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Klonoa had a nice resurgence in appreciation last year with remasters of his most beloved Playstation adventures, but his other journeys remain in the past and are more likely to be forgotten. Some might not be familiar with them, but there were three GBA games, a volleyball game(!), and Moonlight Museum. The "2" might make this a bit surprising, but not only was Moonlight Museum developed alongside Klonoa 2, it actually came out before it, making it the actual second Klonoa game! The lack of a 2 in its title is justified, though, because Moonlight Museum tells a smaller scale and lighter story while also being a shift in overall design philosophy compared to its predecessor and where 2 would end up going with its increased focus on "action" and setpiece-esque levels.
Klonoa has always had navigation-focused puzzles and a lean towards thoughtful and "slower" gameplay compared to something like a Mario, but Moonlight Museum really takes it to the next level. Gone are the boss fights and 3D visuals. The music is significantly more limited and the Wahoos are crispier and crunchier than any piece of fried chicken you can find. The story is still there, but it's more abstract and philosophical, focusing on the relationship between dreams and art instead of a more straightforward "save the day" narrative. Ultimately, it's all about the puzzles pretty much all the time and the lack of audiovisual splendor might disappoint people coming off of the beautiful console games, but if you take this game as it is and let it do its own thing, you'll be rewarded with a very well designed and complete experience.
Every level tasks you with collecting three star pieces, which are scattered about the level and hidden behind puzzles to solve. Many of these puzzles, especially early on, can just be a matter of finding a way to jump high enough like how you would in the original game, whether it be with enemies or blocks, but if there's one thing this game excels at, it's making use of every little thing it has hidden up its sleeve to concoct expansive puzzles. Every world introduces some kind of new gimmick to make things trickier, such as wind currents that always blow you upward unless they're blocked, blocks that can be pushed but not picked up, and explosive enemies that blow up on a timer once picked up. The game also makes use of the Wonderswan's form factor to make some stages horizontally or vertically oriented. This doesn't significantly change the gameplay, but the choice is utilized to gently accentuate the level design in effective ways. If a level has a lot of vertical movement, it'll probably make you hold the Wonderswan vertically, which lends itself to a more comfortable perspective for what's on offer. Each world builds up the complexity surrounding each of these mechanics I mentioned in a natural way so that the early levels are easy, but the later ones require a full understanding of all your options.
For example, throwing an explosive guy and letting the timer tick down is easy, but what if you have two with different timers? Can you juggle those timers with having to move them across the room and into specific locations that may require navigating past wind currents or lining up blocks? What about having to do that while spiked enemies try to get in your way? If the explosion doesn't reach your target, can you set up arrow blocks to redirect the explosion while also making sure to do it in time? I probably don't need to belabor the point any further, it should be obvious by now that these puzzles can get devious! Don't let that scare you too much, though, because the nastiest tricks are reserved for the EX stages, which are unlocked after finishing the game.
The EX stages really expect you to think outside the box when they're not introducing challenging platforming sequences with high stakes; one particular moment requires you to take advantage of a specific (physics, I guess?) interaction that's never necessary to acknowledge beyond an exclamation of "oh, neat" otherwise! Normally, Klonoa can't grab things if he's in a narrow corridor because of how he holds things above his head, but if you grab an enemy and then quickly move into the corridor before the animation completes and moves the enemy above Klonoa, the enemy will be squished down and allow you to carry it in the narrow corridor. When the game asked me to do this to get a bomb through a corridor with spikes preventing me from just throwing it through, you can probably imagine that this took me a while to figure out!
Even when Moonlight Museum is at its most challenging and mentally taxing, it never gets frustrating because of how concisely and smoothly designed it is. Levels are never too big and Klonoa's immediately available verbs are limited enough that the range of actions you can take never feels too overwhelming. Levels have a linear, guided flow to them that allow the player to easily tell if they missed something. If they get to the exit without having all three stars, they know exactly what they missed, and the 30 crystals per stage that can be used to unlock gallery images are often used in ways that guide the player to points of interest or extra areas that offer more challenging optional puzzles. Lives and health are generously placed and there aren't any time limits given to clear stages, so you can take as long as you need to pick up what the developers were putting down. Like I said, this game is all about the puzzles, and every single choice made ensures that those puzzles are engaging without being intimidating.
It's so remarkable how consistent this game is that it bears repeating; the difficulty moves at the exact perfect pace so that every mechanic is given enough time to breathe, levels are always around the same length and never overstay their welcome, and just the right number of elements exist to make puzzles varied and interesting without being too overwhelming or tedious. There's even a convenient retry option that'll reset any room! Two of the GBA games, Empire of Dreams and Dream Champ Tournament, build upon this game's formula and add back things like boss fights and those hoverboarding sections, but I still think there's something to be said about this one's admirable level of focus. Like the many great puzzlers on the Game Boy, this game has very specific ideas that it wants to express to the player, and everything in the game is focused on doing just that. There aren't any wild swings here, nothing to distract from the gameplay loop, and those who love spectacle might find it to be a bit "bland", but if you're feeling what Namco was feeling and want to see the brain-teasing fundamentals of Klonoa pushed further than they've been, you'll love getting absorbed into Moonlight Museum and will appreciate the artistry on offer.
