Zelda: Outlands +Q (part 2)

…Lynels…X_X…

Kudos for dungeon design in level T. You instantly land in a sandpit with a patraquad that is far easier to kill with bombs, so no precious candle-wall cheesing. Just watch the thing and try to place a bomb somewhere it will move over and hopefully you’ll only use one or two of them. Up two screens is Zelda with the sword (thankfriggingNayru) and some more rooms that are either puzzles or require an item. Just past this point, we run into Zelda again who tells us that ‘twelve guards watch over the dungeon’s gate.’

Proceeding down from the patraquad sandpit instead of up, there are some familiar monster rooms with block switches. As per usual, they gotta be cleaned out before the switches can be pushed. One of them is filled with pols voice which die from a single strike but turn into peahats. In the peahat-filled side-scrolling staircases, it’s easy to get complacent. But the directional mechanics aren’t the same in the side-scroll basements which, combined with misplaced sense of sword security, can trick you into taking some hits. So don’t be too eager to stop relying on the boomerang.

So our vigilance is subtly tested during our immediate sense of relief after getting the sword. We also run into a blue lynel for the first time in the game which is a frustrating pain the ass and you had better hope you’re at full health for the sword beam. Compliments to GameMakr24 for creating a test of caution and vigilance reminiscent of Bloodborne.

It soon becomes apparent that, once embarking on the path south of the sandpit, doors lock behind you with no obvious floor switches. This happens as you move down, to the left and slightly upward, like a one-way spiral pattern. With persistence, you will be able to return to an apparently empty room at the beginning of the left turn.

Now…remember the invisible doorways from the first quest? That is the dungeon exit. And this is the first invisible doorway I’ve encountered in the second quest, so it felt like an understated blindside. It really does pay not to loose track of the possible ways of detecting hidden paths, even if one hasn’t worked in a while.

Since Outlands banks on crisscrossing between dungeons, I was tempted to do some back-tracking.

Upon our return to level U- there is a room with a staircase behind a cubic block. It is guarded by peahats, stalfos and yellow tektites, all of which need to be killed before the block switch will move.

A key hallmark of this rom hack is that some of the hit boxes are mixed and matched with other sprites. Peahats have passed their burden of annoyance on to the keese and are now the only monsters that can be killed with the boomerang. The stalfos could be dispatched by cornering them against the wall with a candle or bombs. The tektites, in Outlands, are invulnerable to the candle and the bombs.

Before I finally tracked down the sword, that screen was maddening. Two variety of monsters vulnerable to bombs and the candle and one that isn’t. So guess what I did as soon as I managed to escape from T?

The sword got the tektites out of the way but holy crap does it take some doing. Rather like the first quest…things tend to go smoother if you keep your sword beam as long as possible. As it is also clear that the second quest will play fair as harshly as possible, there is absolutely no reason not to cheese as much as you can. If a room is filled with monsters, hide in a doorway and step out every now and then to throw a sword beam into the fray. Gathered hundreds of rupees? Stop by a Goron shop whenever you can and buy keys whenever you have just over two hundred. As soon as you explore a little bit of level O, it becomes clear that moblin meat is frequently demanded and only occasionally available. So stockpile every resource you possibly can.

No fucks given ^^

Back in U, there are successive rooms with cloaked, firey mages, the ones that turn into disembodied fire sprites when you kill one of their colony members. I know the digital version of the instruction manual has a name for them. They’re basically Subrosian mages that gather together into a colony organism. And there is one after another in a few successive rooms, until you get to one with just a fire sprite and no clear hit box locus. Time to put a feather in that and move on, for now.

Not so far from U is level D, which can be unveiled with the ocarina, which I’ve somehow overlooked this whole time.

This, as implied by the dodongos, is a bomb-centric dungeon. It is also filled with a lot of monsters that have been bosses and mini bosses in the past. Like, in nearly every other room. This dungeon also has more meat which I promptly ran back to O with. Since D has its own hungry moblin…I was a little worried about…going down a path of no return. So far, I don’t think I have…but holy crap does O have a lot of hungry moblins.

