Review: Shenmue I & II

This is it! My review for Shenmue I & II is finally here! This also marks the last game in my “final four” list. After this review, I will be taking a short break from my “generational-backlog grind” and I’ll be focusing on a couple of fun projects. But for now, let me share my thoughts on this long-awaited collection.

For many, the Shenmue games are often considered to be two of the greatest video games ever made. I have long been aware of the legendary status they hold. But personally, I never had the chance to experience them until now. Both games were originally released on the Sega Dreamcast, a system often considered to be ahead of its time – but one that never seemed to break into the mainstream. For this reason, very few gamers actually got the pleasure of experiencing these titles the first time around. Regardless, Shenmue’s legacy refused to die. Finally, in 2015, a Kickstarter campaign was announced to fund the release of the third installment. The Kickstarter was a smashing success. As a result, the original two games have finally seen a re-release.

These are two games that I’ve wanted to get my hands on for over a decade. Now, having played and completed both entries, I’m excited to finally share my thoughts. Despite being two separate titles, I am reviewing both games together as a single collection. As a result, some parts of this review may contain mild spoilers. Be aware.

So, let’s start with the first game. Aside from taking place in 1980’s Japan, and being somewhat of an open-world title, I really didn’t know what to expect from Shenmue. I think a part of me was expecting some sort of martial arts beat-em-up/RPG hybrid. But that’s not all what I found. Instead, Shenmue ended up being more of an interactive story than anything else. Sure, there are some brief combat and action sequences – a number of which consist of brief QTE-style events. But for the most part, the game is very casual. The main character in Shenmue is Ryo Hazuki, a young Japanese man who is on a quest for revenge. Early in the game, Ryo witnesses the death of his father at the hand of a mysterious Chinese martial artist. He decides to do everything in his power to learn the identity of his father’s killer and hunt him down.

The game itself consists of open world exploration, as Ryo hunts for clues. He starts by questioning locals about the events of the day his father was killed. With each clue that is uncovered, a trail of breadcrumbs begins to appear that Ryo must follow further down the rabbit hole. His quest takes him from the streets of his local neighborhood into the secret bowels of the Japanese black market underworld.

While there are certainly some action sequences in Shenmue, I was surprised to learn it is more of a detective game than a fighting game. The majority of the gameplay is actually spent talking to NPCs and exploring than engaging in combat. Time passes as you hunt for clues. Ryo only has a few months to piece the mystery together before too much time has passed. That being said, the games gives you more than enough time to explore till you heart’s content. Part of the fun of Shenmue lies in environmental exploration/interaction. Ryo can visit stores and purchase various goods like groceries, toys and cassette tapes. The tapes contain musical numbers from the game’s soundtrack and can be played back on a cassette player Ryo finds in his bedroom. The toys are collectible items  that are obtained at random from gacha-style capsule machines. Ryo can even visit the local arcade which allows the player to experience some of Sega’s classic arcade games first-hand. To be honest, a lot of the game’s content is nothing more than a colossal waste of time. But… that’s part of the charm.

As a consequence of the game’s open nature, some parts of the story do seem to drag on occasionally. For example, anyone who’s really sat down to play Shenmue, will likely roll their eyes at the mention of the phrase, “Do you know where any sailors hang out?”. This is a reference to a seemingly endless storyline thread early in the title. Was it annoying? A little. But that didn’t bug me as much as the portion of the game in which Ryo has to work a nine-to-five  job at the local shipyard. Which of course, requires the player’s interaction. I don’t know about you… but if I wanted to play “Forklift Simulator”, I’d have bought that game instead. Despite these minor annoyances, I completely enchanted with the overall game itself.

Eventually, the first game comes to an end when Ryo departs Japan, headed for Hong-Kong.

Shenmue II was originally released in 2001, two years after the first game. But it picks up right where the first title left off. In fact, you can import data from the save file of the original game into this one. This is a feature not often seen with console titles, but one that I found to be very welcome. A year after its original release, it was ported to the Xbox. The Xbox version of the game is the source for this remaster.

