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Ever Oasis producer Koichi Ishii on building on (and standing apart from) Secret of Mana

The 3DS keeps chugging along despite the looming shadow of Nintendo Switch: The little handheld that wouldn’t say die. Nintendo’s latest release for the platform arrives tomorrow: Ever Oasis, an action RPG developed by Grezzo.

Grezzo has been one of Nintendo’s most faithful partners for the 3DS era, though their name doesn’t get as much play as an independent publisher like Level-5, Atlus, or Square Enix. However, chances are quite good you’ve played at least one of the studio’s collaborations with Nintendo, as they’ve had a hand in multiple 3DS Zelda games. Not only the remakes of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, but also the original work Tri Force Heroes.

Grezzo and Zelda has always struck me as a perfect creative love connection, given that Grezzo’s president is none other than Koichi Ishii. Formerly of Squaresoft and Square Enix, Ishii oversaw a variety of projects at his former studio. While many of those games are quite highly regarded — for example, Final Fantasy — Ishii is almost certainly best-known for being the director of the first few Seiken Densetsu/Mana games. Of all the action RPGs to bite Zelda‘s style, the early Mana titles always felt the most fully realized (even if they had a tendency to stumble beneath the weight of the naked creative and technical ambition Ishii’s teams invested into them). Combining action-oriented combat with role-playing mechanics like turn-based attack limitations and proper skill and experience systems, the Mana series eschewed Zelda’s puzzle-dungeon design in favor of a more systems-driven approach. And it was very good.

Ever Oasis sees Ishii stepping away from Zelda and looking back to his own creative roots. When I demoed Ever Oasis a couple of months ago, my first impression was that it felt like Ishii’s attempt to recapture some of the Mana series’ glory with a new adventure that draws heavily on those games’ mechanics and vibe. You’re out to restore life to a desert world with the help of a water spirit — nature’s power and its elemental avatars being a trademark theme of Mana — which you accomplish by action-driven combat with a pair of A.I. companions. After spending more time with the adventure, however, I realize that’s not an entirely fair view of the game. While those elements certainly play a large part in Ever Oasis, the overall flow of the game feels more like a world-building simulator combined with an action game. It’s not exactly ActRaiser, but certainly you’ll find a touch of that spirit here as you recruit villagers to help build your oasis town and win the affection of your citizens by performing various tasks for them (both mundane and heroic). While the game has some frustrating flaws — it’s ponderously slow to get going, and the interface feels bizarrely clunky coming from someone who has the Mana series’ brilliant ring menu concept in his c.v. — it merits a look for anyone interested in a game that toes the line between multiple genres.

But what creative debt does Ever Oasis truly owe to Mana? Ishii was kind enough to field some questions and shed a little light on how his new adventure game came to be.

Retronauts: Ever Oasis feels in many ways like an evolution of the concepts you helped establish in the Mana series. Given our focus on the history of games, I hope you’ll allow me to explore that line of questions for a bit. So, first, what can you tell about how Ever Oasis builds on your previous work as a creator?

Koichi Ishii: This world goes in a different direction than the past ones, but the building process was the same.

When looking back on my career, Final Fantasy inherits from its predecessor, whereas in the Mana series, we changed the world every time. We were striving to create a real-time RPG like: Command RPG <- Mana Series -> Action>. I guess it’s more of a “transformation” than an “evolution”. This time rather than focusing on the party strategies, we aimed for a party action battle that’s beginner-friendly by making it easy to switch between characters. We also wanted the players to feel how much the characters have matured throughout the course of this game.

R: What initially inspired you to begin designing action RPGs?

KI: We thought real-time combat would make the battles feel more realistic as well as convey the tension of the battle better than menu-based combat. We felt that the former is superior to the latter, so that’s why we started designing RPGs with real-time combat. Real-time combat also offers more variety with each encounter, and introduces new types of strategies, like character positioning.

R: Unlike most action RPGs of the 8- and 16-bit eras, yours felt more like true RPGs, with multi-character parties and experience/leveling mechanics. What inspired you to explore that specific interpretation of the genre?

KI: As much I love a perfect hero with no flaws, I feel that weaknesses and flaws make the character seem more human and make it easier for players to relate to the character. When you try to think of ways to make up for such shortcomings, you realize how amazing it is to have friends on your side. Working together and sharing the same goals and beliefs with others is difficult to do in rea life. You can’t maintain a good relationship without having compassion for others.

In a RPG, each character has a role and together they overcome challenges by utilizing each character’s skill. We’ve always wanted to make the character’s feelings easily imaginable to the player even if it’s not being obviously portrayed. In the original Final Fantasy, we had the characters fall down to their knees when their HP got low. We hoped that action would convey that the character wants to save his friends. We think battles and relationships amongst the characters will vary depending on what characters are selected to form the party.

R: While Grezzo has worked on several action RPGs, those have been Zelda games created in partnership with Nintendo. In your opinion, what sets Ever Oasis apart from your previous projects with Nintendo?

KI: What’s unique about this game is that oasis management and the adventure cycle which run on opposing systems are firmly tied in with the world. It also creatively brings together Nintendo’s quality and Square’s flavor.

We hope the audience can find how we utilized our experience working on Zelda and also feel that this is definitely my work based on what I’ve done in past titles.

R: When the Mana series debuted, it was unusual to see A.I. companion characters in games like this. What kind of challenges have you had to overcome through the years as you created increasingly sophisticated computer-controlled ally characters?

KI: A.I. has evolved dramatically in recent games. In order to improve the precision of A.I., a fast hardware processing speed is required. For the Mana series, we had to be creative with the bare minimum, but it’s always hard to determine if each character is fulfilling their role. Ever Oasis centers on the characters you control. We try to keep it balanced, so players don’t feel stressed from switching characters around.

R: Did you consider incorporating a multiplayer element? 

KI: We did like the idea of a multiplayer element, but first and foremost, we wanted to focus on determining the basic game cycle and bringing the play experience to life. A multiplayer element was incorporated into Secret of Mana, but this was under the assumption that friends, siblings and family members would be playing together. The time you have to play with family and friends as a child isn’t a large chunk of time. That “time” turns into precious memories. So, that’s why we incorporated this feature. We would love to incorporate a multiplayer element if we ever got to make another game.

R: Ever Oasis strikes me as a heavily systems-based game: Day/night, questing, town-building and more. How do you make such complex design accessible to new players?

KI: The world within the game exists because of the relationships among various elements, and these elements also help bring the world to life. That’s how we’ve been seeing it since the original Final Fantasy. The planet is formed from the elements: Fire, earth, water and wind. Because of that, there are crystals, and the creatures and objects on the planet exhibit those characteristics. Thus, a correlation is established. By having all that go through the system, it turns into a game experience.