Between O and D, Princess Zelda increases the bomb bag capacity by four in each of them. Once you figure out the reciprocal relationship between both dungeons, it’s pretty easy to release both of their Tetrarch Fairies…which seems to effect the ocarina.

Maybe? ‘Cause afterward, the ocarina can warp to different locations. My working hypothesis for now is that each Tetrarch Fairy unlocks a new location, with the lake near the respawn point as a kind of home base. It seems likely: I can’t remember an exact before and after point when the ocarina began warping during the first quest. Only that it was later in the game, which suggests that the number of fairies released has something to do with it. Not to mention, the flute in the original LoZ warped to each completed dungeon.

So. Because of the liberated Tetrarch Fairies or whatever the reason might be…we now have access to the landmass that was uncovered by the raft in the first quest. It’s only at this point that the second quest feels fully shod of the helplessness it begins with. While everything except the overworld is different, it now feels like the mobility of the first quest is largely regained.

With a little bit of digging, the Goron shop with the bow and arrow can be found, along with the Gerudo with Bagu’s letter. You’ll probably get robbed multiple times in other grottos you expose while looking for it…but it’s there. Now, then: I seem to remember a boss monster with one eye back in the U dungeon…

Link to part 3 will be here as soon as I have it

This is my review of the first quest

Final Fantasy VII for the NES! (spoiler review)

After the example of the famous Chinese NES bootleg, this version was made to be a closer reflection of the PS1 original. These adaptations were made by Lugia2009 with patching and translation support from Lindblum, who also provided the English translation for the first Chinese version.

The 2005 Chinese “Famiclone” is widely credited to Shenzhen Nanjing Technology, which tempts me to assume that the game engine is original. There are however unmistakable resemblances to the first three Final Fantasy games, including reused assets. For the most part, it plays like an early FF as well. A notable improvement is that your party has armor, weapons and materia from the very beginning, which I’m happy with since I’ve recently dealt with FF1’s initial grinding slog.

Of course, when I say materia, what I mean is magic that works the same way as the spells you learn in shops in FF1. Each party member has a single piece of materia when they join you and each one will grow its own roster of spells as you accumulate AP. Each party member can only equip a single materia at a time. Perhaps that was the best way to reconcile the materia system with the early FF scaffolds- simply integrate it into the existing equipment mechanic. It also simplifies strategy- even streamlines it.

To an extent, anyway. It gives each party member a distinct function. This comes through in the mid to late stages of the game when more healing spells are likely to develop (excluding Aerith’s Light materia- the only one with healing magic enabled from the beginning). The majority of your strategic freedom concerns elemental affinities, which is accommodated by the ability to equip and unequip materia in your inventory mid-battle.

On the other hand…elemental affinities are infuriatingly difficult to keep track of. Especially since the whole range of random encounter monsters could potentially show up at any point. Like in the image above- you can run into Christopher and Tonberries and stuff as early as the bombing mission at the start of the game. Sometimes there are vague encounter patterns, but you could potentially run into any monster anywhere. Some reasonable consistency is still maintained by how tough they are, though, relative to location and progression route.

This rom-hack retains a few of the base game’s sudden difficulty spikes but, fortunately, not all of them. In an NES format it would be maddening.

After the unpredictability of the monster encounters, the next biggest combat annoyance is the scarcity of group healing magic. Even without Aerith, you’ll probably end up having one of your party members carrying her Light materia. Then again, you could simply cough up for a ton of group healing items, depending on whether you prefer to rely on magic points or money. The former can increase its max limit with usage and regular stops at “magic shops.”

Which brings us to another key mechanic change- materia and weapon enhancement. Your character builds will hinge on two point values: conventional “grinding” by winning battles and the frequency with which you use both weapon and magic.

EXP, of course, raises your level and therefore stats, etc. AP is accumulated every time you use a weapon or a materia-based spell. When you reach a given maximum limit, you’ll need to stop at either a weapon or materia enhancement station to move the ball forward. Neglecting this can make you feel extremely naked and challenged early on so luckily it doesn’t take long to put it together.