It shouldn't be possible to sleep on a Sonic game considering that the blue hedgehog and whether or not he was "ever good" feels like the most prominent and endlessly regurgitated topic amongst YouTubers and the internet at large, but I really think the series' Game Gear output is hugely overlooked in both its quality and its creativity. They did an excellent job adapting the 16-bit formula through Sonic 1, 2, Chaos, and Triple Trouble, but even after they nailed that down, they didn't hesitate to get weird with the very concept of Sonic. Sonic Drift 1+2 are pretty bog standard kart racers (I like 'em), but putting Sonic in a kart instead of making him run is inherently kinda weird, isn't it? Sonic R "fixes" that (I unironically love Sonic R), but that's a story for another day. There was Tails' Sky Patrol, an auto scrolling flying game that played nothing like a typical Sonic and only had Tails as a playable character. "What would Sonic be like without Sonic?" is what they were putting down here, and this wasn't the last time they'd interrogate the series' core identity. Sonic Labyrinth, a much maligned game from what I've seen, is more of a puzzle-like game that asks the incredibly bold question of, "what if Sonic was slow?". Seems like a downright heretical thing to ask, but Tails Adventure goes even further by bundling this and the previous question together:
"What if Sonic didn't have Sonic and was also slow?"
It turns out that such a question makes for a really impressive and enjoyable Metroidvania!
The Game Gear was more or less on its way out in 1995, which led to some really impressive games coming out around then and Tails Adventure really makes a statement with its scope. The other Sonic games tended to have runtimes of an hour or less, but this game gives you over 10 areas to explore and find and enough to do within then that you can easily get 4 hours or more out of it if you're thorough! I'm not normally one to give much credence at all to game length, but you really didn't see this kind of thing on the Game Gear much beyond RPGs, so I can't help but be impressed. These areas are pretty huge, too, oftentimes requiring multiple trips to find everything within them. They even brought the submarine back from Triple Trouble and gave it its own batch of items to use and nonlinear areas to traverse. Sometimes you'll find a cave you didn't know existed by exploring a new route with a different weapon and sometimes you'll stumble upon a boss entirely by accident. It's the kind of game that has me constantly going "how did they do this!?" and helps to validate my feelings towards the Game Gear as something that's far better than people often give it credit for nowadays.
You only get two buttons on the Game Gear (not counting start or the d-pad), but Tails Adventure gives you over 20 items and lets you swap between four at a time! Sure, this means you have to pause to swap items and can't bring everything with you, but it makes exploration a joy because you never know what you're going to get, especially since they were clever enough to make every item box look the same and hide the surprise every time. Sometimes, you get a new bomb or weapon that lets you get past things you previously couldn't, but other times, you get something that's just fun to have. The radio is technically "useless", but it lets you change the music in any level to any song from the game's soundtrack, which is pretty neat! Though they aren't in the game, you can get items that let you pull a trick out of Sonic and Knuckles' arsenals. Getting up close in this game isn't usually a good idea, but hey, seeing Tails punch like Knuckles does is pretty cute!
The premise of the game itself also feels like a stride towards wanting to make Sonic into something bigger than it was narratively in the video game space. Later games in the series like Sonic Adventure and Sonic Frontiers have Tails struggle with the idea of remaining in Sonic's shadow and earning the confidence needed to become the hero, but here he was cleaning up messes all by himself back in 1995! Making Tails slow seems like a weird choice, but I love how it gives him an identity that isn't just "Sonic but you can fly". Tails has always been the smart one of the group and the pacing of the game and the tools you use leverage his specialty, which is something that I feel like some of the other games forget about his character. He's an inventor, so instead of brute forcing or speeding past everything, you find new solutions to new problems by finding new things to use. Enemies are threats that you have to approach with the right tool from the right position. You're not barreling through foes, but instead calculating the best angle to throw bombs from. Your little robot friend can even be used to scout ahead and see what threats await you in the distance. Said robot is utilized for a whole bunch of puzzles as well since it can get into areas Tails can't due to its small size. You also have to earn the ability to fly for longer periods of time and take more hits by finding more Chaos Emeralds, which feels like a subtle way of showing the player Tails' increased confidence and skills as the adventure goes on. It's a solitary adventure so Tails doesn't have anyone to bounce ideas off of and it doesn't spell anything out, but because of its quieter and slower nature, the gameplay manages to convey a story of Tails gradually rising up to a challenge that only he can handle. It's nice when Sonic games take themselves seriously and try to grow their characters, you know?
I've always had a soft spot for this one since I had it when I was young, but I'm very pleased to see it's even better than I remembered it being. Aside from some underwhelming final bosses, it's a consistently compelling adventure that grows on you more and more as you keep unraveling its mysteries and discover just how deep it goes. I tend to find myself fatigued with the Metroidvania genre nowadays, but I guess all it takes to bring me back in is an unexpected spin on two formulas combined into one!
