As someone who loves Equinox this cover offends me; I can't possibly imagine a more misleading, most inaccurate portrayal of a game that distributors were trying to sell.
Image from GameFAQs
>_<  *facepalm*  .........  I know it's been over a month since I talked about Xandra no Daibōken: Valkyrie to no Deai, but what was it about again?  Oh yeah, it's about a selfless father named Krino Xandra who bravely ventures out into Marvel Land despite his inexperience outside his village to help out those afflicted by Zouna's evil deeds with the simple goal of saving his dying infant son from a plague.  Does the cover of Whirlo even remotely reflect the very plot synopsis I just provided?  Never mind that the PAL cover completely misses the overall point of the game by giving it the semblance of a swashbuckler (which it isn't), or the fact that you don't even get onto a pirate ship until more than halfway through it (only in that one segment), but it completely betrays the protagonist's character.  >={
Image from Wikipedia
The Japanese cover did an excellent job at encapsulating the main character given that in that Namco platformer he's the central living embodiment of hope, selflessness, bigheartedness, compassion, courage, willingness, and heroism.  He's Krino Xandra, not that European impostor "Whirlo" or whatever he's called!  Also look at that cover which despite the overcrowding of the characters on it says so much and gives you a good idea what to expect from the package.  =)  I may not have wanted to stomach showing Whirlo's cover in my Xandra no Daibōken review, but against my better judgment I have to here in the name of context.

The goal of a video game's cover art is to catch your attention first of all, but more importantly give you a proper idea what to expect from it in terms of tone and/or design by the time you play it.  If its art and/or composition doesn't match then it's just misleading and you'd be in deep trouble.  Is it really that hard to promote a game so accurately?  o_O  Speaking of promotion:
the fourth demo of Equinox actually promotes itself and does its own advertising.  How many Nintendo 16-bit games do you know of that actually did that?  That's cool, and 100% spot-on I might add!!  =D

Puzzle-solving time
Equinox is challenging, and Software Creations have concocted plenty of commendable ways to challenge you throughout the course of your adventure; but at the same time contributed to its high difficulty.  So this action/puzzler is one of those games where just a single hit results in you losing a life, with each room you're currently exploring serving as a checkpoint; and believe me, there is a lot of trial and error to be accomplished, even if you've gone through Equinox before.  Throughout you will find rooms with keys, apples, potions, and more importantly tokens (if not weapons or spells); and a lot of the time getting any one of these things means that when you reenter that certain room you won't have to deal with those enemies again, but if you lose a life after getting one of the vital items before leaving the room (for one reason or another) then you'll have to recoup said item (and clear enemies in the room) until you've successfully cleared to the next room.

Jumping towards platforms in Atlena
Part of the reason contributing for its difficulty stems from the very isometric perspective itself; as you only walk Northwest, Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest.  At first it might take a bit to get used to, but when you really get into it then it quickly becomes second nature.  There is also lots of platforming involved as you must either jump over a series of platforms (some of which can be pushed for a closer opportunity), a lot of times over deadly spikes.  And speaking of platforms, not all of them will remain constant (on the ground or in midair) for later on will be platforms that move, platforms that begin to tumble down the moment you step on them (only to rise up again the moment you bounce off 'em), platforms that appear or disappear the moment you're on them, platforms that act as conveyor belts, platforms that rise up, as well as platforms that get destroyed shortly after you jump on them.  This makes for a lot of precarious hair-raising platforming and leaping, especially since Equinox largely does not have any shadows to aid you.

I'm standing on nothing (or am I?)
Fortunately you can control your jumps in midair for the jumping is solid, but the lack of shadows gives a seeming sense of uncertainty at first.  The main exception is Glendaal himself when he's on the ground, and when you thoroughly explore the room you're in it can be easy to differentiate if a box or spike is above you, below you, or in front of you.  You still have to beware of enemies and spikes (which you sometimes have to weave between), as well as gates that open and close by themselves, so it's best to exercise caution.  Many of these dungeons have got forks where it's possible to reach the same room but from a different part of the dungeon, and what adds so much to the game is how there are secret rooms (some of which are obvious while others are more subtle in that regard) which are mostly mandatory to enter if you wish to proceed through the current dungeon you're exploring.

