Games of July 2019

Mother 3

I didn't like Mother 3 as much as EarthBound. It wasn't just the simplified graphics and the lack of a good sound chip (though the music was well-suited to the GBA), it was the fact that there wasn't a continuous adventure. With EarthBound, there was a real sense of adventure, as you moved from town to town in a quest to take down Giygas, even if the second half of the game was muddled with a confusing quest that took you from a resort town to a Middle Eastern desert town to a swampy wasteland to a vast underworld filled with dinosaurs.

In Mother 3, the game has a fairly disconnected series of vignettes with different characters that don't even really come together until later. It's fine to give minor characters a bit part where you control them, like Jeff's escape from the boarding house in EarthBound to his meeting with other characters, or Cyan's loss in Final Fantasy VI. But this manner of "introductions" take up almost half the game, and the characters that are there aren't really that explained. (RIP Kumatora's intro chapter).

Even halfway into the game, there's just not a lot to explore. There's one town (which admittedly "modernizes"), a forest to the west of town, a castle east of town, and far east of town, a factory, and north of that (with a cable car ride), a nightclub. That's it! By this point in EarthBound, there were four cities, each with their own vignettes of what's going on, and you would've been in several dungeons, a smaller town with a cult leader, a small village of aliens, another factory, a weird alter-world with glowing neon outlines, and a huge desert.

It's not altogether a disappointing sequel, even if it took years to happen, but the cuts are there, and if you were, say, interested in the backstory of Buzz Buzz, which is alluded to in a quote at the beginning of EarthBound, ("You're no longer a hero, but just a useless insect,"), Mother 3 has some bad news for you. Maybe it wasn't meant to be covered, and instead cover it's own thing with Porky being the "interdimensional bad guy that happens to the villain from the last game" like Giygas in EarthBound. The inclusion of Dr. Andonuts is another big question that never goes answered. You meet Dr. Andonuts, Jeff's father and a major character from EarthBound somewhere halfway in, who says he's been "forced" to create chimeras for Porky, but he just as easily "quits" later, and never says why he was kidnapped either. There's no mention of how he was taken from his lab south of Winters, or what happened to Jeff, so it feels like Cid from Final Fantasy VI, who fulfills the "scientist who worked to make horrible things for the main villain but not actually a bad guy, trust us" role.

The item management is still awful and is only marginally improved by having a "Key Items" area to prevent taking up too much room, and the four main characters are no Chosen Four. On the plus side, Paula's equivalent, Kumatora, has her stats buffed so she's not nearly as weak as normal combat, but the others aren't nearly as good. Lucas, the Ness equivalent, is not as powerful as his predecessor. Duster, the Jeff equivalent, has his ability to use powerful one-shot items is replaced with a cripple who has "thief tools" that might change some stats. Boney, the Poo equivalent, is a dog that can't use weapons or PSI, and only has "Sniff" that can tell what an enemy is weak against. One plus side from EarthBound is your party can actually run (or "dash", rather) but you can't use it if anyone is down.

Despite the high praise the game gets in certain circles, from what I've heard, in Japan, the story wasn't well-liked because it was too melodramatic and clichéd. Because, let's face it, having Claus as the Masked Man is a predictable twist that even a 7-year-old could figure out, and the game seems to think so too, his identity his unmasked in a throwaway line shortly before the final boss. The other parts of the story are back-loaded in a giant text-based conversation toward the end of the game, but it doesn't make any more sense than what has already been told.

There's a rumor out there that based on some interview bits and pieces that the Masked Man was supposed to be Ness, and having Ness as the Masked Man would have made the storyline a bit darker and twisted the knife when it came to players expecting Claus, only to find he was dead all along. Obviously some lines in the last chapter would have to be changed to make this fit, but it still would be more interesting. Then again, every instance of "subverted expectations" in movies and video games seem to be more interested in pulling the rug out from the audience than making a good game. This has been a chief complaint of mine from games like LISA and Undertale, but it applies to movies too...if you rewatch Big Hero 6 for the second time, the interactions between the real villain and the decoy villain don't make sense when applied to the reveal. It's like that, you know?

Pokémon Gold/Silver/Crystal

I wrote parts of this a while back, but figured it was high time to cover this game since I bought it for the 3DS in the spring of 2018 (it was easier than trying to replace the battery on the cartridge, and it just feels weird playing it on the computer) and eventually completed it a year later.