Stat + items are also dropped way more frequently than they were in the base game, which is interesting. 4-8Productions, on YouTube, has a video about the only non-finite source of stat+ items: using the morph materia on any monster in the crashed Gelnika. This is, naturally, a huge pain in the ass because that means whittling down a ton of really strong monsters to roughly below 10 HP so the morph ability can knock them below 0. However, if you’re patient and persistent enough, you can unlock a HUGE work-around the leveling system. (Yes I’ve done this and yes it’s every bit as grueling as it sounds)

This can either be good or bad. Good because it enables more character build freedom or bad because it makes a group of PCs that feel kinda same-y even less unique. As much of a fanatical Final Fantasy VII fan girl as I am, I still can’t help noticing that the combat system lurched between stilted and fluid to the point of emptiness. In order to notice and take interest in the subtleties of FFVII’s character build avenues, you would almost certainly need to like the story and the fictional world enough to pay close attention. While I’m one of those people, it’s still kinda sad that the character build experimentation was not more accessible.

Since this is an 8-bit, NES demake of Final Fantasy VII, it is necessarily shorter which means less time to stop and smell the mako. Which means the finer points of gameplay need to carry more weight. Perhaps the frequent stat+ item drops from monsters were meant to add an extra layer of build variability. This, like healing magic from non-Light materia, will likely be at its most noticeable near the end. Chiefly because you’ll have the ability to travel between the different land masses and observe which stat + items are dropped where.

Essentially, the progression route follows the original as closely as it can. Some of the music, early on, is a little tinny, but evens out once Cloud makes it to the Seventh Heaven. The chip-tuney version of Lurking In The Darkness was a pleasant and charming surprise, especially since it gets used in a few more dungeons. Those Who Fight Further was converted nicely which matters- in graphically simple turn-based RPGs, music carries a lot of weight.

As per the necessary shortening, certain musical cues are adjusted. During Cloud’s brief dream dialogue before waking up in Aerith’s flower bed, I was surprised to hear Listen to the Cries of the Planet (the music from the Forgotten Capital in the original game). Reunion is heard for the first time inside Gaia’s Cliff, which I appreciated. I realize that Reunion is basically Aerith’s Theme with a lower, mysterious-sounding key change. But I always thought it was unfairly overlooked.

One interesting consequence of the shortening was a new presentation of Cloud’s mental struggles. We simply hang out at the Inn room in Kalm as Cloud tells everyone. No actual flashback. Which means, when the party gets to Nibelheim, the player is seeing it for the first time. Unless you hang out nearby for the grinding, you won’t see it again until the illusion just outside of the Northern Crater. It’s a neat way to build tension; a series of small, gradual reveals that create questions about why Cloud told things the way he did.

Obviously there are far less side quests and stuff like Wall Market are pretty linear in comparison. I noticed some collision detection oddities on the world map (which, mechanically, functions no different from anywhere else) which made me wonder. I’ve been playing through the second quest on the Challenge Games Legend of Zelda rom hack, so I have been doing some compulsive wall-testing lately.

Maybe the Zelda hack is making me obsessive…but after I found a short length of mountain you can walk over in the Icicle area, I immediately doubled back and started testing other terrain barriers. Particularly around Wutai and the area between the Mythril Mines and the place where Fort Condor is in the original. You can see little entrances under mountain ranges and house sprites in inaccessible areas.

Like…you can see the entrance to the cave with the old miner who gives you Aerith’s Great Gospel limit break in the original. If you explore in the northern oceans, you can see a house that looks like it might be the home of the Chocobo Sage. On the southwestern continent, you can get a view of a circular pond collected from a waterfall that then feeds into a lake, like Lucrecia’s hideout.

Then again, the moogle construction site of Wutai was obviously there just to…pay tribute to the original and add a bit of cute, aesthetic consistency. Sort of a wink and a nod saying “Yeah, we get it, it should be there, but what do you expect? It ain’t like we got three discs!” Maybe the miner’s cave and the Chocobo Sage’s house are decorative, as well.