In Ever Oasis, the repeat of Interest -> Action -> Result will allow players to gradually experience the world and hopefully they’ll eventually feel that this is how it’s supposed to be.

R: It’s unusual to see this sort of open-world action game on a portable system like 3DS. What advantages and disadvantages have you encountered while working with this software/hardware combination?

KI: Rather than a general open-world concept, I think we felt more strongly about making it feel like you’re walking inside a diorama. By being able to see the world from your standpoint, you can even see the soil layers. We wanted the players to be able to have fun imagining how the terrain and structures were formed in the desert, so that’s why we made it like this.

R: What would you describe as your driving creative vision for Ever Oasis?

KI: Most likely because I have yet to find a convincing solution for creating a digital fantasy world. I was determined to make that kind of world back with Final Fantasy XI. First there is only the basic foundation of a world that the creator made. By having users enter this world, circulation begins and the economy starts running. Also, population density changes as various user purposes intertwine with one another.

I feel that my motivation is to “create an ever-changing world within the rules of the land.”

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Mario & Luigi and going back to basics

Nintendo has dropped some major bombshells at this year’s E3, but one story that’s threatened to creep under the radar is the announcement of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions, the latest installment in the Mario & Luigi series of RPGs. It makes sense in a way, as it’s a bit of a rerun—updating Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, the series’ 2003 debut, in what appears to be as staid a manner as possible. The graphics and audio have been completely redone, and I spotted some convenient changes to the interface using the 3DS’s touch screen, but other than that, we seem to be looking at a shot-for-shot remake. Nintendo didn’t even see fit to bestow this release with a more evocative title, emphasizing that it’s essentially the same game from fourteen years ago in a new guise. That does leave room for the “Bowser’s Minions” part, but that refers to a new mode with gameplay cleanly divorced from both Superstar Saga and the series in general, eschewing turn-based RPG battles for bite-sized RTS stages and roster management.

To be fair, Minion Quest: The Search for Bowser seems well-made for what it is: New content added to rereleases tends to be predicated on recycling, remixing, and generally stretching out the use of existing assets as far as possible, so it’s admirable that Nintendo and original developer AlphaDream have put in the effort to create something truly new. The other pitfall in creating add-on content is that even if it’s well-designed, it ends up being over the player can sink their teeth into it, but Nintendo claims Minion Quest is a lengthy experience with robust mechanics and a story that runs parallel to that of the main game, following Bowser’s army of Goombas, Koopa Troopas, et al. as they strive to put themselves back together and reunite with their king following the explosive events of Superstar Saga‘s prologue.

Most of Nintendo’s coverage has focused on the addition of Minion Quest, and what we’ve seen of Superstar Saga hasn’t looked far removed at all from its original form. If anything, the new visuals, which use the same style as the other Mario & Luigi games on 3DS, come off as a bit less charming than the old GBA graphics. From the beginning, the series has used 3D models as the basis for its character sprites, which at first were flattened out and touched up for an end result that could pass as suspiciously fluid pixel art. When the games jumped from DS to 3DS, though, AlphaDream threw out the thick black outlines and bright, cartoony colors in favor of softer edges and more intense shadows, so characters and enemies began to look much closer to their 3D source material. Now they can even apply detailed real-time lighting effects to the sprites, lending them an even greater sense of volume, but these technical achievements come at the cost of obscuring once-simple imagery and diluting the specific appeal of 2D art.

Aside from appearances, if this version does turn out to be as rote a remake as it seems, it’ll be a shame if Nintendo wastes this opportunity to restore some of the original game’s unused content, which included cameos from characters such as Olimar, Fox McCloud, and Samus. But if nothing else, the revised audio should easily trounce the GBA’s heavily compressed excuse for sound and finally sample Yōko Shimomura’s jaunty compositions at a bit rate they deserve. Personally, I can’t wait to listen to Popple’s theme with unprecedented clarity.

Perhaps the relative lack of hype for another Mario & Luigi can ultimately be blamed on series fatigue. While the series once stood confident as the first and last word on Mario RPGs on handhelds, that sense of identity and purpose has waned as the Paper Mario games have muscled in on the portable scene. With each successive title, the series’ focus (or lack thereof) has also drifted more and more toward mini-games and other gimmicks in the pursuit of variety, if not some perceived need to justify its continued existence. Admittedly, even Minion Quest feels like it still hasn’t let go of that urge. In light of these misgivings, though, now might actually be the perfect time to return to the series’ roots.

I probably should have been sick of Fawful by the time he rose to main villain status in the third game, but I could still read his zany malapropisms all day.

To this day, Superstar Saga remains an impressive achievement, ingeniously designed around the GBA’s limited interface in such a way that the player can easily attack and defend with two characters, simultaneously, with just two face buttons—one for each of them. In battle, Mario and Luigi can team up for “Bros. Attacks” that play out as a kind of elaborate choreography, requiring each of them to hit their cues in real time in order to pile damage onto enemies; by default, these guide the player with on-screen prompts and generous windows for input, but with practice, you can switch these off for a dramatic increase in power (if, that is, you manage to land the attack), turning combat into a hectic, high-stakes rhythm game. In the field, the brothers can join in “Bros. Moves” that allow them to traverse areas in various ways, from helicoptering across pits as a human totem pole to driving Luigi into the ground with Mario’s hammer so he can burrow around like Bugs Bunny. These techniques add both a puzzle element and an appropriately Mario-esque level of platforming to your exploration of the Beanbean Kingdom.

Superstar Saga has a lot going on, but its design is tempered by a clarity of vision and focused through a strong sense of confidence. Far from overwhelming, it cultivates a breezy atmosphere which carries over to an upbeat soundtrack and a comedy of a story, all adding up to a remarkably fun experience. The Mario & Luigi series has had its ups and downs, but if there’s any entry worth repeating verbatim, this is certainly the one. Perhaps it’s for the best that the new content is being served on the side, and left as-is, Superstar Saga can serve as a renewed example for future endeavors in simple brilliance.