In Shenmue II, Ryo’s search for his father’s killer has led him to Hong Kong. It is there that he must continue his hunt for clues. His journey will take him deeper into the criminal underworld. But not all of his interactions in Hong Kong are bad. During the story, Ryo will also make some new friends. I found the characters in this game to be much more interesting than those in the original title. Often times in the original Shenmue, interactions with NPCs often felt forced or unimportant. Sure there are a few exceptions. But for the most part, none of the NPCs really left an impression on me. That’s not the case at all in the sequel. The new characters are much more colorful. In fact, they often steal the show.

In many ways, Shenmue II is very similar to its predecessor. It’s also is largely an open-world, breadcrumb style game. However, the number of mini-games and interactive side-quests has increased. As players explore the streets of Hong Kong, Ryo can participate in street fighting and wrestling tournaments. He can also try his hand at a number of street-side gambling games. Of course, capsule toys make a comeback as well.

Shenmue II also ups the action a bit. There’s more combat and button-mashing QTE events in this title than were found in the original game. There’s also much more to explore. Players wanting to get the most out of the experience would do well to take their time and explore. There’s quite a few miss-able scenes and even characters tucked away in this game for those willing to dig deep.

Eventually, the setting for this game moves from the city of Hong Kong and further into mainland China, to an area known as Guilin.  The last portion of the game takes place in this locale and, despite being almost twenty years old, it features some of the most stunning visuals I’ve ever seen in a video game.

I’m not going to give anything away, but the story for Shenmue II ends with a massive cliff hanger. It’s going to kill me to wait a whole year to see the next chapter in this title, so I can’t imagine how bad it must have felt for original fans of the series.

Shenmue I and II is a great collection for a great price. Many aspects of these games were very much ahead of their time, while others have not aged well at all. Many people call this release a “remaster”. That isn’t exactly true. This package contains both games, presented in an HD format, but aside from being presented in an updated resolution and with a few QOL improvements, they are largely untouched from their original versions. I had a ball with these games, and I can’t wait for the next installment. But, I can also see how these are not going be games that will appeal to just anyone. Still, if you fancy yourself to be a gaming historian, you won’t want to miss out on these classic titles.

Difficulty: Easy – For the most part, these games provide little real challenge. They are played at a very casual pace with only a few tricky QTE-style events to pose any real difficulty. But even these events can be retried as many times as needed.

Story: This is why you want to play Shenmue. The tale told here is out of this world. Each game feels like an episode in a serial, and the storyline rivals any classic RPG you might come across. What starts out feeling like a crime drama, eventually ends up feeling much more epic and mysterious in the end.

Originality: While open-world style games were really nothing unheard of, Shenmue brought the genre to the console in a big way. The way it integrated mini-games into an explore-able environment was a radical change of pace. Another aspect of the game that really broke new ground was the way that it took real world locations and translated them into an open-world video game. Locales found in both games are real places. Dobuita Street in Yokosuka Japan, the walled-city of Kowloon – all of them were locations that were special to creator of Shenmue. In some ways, these games feel like a love letter he composed as a way to share his passion for certain places that were special to him.

Soundtrack: Overall, both games feature a varied and wonderful soundtrack. I have to give higher marks to Shenmue II when it comes to both music and overall audio quality. But admittedly, the voice acting in both games tends to be a bit sketchy at times. In fact, it ends up sounding a lot like an old Kung Fu movie. Which, in a weird way, is oddly appropriate.

Fun: Fans of open exploration and Asian-themed games will love Shenmue I & II. Players who prefer more structured or action-oriented games may be a bit put off.  Personally, I found the games to be relaxing and entertaining.  Despite being a bit surprised by the gameplay itself, I found myself having a blast with these two games.

Graphics: These games were released in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Despite being presented in an HD format, they show their age, but they do so pretty gracefully. At the time of release, they were both top-of-the line visually.

Playcontrol: This is probably my biggest complaint. Both games can be a bit hard to control at times. Ryo moves in a directional “tank-style” way – very similar to the classic Resident Evil games. Thankfully, this scheme takes place during the exploration portions of the game only. The QTE events in both games seem to be a bit touchy and unforgiving, and are often not very clear. Thankfully, the controls in combat are much more intuitive and function a lot like a beat-em-up style game.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Martial arts violence, mild language.