In an objective and qualitative assessment, this is equivalent to a streamlined NES-era Final Fantasy. Other than this one, I’ve played some of the very first FF and the very beginning of the second. This reimagining of FFVII has an intuitive and accessible combat system and some simple “high score” rewards that let you enhance your weapons and materia. The adaptation of the soundtrack from the original also adds to its stylistic distinction from other NES Final Fantasy games. But this second iteration of NES Final Fantasy VII doesn’t exactly “push boundaries.”

But for FFVII fans who also like retro gaming, this game is rather more than the sum of its 8 bits. Also like the original Final Fantasy VII, the storytelling is the main distinction here. The portrayal of Cloud’s background is significantly altered, as is the date with Aerith in the Gold Saucer. The location within the Northern Crater where Sephiroth’s original body is located, right next to Sapphire, Ultima and Diamond WEAPONs, is named “The Mako Tree” and the Prelude music is heard there, like the crystal chambers in FFIV and FFV. Since the original FFVII was such a huge in shift from all others before it, I was both bemused and charmed to see this thematic tie-in with the older, “swords and sorcery” games.

The “tree” part is also an interesting touch. Especially given the shortening of Sephiroth’s name during combat. I know it’s an NES remake which means that menu commands, item names, monster names etc. get shortened sometimes, what with the limited information storage. But when you name the antechamber of Sephiroth’s stronghold “The Mako Tree” and you drop the “h” from the end of his name…it kinda puts the whole Tree of Life symbolism closer to the foreground. Maybe it’s not the biggest deal in the world, but I think it’s cool.

Zelda: Outlands +Q (part 1)

Meat outside of the floor compartment. What would Dracula say D:

Since I’m playing through the second quest, I’m gonna exercise zero restraint on spoilers.

The first moments of quest one can be a little intimidating. But a modest amount of exploration will reveal that your sword is sitting there for the taking in the first dungeon. After that, a little lateral thinking will set you straight on how this rom hack differs from the original Legend of Zelda: run back and forth between dungeons, the “One way!” teleportation caves, etc.

Second time around, though…after the “New Adventure Awaits!” notice when you bump off the Thunderbird…it’s, uh…pretty tough.

Before now I never really stopped to consider what a security blanket the sword actually is, in a Zelda game. Being without it is pretty damn inconvenient, but on top of having to rely on bombs, the candle and the boomerang to kill and stun monsters…you just feel naked without it.

So you find ways to compensate. I stumbled across cave with a moblin giving away rupees, early on. From there, the question is what to buy with the most possible utility, since no sword means you won’t be milking enemies for item drops as frequently as the first time around. Like an idiot, I went with bombs instead of the candle. Both the candle and the bombs can harm enemies and unlock hidden paths, but they also have different strengths and weaknesses. The bombs do more damage and the candle is easily replenished between screens. Coming and going from the screen next door to renew the candle is less of a test of patience than spending twenty rupees every time you run out of bombs.

Get ready for lots of THIS shit

Luckily, one of the early dungeons offers a solution: like-likes, who probably have the best item drops out of any monster you’ll have access to in the very beginning. Lots of money and bombs. With persistence and luck, you’ll be able to farm enough rupees for both the first boomerang and whichever of the two initial purchases you didn’t go with the first time around.

After that point…you’ll probably notice that the dungeons have letters instead of numbers. Meaning that the progression route will be even less linear than last time, perhaps? Less linear than the first play through that was distinguished largely by it’s non-linearity?

Like linearity itself, this has it’s own set of possibilities and limitations. We know, from our first quest, that an item obtained in one dungeon may unlock an obstacle in another, or elsewhere in the Outlands. Therefore, finding yourself with bombs, the candle, one boomerang or another and some occasional meat with no path forward in the “first” two dungeons is not a death sentence. It just means you have to keep looking.

As per the original Legend of Zelda and our first quest in the Outlands, the typical methods of revealing hidden paths include: pushing rocks, bombing walls, burning bushes, crawling with the ladder, sailing on the raft and playing the ocarina. That last part is an addition from GameMakr24 that I’m really happy with. It contributes to the exploration of what the lore of Ocarina of Time would be like if it were present in the first game.

