game boy

Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — #10-6

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: You can read the intro to this list here and the entries for #15-11 here.

10. Downwell (2015)

Some might define Downwell as a shooter, but developer Ojiro Fumoto ingeniously riffs on one of the platformer’s most common features: the ability to dispatch an enemy by bopping them on top of the head. In Downwell, you can safely bop certain enemies but get injured by touching others, and it’s this concern that gives this pacey game its fundamental tension as you try to rack up combos or merely survive through the greatest fall in video-game history. The newest game on this list, Downwell shows that Fumoto is a brilliant independent artist who should get more attention from the gaming press (which is too obsessed with, among other things, the randomly generated sci-fi banalities of No Man’s Sky).

9. Kirby’s Adventure (1993)

Kirby’s Adventure doesn’t exactly conform to the standard notion that platforming should involve a distinguished approach to jumping. This Nintendo classic — which has the fingerprints of the late and great Satoru Iwata, in addition to those of long-time Kirby and Super Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai — is more driven by the freedom to fly, and Kirby’s copycat ability both complements the established formula of 1992’s Kirby’s Dream Land and predicts the surreal, morally dubious nature of Super Mario Odyssey. As a game where you can casually advance through its levels or dive deep into its hidden areas through fun uses of the hero’s many powers, Kirby’s Adventure has flexible appeal and is one of the greatest technical achievements of the 8-bit era.

8. Spelunky HD (2013)

I’d like to meet someone who has stopped discovering tricks and quirks in Derek Yu’s Spelunky HD. The fundamentals of this game — the climbing and hanging, the running and jumping, the throwing and dropping — are fine-tuned to an absurd degree, and Yu’s level design strikes an impeccable balance between randomness and familiarity. And pay attention to the game’s underrated satirical undercurrent, where the protagonist’s greed and treachery — the damsel in distress, who is wryly labeled a villain in an in-game notebook, can literally be used as an object — are almost always rewarded with death.

7. Mega Man 3 (1990)

An honorable mention in my 15 greatest shooters list, Mega Man 3 fully realizes the potential of its predecessors. This game’s silky smooth run-and-jump action, a revelation after the slippery play of the first two Mega Man games, is accompanied by faster screen-to-screen transitions and a now-legendary move, the slide, that redefined how the blue hero can travel and react to threats. The game’s kinetic flare makes it hard not to feel propelled through its gauntlet of outstanding villains, from Snake Man to Gemini Man to Top Man. (For more on the greatness of Mega Man 3, read my essay here.)

6. Donkey Kong (1994)

The best remake in video-game history, this Game Boy masterpiece opens with the four levels of 1981’s Donkey Kong before sending the player, as Mario, on an indisputably epic quest. Without a tutorial sucking the creative spirit out of the whole affair, you’ll learn how to create temporary ladders and bridges, ride on the heads of harmless enemies to reach higher ground, take advantage of a highly athletic moveset (a clear inspiration for the acrobatics of Super Mario 64), and more as you identify and then carry a key to open the door to the next stage. This stunning interpretation of Donkey Kong as a limitless well of dynamic action is also an audiovisual home run, with sound effects that pay homage to the arcade classic, an urgent soundtrack that ranks among the best on the Game Boy, and cinematics that amusingly reimagine Mario’s neverending pursuit of the titular antagonist. Jonathan Blow, eat your heart out!

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Castlevania: The Adventure Is Better Than You Have Heard

by Jed Pressgrove

Castlevania: The Adventure is an ode to toughness and simplicity. It’s the Casino Royale of the Castlevania series, the only game to boil the Belmont concept to its core: whipping monsters. Unfortunately, critical reception to Castlevania: The Adventure has significantly soured since its release on Game Boy in 1989. You might see a critic likeĀ Tim Turi let the hammer down easy: “This handheld experience pales in comparison to its console brethren.” But it’s not unusual for the verdict to be more damning, as when Nate Ewert-Krocker calls the game “objectively terrible” and something one might play due to an “obsessive series completion syndrome.”

Before I explain why Castlevania: The Adventure is better than its reputation, I should mention two things that everyone would probably agree with:

1. Castlevania: The Adventure is for Castlevania fans. The game’s uniqueness or weirdness is only apparent if one is familiar with the classic series. In the classic Castlevania tradition, you walk up and down stairs. In Castlevania: The Adventure, you climb up and down rope. In the classic Castlevania tradition, hearts function as ammunition, allowing you to use various secondary weapons. In Castlevania: The Adventure, hearts heal you (which kind of makes more sense), and there are no secondary weapons. In the classic Castlevania tradition, your whip length and strength only go away when you die. In Castlevania: The Adventure, your whip length and strength decrease when you get hit — and in a strange twist, your whip shoots fireballs when completely powered up. I have a theory that some Castlevania fans, maybe unconsciously, dislike Castlevania: The Adventure because it lacks traditions that, while a bit weird anyway, have the quality of a trusty coat.

