Phantasy Star II is such a complicated game for me.
It is, in retrospect, very much in line with the original Phantasy Star's design philosophy - a relatively-open world (well, two worlds), with the player's ability to explore it mostly contingent on their level. I'm not sure if it's that I played it first (albeit right after Dragon Warrior), but it feels so much harder to approach. It is a long, long, long grind to get to the point where Mota becomes anywhere near manageable to navigate. Random encounters are at an all-time high, and while there is novelty to seeing those animations in 16-bit, it's a huge overall step down from the beauty of the first game's spectacle. Dungeons - now in 3rd person - are almost all miserable experiences. Even ones playing with fun high-concept ideas, like the one full of chutes (stairs) and the one where you have to drop down between floors, tend to be more tedious than they are enjoyable. Party members have even less going on than the original game's heroes, and it baffles me that they were popular enough to EACH receive a mini adventure RPG. Did people really care enough about the one doctor guy to demand his backstory? And while I generally don't expect too many boss fights from these early RPGs, boy is it disorienting having four fights, one of which is scripted, two of which are in the final dungeon, and one of THOSE being a berserker boss?
Having said all that, there is also so much I love about this game. It's a dark, bleak story, helped as much by the original script as it is by the questionable translation. The world is punk and cynical, down to the churches and priests resurrecting deceased party members replaced by cloning chambers building off of brain scans. It's dealing with incredibly mature themes about transhumanism and over-reliance on technology at a time when video games barely understood how to tell stories. The limited color palette and visual direction often work in the game's favor, creating grungy and grimy set pieces (boy, are those rabbits gross). While the actual experience of the game is unfun, I respect how uncompromisingly brutal it is; it's a very natural complement to the first game's simple story of heroism overcoming evil.
And somehow, despite everything, the whole game comes into focus in that final fight against the final boss. The visual direction all comes to a head. The despairing tone, the fear for our future, the game's actual challenge - everything suddenly makes sense at the very end. Those last words before the credits roll, so peculiarly translated, have kept me thinking and wondering ever since I first beat the game.
If you must play the game, do yourself a favor and use Save States (there are enough Genesis rereleases that you can do this on a legitimate copy). There is a function that will let you save anywhere you want in the overworld or dungeons, but doing so requires making use of an incredibly tedious mechanic and good luck on top of it. Yeeeeeesh.
Phantasy Star is my favorite of the big three long-running 80s console jRPG franchises, over Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy (and Shin Megami Tensei, if we count it); the first game makes for a great Opening Argument. Lessons have clearly been learned from the first two Dragons Quest - the game has that same basic appeal of iteratively getting strong enough to explore more of a largely-open world, but with a decent hook in the vehicles. They're mostly there to open the overworld map in a Metroidvania sort-of way, but they add fun visual and speed variety to the general gameplay loop.
I love the first person dungeons, too. It's a hallmark of early computer RPGs, but since most console RPGs took their cues from Dragon Quest's simplification of Ultima/Wizardry conventions, it's a comparative novelty among Phantasy Star's contemporaries. There's something satisfying to the smooth animation of walking down a hallway or rounding a corner, only tempered by the hope that THIS step you don't have to deal with a pitfall or White Dragon or too dense a group of Sphinxes or Sorcerers.
Fairly uniquely for this era, I find myself really attached to the cast and world(s). They're mostly simple, archetypal characters, but they're not bad by any means. Alis is a solid heroine, fighting the evil king purely for revenge. The rest of the cast are fairly undeveloped, but Myau is cute, Odin is kind of a big lug, and Noah/Lutz... gets way more interesting in subsequent games. But there are all sorts of little moments - I like the moral choices, I like the NPC chatter, I like the translation weirdness of exchanging intrinsically Japanese foods with intrinsically American Burgers and Colas, I LOVE Dark Force (I partially have to blame Mario Busters for that)... lots to love here moment to moment.