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With ARMS, Nintendo is smart to recognize that nostalgia isn’t always best

When Nintendo revealed its first big, original, Switch-exclusive creation ARMS back at their NYC console reveal event in January, the reaction seemed to be more or less universal: Why didn’t they just call this game Punch-Out!!? ARMS belonged to a frustrating trend during the Switch debut wherein Nintendo took concepts clearly based on their classic properties, scrubbed away all overt connections to history, and repackaged them with a new, modern look. Where 1-2-Switch was totally WarioWare, ARMS was definitely Punch-Out!! Bob even brilliantly referred to it as “horny Punch-Out!!“:

It was strange, watching Nintendo cleanse Switch of its own heritage, especially as the NES Classic mini-console was selling like gangbusters. Millions of people have just revisited Punch-Out!! via that device (and millions more long to do so, an experience now forever denied by Nintendo’s decision to kill the NES Classic before it ever truly lived). Why not capitalize on the brand’s reappearance in the pop culture mainstream with a modern-day sequel?

But no; ARMS instead introduces an entirely new cast of 10 fighters, not including bosses and future downloadable add-on brawlers. Despite revolving around a premise that could potentially elevate the Punch-Out!! concept to the next level — motion-based fisticuffs, a brilliant advance over the Wii Punch-Out!!‘s great Balance Board support — there’s not even a hint of that storied arcade/NES favorite to be seen here. No Little Mac cameos, no cheeky text callouts that I’ve seen, not even a fuzzy-looking Bald Bull hiding in the crowd scenes. ARMS completely divorces itself from its obvious spiritual antecedent, and as someone deeply invested in the history of video games and the observation of landmark works, I have to say… it was probably the smartest move Nintendo could have made for the game. What I initially pegged as a senseless and irresponsible decision has proved to be anything but.

ARMS isn’t Punch-Out!!, and I don’t mean simply in the sense that it has a different name and cast. It is functionally and fundamentally a distinct work unto itself, and the creativity that radiates from ARMS in every respect would have been completely suffocated by the need to adhere to a 30-year-old brand. I can’t imagine that ARMS made it all the way through its conception and planning stages without someone at Nintendo saying, “You know, this game would make a lot of sense as a Punch-Out!! sequel.” Heck, it even could have kept its sci-fi look — it’s not like the idea of a spaced-out Punch-Out!! sequel hasn’t been explored already. But Punch-Out!! brings with it certain expectations, like somewhat sensible boxing mechanics… and while I do think Little Mac’s dodge-and-counter style would be an extraordinary fit for Switch’s advanced motion controls, his tiny little arms wouldn’t be able to, say, fire independently across an arena to punch an opponent 30 meters away.

There is a tendency among Nintendo fans, and I admit I’m guilty of this myself, to expect the company’s games to conform to our expectations as we grow older. I think Nintendo fell into that trap themselves in recent generations, attempting to mine nostalgia and familiarity with sequels and reboots, especially on Wii U. For the most part, those efforts didn’t pay off. Meanwhile, Splatoon was their one creation that came from nowhere, and it managed to become a huge hit; it’s popular in the West, but it’s currently a top-five gaming franchise over in Japan, a country where multiplayer-only arena shooters have never had any real traction to speak of. While Splatoon could easily have come into the world as a multiplayer Super Mario Sunshine spinoff, Nintendo let its designers do their own thing. Those designers then came up with the sarcastic, pun-spewing sisters Callie and Marie and, more importantly, the endearing squid/kid dichotomy. More than simply being characters, Splatoon‘s Inklings tie into and shape the game’s play mechanics, allowing players to explore a unique tactical concept by vanishing into puddles of paint and swimming around below the surface as a squid. Splatoon without transformation and submerging would simply be another arena shooter. Since it was allowed to become its own unique thing, it fired up imaginations and caught on in a big way, clearly exceeding Nintendo’s own expectations for the game.

ARMS has the potential to do likewise. Like Splatoon, it features a cast of interesting new characters (with a pretty even mix of male, female, and indeterminately alien pugilists to control). Its vibrant visual style, which relies on bold yellows and other primaries, neatly fleshes out the color wheel when set up alongside Splatoon’s purples and greens. And most of all, it will remind you of classic Nintendo concepts, but it quickly sets itself apart with design ideas and play opportunities that would have been impossible if the company had simply continued mining its back catalog. ARMS is a comic take on boxing, like Punch-Out!!, but there’s no way that gatekeeping Punch-Out!! fans would have accepted a sequel that involves things like controlling a young girl in a robot suit as she punches missiles toward a robot policeman and his mechano-K9.

You also wouldn’t be see Punch-Out!! title journeys broken up by matches that take the form of minigames. Nope. No way would the fans stand for that.

ARMS embraces a ridiculous, over-the-top style (within its long, rubbery embrace)… but perhaps most importantly, it allows players to control more characters than a single scrawny dude in green boxing shorts. Again, the cast of ARMS consists of a wide variety of pugilists, including four different women, several men of varied body types (from slim to shredded), and a couple of weirdos like the gelatinous Helix. Anyone should be able to find a character they relate to within the game’s cast, which will absolutely be a key to its success. I’m fairly certain that Overwatch has done more to convince developers that it’s essential to give players the opportunity to imprint on their own favorite character from among a varied cast than thousands of games-press thinkpieces on the importance of character diversity could ever hope to accomplish. Of course, immense playable lineups have been a standard fixture in fighting games since Street Fighter II exploded onto the scene, but Overwatch revolutionized the nature of those characters and their relationships… and, perhaps more essentially, it played up the importance of highlighting those characters and hyping them up to ignite players’ imaginations. ARMS is the first new Nintendo invention of the post-Overwatch era, and they clearly took notes from Blizzard.

The overwhelming positive response that arose after Nintendo revealed Twintelle a few weeks back underscores this fact. She immediately became a fan-favorite to the point that the company hastily made her playable during the pre-release “test punch” demo weekend. Was it her confident attitude? The fact that she attacks with ropes of prehensile hair rather than the freakish extensible arms of the rest of the cast? The camera’s tendency to focus on her curvaceous, leather-clad backside? Well, yes, all of those things factored in (especially her backside)… but in asking around about her meteoric rise to public acclaim, I was told by several people that it boiled down to the simple fact that it’s so rare to see a person of color — and a woman, at that! — presented in a game without any tired or offensive stereotypes. Sure, she’s thicc (as the kids these days say), but in a sensible (not exaggerated or pandering) way. More importantly: She’s a tough, capable, elegant woman with dusky skin. You sure wouldn’t find someone like her in Punch-Out!!, a franchise that trades entirely in racial and cultural stereotypes.

Of course, ARMS still has Min Min, the Chinese fighter whose arms are made out of coiled ramen noodles by default. Baby steps, I suppose.