2. Castlevania: The Adventure is slow. The game’s slowness inspires writing like this: “It’s like someone tried to fit fifteen pounds of bologna into a ten-pound bag, and you, the hapless player, are the flea larva trying to squeeze your way out.” This is where I diverge from the pack: the game’s not that oppressive. For one thing, Castlevania: The Adventure doesn’t make you question why you bother playing video games in the first place like the frustrating Castlevania III (the best Castlevania ever made, by the way). For another, Castlevania: The Adventure was rereleased in 2012 on the 3DS Virtual Console, which allows you to create save points. Despite this sanity-preserving feature, the game is still maligned for being too slow and difficult.

Castlevania: The Adventure simply requires precision and trial and error. The gameplay is what it is due to the limitations of the Game Boy as well as the fact that the game was an early title on the famous Nintendo handheld. These technical limitations nonetheless result in very focused action; the hyper-deliberate pacing makes being a Belmont grittier and more suspenseful. Contemporary critics imply the game is monumentally unfair, but the first stage is a training ground suggesting that Konami was aware of the game’s demands. For example, the first stage has a series of thin platforms you have to cross in order to advance. If you fall during this section, you hit the ground and must start over. This section is meant to prepare you for the jumps later in the game that kill you when you mess up. To make tough jumps, the front half of your body must be hanging off the side of a platform. If you can make one of these jumps, you should be able to make any of them in the game.

The level design is more interesting after the first stage. In the second stage, rolling eyeballs blow up sections of a bridge if you kill them, and later you have to figure out which rope you should climb, as sections of the level will repeat if you don’t choose the right path. The third stage is when Castlevania: The Adventure gets brilliant, sending spikes at you from almost every direction in a slow-mo marathon of intense “I just barely survived that” platforming. This stage made me realize that Castlevania: The Adventure was ahead of its time. Consider that in the non-handheld Castlevania series, you couldn’t jump on or off of stairs until Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (or Dracula X on the SNES). Since you can jump on or off of rope in Castlevania: The Adventure, the game essentially innovated the series years before Rondo of Blood.

I wouldn’t call anything else in the game “innovative,” but the changes to the Castlevania formula amplify the game’s distinctive take on the Belmont way. As mentioned earlier, Castlevania tradition involves secondary weapons, such as knives, axes, holy water, and boomerang crosses. When used correctly and at the right time, secondary weapons can make levels or bosses really easy. In contrast, the lack of secondary weapons in Castlevania: The Adventure forces you to confront the challenges presented by enemies and bosses head-on with a whip. You have to become a whip master to beat the game. There’s also something relieving about no secondary weapons: you never have to worry about losing a weapon you prefer by accidentally picking up another weapon icon. All power-ups in Castlevania: The Adventure help you no matter what.

Castlevania: The Adventure isn’t a “take what you can get” Game Boy product. Critics have talked so much about what the game doesn’t have that they have overlooked a unique distillation of the Belmont concept. You know this is a serious entry when you hear the music and its terms: if you can’t get it done with a whip, you’re not getting it done at all. In a gaming world where “more” has come to mean “better,” there’s something attractive in such uncompromising simplicity.

Kirby’s Dream Land: A Review on Joy and Entitlement

In an era when people expect franchise games to overflow with content and mechanics (especially before downloadable content), Kirby’s Dream Land is an enigma. Critics have held and may continue to hold the game’s simplicity against it. As a certified gaming mascot, Kirby is expected to gain powers from his enemies, so Kirby’s Dream Land is often deemed a prototype, too basic. But this line of thinking denies the revelation of original creative design. From a historical standpoint, the Game Boy title is, quite frankly, stunning.

A game like Kirby’s Dream Land should be taken in slowly, as it is a delicacy whose every facet was designed with precision, care, and what appears to be joy. A normal playthrough is indeed short and easy, but the game presents immaculate creations with the enemy design, the level variety, the little cartoons between levels, the cheerful music, and the shockingly beautiful ending that ranks above almost any other in gaming.

Ideally, game critics would recognize Dream Land as a standard (not as a relic), but many of them are too busy brainwashing gamers with marketing slogans. Some critics excuse their own lack of conviction by preaching against “gamer entitlement,” a toothless euphemism that leaves critics sitting innocent as they continue to encourage outlandish expectations through their fixation on console wars, powerful graphics, features, mechanics, and superfluous Game of the Year awards.

Critics and gamers should try breezing through the Extra Mode in Kirby’s Dream Land and reconsider their default stances. In Extra Mode, the game sets you up for destruction, forcing you to master the deceptively simple mechanics. Kirby’s lack of speed and special powers requires you to be cunning and skillful, especially as you get deeper into the challenges you had already overcome. (The superior art and mood of Kirby’s Dream Land make the second quests in Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda look downright pointless.)

Kirby’s Dream Land is the rare game that seamlessly blends artistry and design in a way that can appeal to gamers of numerous backgrounds. Its place in video game history deserves to be cemented, if not for the sake of its greatness, then for the sake of the gaming community’s sanity as consumers: unlike countless games after it, Kirby’s Dream Land has zero fluff despite the appearance of its hero.