There's a style to 80s video game RPGs that doesn't really exist anymore but is exemplified by the original Dragon Quest. The game world is more or less wide open - there are a few lock-and-key puzzles that require the player to get a certain key item or clear a certain dungeon to open up another chunk of the map, but those are the exception to the rule; were those checks not there, it would be theoretically possible for a gutsy player to wander from Tantagel clear to the lowest sub-basement of Charlock Castle as soon as the game opens. The limiting factor is the player's avatar strength - at Level 1, you're barely strong enough to clear the Slimes and Red Slimes outside Tantagel. Don't even think about roughing it with the Starwyverns and Dragons in the end game. No, all there is to do is to GRIND.
Normally I'm opposed to excessive grinding in my RPGs. I'm impatient, I have better things to do in video games than wait around until the numbers go up. But there's something to how it comes across in the original Dragon Quest that's super cozy. I think, because the sum total of the experience is the grind, once the player comes to realize that's all there is, they're able to enter into something of a zen state. Progress in the overworld is checked organically by the challenge posed by random encounters. More than make the numbers go up, every level expands the player's access to the game world, bit by bit. There's something extremely empowering to how much of a difference Level 2 makes over Level 1, then again for Level 3 over 2 (HEAL opens up SO MUCH of the map). Even then, the game never stops posing a challenge - Charlock Castle is brilliant in just how long it is, requiring the player to traverse seemingly endless floor after floor of endgame monsters slowly whittling away at your resources.
I think it's easy to be turned off by how simple and grindy the original Dragon Quest is these days, but I dunno - there's a purity of form to it that makes it still a nice, cozy playthrough for me.
Also, I know Dragon Quest's fondness for silly accents is a localization quirk from after the Square-Enix merger, but it's cute that even in the early Enix days of it being Dragon Warrior, it had fun with its excessive "thou hast"s and "thy"s.
Star Allies is eventually a phenomenal game. 100% completion will show you some of the greatest challenges and sequences the Kirby series has to offer, particularly in the Ultimate Choice. The movesets are some of the most varied and complex (Bandee probably being my runaway favorite for the series), and re-integrating the Super Star partners and the Squeak Squad elements adds a ton of technical complexity to the experience. There are so many characters here making their long-overdue comebacks, and not just the Dream Friends (though, Adeleine and Ribbon's return is nothing short of wonderful). If you're already sold on Kirby, this is one of the greatest games you could play.
So much of the game's merit depends on getting there. If you're only playing casually, an extremely casual, disposable entry is all you'll get. Modern Kirby as a rule gets better the more time you sink into it, but nowhere is this more obvious than in this game. To someone who doesn't "know" what to expect from Modern Kirby (as I didn't on my first run when the game first released), it's a fine enough playthrough, but nothing to write home about beyond that weirdly horrifying final boss.
I could very easily understand an argument for just about any score on this game. My own rating reflects a mix of where I'm at with the game, as someone who ran through almost every Kirby title. Some of my absolute favorite moments in the series come from those post-game challenges, so I value the game pretty highly, but it's hurt knowing that the core gameplay loop on a casual run does very little to warrant the devotion required to get there.
Only played the core game, so this review reflects that.
There are strong systems in place here, but I feel like they're in competition with one another. The core is a lot of the same goodness from L4D2, but we've now moved away from the pure arcade-y approach with the deck-builder system. I think you could build a strong multiplayer FPS on that basis; I'm not sure L4D2 makes for the correct template for that approach. For my more casually-minded Sunday night group, this was definitely not what they were looking for.
But it's not bad. Giving the characters unique abilities is a fun addition that adds much to the experience on its own. There are some great set pieces - "Bar Room Blitz" finally tops the Midnight Riders concert from L4D2 as my favorite finale, and I love how all of the "Remnants" campaign is paced. I like a lot of the functions of the Ridden, gross and unrelenting as they are on even the easiest difficulty. There's a lot of good parts here, even if they don't fully gel together.