I’d like to see Next Level Games take another crack at Punch-Out!! someday, but I’m glad this wasn’t that game. I don’t doubt that, should it be a hit on Switch, 20 years from now we’ll find ARMS just as locked into its ways and trapped by its own legacy as Punch-Out!! is today. And maybe that’s OK. Nintendo seems to have crafted a specific creative process in recent years: Come up with an idea and iterate on it in tiny increments, while saving the new ideas for new games. I do miss the days of the NES, when sequels like Super Mario Bros. 2Zelda II and Metroid II demonstrated no fear in casting aside the structure and rules of their predecessors… but given those games’ black-sheep status among fans, and even the negative backlash franchise spinoffs like Luigi’s Mansion and Federation Force have taken on the chin in more recent years, I suppose I can understand why Nintendo prefers to play it safe with sequels. Games like ARMS and Splatoon allow the company’s designers to invent in ways that tradition and expectation make impossible under the umbrella of established brands. It doesn’t always work out — for example, 1-2-Switch lacks a personality and would have been a lot more interesting as a WarioWare title — but when it does work, as with ARMS, I’m happy to see Nintendo intuiting when it’s best to let go of the past.

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Sooo, who won that whole E3 thing?

Now that all the big media briefings are over, the flurry of all things news from that Electronic Entertainment Expo thing has started to wind down — today’s the last full day of it, and there’s just not all that much to say. There might be the odd conference in some closed off room, but on the floor people are just about getting ready to pack their stuff and leave. So, how best to sum up this year’s events, at least from a Retro perspective? Let’s sum up some of the main points of the week and see just who won E3.

Nintendo

If you’re interested in the old stuff, then yep — Nintendo undoubtedly had you covered in many different ways. Short of the more obvious stuff like more info on Super Mario Odyssey, there was the return of Samus — both in the form of a brand new Metroid Prime game and a 3DS remake of the classic Metroid II. M’colleague Kishi gave you all the details on that, and you can view them here. Also, Shigsy Miyamoto made a surprise appearance at Ubisoft’s briefing in order to introduce Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, a strange turn-based strategy crossover that wasn’t exactly in the hearts of many before E3, but when it came to the show looking like some strange take on XCOM? People were sold.

Ubisoft

Speaking of Ubisoft, they also managed to give us more info on a long, long awaited sequel — Beyond Good & Evil 2 got itself a full trailer. We still have no idea when the game’s coming out, but seeing as there has been almost no news on the sequel since 2009 and a lot of people probably thought it was cancelled until word started to spread late last year that it was in the works again, it’s certainly an improvement…it’s still probably a long time until we actually see it, mind you. Fans of the original cult classic will wait though. They’ll wait forever.

Bethesda

While the consensus was that Ubisoft overachieved with their briefing, most people thought that Bethesda didn’t have all that much to show for a proper main event conference, and generally they were right. Still, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was one of the offerings of the expo — of that there’s no doubt. It got itself a big trailer, it was playable on the floor, and it’ll be out in October of this year. You can find more details in my article here, but…well, some games just ride on top of the zeitgiest — and having bored of the practice a few years ago, people are quite clearly interested in shooting Nazis again. This will likely be a hit.

Sony

As far as old stuff goes…yeah, Sony are looking more towards the future. Except for that one thing — the remake of Shadow of the Colossus that’s coming to the PS4 next year. Seeing as an HD version of the original is already available on PS3, some would call it a “re-remake”, and our noble editor would call it a good way to recoup all that money spent on The Last Guardian — still, you can’t deny that this game generates tons of interest. In other news, the highly popular retro-tinged RPG Undertale is coming to the PlayStation Vita. In other other news, the PlayStation Vita is still going.

Microsoft

Um…well, you’ll be able to play original Xbox titles like Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, amongst others, on your Xbox One soon — which is nice. You’ll also be able to do it using a specially remade Xbox Duke Controller from Hyperkin that’ll be compatible with your Xbox One. So yay! In all seriousness, Microsoft’s continued pushing of backwards compatibility is nice considering that it’s long been an afterthought for Sony — although it’s not exactly going to reverse the machine’s fortunes. That’s up to ol’ Hank Scorpio.

EA

Electronic Arts shocked everybody by announcing that their long-running franchises, Madden and FIFA, would be returning again this year for entries #30 and #25 respectively. Both were shown through story-driven trailers detailing the journeys of Devin Wade and Alex Hunter, two young and fictional footballers only separated by different sports with the same name. Alex Hunter is 18 years old, meaning that he was born in 1999. He likely grew up with the PlayStation 2 as his first console, and every now and then he gets a hankering to play Jak II: Renegade. He doesn’t know exactly what his favourite old FIFA is, but it’s the one where you could slide tackle the goalkeeper and break their legs.

(Unsurprisingly, there was nothing of any retro interest whatsoever in EA’s media briefing.)

The rest

In other company news, Square Enix released a trailer for the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts III — it’ll probably be out next year. One of the big announcements of the PC Gaming Show was a revival of the original and much-loved RTS Age of Empires. Outside of E3, Atari — yes, Atari — announced a brand new console, the Ataribox. Details on it are very scarce, but the reveal shows that there’s plenty of wood involved! This new machine didn’t make an appearance at the Expo, but the speculation is that we can expect to see it when Blade Runner 2049 comes out as like the original film, it will feature the Atari logo quite prominently. In the end, it’s probably fair to say that Nintendo won E3 from a retro perspective — you can’t exactly knock back the return of Metroid, after all. At last, we’ll have the chance to knock the bad taste of Other M out of our mouths — and if we can do that, then on the whole it’s probably been a fairly good week.

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Samus returns

This morning, Nintendo shocked Metroid fans with a teasingly scant announcement that Metroid Prime 4, the first Metroid Prime title in a decade, is currently in development. Not long after, they followed up that news with the reveal of Metroid: Samus Returns, a 3DS remake of 1991’s Metroid II: Return of Samus and the first 2D Metroid game since 2004’s Metroid: Zero Mission. This one-two punch comes as an overwhelming relief to fans who have been waiting on the series’ return to glory ever since it went dark in the wake of 2010’s Metroid: Other M (a thirst last year’s Metroid Prime: Federation Force did little to quench). More specifically, fans have been calling for Metroid II to receive a ground-up reimagining ever since Zero Mission performed that treatment on the first Metroid to great success. It seemed like such an obvious opportunity that fans eventually resorted to taking matters into their own hands, with a number of groups devising home-grown Metroid II remakes of their own. Just last fall, one of these projects—ironically titled Another Metroid 2 Remake, considering it was the only that made it—finally reached completion after years of development, only to be squashed almost immediately by a cease-and-desist order from Nintendo. While Nintendo was well within their rights to defend their intellectual property, the move was met by an outcry from fans who saw it as poor form not to let this labor of love slide beneath official notice, especially considering Nintendo themselves seemed to be fast asleep on the series (they did release Federation Force around this time, but the comparison only served to strengthen the argument in favor of AM2R). Now it appears we know exactly why Nintendo was so quick to rub out AM2R: By total coincidence, it was about to be in the right place at the wrong time.