So we dart all over burning things, blowing stuff up, pushing rocks and playing the ocarina. This process is narrowed by my lack of a power bracelet: only the plain, cubic blocks and the headstones can be pushed right now. After several failed bombings (hehe…sorry, I couldn’t resist) I remembered a pattern from the first quest: lots of breakable walls and very few flammable bushes. Maybe the distribution is reversed in the second quest?

Maybe a little less of a reversal, as it turns out. While breakable walls are in hiding so far, flammable bushes are only slightly more numerous…and they usually only have moblins who pay you to keep the secrets of their woodsy little holes.

(I know they’re called Goriyas in the NES games…but it’s hard for me to shake the resemblance they have to moblins. Like how the Wizzrobes look like Subrosians from Oracle of Seasons or potion vendors from A Link to the Past. My mind just seems to…have it’s own preference. And it’s not like we don’t call the armored foes Darknuts even though Nintendo canonically named them Iron Knuckles)

Rupees are perfectly good but they don’t really help, if you already have some of the early equipment. Excluding keys for dungeons, of course. Still haven’t found any amazing Goron shops with bows and stuff yet, though, so rupees aren’t high on my list. Given how open LoZ: Outlands is, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a way to access it even at this point.

I found the step ladder in dungeon O. This opens up the territory beyond streams, which shows promise at first. If you can scrape together the rupees, you can pay a Subrosian for a hint. The cute, robed sorcerer makes it sound like the cemetery puzzle in the lower lefthand corner of the map can be solved in the same way it was in quest one. Until I realize that I need the power bracelet to see that through…

…X_x…

The systematic method can be seriously frustrating if you overthink things. Especially if you haven’t played the original Legend of Zelda in a while like me. See, earlier, when you get the ocarina from Zelda, she tells you to look for a hidden path in the Graveyard of Serenity. And you happen to have the step ladder which lets you access the lower-left cemetery. So…it…it almost starts to feel like the game isn’t playing fair…

Then I took a break and realized two, blatantly obvious things I’ve overlooked: the Graveyard of Serenity refers to a specific graveyard and the first quest had two of them. We’ve ruled out one. And in the last paragraph, where and when did I say Zelda gives you the hint?

Oh. Right. When she gives you the enchanted instrument that’s used for revealing paths and warping. Thing is…I sorta wrote that off for the same reason I did the flammable bushes: it only ever seemed to unlock rupee moblins and a heart container. And the cemeteries are flooded with ghostly floor masters that I just can’t kill yet.

Back when I was trying to set all the plant life I see on fire, I usually had to clear the screen of moblins and scrubs before I could start testing the bushes one by one. And I didn’t want to keep spending money on bombs so I would come and go from the screen to keep reusing the candle. That requires waiting for them to get close to a wall so the fire can continue to burn them after it knocks them backward. And, if you want to spare yourself as many screen to screen refreshes as you can, you should probably camp out near a wall with the boomerang so you could stun and burn a whole group.

The lady said it was the Graveyard of Serenity, though, so off we go. And that means the floor master ghosts. Which, presumably, means a whole lot of dodging. And the floor master ghosts spawn every time you touch a tombstone. It’s a risk…but not impossible.

This was almost too much for me. Guess what’s in there? A rupee moblin. Just a moblin with more money. *eye twitches*

But did Zelda say to push aside a tombstone? And as much of a bust as the ocarina had been so far…it has unlocked secret paths in places without water before.

So. Not only is the path to level T unveiled but…

Oh Zelda. My orange-headed savior. I’ve never been happier to see you. At long freaking last, my A button is no longer useless!

I mean, yeah, other stuff happened before I got the sword but I had to get it out of my system

Onward to part 2

Also, in case you wanna see my review of the first quest

Legend of Zelda Challenge: Outlands (spoilers)

The Legend of Zelda: Outlands is a rom hack of the original 1986 The Legend of Zelda by Challenge Games that dates back to May 15, 2001. Chronologically, this game is situated as a hypothetical “Zelda 3” that immediately follows Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. It also uses details from the Ninetendo 64 Zelda games, such as multiple ocarina songs, Gorons, the Gerudo and the Kokiri. GameMakr24, the author of this hack, also carefully preserved familiar sights like the black rooms with white dialogue and familiar enemy AI, spawning and spatial design. These familiar touches combined with the late nineties ideas add up to a cool “what if” scenario, as if the world of Ocarina of Time existed a decade earlier.