There's an argument to be had that Left 4 Dead is still worth playing, even though it's basically been recreated in its entirety in Left 4 Dead 2. L4D1 is much stronger as a tonal piece - no melee weapons means you have little in the way of comfortable fallback options, and you have to be conscious of every bullet. When you run into a Witch, you're making a much harder decision about how to handle her here. Less variation in gameplay modes means you're simply running for longer stretches of time from set piece to set piece, which adds that tasteful wearying sort of experience you want out of a straight horror game. These are all subtle differences, and chances are good that you'd like both games if you like one. Personally, I find all the maps I've played across both titles much stronger in their L4D2 incarnations, but I can respect someone who holds the opposite opinion.
L4D2 is one of my most-played games, and something I come back to all the time with my Sunday night group. I can't claim mastery since we basically only play on Easy or Normal, but I'm at least very, very, very, very, very familiar with the core maps. It tends to be my Sunday night group's gold standard for games, and it's the title we come back to more often than anything else.
Admittedly, I don't think there's much more the game has to offer for me, at least from a vanilla experience. I'll play it with friends and family, because I like spending time with friends and family, but I'd generally be happier playing something else. Not an indictment on L4D2 (goodness knows I haven't played everything the game has to offer), just where I'm at.
But it's my group's gold standard for a reason. Sometimes we just need a simple, arcade-y co-op experience to jump into, and L4D2 has us covered. L4D2 isn't without strategy, far from it, and the randomization element of the horde encounters means there's generally a different angle to approach each run of a map. I like a lot of what L4D2 offers over the original game mechanically: I am basically useless if my secondary weapon is a handgun instead of a melee weapon, crescendo events are a lot more dynamic and varied compared to the first game, the new Special Infected are... annoying, but they're doing their job of keeping you on your toes... and I like all of the new maps, especially Hard Rain. I also like the cast and Southern setting way more than the first game's New England offerings, but that's more down to taste.
Easy to see why "The Girl Who Stands Behind" is the favorite between the two original offerings. This isn't bad - it's a solid mystery, there's a couple good tonal moments (the seaside cliff in general is a great set piece), and it's neat to see Nintendo advance the formula established by The Portopia Serial Murder Case. But there's just no competing with the heights of "The Girl Who Stands Behind"'s mystery. Playing through this ended up being less "Aha, this is what I was missing" and more "Ah, this is what the prequel built upon."
Also, for all the polish (I LOVE this art style, and the music/voice acting is such a treat), there's no escaping that third-gen gameplay jank that forms the heart of this game. There was a good stretch of time where I kept running around in circles, trying to find the flag I missed during my first, second, third pass of a scene. I run into that a lot with mystery adventure games, admittedly, but it always feels at its most pronounced for me with the Famicom Detective Club games.
Still, I am VERY grateful we got this. This was my gaming white whale for the longest time, and I'm glad I was finally able to play through it.
My first exposure to nonagrams/picross, turns out I like it. I'm the type of person who's able to relax to stuff like crosswords and sudoku, so this was a nice, very zen sort of game for me, especially considering this was how I navigated the latter half of lockdown (yeah, I spent about a year and a half on this). Since I was teaching myself as I went along, there was a cozy process to my gradually learning how to handle picross puzzles. I'm pleased to say that of the game's 300 puzzles, I only cheesed three of them - I'll gladly take a 99% average.
The Mario license doesn't contribute a lot to the overall experience, save for some of Mario's early puzzles and some of Wario's late puzzles (and in the latter's case - boy, I wish this was translated). I don't think it needs to, per se, but that did take a bit to get used to.
Take any of my ratings of non-Smash fighting games with a grain of salt, as they're usually based off a single run or two through the arcade ladder and general surface impressions.
