Earlier this year, I purchased my first real smartphone, a Lumia 928. It’s a solid phone and takes great photos, and I really like the Windows Phone 8 operating system. It’s nice that by enrolling in the Preview for Developers program, I can get new versions of the OS as Microsoft releases them, rather than whenever Verizon feels like releasing them (which they have very little motivation to do for devices that are already sold).
A surprising development that I didn’t anticipate when I purchased the phone was that there are multiple classic console emulators in the Windows Phone app store, most notably Snes8x, a Super Nintendo emulator.
It’s too difficult to play platformers or action games with the on-screen touch controls (the lack of “action” in the buttons means you’re constantly missing since you can’t feel the button edges with your thumbs). There are Bluetooth gaming controllers you can get which work with the Snes8x emulator, but I have a feeling that I’d be too self-conscious to use one in public.
Therefore, there are only a few types of games that I can play halfway decently on my bumpy commute: puzzle games, game-show adaptations, and menu-based RPGs. Suddenly, I had a new project: go back and play through all the classic SNES RPGs that I never got to during the console’s heyday. I went to Twitter for suggestions (with the hashtag #CommuteRPG), and got to work.
1. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
This one is a bit of a cheat since I owned it for the SNES, bought it on the Wii virtual console, and have beaten at least a dozen times. Still, it’s a favorite, so I gave it a run-through on the phone mostly to see how the emulator performed.
Writing: 9/10. The focus on funny, interesting characters is really what makes this game shine. Nintendo has gone back to this well a handful of times now, but this was the first time that a bigger threat than Bowser was introduced to the Mushroom Kingdom, and teaming up with Bowser to defeat the giant weapon-monsters unleashed by Smithy remains exhilirating for the longtime Nintendo fanboy.
Graphics: 8/10. The Donkey Kong Country style “pre-rendered” graphics still look good for the most part today, but some of the characters are so bizarrely designed that it’s hard to make heads or tails of them, especially on a small phone screen.
Gameplay: 8/10. This game keeps the action fun with the introduction of “timed hits,” or special button combinations that can be hit at just the right time during an attack, which keeps the menu-based battling from becoming too rote. The lack of random battles (you can see enemies and choose to avoid them if you wish) is also a plus in my book.
Touchability: 7/10. While still totally playable on a phone with “soft” buttons, there were a few challenging sections of platforming-type action due to the difficulty of precisely controlling diagonal jumps in the three-quarters-view world, notably the Pipe Vault, some sections of Bowser’s Keep, and the vine-climbing section leading up to Nimbus Land. It was also more difficult to do a huge number of consecutive super-jumps than with a physical controller.
2. Chrono Trigger
This is the first game which I had never played before. I loved this game, the open-ended story and resonant characterizations made it feel much less linear than a lot of other RPGs, and like Super Mario RPG, there are no random battles (though usually you must fight enemies in order to move past them, you can’t often dodge past like you can in Mario RPG).
Writing: 9/10. The large cast of characters all have well-defined personalities and play off each other in interesting, believable ways. The dialogue is interesting and engaging without being overbearing. Plus, the main storyline involves time travel and a giant, world-destroying Lovecraftian god-beast, so what’s not to like? There’s a little more melodrama and dorm-room philosophising than is probably necessary, but it has a sense of humor and the scale is so epic and strange that it stays fun throughout.
Graphics: 9/10. The detailed sprite-work and archetypal character designs are high water marks of the manga-inspired form which largely makes all other games that use a similar style look like pale imitators of Chrono Trigger. The use of Mode-7 for some racing sequences is handled nicely, and the magic attacks are generally cool looking as well.
Gameplay: 8/10. The battle system does a good job of keeping the action moving with the timers that force you to act relatively quickly, and the duo and triple technique attacks mean that determining which characters you want in your party actually takes some strategry beyond just which ones have the hightest HP or strongest individual attacks. The time travel through various eras of the same world is reminiscent of a trope common in Zelda games, dating back to A Link to the Past with it’s “light” and “dark” worlds, where you can solve various puzzles by visiting the same location over multiple points in time. This is a gimmick that I love, and it always leads to some interesting puzzle solving. The game also does a good job feeding you just enough information to give you some direction of how to proceed throughout the story. I consulted a walkthrough a few times, but mostly just to make sure I wasn’t missing out on entire sidequests, of which there are several that have a big effect on this non-linear game, despite being non-mandatory.
Touchability: 10/10. There was really only one point in this game that was difficult with the touch controls, and that was the totally optional “80 Silver Point game” in the Tent of Horrors right at the beginning of the game.
3. Secret of Mana
I attempted to play this one, but it turned out that the more action-oriented, Zelda-esque battle system was too frustrating with the touch controls.
This game was really funny, with probably the best writing of any of the games I’ve played so far, I enjoyed the elastic reality of the game’s world, and especially the super-trippy final section.
Writing: 10/10. Definitely the high point of the game, and clearly its main reason for existence. Playing through this game is kind of like reading a really well written choose-your-own-adventure novel, you just want dog-ear every branching point in the story to make sure you experience every possible bit of dialog with every NPC because they’re all so goofy and fun to read.
Graphics: 5/10. The characters are cute and the overworld is is nice and brightly colored, but the art style is so simplistic that it looks a bit like an NES game rather than a SNES game. Plus, it bugs me that there are no animations during the battle sequences, Pokémon style (although you don’t even see your own characters during battles). The trippy final boss fight was pretty sweet looking, though.
Gameplay: 6/10. There were a couple places going through this game where I was definitely abusing the emulator’s save state feature due to the randomness of the enemy encounters. The battle system gets a little boring as you get farther into the game (it provides an “auto battle” option, so that saw a lot of use along with the emulator’s “turbo” mode to speed thorugh battles as I progressed). The enemies are interesting, but this game’s strength is definitely in the writing.
To Be Continued…
I’m about four-fifths of the way through my first ever Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy VI (released in the US as Final Fantasy 3 on the SNES). A review of that one, along with potentially some of the others in the series is forthcoming.
As far as future options, there are the Breath of Fire games, the Dragon Warrior games and the Lufia games, in addition to Shadowrun, Star Ocean, and Illuion of Gaia. Other recommendations welcome as well!