My least desired guardian to fight, Pincha can be a
real nightmare lest you memorize his pattern  }=
And since you only die with one hit you must be absolutely careful not to be touched by enemies, not to be crushed by falling gates, not to be impaled by spikes, and especially not be totaled by bosses.  Naturally, serving Sonia's evil forces, magic does not work against them (but you can still heal yourself with the Heal spell), which means physical combat is the only way for you must launch your unlimited array of projectiles against them.  A lot of these bosses have got simple patterns to follow (whether it be rounding out to the left or right part of the room), and while some of them don't pose much of a challenge (Sung Sung, Dollop, Eyesis) there are some that will really be intense and strenuous even if you do understand their pattern (like Pincha and Sonia).  But when you pull through to the end it's actually quite manageable and very playable.  =)

And random bust!
I found out about Equinox roughly a decade ago while reading FlyingOmelette's outdated Top 100 Favorite Video Games countdown and having read her review on it, but it wasn't until she began her shrine dedicated to it in 2008 (if I recall correctly) that I truly began to be interested in it.  When I saw footage of the first stage on her YouTube video I was impressed by Glendaal's fluid animation and the ambient sounds of Galadonia's dungeon, and I knew I just had to play this game someday.  But it wouldn't be until two days shy of 2009 that one of my cousins would loan me his SNES console, and eventually during the Summer of 2010 I decided to buy my own copy of it on eBay; and when it came over I ended up loving it.  <=)  Granted, it took me a bit to get accustomed to its controls during my first playthrough, but when I did it got a lot better.  I was so immersed in this highly atmospheric world with these well-designed dungeons and deviously crafted puzzle solutions, not to mention the gameplay was very solid and responsive that it was all worth it.
RIP FlyingOmelette's Equinox Shrine  =(
In the past if I had gotten stuck in some room I would consult FlyingOmelette's guide, and having an elephant's memory the more I played Equinox over the years the less reliant I was to a guide of any kind.  But in my most recent playthrough there was one room that stumped me (even though I had passed it several playthroughs before) that after enough tries I decided to see her guide one more time.  I was gutted to find that it was no longer accessible due to a 403 Forbidden error code.  =(  It's so sad to see the very shrine that inspired me to play this game bite the dust like that.  I hope it gets fixed, and if it doesn't I would gladly create my own walkthrough in honor of its memory.  You shall be missed.

Blobs stand no chance against your twin knife
This game often gets miscategorized by many as A-RPG, when it's really not.  Yes it's a huge sprawling adventure with lots of action and puzzling involved, but it lacks a thorough narrative.  The only time you're given the story is during the second and third demoes and after you defeat Sonia; gameplay-wise you know exactly which way to go next, but as far as story is concerned how does Glendaal know his next destination?  o~o  From what I heard apparently the original version Solstice II did have inbetween story moments after you've beaten a dungeon--aaaaand chalk this game up under the list of  Nintendo 16-bit games where Japan got everything but the West got nowhere near as much content.  -_-  The Western version is also known for being notoriously delayed because of its sometimes glitchy nature; mostly of the visual kind where sometimes part of the platform that's covering Glendaal would peal some of its layers in a certain spot.  There is also a glitch that could force you to restart from your previous progress if you're not careful; after getting all five harp strings you must make absolutely sure that no fights with were-bats and trolls occur before you play your harp on a cross.  Failure to heed that warning will strand you in the ocean with no way to get back on land, so if you do get into combat, go to a nearby dungeon entrance, exit out of said entrance and save, then go play on the cross.