Fortunately, Samus Returns appears to be a much more suitable replacement for AM2R than Federation Force was. Granted, Metroid creator Yoshio Sakamoto, who personally earned a vote of no confidence from fans for his botched attempt at cinema in Other M, is running the show, and development is being handled by MercurySteam, the Spanish studio largely known for the deeply unfortunate Castlevania: Lords of Shadow series. But if I may quell the anxieties associated with those names, Nintendo showed off the game for the better part of an hour on their Treehouse stream, and so far, there’s no sign of Sakamoto’s narrative indulgences; aside from some non-intrusive blurbs of tutorial text, Samus is mostly left to her own devices as she plumbs the depths of planet SR388, with no internal monologues about her mentor’s irresistible charisma nor any men telling her when she can use which power-ups. As for MercurySteam, they’re a contract developer who ultimately have to follow their client’s orders, and until proven otherwise, I’m fairly confident laying the blame for Lords of Shadow on Konami. A publisher like Nintendo ought to be able to bring out the best in them, and what we’ve seen so far seems to back that up.

Samus Returns appears to play as you would expect of a 2D Metroid, with Samus’s movement based on the high-gravity, low-range jumping of the Game Boy Advance games in particular. Items exclusive to the original Metroid II are still here—specifically the Spider Ball, which allows Samus to roll along walls and ceilings in ball form—as is the Grappling Beam, which hasn’t been used in a 2D outing since Super Metroid, along with series standbys like the Space Jump. Sequence-breaking techniques like bomb-jumping and wall-jumping are still in, although the latter looks like it might be the kind from Metroid Fusion that was severely limited by its need for two parallel walls. Samus’s ledge-grab from the GBA games also returns, apparently as an innate ability.

In addition to the old, though, Nintendo is mixing in a variety of new mechanics, such as the ability to plant Samus’s feet and point her arm cannon freely in any direction, no longer limited to the eight-way aiming of yesteryear. With precise timing, Samus can also counter enemies that try to attack by physically colliding with her. When pulled off against bosses, these maneuvers call to mind the stylish grapples of Other M: Send a Zeta Metroid flying, for example, and Samus will chase it through the air, slam it to the ground by its tail, and fire point-blank into its exposed nucleus. She’ll also come across Aeion abilities, which draw from a special meter to bail her out of sticky situations. Those shown include the Beam Burst, a continuous barrage of laser machine gun fire; the Lightning Armor, which nullifies damage in exchange for a chunk off the Aeion gauge every time Samus gets hit; and the Scan Pulse, which reveals local map data and hidden paths, functioning like an area-of-effect version of Super Metroid‘s X-Ray Visor. Samus’s move set is one area where the series began to stagnate by Zero Mission and has often been raised as one of the first areas that would need addressing if the series ever continued, so it’s nice to see Nintendo has given her so many new toys to play with.

In keeping with modern sensibilities, there are, of course, new Amiibos to go with the game. Like the Amiibos for Yoshi’s Woolly World, which were actually crafted out of yarn, the baby Metroid here features a unique construction in the form of a squishy membrane.

Samus herself is just one part of Metroid, though: Just as important are the world around her and the things living there. The Metroids she’s charged with exterminating come in a number of forms, many of which have never been seen since Metroid II, so Nintendo and MercurySteam have seized the chance to update them for the first time since 1991. Their behavior originally boiled down to charging Samus and spitting the odd projectile with varying levels of aggression, and while that clearly remains the basis, it’s been fleshed out with a range of action befitting proper boss fights. Gamma Metroids can now rain ball lightning, fire focused beams of electricity, and electrify the ground around them, while Zetas can spit volleys of acid aimed at Samus and shoot slow-moving spread shots that rebound off walls. They have new vulnerabilities, too, as Samus was shown stunning a Zeta by prying it off a cave ceiling with the Grappling Beam.

As for the world itself, the new SR388 seems relatively short on the cold creepiness of Metroid II‘s stark monochrome expanses, but Nintendo and MercurySteam have lent some variety to the original game’s often-repetitive structure in the form of more diverse level design and environments. You’ll be able to embellish on the game’s functional auto-mapping with manual map annotations, using a set of icons (not unlike Etrian Odyssey) that grows as you encounter new kinds of obstacles. They’ve also added warp points as a way to quickly backtrack to the various regions of the planet’s cave system. While new to Metroid, this feature will be familiar to Metroidvania connoisseurs—and although it’s often criticized as a cheat to get around inelegant map design, it actually fits perfectly within Metroid II’s framework, which is less a densely interconnected world than an inverted tree trunk with single branches splitting off from it one at a time. For all its reimagining, Samus Returns seems to retain this concept, so warping back to isolated regions should prove a welcome convenience.

From SR388 to the Metroids and Samus herself, the M.O. for Samus Returns seems to be extrapolating and adapting Metroid II‘s design for an all-new experience while preserving the spirited uniqueness at the heart of it. It that ends up holding true, we may be looking at another classic reimagining to stand aside Zero Mission; if not, well, at least it’s a proper new Metroid game, and goodness knows that’s a rare pleasure these days. Samus Returns is scheduled for release in three months, so either way, we’ll find out soon…but after thirteen years, not nearly soon enough.

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Hey, Pikmin! feels like a flashback to the old days of handheld adaptations

I demoed the next entry in Nintendo’s Pikmin series — Hey, Pikmin!, not the long-promised Pikmin 4 — back at the same event where I took the 2DS XL handheld system for a test drive. Of all the games Nintendo showed off at that press event, Hey, Pikmin! left me the most bemused. There was something naggingly familiar about it, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what, precisely, that was.

As denoted by the lack of a numeral in its title, Hey, Pikmin! doesn’t go out of its way to be a proper follow-up to Wii U’s Pikmin 3. On the contrary, while it carries forward certain key franchise concepts — you control tiny Captain Olimar and coax a tiny army of colorful plant people to do your bidding — it plays nothing at all like the innovative series whose name and visuals it adopts. In place of Pikmin‘s usual sprawling mix of real-time strategy and top-down action, Hey, Pikmin! swings the camera down and locks it perpendicular to the ground, effectively transforming its viewpoint into that of a 2D platformer.