Value:  This collection is available for $30.00 and at that price is well worth it. I’m surprised to see bargain pricing for a set of games with a legacy as renown as Shenmue. So, even if you’re on the fence, the prices makes it worth checking out. The only thing that’s missing from this collection is the proper presentation “Shenmue Passport” content – which was online content exclusive to the Sega Dreamcast. However, these were really nothing more than some scoreboards and an online jukebox. The titlescreen for Shenmue II in this collection features almost the game content.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Shenmue I & II are not perfect games. But the quality of the storyline combined with the amount of content and the attention to detail gives this collection a four-star rating. If I had to pick a favorite of the two, I’d go with Shenmue II as the better of the two games. That being said, the first game provides a lot of atmosphere and an overall “comfy” feeling. So it’s hard to say the second is really “better”.  Again, if you’re a fan of Asian culture, or games with great storytelling, this collection is a must-have.

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Steam

Star Wars: Rebels – Season 4

The home video release has been out for almost a month, but I’m finally getting around to sharing my thoughts on the fourth and final season of Star Wars Rebels.

Over the course of these four years, I’ve sat and watched as this show matured from a loose-episodic narrative, to the serial drama that it has now become. This season does a fine job of taking the momentum put in place by season three and continuing to build on it. The relationship between the characters has now reached its crescendo, and fans are in for a real treat. The fate of Kanan is finally revealed, and I must say, extremely well done. Fans of Thrawn are treated to a number of appearances over the course of these episodes. Also, this final season of Rebels continues to bring back the religious mysticism of the force that was largely lost in the prequel era. It seems Disney continues their quest to restore certain parts of the Star Wars mythology back to its roots. Overall, the entire season is well worth watching for nearly any Star Wars fan. However, it is undeniable that the final episode is one that fans will be talking about for years to come. For those that have not watched it, be warned. The following paragraph is a MAJOR spoiler alert: As you may have guessed, the main Rebels storyline concludes with the death of Kanan and the formation of the Rebel Alliance. But it is actually the fate of Ezra that ends up stealing the most attention. In order to negotiate peace on the planet of Lothal, Ezra allows himself to taken prisoner by Grand Admiral Thrawn. Shortly after, Thrawn’s fleet is attacked by a slew of force sensitive space whales… (I know it sounds odd, but go back and watch season two and it will all make sense). During the attack, Ezra and Thrawn are whisked away by lightspeed to an unknown fate among the stars. At this point, the finale takes a very ambitious time jump and picks up back up after the events of Episode VI. We learn that Hera was present during the battles portrayed in both Rogue One and Return of the Jedi, and that she had become pregnant by Kanan before his death. Now, with the galaxy seemingly at peace, Sabine has decided to take it upon herself to uncover Ezra’s fate. On her journey she is accompanied by none of than…. Ashoka Tano. That’s right, in a moment of shock it is revealed that Ashoka survived the events of season three. Naturally, all of this fuels fan speculation more than ever. What happened to Thrawn and Ezra? If Ashoka is alive during the original trilogy era and after, does that mean she met or even trained Luke Skywalker? The possibilities are endless and it seems fans will have to wait for answers. But the hype train is going full speed ahead. All of this makes season four a must watch for serious Star Wars fans.

Review: Legacy of Kain – Soul Reaver

The third entry in my “turn-of-the-century” Final Four is here; Legacy of Kain – Soul Reaver. Nearly two years ago, I reviewed the original title in the Legacy of Kain series: Blood Omen. It was a game that I had no prior experience with, but one that was often recommended to me. Personally, I was not especially impressed with it. I enjoyed the story and the atmosphere of the game. But I found the overall gameplay to be of poor quality. Regardless, I decided to give the second chapter in the series a fair chance. Originally released on the PS1, Dreamcast and PC – this game also connects all of the platforms I’m currently focusing on.

If you’ve played the original Legacy of Kain, it won’t take long for you to realize that Soul Reaver is a very different type of game. For starters, instead of being presented in the overhead view, like the original. This game switched to a third-person action perspective. Soul Reaver also focuses less on mindless combat and more on puzzle solving. In this regard, it is very reminiscent of other games from the era like Tomb Raider, Castlevania 64, or even (to a smaller extent), Ocarina of Time. This game takes place fifteen-hundred years after the previous chapter. During this time, Kain (the previous game’s protagonist) has become a vampire lord. His armies overrun the land of Nosgoth. In this title, you play as Raziel, a vampire slain by hand of Kain. After his defeat, Raziel finds himself reborn as a wraith. He learns he was resurrected by an ancient god and has been tasked with defeating Kain and restoring Nosgoth to its former glory. Over the course of the game, the player will evolve Raziel’s powers so that he can ultimately face and defeat Kain.