Those poor Templar Knights were so well-armored
that they forgot to protect their backsides
Equinox is in my opinion an example of an isometric adventure game done right, for it's got so many qualities that really help make it work.  =)  It's a game I always come back to once a year regardless of the month or season, and every time I enjoy it just as much (if not more).  Its dungeons and rooms are gorgeous to behold, the ambient soundtrack by the Follin brothers is very effective in-game, the sense of atmosphere is breathtaking, the gameplay is solid, the puzzles are well-thought out, the boss fights are exhilarating, and its challenge value is good.  Yeah, it's a shame that there are largely no shadows (which is partly why it's challenging), but I'll gladly take this isometric venture over overrated piece of crap that's got zero shadows and frustratingly loose play controls (*hack*Landstalker sucks*hack*).  What's too bad is that the Solstice series didn't exactly get a new installment after this, because the PlayStation One was originally going to get a follow-up (of sorts) called The Spyral Saga; unfortunately for reasons unspecified it never got past the concept phase of development, which makes the "...for now" disclaimer of the ending message completely moot.  =(
I know most people tend to prefer Plok as far as Software Creations fare is involved, but I personally feel that Equinox has got the edge (even though I got to play the aforementioned platformer four months prior).  While Plok is very fun to play and has got funny dialogue, Equinox I found to more effective on the atmospheric front and its puzzle-oriented gameplay slightly more satisfying--then there's the obvious reason I prefer the second installment in the Solstice series (doesn't have to be beaten in one sitting and has got a lenient continue system).  I know it's not a fair comparison to make but it's true.  =(

The lack of shadows also results in moments that might truly stump you the first time around but after a bit of observation it becomes easy to tell an airborne or ground platform apart.  I hope you like mind-warping imagery like this because there are few in Equinox that are present.
In my Xandra no Daibōken review I knew full well that despite thinking it was good that it was not for everyone; the reason I didn't actually say it in that review was because I didn't want to stray from my genuine apology mode (my whole review essentially being an apology to the game) for how harsh I was on it in 2014--I feel shame easily  ='(
As much I enjoy this isometric action/adventure-puzzler I do admit that it is not for everyone, in rather similar ways that Xandra no Daibōken is not for everyone.  While in Namco's platformer the challenge came from all the precarious platforming being utilized and timed with any of the four different jumping controls, Equinox's case lies in the shadowless isometric perspective and difficulty that comes from it.  If you don't like games that are hard then you're not going to like this game for it'll be immensely frustrating for you; but for those who do like challenge it'll end up frustrating sometimes but overall be a lot of fun when you've got control of it.
If you want to play a really good isometric adventure game then Equinox is a great choice.  If you like puzzle-solving there's plenty of it in store for you; if you love thoroughly navigating and exploring each dungeon then you're in luck; if you crave a little challenge then this isometric game delivers in that regard; and if you forgive the lack of shadows and adapt to the four movement controls and difficulty then you're in for a real treat... just don't expect much of a story out of it.  If you own a Super Famicom or a Super Nintendo console then I highly recommend you give it a go for the cart does not cost much on eBay (the SNES version, anyway); but if you want to make the experience really special play the game in the dark, set the volume really high on your TV, and prepare yourself for one hell of an atmospheric ride!  =)
 
I wish  =(
My Personal Score: 9.0/10
<( ^o^)^TO EACH THEIR OWN^(^o^ )>
P.S. I absolutely love how Shadax, an English-style wizard, and Glendaal, clearly appearing to be of Arabian descent, are father and son.
 
P.S. 2 So I'm a bit relatively late to the party, but last Saturday (2/27/16) I saw an episode of Bunnicula on Cartoon Network ("Spiderlamb") aaaaand I actually found it to be amusing and entertaining.  =3  Suck on that, Wabbit, a 2010's bunny-centric flash animated show that gets genuine chuckles from me and not groans!
 
P.S. 3 So while watching the Oscars I saw what has got to be the greatest (Android) commercial of all time: with the creatively animated Rock, Paper, Scissors theme, sweet sentiment, and John Parr's "St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion)" playing in the background.  <=)  It was so inspiring, I hope I never forget it.  It was the best part of the Oscars for me (well, that, and show-stealing audience bear).
 
Thank you John and Ste Pickford for creating Equinox, thank you Software Creations for developing it, and thank you FlyingOmelette for creating a shrine dedicated to it which inspired me to play it!  =)
 
Thank you for reading my review, please leave me a comment and let me know what you think.  Hope you have a great Winter day, take care!  =D
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Hahahahahaha, tell me you're joking!  XD

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