Except Captain Olimar isn’t really the platformer action type; he wears a jetpack that can allow him to hover momentarily and reach higher ground. However, the jetpack responds sluggishly and has considerable recovery time, so it’s hard to imagine Hey, Pikmin! will contain much white-knuckle platform action. Besides, the game does carry over one critical element from the console originals: Making your way through the world involves the recruitment, use, and occasional sacrifice of countless little colorful plant-men.

In practice, this means Hey, Pikmin! amounts to a sort of puzzle platformer set in the Pikmin universe. Olimar remains about as helpless as ever, so you’ll need to toss and summon pikmin in order to accomplish everything from clearing paths to fighting huge monsters. The game makes interesting use of the dual-screen nature of the 3DS (or 2DS, as the case may be): Controls are based around a touch interface, so Olimar himself appears to be effectively restricted to the lower screen. However, many elements critical to completing a given stage — be they bombs needed for blasting strategic points or debris needed to create bridges — appear on the upper screen. To manipulate them, you need to lob pikmin up there… maybe one at a time, maybe a dozen.

Everything works more or less as you’d expect it to in a Pikmin game. Differently colored pikmin possess different strengths and weaknesses, and they’ll all stand around lost and helpless if you stray too far from them. Your pikmin pals will lift and carry objects, perform simple tasks of engineering, and basically pathfind their way around. They’ll also go to the mats with any creatures they find roaming around, launching into an attack that will either result in their own deaths or the transmutation of waddling monsters into valuable resources. The biggest difference is that the side-scrolling 2D perspective changes the fundamental nature of the game from a free-roaming quest to forage for goods across a massive world into a linear stage-by-stage journey.

Will it work? It’s hard to say. The demo stages I’ve played seem to unwind well enough, but I can’t honestly predict whether or not this limited approach to Pikmin will maintain interest for a couple dozen stages. A big part of what makes the console originals interesting comes down to the persistence of and planning required to navigate large spaces. Which route do you take, and which pikmin do you bring with you? Can you venture forth, accomplish a critical task, and make it safely back to your base before dark? By breaking your actions into small, self-contained stages, the need for long-term management largely evaporates. It’ll take some legitimate effort to ensure Hey, Pikmin! sustains its appeal throughout its latter stages, and developer Arzest doesn’t have the most inspiring track record in that regard.

Still, it’s not impossible to think Hey, Pikmin! could work out. I eventually managed to pin down the nagging sense of familiarity this game gave me, and I realized this entire endeavor is a flashback to the Game Boy Color era. Think back to handheld games from 1998 to 2001: Console games had made the transition to polygons and 3D, but the Game Boy hardware remained mired in its decade-old 8-bit design. Game Boy had always played host to scaled-down conversions of console titles, but the technological delta between Nintendo 64 and Game Boy was much, much larger than the one we’d seen between the NES and Game Boy back when the handheld system made its debut. Rather than giving us the visually cramped ports of console hits we saw in the early Game Boy era, GBC developers generally created entirely new games with their “ports” of N64 and PlayStation hits.

First-person shooters became slow-paced top-down action games. 3D adventures became sidescrollers. And so forth. Most of these reinventions left Game Boy owners scratching their heads — Perfect Dark as a clumsy isometric shooter? Turok as an NES-style side-scroller? — but every once in a while, the overhaul worked. I was always impressed by how well Tomb Raider scaled down to handheld; Core Design very sensibly took stock of the franchise and unraveled the fundamental concept back to its origin point. The result was a game that played very much like Prince of Persia, which had largely inspired the design of the original Tomb Raider in the first place. It wasn’t as good as Prince of Persia (in large part due to the decision to make Lara Croft’s sprite take up as much of the screen as was physically possible, leaving the action cramped and uncomfortable), but it was a far sight better than most 3D-to-2D console-to-handheld conversions of the era.

I suppose the question now is: Will Hey, Pikmin! follow in the steps of Tomb Raider for Game Boy Color and stand on its own merits? Or will it be as unsatisfying and off-the-mark as that Perfect Dark conversion? Given the methodical, puzzle-like design I experienced in the Hey, Pikmin! demo, it definitely falls closer in spirit to the former. Still, Nintendo has attempted to squeeze an open-world console adventure into a 2D portable format once already in recent memory, with the lackluster Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash. Hopefully Hey, Pikmin! will fare better. And hopefully the dual console/handheld nature of Nintendo’s Switch means that once the 3Ds family fades away, the Game Boy-era rule of compromised portable conversions will at last be dead and buried. We’re all for respecting the medium’s heritage here at Retronauts (obviously), but some traditions are better off abandoned.

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Pokémon arrival on Virtual Console reveals the choice in how the series reflects on itself

In the latest Nintendo Direct presentation, Game Freak director Junichi Masuda revealed that Pokémon Gold Version and Silver Version will be rereleased on the 3DS Virtual Console this September. Originally released for the Game Boy Color in 1999, this pair of games formed the second generation of the Pokémon series following the runaway success of Pokémon Red Version and Blue Version. Red, Blue, and the “Special Pikachu Edition” Yellow Version were similarly released on 3DS in early 2016 in commemoration of the series’ twentieth anniversary, and these versions were updated with special functionality for trading Pokémon wirelessly (in absence of the original Game Boy’s Game Link Cable) as well as transferring Pokémon caught in the Generation I games to the newest installments via the Pokémon Bank app. These updates go a long way toward making the original games relevant to players of the modern games beyond their value as historical curios, and they represent a rare case of Nintendo going above and beyond the effort they ordinarily devote to Virtual Console releases; so naturally, Gold and Silver will include them as well. All that’s missing is Pokémon Crystal Version, the third game that capped off Generation II with a various aesthetic and mechanical tweaks—not to mention the introduction of features that have since become standard for the series, like the option to play with a female avatar.

Even with that glaring omission, this return of the core Generation II games is a notable one. Unlike the Generation I games last year, Gold and Silver aren’t celebrating any particular anniversary, so Nintendo et al. have apparently realized rereleasing older Pokémon games is a worthwhile move any day of the year—no special occasion needed.  This could indicate a changing trend in the way the series’ history is curated, as full remakes of previous generations of games have served that purpose in the past. Since Generation III, each generation has included both a main pair of games and second pair released later, with the latter usually consisting of remakes of a previous generation’s main pair. Generation III featured remakes of Red and Blue as Pokémon FireRed Version and LeafGreen Version, Generation IV remade Gold and Silver as Pokémon HeartGold Version and SoulSilver Version, and then Generation VI remade Generation III’s Pokémon Ruby Version and Sapphire Version as Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. However, the same Nintendo Direct announcing the rerelease of Gold and Silver also revealed Generation VII’s second pair of games,  Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, will not continue with the remakes, instead serving as direct sequels to the first pair, Pokémon Sun and Moon.