As I mentioned earlier, Soul Reaver is vastly different than its predecessor. In fact, the only similarity between the two games comes from the storyline. In this game, the player controls Raziel in a 3D world. Players can run, jump and interact with objects. Upon defeating enemies, Raziel can consume their souls to restore his health. The game is presented in a largely open-world format. Players are able to warp around and backtrack using portals that are unlocked as the player progresses through the game. Since the majority of the enemies found in Soul Reaver are undead, simply beating them to a pulp is not enough to conquer them. Once they are defeated, the corpses must be either burned, drowned, impaled, or exposed to sunlight to be put to rest. Players can do this by interacting with environmental objects or with special weapons.
Another major aspect of the gameplay lies in puzzle solving. Players progressing through the game will often come across a number of environmental puzzles. These usually take the form of blocks and switches that must be moved into position or flipped in various combinations. In truth, these puzzles are probably the most challenging aspect of the game itself, but also a large part of what makes the game so memorable. By today’s standards, Soul Reaver feels very antiquated. But at the time of its release, it was actually pretty revolutionary. Sure, 3D environmental puzzle games were nothing new, but this game provided a level of refinement that was second to none. Combined with excellent visuals and audio, Soul Reaver was quite a thing to behold. Fans of the series should make every effort not to pass this game up. However, it has not aged particularly well and may not appeal to many gamers.

Difficulty: Medium – I’ve heard a number of people claim that this game is exceptionally difficult. I went into it expecting as much. But, I found those claims to be somewhat exaggerated. Sure, some of the boss fights and the puzzles can be a bit tricky. But I didn’t find them to be anything out of the ordinary. All in all, I felt the challenge was just about right for this type of game. Story: One thing the Legacy of Kain series does well is storyline. The story unfolds through a number of FMVs and cutscenes scattered throughout the game. It is extremely well done. High marks here. Originality: Credit should be given to the developers for making this game so radically different from its predecessor.  Even though there’s really nothing revolutionary brought to the table in terms of game design, the presentation still manages to feel new and refreshing. Soundtrack: Superb. The game features an orchestral score that is simply amazing. The music is fitting and really sets the tone for the game itself. Also, the voice acting is second to none. Fun: Fans of Tomb Raider and other 3D action/puzzle games will likely have a blast playing this game. As will fans of the gothic horror genre. For me, the best part of the game was the atmosphere and storyline. Even when the gameplay started to feel repetitive, the story was good enough to keep me entertained and wanting more. Graphics: This title was released late in the life cycle of the PS1 and it shows. This is probably one of the best looking games on the platform. If you’re lucky enough to play the Dreamcast version of the game, it looks even better. Playcontrol: The controls are not perfect, but they are better than most other games of this type from the same era. The camera is pretty accurate and can be rotated using the shoulder buttons. Unlike many early 3D games, it does not get in the way of the action. Occasionally, the controls can seem stiff and cumbersome, especially when dealing with jump puzzles. But overall, it’s not a big issue. Downloadable Content: No. Mature Content: Violence, Occult Themes Value:  This game is actually pretty short. In some ways, the amount of content actually makes the game feel incomplete. I completed the whole game in under twelve hours. These days, the game is available digitally on Steam and on PSN for around $6.00. At this price, it’s more than worth it even with the lack of content. Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Legacy of Kain – Soul Reaver is far from perfect. But, it is an improvement to the original. This is one of those weird games that players will either cherish or despise – depending on your style. All things considered, it’s a pretty solid title with a unique feel. If you’re a fan of horror games or gothic settings,  this one is worth a look. Available on: Steam, PSN Other Reviews In This Series: Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain   –  Soul Reaver  – Soul Reaver 2 –  Blood Omen 2 – Defiance

Check Up: No Man’s Sky (1.5 NEXT Update)

The long awaited multiplayer update to No Man’s Sky is finally here. This is the one that everyone has been waiting for. To call this simply a patch is almost criminal. This update completely transforms the game from the bottom up.

In truth, I really don’t know where to begin. I suppose I’ll start with the first two most obvious changes; REAL multiplayer and a new (default) third-person perspective. 