Sometimes, you just have to appreciate a well-oiled machine, and Nobody Saves the World is exactly that. It's a game that reveals its entire hand to you in little more than an hour's time, but it's also a clever game that finds a way to make its transparency work in its favor. Though its presentation is very much modern (as long as you don't mind characters that are adorably and intentionally kind of hideous), its focus on maintaining an extremely consistent gameplay loop feels delightfully old school. You could easily call it a one trick pony, but it's a dang good trick!
The story provides a sufficiently interesting mystery to explore, has charming characters with humor that generally lands and visuals that do an excellent job of depicting genuinely disgusting things as a way of portraying a world covered in a calamity that seeks to warp it into something unhabitable. Ultimately, though, the crux of this game, what makes it truly stand out, lies with its transformation system and how everything you do feeds into it and other aspects of the game simultaneously. Your character is capable of using multiple transformations that allow him to take specific forms for the matter at hand. To give a few examples, you can become a knight and fight at close range, you can try becoming a mermaid to travel across water and find different approaches, or you can just turn into a slug and shoot tears from a distance while your sliminess slows your foes down. You can even become an egg and roll around if that's your thing! Combat on its own isn't particularly deep, with a basic attack and three skills being all you get per form, but the sheer flexibility you have in choosing your skills is what keeps things interesting.
As you use transformations and satisfy goals such as "kill x using this skill y number of times", you'll gain experience for that form that feeds into its rank. Ranking up gets you new skills that can be used on any form you have, which naturally leads to some wonderful combinations. Sick of having to turn around to use the Horse's kick attack? Give it the Ranger's arrow attacks and you won't have to bother! Want the minion-heavy Magician to get even more minions than just his rabbits and tigers? Give him the Zombie's ability to infect people and you'll be running with a small army of zombies in no time! Even with just three skills, the amount of options you have really adds so much room to express yourself and find creative solutions to the game's many quests.
Instead of grinding experience or brute forcing things with a single build, you're meant to shift around constantly and try new things. If you ever struggle with a quest, you probably have a skill that'll secretly turn it into a cinch! Those aforementioned challenges serve as a wonderfully elegant way of teaching players about potential combinations, too, which is very helpful for those not accustomed to the particular logic that "Job System" games run on. To give an example, one of the slug's challenges asks you to poison enemies using your basic tear attack. By dedicating one of your four passive skills slots to the Ranger's poison accumulation ability in order to solve this "puzzle", you'll end up learning that poison works extremely well on rapid fire attacks in the process. It's really a stroke of absolute genius how well this system works in both educating the player and providing them a canvas with which to express themselves however they please!
Completing quests and form challenges also earns you experience for your general rank that serves as a base power level to be applied to any form as well as Stars, which are required to unlock the game's main dungeons. These requirements may feel a bit arbitrary at first, but they encourage you to engage with the game in all sorts of ways without forcing you to do dungeons that you may not want to do. Depending on how you play, you can knock out sidequests to get stars, you can just buy some using money, you can try out different forms and complete challenges, or you can discover optional demi-dungeons and complete those for stars. You wouldn't think the dungeons would be the lowlight of the game, but they kinda are, unfortunately. Each one features an incredibly inspired design (like entering through the mouth of a corrupted whale or a weird creature) and modifiers that limit or tweak every combatant's abilities/stats, but they never feature any interesting gimmicks or design twists within the dungeons themselves, ultimately resulting in dull corridors full of enemies you've already fought a bunch of times before. Boss fights are incredibly underwhelming across the board as well, usually consisting of a bigger version of an enemy you've fought combined with infinitely respawning allies. Main story dungeons have all the same issues alongside a restriction that prevents you from gaining experience inside of them at all, which feels like a somewhat bizarre choice. The idea is for you to "choose a build and rely on it for the challenge at hand", but considering how reliant the game is on that constant feedback loop of completing tasks and unlocking new tools to keep your attention, stripping that away just exposes the game's magic tricks in an unflattering way.
Nobody Saves the World is an interesting one to talk about because it feels like the kind of game where words are guaranteed to undersell it a bit. Unlocking forms and experimenting with them is an absolute joy, but it's also a fundamentally simple game to actually play, perhaps to a fault. With only a few buttons needed to control it and a dearth of interesting foes or dungeon threats to navigate around, its core gameplay loop can feel like something you'd mindlessly grind through in a free to play gacha mobile game or something, and it's honestly hard to deny that or defend it against skeptics. But if you're open-minded, this is the kind of game that you should really try for yourself and see if you have the kind of mindset that it needs to really thrive. Even if you lose interest in the gameplay, I feel like this one is a great case study in how to make interlocking systems successfully. It's truly commendable how DrinkBox made everything come together in a way that encourages any and every option you have, which is absolutely ideal for any kind of job system game. Definitely something to take note of if you're looking to develop a game like this! If you enjoy optimizing character builds, enjoy Gauntlet-esque mob clearing, using a variety of goofy looking characters, or just appreciate a constant drip feed of dopamine, you'll be impressed by how much this game can sink its claws into you and capture your heart.