This won’t be the first time this has happened, as Generation V’s second pair used the same concept—expanding the concept of a third game like Generation I’s Yellow or Generation II’s Crystal into a pair of games unto itself—so it’s not a sure sign that more remakes won’t come to later generations. Yet the fact remains that no remakes have been announced since Nintendo began rereleasing the older games as-is, and now they’re continuing the practice. If this becomes the norm, it could completely supplant the role the remakes have played up to this point. Rereleasing the Generation III games could prove difficult since there’s no Game Boy Advance Virtual Console on 3DS, but the extra care lavished upon the Generation I and II rereleases indicates nothing’s impossible where Pokémon is concerned.

On one hand, focusing on rereleases of the classics would leave new generations free to continue looking forward with games like Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon rather than back; on the other, Pokémon remakes have always offered more than just the same old games with a fresh coat of paint, updating them with modern interfaces, adjusted gameplay mechanics, new story events, and long lists of miscellaneous changes. Maybe Generation VII will simply turn out to be the continuation of a pattern started in Generation V, where odd-numbered generations take a break from remakes while even numbers return to them. Considering the legions of players who keep coming back for remakes and rereleases alike, it’s far from unthinkable that there’s room in fans’ hearts for both approaches to persist side-by-side.

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Tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak…on a Super Mario World cartridge

Super Mario World, in more innocent times.

In olden days, cheat codes were something that, for the most part, programmers used to make debugging a game easier (or just to let off a bit of steam) that ended up getting left in the game for the tip mags and lines to devour. The practice has largely died out, but there are still ways of cheating out there, even if they’re somewhat more complex…if you can figure out hex code and deduce the in-game value that belongs to an address (or get a program to do it for you) you can cheat anything! That’s the more modern way to cheat. However, a YouTuber by the name of SethBling has combined this new way with an old game by jailbreaking a Super Mario World cartridge and injecting a hex editor into it! This has various applications — everything from manipulating basic values like coins and lives, to fiddling about with all the colours in a level, all the way up to making serious modifications to the levels themselves…that and it’s a lot of fun, especially when you do it totally by hand — as Seth does.

Poor old SMW seems to have quite the rough time of it, alas — people who create tool-assisted speedruns and coders always seem to have a whale of a time with it and other Nintendo properties. The practice of interfering with the game gained mainstream notoriety at the 2014 Awesome Games Done Quick speedrun event when TAS-speedrunner MasterJun, following a seemingly innocuous set of inputs in Yoshi’s Island 2, managed to inject versions of Pong and Snake into the game. There have been further experimentation since, with the aforementioned SethBling injecting a version of the legendary Flappy Bird into SMW last year – notable because the coding was done entirely by hand as opposed to being tool-assisted, which is…yeah, somewhat impressive. Seth definitely puts the million-dollar hands on this game, of that there is no doubt.

Seth in action, having just finished coding a game into another game by hand using Mario’s regular button inputs. It’s a mild day.

Of course, Nintendo games are naturally the ones that often get this treatment — they’re very popular after all, and it’s pretty likely that come the heat death of the universe, someone will be playing SMW somewhere.  Still, it seems as though this sort of code injection could theoretically be possible for most any game — that there’s always some sort of back door inside where one could program a hex editor and start screwing around with values and colours, or even shove a whole game into another game.  One wonders if it would even be easier to do it on some less popular but perhaps more intriguing licensed affairs that likely aren’t well coded…why just play around with Mario when you could make a pong game using the 16-bit representations of Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World? Or a primitive version of Kaboom starring Mondu the Fat from Slaughter Sport? The possibilities are truly endless here, and should not be limited purely to the best of the big old N. There are plenty of other games out there that are more in need of the potential improvements.

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On NES Works: Third parties continue to grapple with the idea of quality

The NES Works series continues powering through the NES 1986 library in a desperate race to Gradius, aka the one genuinely excellent third-party release from the latter half of the year. I have to say, this project has given me a new appreciation for Black Box games.

I became an NES owner at the end of 1987, by which time there were enough great post-launch-era releases available that the Black Box games had a distinct whiff of the archaic about them. The unified packaging design Nintendo initially used for its own releases worked great as branding in the early days, setting the NES apart from competing platforms, but it became something of an impediment once more sophisticated releases began to arrive from other publishers. Nintendo recognized it, too, and they began to phase out the Black Box format around the time I picked up the console: Zelda shipped in a gorgeous gold set, Metroid and several other 1987 releases came dressed in silver, Punch-Out!! broke the box art boundaries with a full-bleed photo of Mike Tyson, and Ice Hockey used the Black Box style in blue with a photo replacing the pixel art. By the time Super Mario Bros. 2 shipped at the end of 1988, the only remaining vestige of the Black Box style was the skewed typography for the logo and subtitle — and even that would end up abandoned by the wayside with 1989 releases like Dragon Warrior and Faxanadu.

All of this is to say, Black Box games felt like old news by the time I acquired an NES, and I’ve had a hard time giving them a fair shake due to that perception. But despite their simplicity, they demonstrate a lot of interesting and inventive ideas. And nothing has driven that home quite like these early third-party releases for the system.

One of the more famous anecdotes about the NES library is that Howard Philips served as a sort of localization filter to weed out the bad games and make sure only the best Japanese titles were brought into English. I am increasingly curious to know whether that policy and process were in place from the beginning, or if Nintendo asked Philips to begin weeding out the garbage after these first few releases hit the ground with the wet, jarring sound of a million weeping children. I am generally able to find some merit in questionable old games by viewing them through the perspective of their time and place — see last week’s Chubby Cherub video for an example — but I honestly can’t find anything redeeming about Tag Team Wrestling, even if I try to adopt the mindset of an eight-year-old circa 1986. It’s bad now, and every documentarian instinct I have tells me it was also bad then.

On the plus side, it only gets better from here. At least until the opportunistic Western publishers arrive on NES in 1988. But that’s a full year of increasingly good Japan-origin games to look forward to on NES Works. So that’s good!

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Fire Emblem reaches into the past to give the series a fresh new feel with Shadows of Valentia

I very nearly embarrassed myself with my take on Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. If I hadn’t realized a few days ago that the latest 3DS entry in Nintendo and Intelligent Systems’ strategy RPG franchise is a remake of an old Famicom game, I might have waxed rhapsodic about how it offers a “welcome burst of inspiration” or “finally helps add some interesting new innovation” to the series’ formula. As it turns out, though, the “innovation” that makes Valentia so appealing was in fact laid down 25 years ago in the original version of the game: Fire Emblem Gaiden.