That’s right, long promised by the developers – No Man’s Sky now has honest-to-goodness multiplayer. You can meet up with other players in this living, breathing galaxy – for better or for worse. You can work together or, in a move that’s certain to be controversial, even attack each other. Hello Games has made it easy to join up with either friends or random players. Of course, if you prefer to play alone, you still have the option to lock other players out of your game.

The next thing, or maybe the first thing, players are likely to notice is that No Man’s Sky is no longer a first person game. That’s right, you can now see your character from the third-person. Of course, the option still exists to play in the first person if you choose. But it seems that the developers made the bold move of actually making this new perspective the default experience. This was likely the result of now having a number of character customization options. 

While these are obviously some pretty big changes, that’s not all. Nearly every aspect of the game has been revamped in one way or another. Everything from ship designs, to crafting and gathering have been overhauled in this new version. And in a good way too. For those of us who have been playing from the beginning, we’ve seen this game grow from a barren, boring universe to a what is now a vibrant, living community. 

The storyline that was introduced in the ATLAS Update has been refined even further, to the point of being near perfection. The changes to the crafting system have made base construction more meaningful and interesting. I can’t being to explain just how much this game has evolved with the introduction of this patch.

If you are an old player who gave up on the game in its early days. Or even if you’ve been interested but were afraid to take the plunge, you owe it to yourself to give No Man’s Sky a look now. Not since Final Fantasy XIV have I seen the developers double-down on their promise and turn a game around in such a drastic way. In my opinion, No Man’s Sky is now the game that was originally promised to us years ago. 

So what now? Well, Hello Games isn’t stopping with the NEXT Update. They’ve promise to continue releasing content updates. Next on the agenda is something called the “Community Season”. We’ll have to wait and see what they have up their sleeve. In the meantime, there’s no better time to reacquainted with this game.

Review: Forsaken (Remastered)

Wow. Here’s a game I never expected to review, Forsaken. That’s right, out of nowhere, this classic title has been remastered and is now available to a whole new generation of gamers.

Forsaken was a game that I actually enjoyed in my younger days. A friend and I both owned the PC version. And together, we spent many hours blasting our way through multiplayer matches. Despite our love for it, the PC release of Forsaken never really seemed to take off with the general public. Instead, most players are familiar with the Nintendo 64 version of the game.

When I started working on my backlog reviews, Forsaken was a game that I desperately wanted to revisit. However, I found the original release to be riddled with compatibility issues that made it nearly unplayable on modern systems. For this reason, I decided to put it on the back burner. But now, with the release of the remastered version of the game, I jumped at the chance to dive back in.

Admittedly, Forsaken is really nothing more than a Descent clone. In it, you play as a futuristic treasure hunter in a hovercraft. You zoom through cramped corridors, blasting other pilots and enemies – with the goal of collecting the treasure and making it out alive.

Like Descent, you can pilot your ship in a full 360-degree range of motion (well, “six-degrees”, if you want to get technical).  The biggest difference here is that you can choose to play as a number of different characters, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, one pilot might have a faster ship, but with a weaker hull or with less maneuverability.  Each pilot also has their own personality that is expressed through a series of audible taunts.

At the beginning of the game, only a handful of pilots are available to play. More are unlocked as you encounter and defeat them throughout the game itself. Now, perhaps it is my faulty memory, but I don’t seem to remember this mechanic in the original release of the game. I seem to recall having a full roster of characters right from the start. Perhaps I’m incorrect on this. Either way, this time around I actually found unlocking the characters to be enjoyable and motivating.

As for the gameplay itself, if you are familiar with any of the Descent games, you already know exactly what to expect; fast paced, flying action. Enemies will swarm you, forcing you to glide your ship behind corners for cover, only to dart back out in attempt to squeeze off a few shots. I found that controls handle very well. In fact, I daresay the playcontrol in Forsaken is an improvement over what was found in Descent.

The remastered version of Forsaken takes all of the content from the original PC release and the exclusive levels from the N64 and puts them all in one game, making this the absolute definitive version. The N64 levels are hidden, and must be unlocked by discovering secrets tucked away within the game’s main levels.