To really start out, we need to go all the way back to the year 2000, before Pokémon Gold and Silver was even released in the U.S. when my brother (who was in high school at the time) procured a ROM of Pokémon Gold and Silver that was supposed to be translated to English. Well, not really. There was a professor named UTSUGI, and other romanized names of towns (like Violet City being Kikyou City, or Blackthorn City being Fusube City), but most of the text was basically garbled trash (at least Kikyou gave me the opportunity to tackle my older brother, proclaiming "I got to Kick You!"). It was a weird game, with the original Pokémon you could fantasize that YOU were the Pokémon trainer going from town to town but the world Pokémon Gold & Silver was heavily inspired by Japanese culture with the first "dungeon" being this large tower with a shifting brown thing in the center that looked a bit like a brown-colored Game Boy.

It was a testament to how really basic the Pokémon games were, that despite the text there wasn't much reading to be involved (can't imagine the hand-holding the later games do). With a more complicated like EarthBound, which I had just finished prior to writing the bulk of this review (fitting since EarthBound was developed by Ape, which was later re-structured into Creatures), reading is required since you would have no idea what to do otherwise. Like with most other games, GSC holds up a lot better in my memory than actually playing it (especially from following up from EarthBound). How many of us named the rival (canonically Silver) "???" because that's who he said he was? It is also less balanced than it should be. In the first game, Brock, the first gym leader, was a real challenge that could destroy you if you just went straight for him after Viridian Forest. The gym leader of Violet City, however, is a complete pushover who uses notoriously weak Bird Pokémon, and catching a Mareep south of town (which grows up to a powerful Electric-type Pokémon) will easily take him out.

On the surface GS and the new world of Johto looked like a full-color version of Red, Blue, and Yellow with lush colors that weren't really seen in a lot of mainstream Game Boy games those days (the "Oracle" series of The Legend of Zelda would come in the next year, and those games looked fantastic compared to the garish color palette of Link's Awakening DX), but that wasn't everything. They added a way to actually see the experience level of your Pokémon shoot upwards when defeating other Pokémon, but the one of the biggest "cool features" of Gen II was the 24 hour clock. This would turn out to be a bit disappointing later when the internal battery would run down and die faster than other games of its ilk, but being able to walk around in the game world and suddenly it turn all dark because of hitting 6pm (must be winter in Johto) was mind-blowing at the time (morning was a bit less subtle and rarely seen due to the schedule of a kid, except Saturdays).

While the main eight badges of Johto was a bit shorter than what Red, Blue, and Yellow had with significantly easier dungeons (no real equivalent to Mt. Moon, Rock Tunnel, or Pokémon Tower), in the original Pokémon games, there wasn't much to do after the Elite Four besides gain access to the Unknown Dungeon and add Mewtwo to your party, a real game-breaker in some aspects that would've been handy to have fairly early on. But in GSC you get access to Kanto, the retconned name of the original "world", which was set up from the beginning (why would you start on Route 26, otherwise?) Kanto allows you to beat eight more gym leaders in any order though it's a bit broken in that it's a game where all the challenges have been completely neutered and everything has been removed. Viridian Forest has been "cut down" to just shrubbery, Rock Tunnel and Mt. Moon are drastically simplified passageways, the Safari Zone is gone (the owner had "retired"), the Pewter City Museum is "closed for renovations", Seafoam Islands are just a room for Blaine to camp out now that Cinnabar Island has been destroyed, the east-west passageway below Saffron City are closed (which is understandable seeing that there's no story reason anymore to have them), Silph Co. blocks access beyond the (much smaller) lobby, and Pokémon Tower has been turned into a radio tower. An expanded Kanto similar to what it was in the game may have been in initial plans but it was dramatically cut back. There's definitely evidence of it, with the maps for the museum and the Safari Zone still being in the ROM. Still, it's kind of nice to wander through the former world, listen to remixed music, and bring back memories of the "old world". No other sequel had really done that before, and none had done it since. In retrospect, it seemed odd to have nostalgia for a game released that recently, but when you were a kid, a few years ago was a world away. Just thinking about how 1996-2006 vs. 2006-2016 were the same number of decades but felt years apart still blows my mind. Finally, after getting eight more badges, you get to face one more dungeon and face the true boss, Red, the hero of the first game! He silently challenges you to a battle, and he has three of the evolved RBGY starters, a Pikachu, a Snorlax, and an Espeon, the Psychic evolution of Eevee (it balances his team to have a Psychic without the obvious choice of Mewtwo, and probably a "screw you" to players who wanted to recreate the team in the old games). Some of the cut features, unbalanced gameplay, and content were fleshed out in HeartGold and SoulSilver released for the 3DS, but many core problems still exist.