In fairness, it would have been an easy mistake to make. Fire Emblem Gaiden, also referred to by many fans as Fire Emblem II, has languished in Japan until now. Nintendo didn’t begin localizing Fire Emblem titles until the Game Boy Advance/GameCube era, so unless you deliberately went looking for information on that 8-bit sequel, you could just as easily assume Valentia was simply the latest new work in the franchise. You could also be forgiven for simply assuming the cumbersome subtitle is a series trademark, coming so soon after last year’s Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright/Revelation/Conquest. However, “Echoes” will seemingly serve as Nintendo’s branding for Fire Emblem remakes. This comes more than a decade late for their series’ first remake, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for Game Boy Advance, alas — though in terms of scope and effort, Valentia absolutely shames Shadow Dragon. [Correction: Shadow Dragon was released on DS — Jeremy]

If you remember Shadow Dragon, that remake simply brought the original Fire Emblem for Famicom up to approximately Game Boy Advance standards. It boasted nicer, more detailed visuals and more elaborate text than the older version, but otherwise, it felt pretty similar to the 8-bit release. Valentia, on the other hand, brings an older to the standards of the original 3DS Fire Emblem titles — and then takes it a step further. The combat engine comes straight from Fates: You shuffle your little strategy pawns as 2D sprites around a slightly tilted battlefield, and once a combat encounter commences the camera zooms in and blurs to a cinematic 3D sequence in which your characters’ actions play out against a foe.

This time, however, the 3D view serves an expanded role. It’s not just about looking pretty; once you claim certain map areas from the foe, you’re allowed to venture into that building or dungeon. Rather than play out as a static screen with actions determined by menu, these dungeon-dives feel more like a traditional RPG. Your hero or heroine ventures into the dungeon on foot, with the camera following behind them. You can hunt for treasures, smash up destructible objects in the environment, and even take on foes. Encounters with the enemy are initiated by making physical contact with them (and you can strike as you collide during exploration in order to gain initiative), and they play out as standard Fire Emblem battles.

You don’t often see this mix of classic RPG exploration and tactical combat. It calls back to older RPGs like SSI’s Dungeons & Dragons: Pools of Radiance or the first few Arc the Lad games for PlayStation, and for me it makes Valentia the most engaging Fire Emblem I’ve played to date. The constant stream of drawn-out engagements that comprise a strategy RPG can feel like a real drudge after a while; at the same time, it’s difficult to leaven things with lightweight battles, because they feel like an inconsequential waste of time. The free-roaming exploration sequences — limited as they may be here — creates just the right kind of palette-cleanser between major engagements to keep Valentia from becoming monotonous. The battles you face in most of the dungeons are inconsequential, feeling more like random filler battles in a standard console RPG than meaty tactical encounters… but in the context of exploration scenes that play like something out of a standard console RPG, they work perfectly.

This change of pacing would be a welcome innovation — the next step forward in Fire Emblem‘s evolution — if not for one critical fact: The dungeon exploration element comes directly from Fire Emblem Gaiden. While the 3D perspective is new for 3DS, the idea of breaking away from the map-by-map campaign for a bit of light dungeon-crawling was what made Fire Emblem Gaiden Fire Emblem Gaiden. It was something of an experiment, a creative side story excursion (as denoted by the title), and it ultimately proved to be an evolutionary dead-end; to my knowledge, no other Fire Emblem title has incorporated a similar mechanic. Even here, it’s somewhat diminished from the original game; Fire Emblem Gaiden allowed you to explore towns in a similar fashion, while in Valentia you navigate those areas through a bog-standard strategy RPG menu system, jumping from scene to scene.

All of this complements a solid core game. Valentia tells the story of two childhood friends thrust into opposition with one another by the tides of war and duty. Once you play through the two introductory chapters, which serve to set up protagonist Alm and Celica’s respective stories, the main game sees you playing out both hero and heroines’ campaigns simultaneously. You can switch freely between both characters, advancing each story as you see fit — and there are just enough dynamic events on the map (such as mercenary teams appearing to reinforce the enemy army at critical junctures) that you have to switch up your approach from time to time to put out fires or staunch the flow of bad guys.

The free movement sequences in Valentia never last long enough to overstay their welcome, and I have to wonder why developer Intelligent Systems dropped the concept in later games. They really do add a lot to the Fire Emblem formula, and I have to hope that positive reception to Echoes will inspire IS to consider revisiting the concept in future releases.

I also appreciate the fact that IS has taken inspiration here from another incredible strategy RPG remake: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for PSP. Specifically, Echoes incorporates that game’s rewind feature to allow you to undo a botched action. As in TO, this feature is absolutely optional; and here it’s far more limited, with the number of actions you can rewind strictly set per battle and parceled out based on the number of supplemental items you can locate. But given the (optional) presence of permadeath in Fire Emblem, the ability to step back two or three moves can keep the game from feeling like a huge waste of time. You’re definitely going to reset the game when the random number generator breaks unfairly and, for example, you lose a beloved character forever because you whiff twice on an action with an 80% success rate while the enemy lands a critical riposte despite less-than-even odds of even landing a blow. The rewind saves you the trouble of having to start all over again — but you can’t abuse it, and you can completely ignore it if you find it cheapens the game’s tension.

One other nice thing about Valentia — and this is admittedly a personal preference — is the fact that its retro roots tone down the party-chat dynamic. The most recent games in the series have nearly gone full-on dating simulation, with an increasing emphasis on character romances and marriage. Valentia feels a lot more buttoned-down than the other 3DS entries in the series, with the character-pairing mechanics taking on a far more limited scope than in Awakenings and Fates. Only specific characters — those with established interpersonal relationships — can build their affinity for one another by performing supporting actions, and those connections reach their max level without the marriage-as-resolution culmination that has become the standard. While some of the character dialogue certainly has undertones (and even overtones) of flirtation, hinting alternately at both mixed- and same-sex attraction, Valentia (at least so far as I’ve seen) stops short of the mai-waifu trend that’s come to define the franchise.

Of course, there’s plenty I haven’t seen of Valentia yet. I’m a long way from beating the game, and then there’s the game’s extensive downloadable content (which somewhat infamously costs more than the game itself). So who knows what shenanigans lie ahead? The important thing is that I actually feel motivated to find out — a new sensation for me when it comes to Fire Emblem. I respect the series and have enjoyed dabbling in the more recent releases, but the games have never truly grabbed me until now. And really, Valentia just goes to show what Retronauts is all about: The importance of looking to history for inspiration. Sometimes, the best and most refreshing ideas in games are the ones that have been laying around right under our noses, forgotten, for years and years.

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