If you’re the type of player that likes to hunt secrets, that’s not all. In fact, this version of Forsaken also rewards players with “cheat codes” if they manage to find all of the gold bars that are hidden throughout each level. These codes can then be activated from a menu, providing players with everything from invincibility to alternate textures.

The single player content is entertaining in itself, but the multiplayer mode is arguably the most popular way to enjoy the game. Back in the day, I spent an embarrassing number of hours playing this game online with friends. Naturally, I was excited to try out multiplayer on this new remaster. However, every time I entered the lobby, I found it to be empty.

It seems that the Steam and GOG releases of the game do not share multiplayer lobbies. As a result, you are restricted to playing with others who use the same platform. This seems to be the main issue finding active multiplayer sessions. There’s just not enough people interested in a twenty year-old title. To say that this is a disappointment is an understatement. Despite the potential multiplayer troubles, Forsaken is still a game worthy of attention. Especially for six-degree shooter fans.

Difficulty: Variable – This game offers a number of difficulty settings, ranging from easy to nearly impossible. The settings affect both the number of enemies, enemy AI and even item placement. I found them all to be appropriate. There’s a setting for nearly every skill level.

Story: Games like this do not really need much of a story. The set up here is basic; post-apocalyptic Earth and scavengers.  It is simple, but for a game like this, more than enough.

Originality: Forsaken certainly did not invent the six-degree FPS genre. But it did manage to improve on it. By adding a little personality and some improved graphics and sound, this game brought the genre to a new era.

Soundtrack: One of better highlights of the game. The score for the game is catchy and appropriate; featuring high-energy techno tunes. The voice acting is over-the-top and ridiculous. This remastered version of the game incorporates the “adult themed” voice pack that was previously available as an add-on to the original game. Be warned.

Fun: If you enjoy futuristic, fast-paced FPS games, you’ll feel right at home with Forsaken. Sadly, due to the fragmented state of the multiplayer, it might end up feeling a little lonely.

Graphics: The original game was frequently bundled with graphics cards as a way to show off some of the (then) state-of-the-art dynamic lighting and Direct-3D rendering. These days, the graphics are nothing special, but they still look amazing in their presentation. Forsaken is a beautiful game.

Playcontrol: I found the controls in this game to be a huge improvement over Descent. Something about the default controls here just feels right. If I had to find any criticism, it would be with the UI and weapon cycling. Sometimes the UI seems a bit gaudy and overly large. But, it works.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: YES. Adult language, innuendo, and some nudity. (Nudity enabled via cheat code)

Value:  Forsaken Remastered is available for $19.99. Despite being an excellent game, I have a tough time recommending it at this price. The amount of a content is appropriate. But when considering the iffy multiplayer, this one might seem more appealing when on sale.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Forsaken is a long forgotten gem. It is a game that actually deserved the remaster treatment. For the most part, there is little to complain about. The game looks better than ever and is playable on modern machines. However, the best part of the game, the multiplayer – is damaged by the cross-platform wars.

Available on: Steam, GOG, Xbox One

Review: The Legend of Zelda – Oracle of Seasons/Ages

Nintendo fans rejoice! My long awaited review of the “Oracle” games is finally here. This review also marks the first of my GBC/N64 era “Final Four”. It has been a long time coming, but I’m proud to finally discuss these two classic titles.

Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages are two titles in The Legend of Zelda series. They were released simultaneously and as a result are very similar. In fact, they are actually designed with a special “linked game” mode that allows players to import progress from one game to the other. (More on that later).

At first glance, these games seem very similar to Link’s Awakening. The overall art and sound design are almost identical. But, the Oracle games take full advantage of the Game Boy Color’s graphics – resulting in a much better visual experience than even the DX version of Link’s Awakening.

The two games are nearly identical in terms of play. However, Oracle of Seasons tends to focus more on action, while Oracle of Ages shines a bigger spotlight on puzzle solving. The games are designed to be played in any order. But, for those that want to get technical, it is generally accepted that Oracle of Seasons should occur first in the timeline, followed by Oracle of Ages.

Once a player has completed one of the games, they are given a special password. When starting the second game, this password can be entered to enable the “linked game” feature. As the player progresses through the second title, they will be occasionally prompted to enter additional codes. These codes can be obtained by revisiting the completed first game and talking to specific NPCs. Once entered, these codes will grant perks or unlock special items/weapons in the second game. Thus, allowing the player to benefit from having already completed one of the games in the series.  If playing  these games on the original hardware, this same functionality is also available by using the link cable. But, most modern gamers are likely to be enjoying these courtesy of the 3DS Virtual Console.