Immediately after the events of Zelda II, the Thunderbird has apparently survived and has discovered the location of the Triforce of Power in the Outlands beyond Hyrule. The Thunderbird imprisoned the Tetrarch Fairies that stand guard over this third of the Triforce and now must be released by Link in order to get it back.

Upon release, rare physical cartridges of this rom hack were produced, packaged like the original with a printed world map. While I would love to have one of these maps simply for its raw coolness, I instead played it the way so many of us played the original years ago: completely dependent on trial and error.

I WISH I actually had this

This being a rom hack of the 1986 Zelda, it naturally has the same overhead design and nearly all of the same textures and sprites along with some from Zelda II. Sometimes, basic movements, hit boxes and attacks used by a monster from the prior games will be dressed up in a new sprite. The AI and hit boxes of peahats and keese are swapped with each other. In an early dungeon there is a mini boss that moves back and forth and breathes three fireballs at a time, like the dragon from the first game, but is now a giant skeleton.

A lot about this game feels quite familiar, though, in spite of these differences. Like the first game, you start completely naked: the opening text crawl tells you nothing about where to go and only the vaguest hint of what to do. You don’t even have a sword, but at least the first Zelda put an old man in a cave directly in front of you to meet that need. This time, you won’t have a sword until you get to the first dungeon, and guess who gives it to you:

Princess Zelda herself is a constant companion, helping out in almost every dungeon

A key difference between this rom hack and many official Zelda games is the necessity of going back and forth between dungeons before and after releasing the Tetrarch Fairies. In level 2, there is a moblin that refuses to let you pass to the next room unless you feed him some meat (Kinda like in the first Zelda, remember? “Grumble, grumble…”?). This meat, however, is in an underground side-scrolling area in level 3, perpetuating Dracula’s tradition of storing meat in secret stone compartments.

Requires meat
One meat later

Having given the moblin the meat, you will go on to discover a raft that will carry you to a water-isolated place on the map where, for enough rupees, you can buy a Kokiri sword, a Goron shield, a bow and some arrows. The bow and arrows turn out to be extremely useful in dungeon 3- nothing else can kill the tektites efficiently that early in the game.

The bow is also necessary to kill the one-eyed blobby thing in dungeon 4. After that, the door to the left unlocks and Zelda will give you the ocarina. This is necessary to get the step ladder from dungeon one, which is guarded by a monster that resembles digdogger from the first game and, with the ocarina, can be done away with in a similar way. The door at the bottom of the screen will open up and the step ladder is all yours.

The step ladder, meanwhile, allows you to cross gaps that are roughly the size of a sprite which you need for multiple dungeons and overworld navigation.

Around the time you have secured 4-5 Tetrarch Fairies, you will probably notice that the Gerudos usually do one of two things- steal your money and hoard heart containers. On the continent accessible with the raft, there is a cave with a Gerudo who will give you The Staff Of Byrna once you have twelve heart containers. As she stands guard she says that she can only give the staff to “the hero”.

The staff itself, which deals damage, doesn’t expend rupees like the bow and doesn’t require full health like the sword beam, is an all-purpose reliable range weapon. So long as all you want to do is attack- the boomerang and the bow can collect objects for you and you will definitely want to gather stuff from a distance in this game. The Staff of Byrna also fires the slowest projectiles.

Since the staff doesn’t “cost” anything to fire, you may find yourself using it a lot against enemies that deal range damage and are too unapproachable for melee combat. And the enemies most likely to fit that description usually turn out to be the hostile Subrosians/wizards/whatever.

(after googling I learned that they are called Wizzrobes but I’ve been thinking of them as potion vendors from ALttP or Subrosians for too long already)

Little details like that can get you to speculate on the finer story details. Is there a reason why the Gerudos have the weapon that you are most likely to use against the wizards/Subrosians? You usually find the Subrosians/wizards close to the ninth dungeon that has the Spectacle Rock music from the original LoZ. What exactly is the nature of the relationship between the Gerudos and the Subrosian-thingie-people and how does it connect to what’s going on with the Thunderbird and the Tetrarch Fairies? What about the Gerudos gathering the objects (heart containers) that you need to collect for the staff? I like stuff like that, that’s organized enough to imply story threads.