And here we start to step away from the purity of form that defined the first two Virtua Fighters. The arenas here are starting to become more varied, with minor things like steps, obstacles, and size making where you're fighting all the more important. I think this makes the moment-to-moment decisions more impactful, but it takes away from the heart to what draws me to the series in the first place. I don't necessarily dislike it, though, I just think it made the arcade ladder far less memorable, since it's now easier to cheese certain fights. Doesn't help that the arcade ladder is now mostly randomized, rather than being a predesigned series of fights. Characters no longer appear to serve specific roles in the singleplayer experience, outside Akira and Dural. I believe the rest of the series will follow this standard, so... too bad. Still a rock solid core, just a diluted experience compared to 1 and 2.
I don't really have enough experience with Aoi to comment on her. Taka-Arashi is super memorable for me for reasons completely unrelated to VF3, but I have some fondness for him - sumo is always a fun fighting style to see, and it certainly makes him different than other "big guys" Jeffry and Wolf.
Take any of my ratings of non-Smash fighting games with a grain of salt, as they're usually based off a single run or two through the arcade ladder and general surface impressions.
A good showing right out of the gate for the series - very solid gameplay feel, that commitment to authenticity is there, and the game looks... well, it was groundbreaking for '93, and it's charmingly of-its-era now. I think it's not quite at the heights of VF2 - compared to its sequel, this is floatier, not as tight to control, and less visually interesting (yeah, it's mostly texture work and set dressing, but that makes a huge differents). I actually think Shun Di and Lion Rafale add a ton to 2's roster, being far less straightforward to fight than the VF1 cast. Still, for what this is - very strong start to the series.
Kirby Fighters Deluxe was already a pretty inspired move, backporting Smash Bros. conventions into modern Kirby's engine, so it's neat to see what all that looks like expanded. Some of the more fun movesets from Star Allies have been nerfed - probably a necessity for competitive balance, but I do miss Bandee's rapid-fire spear toss. Most of the game assets are pulled together from Star Allies or Fighters Deluxe, so this is more a refining of ideas, plus Wrestler Kirby (always a fan of grappler abilities). The highlight for me is definitely the story mode, and more specifically its nature as a rogue-lite. This isn't the first game that's done this - I know at least Soul Calibur III experimented with this mechanic - but it's always neat to see. I like the mental exercise that goes into thinking through builds to best complement your chosen moveset, trying to play the odds with upgrades and deciding if you want to go for a strong upgrade NOW or take a rarer niche upgrade and hope you'll see plenty more of that strong upgrade down the line. And it's a little thing, but I'm glad to see Meta Knight and Dedede's friendship built upon - that's such an unexplored character dynamic for this series.
Competitive Snake, basically. Simple-simple. I like that it does animate (insofar as you could animate in a 1977 video game) every domino falling over, all the way back to the start.
Not much else to say, but if I were around in '77, there's a good chance this might've been one of the first video games to really hold my attention. Simple but effective.
It bums me out to say I couldn't get into this! I like most things the game has going on, like the song (which SNK was so, so proud of!) and the art and the enjoyably Engrish title, but I didn't have fun playing it. I don't know that it's specifically the game's nature as a SHMUP, since there are shmups I like and respect. I think the barrier of entry to getting your super form is so tricky compared to what you're going for in most SHMUPs, even something more closely analogous like Altered Beast. I ended up staying as Athena the whole time. You do have other power-ups for quick attacks and gameplay modifications, but those hardly make a dent in enemy forces and it's all gone anyway when you lose a life. And every time you die, you hear the groundbreaking technological advancement that is Athena's voice actress scream, which is really cool until you hear it over and over and over again. I have a fondness for this game still, but it doesn't extend to wanting to replay it.
A'ight, grindy arena shmup that probably works way better as co-op than singleplayer. The highlight is easily the odd-ball crossover roster; B.B. Hood/Mega Man/Arthur in particular are favorites, but I respect that the most relevant Capcom character here circa 2000 is Cammy of all people. The game doesn't actually do anything interesting as a crossover beyond the roster (and I guess Vega shows up as a boss), but it's cute that it exists.