Despite liking GSC runs into accusations of being a "genwunner", it always holds up better in memory than actually playing it. There are bugs that mean that the Apricorn balls don't work properly, if it all, and other things. It also denies you the same satisfaction of beating your rival that Generation I did. In Gen I, Blue aka Gary was an asshole who constantly taunted you and had the most truly epic battle music to ever come out of the Game Boy, and Professor Oak reprimands him later on not treating his Poké with care and respect. But here despite being an outright thief, your rival learns maybe mid-game that he's not quite as good of a trainer as he thought and just disappears without much an apology or final pounding.

I did play Pokémon Crystal (eventually all the way through in the interim) but the improvements are somewhat of a mixed bag and not all that worth it in the long run. So going down the list...

The biggest change was supposed to be the addition of the Pokémon Communications Center. This was used in the Japanese release. Before the servers were shut down a number of years ago, there was a special cable that could connect the Game Boy Color up to a early 2000s-cellular phone and you could battle trainers miles away and have a shot at winning the GS Ball, a key item that was discussed in the anime. Everyone who watched the anime at the time thought it would be a big deal but it became a massive plot hole when it was delivered to Kurt and never talked about again, allegedly because it was a set-up for a movie involving Celebi but the actual Celebi went with a different plot. Another notorious dropped element from around the same time that has no real explanation was Brock's massive shame when bringing up Professor Ivy, demanding never to hear that name again. (There's a whole lot of theories for the last one, a popular one being that Ivy was, well, short an X chromosome, and that adequately explains why it would never be explained and why Brock was so ashamed of his time there.) Well, the GS Ball would never be mentioned in Crystal, either, since due to the relative lack of cell phones among children in America at the time, the entire "PokéCom Center" was dummied out.

My main memories of actually playing GS actually come from 2002-ish due to the fact that Gold was my brother's and there was only one save file, which is why it was 2003 when I was talking about the Pokémon Pikachu 2GS in my Galleria retrospective. Like the less-obsolete PokéWalker, which was around when in high school, the glorified pedometer made me look like a massive dork even if no one said anything, it had a cool feature with Mystery Gift. Mystery Gift was another feature that took advantage of Game Boy Color's (and the original Game Boy Advance's) hardware, a small IR port on the top of the device. You could generate (between games) a free item. Sometimes it was just a decoration for the player's room (you could gain Pokémon dolls and Nintendo systems for your in-game room, and rearrange them as you wish) but sometimes it was something really cool, like elemental stones which were basically once-in-a-game items for GS. For the Pokémon Pikachu, 1000 steps (or "watts") could net you a Rare Candy, which you should probably know raises a level of a Pokémon by one, though before anyone gets an idea about having a team of Elite Four-tier monsters in early game, the internal clock limits transfers to once a day.

Going back to my most recent playthrough when I discovered that the game was not nearly as great as I remembered it, I eventually scraped up a team similar to what I had in the past, with Typhlosion (the starter Cyndaquil), Graveler (from Geodude, picked up in a cave), Lapras (a one-time catch), Ampharos (from Mareep), Ho-Oh (Legendary, and that replaced a Pidgeot raised from a Pidgey), and Eevee (a one-time gift, which takes a long time to raise it to "friendly" levels since there's no Stones in the main campaign), but I realized it's the pacing that is screwed up. It happens early on in the first game, where you breeze through the first two Gym Leaders only to (usually) hit a brick wall with Whitney, then it speeds up again complete with two Team Rocket dungeons in relatively short order. Two whole caverns, Dark Cave and Mt. Mortar, are entirely optional, and the single-type Gym leaders make beating them a cinch, but the Elite Four will thrash your team if they have first-move advantages, with Will and using Psychic or Confuse Ray, with Koga and using poison-type moves, with Bruno and hard, powerful moves, and if you survive all that, Lance's Lv.44+ Pokémon will almost always start with Hyper Beam. It's either you or them, and the answer usually depends how long you were grinding, not player skill (this is probably the case of all Pokémon games). By the time the Elite Four is actually reached, most of the Trainers met in the journey will have already been beaten, their trash-talk long been neutralized, save for the occasional phone calls from Trainers wanting a rematch. Even these rematches never get more than Lv.30. It was a bit interesting to see "Youngster Joey" once having a pathetic Lv.4 Rattata pull out a Lv.29 Raticate later on. But again, no single trainer poses a threat because until the very last trainer in the main campaign, Lance, no one else has six Pokémon (at least no Pokémon that pose a threat, at least), and due to the fact that everything else is exhausted, the grinding will usually take the form of challenging the Elite Four multiple times, and that means hearing their speeches multiple times.