Classic Zelda weirdness near the end

Rather like the original, the first play-through only gets you half of the content of the game and that’s where I’m at right now. This is basically a custom edit of the first Zelda game but it feels weirdly authentic. The final dungeon and final boss, in particular, really made me feel like I’m playing an actual “lost” Zelda game. In fact, more than once, it made me feel the same way I felt when I played Ocarina of Time as a preteen.

On to the second quest!

Little Samson

Today I was treated to a chance to play a special NES rarity called Little Samson. Why this game didn’t blow up into a franchise is beyond me since it has got to be one of the most well-designed NES games I’ve ever played.

I feel like I should qualify this a little: by “well-designed” I mean neatly designed. Neatness is not the only measure of good design. The early Mega Man games, for example, do not take the time to carefully and systematically flesh-out concepts in a way that lets you easily build on one after another. Sequential concept elaboration is simply a design convention and there are other possible approaches.

As I was playing Little Samson with my significant other (whose video game library is gloriously encyclopedic) I had a thought that captured the nature of this distinction: if you want something with teeth right now, put in Mega Man 3 and start with either the Shadow Man or the Gemini Man stage. And yes, while most Mega Man games have a “rock paper scissors” affinity pattern that usually leaves a rather sequential path to quick victory, you have the choice of starting in one of several different levels.

Most people my age though, who didn’t have the benefit of guides back in the early nineties, relied heavily on trial and error. Which meant you would deduce things in a stage you were in no way prepared for and apply them to the platforming in other stages. Eventually these deductions would get you acclimated enough to the platforming and general level design that the easiest possible stage to beat through platforming alone would become apparent.

A less clunky way of putting this is that Mega Man games typically have non-linear design, which places a greater emphasis on trial and error and deduction. Little Samson, meanwhile, has a linear design.

The teeth come eventually, though. The opening stages are little more than obstacle courses that teach you the rudiments of handling the four player characters. These basically function as a tutorial that shows you the basic uses for each playable character’s specialized abilities.

So rather than confronting you directly with multiple layers of difficulty, like Mega Man, the ways to approach different obstacles are broken down for you in the beginning. It is up to you to determine where and how to use these strategies. Later, when the “real campaign” starts, you will normally find that the following stages will accommodate one of the player characters more than the others. This is the period bracketed between the first and second boss fights.

While the second fight is pretty hard, you may begin to be a little dismayed at what appears to be a flaw in the neatness of the design: the dragon pc will get you most of the way through the first two bosses. Which could tempt you to think that the dragon might be the all-purpose boss-killer.

Boss number three will immediately disabuse you of this, to say nothing of the third stage levels requiring more pc rotation than anything beforehand, with the dragon and the mouse being the most useful for the platforming and the golem being useful for some annoyingly persistent enemies. And for nothing else: the golem can barely platform at all. Then you fight a boss that’s unapproachable for any pc except the mouse with two hit points.

The third stage and the third boss are also a great opportunity to address how original this game looks. In fact, I don’t know of any other NES game that looks quite like it. Your main pc, Little Samson himself, reminds me of the child version of Son Goku from Dragon Ball. The sorcerer in the opening cut-scene also reminded me of Dalton from Chrono Trigger. What do Chrono Trigger and Dragon Ball have in common? Akira Toriyama!

(Now I’m kinda torn…does he look more like Dalton or Piccolo…?)

Turns out, the art was done by someone named Yuko Nakamura, for whom I can find no other credits. Which is unfortunate because there are some delightfully wild style variations.

The figures in the palace at the beginning, with their robes and headdresses, look almost Babylonian. Rather like your Toriyama-esque main character, there are some sprites that have a cutesy chibi vibe, like the bubble-breathing diosaurs. The pink dragon pc also reminds me of Icarus, the dragon Gohan adopted in Dragon Ball Z: The Tree Of Might and the different villainous sorcerers all sort of look like Piccolo. The second boss looks like a cross between a dinosaur and a Giger-style xenomorph. A later boss transforms into a huge dragon that takes up most of the screen. Later levels have large purple cartoon hands reaching out of the ground along with stone corridors with Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Against any expectation the prior levels and creatures may have furnished, the third stage either looks like an alien planet or some sort of cutesy Mordor. Big’ol starscape in the background with vanishing platforms that either look like chemicals or energy with glowing heads that shoot projectiles. And when the long vertical wall platforms become more common you really tend to rely on the mouse pc.

So you’re doing precise platforming while you’re dodging energy projectiles with a mouse with a standard HP limit of two hits. With the same mouse, you also have to win a boss fight with a sorcerer made of floating demonic skulls with lil bombs like the kind Samus Aran drops with her morph ball. On an alien planet. I did say the teeth come eventually.

Which is another interesting gameplay elaboration. All pcs have different max HP limits. My SO and I were utilizing a quick-save feature that wasn’t in the original game (don’t ask ’cause I ain’t telling :p ). So the quick save may have made this seem like more of a feature than it was meant to be, but I noticed that I was trying to anticipate future pc rotations.

If I noticed that I was relying a lot on the mouse with two HP, for example, I would collect as many HP buffing power-ups as I could so my mouse wouldn’t be a one hit kill. I really started hoarding the HP buffs in stage two when I realized the blue bastard boss fight is best approached with the dragon and therefore needed that pc to have a higher max HP than is standard.

This feature also holds true for other power-ups as well. Every pc has its own unique health bar which means they all need to be healed individually. This calculation is deepened by the fact that you don’t simply lose the pc and keep playing with others when they hit zero: you die if you reach zero in any form. So you need to be thinking of which pc will receive what power-up when you find it.

The music also changes based on what pc you’re using which, at times, can be a lil bit annoying. Which is too bad since the music is pretty good in general.

From the opening tutorials, you learn that the golem, mouse and dragon are the most specialized playable characters with Little Samson being “a jack of all trades, master of nothing”. It’s normal to use Samson early in a stage while you’re assessing which specialization(s) will suit the stage best. Which means you spend a lot of time listening to Samson’s music, and that can be pretty grating. I really prefer a full immersion experience with music and sound and everything happening when it’s supposed to, but while I was playing the third stage I actually muted the game.

That was kind of a disappointing time for that to set in since so many design choices really come together beautifully in the third stage. Not that it’s anything more than an annoyance. If it gets to you that much you can just switch characters. And anyway the final level has its own music regardless of which pc you choose.

Speaking of the last level, Little Samson has a final boss fight that will make you hopelessly dependent on your ability to memorize jumping patterns with the character with the least HP because they happen to deal the most damage (unless you’ve collected buffs). In a few different puzzles and situations you can rotate transformations for alternate dodging and attacking but not this time.

(THIS fucker X_X)

On the other hand. It is also possible to use different characters as meat shields and adroitly switch back to the mouse in time to spam with your morph ball bombs. That’s what my SO did after I spent several minutes fixating on jumping, which actually worked like a dream.

(Then we got a nice lil cliffhanger going on post-credits with this guy flashing on his throne after the four sorcerers wink out of existence)

After we beat the game, my partner showed me a bunch of images to use in this blog as well as some footage of our play through. On one recording we could hear my voice saying “this is simultaneously one of the cutest, weirdest and hardest things I’ve ever played.”

Which is an assessment that I stand by. The difficulty is pitch perfect, it plays fair and it combines a handful of influences from Mega Man to Mario while having a character that’s all it’s own. I remember, when I played the third Mario game, I was in disbelief that it was actually available for the NES- it looked like it should be a SNES game. Little Samson‘s graphics are nearly at the same level of sophistication, especially with cool little gimmicks here and there like rotating sprites. I’m gonna be jonesing on how cool this is for awhile and I’m still surprised that this game didn’t pick up the momentum that it should have (yeah I know it was released just as the SNES was getting off the ground but it’s not fair D: )