It is also important to note that if playing a “linked game”, reaching the end of the second entry will activate a special final chapter. This definitive ending is only available for players who manage to tackle both OoA and OoS.

The storyline for the games start off in a similar way. Link is summoned by the Triforce, which then teleports him to a strange land. In Seasons, he finds himself in the land of Holodrum. It is there that he learns about a terrible creature named Onox who has shrouded the land in chaos. Seasons change on a whim and the people are fearful for their lives. To stop this, link must search for the eight Essences of Nature. Once collected, he will be able to defeat Onox and set things right.

In Ages, Link finds himself in the world of Lybrynna. It is here that Link discovers that the Oracle of Ages, Nayru has become possessed. As result, the flow of time has fallen into an erratic mess. This time, link must quest for the eight Essences of Time. Only then can he save Nayru and restore the flow of time to its proper path.

As mentioned above, completing both games unlocks a final chapter that puts a capstone on both adventures and reveals the true villain behind both games.

For the most part, both games play very much like any other Zelda title. Link explores various dungeons, recovers treasure and defeats bosses. The treasure he finds enable him to progress to new areas, etc. The big difference in these games are the introduction of the Seasons/Time mechanic. In OoS, Link gains the ability to change the seasons at will. This is useful in a number of ways. For example, in winter a mountain path might be blocked by drifts of snow. But, Link can change the season to summer so that the path will be clear. OoA works in a similar fashion. Link can travel through time to overcome obstacles much in the same way.

At first, one might think that by releasing two games side by side, Nintendo was simply trying to cash in on the concept made popular by Pokemon. But in reality, these are two completely separate games. The “linked game” mechanic does not come off as gimmicky at all. Instead, it actually feels very revolutionary, even by today’s standards.

In closing, I found both of these games to be flawless works of art. They certainly live up to the high standards set by the previous entries in the Zelda series. No fan;s library is complete without them.

Difficulty: Medium – The difficulty level for both of these games is pretty even. Neither is much harder than the other. I found both of them to be of average difficulty. Some spots, especially boss fights, can prove a bit troublesome at times. But in almost every case, there’s usually a weakness or strategy the be found.

Story: The storylines here are not as in-depth as what was found in the N64 or SNES Zelda titles. But, there’s enough lore here to keep things interesting and to drive players to completion.

Originality: In design, these games borrow heavily from the prior Game Boy title, Link’s Awakening. But the introduction of the Ages/Season switch mechanic, as well as the “linked game” option, really add a breath of fresh air that keep these titles feeling new and interesting.

Soundtrack: For a large part, the soundtrack for both of these games was lifted right out of Link’s Awakening. But each game also offers some of its own unique music. All in all, the new songs are fitting and appropriate, but they don’t reach iconic status of some of the previous titles in the series.

Fun: If you’re a fan of the Zelda series, these games will undoubtedly be enjoyable. The developers did a great job adding Easter eggs from the N64 titles into the these games. Seeing these brought a smile to my face more than once. Plus, It was just plain fun to figure out many of these classic-style puzzles again.

Graphics: There’s only so much you can do with the GBC hardware. But, these games manage to whip out every trick in the book. They are colorful and detailed, despite being held back by ancient technology. These two titles pretty much represent the pinnacle of GBC graphics.

Playcontrol: Overall no complaints. The controls are very precise and accurate. As with Link’s Awakening, the constant menu switching  can get a bit annoying, but it’s a minor complaint.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: No

Value:  Digitally, these games are available on 3DS Virtual Console for $5.99 each. At this price, they are well worth the money. Collectors can expect to pay anywhere from $10-$30 for original copies of the game.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Despite having farmed out development of these games to CapCom, the quality of both games matches that of any first-party Nintendo title. The Oracle titles are worthy of the Zelda name and I consider them a must-buy for any fan of the series. I played Oracle of Seasons many years a go, but this was the first time getting my hands dirty with Oracle of Ages. To truly appreciate these games, they must be enjoyed in tandem. I can’t recommend them enough.

Available on: 3DS Virtual Console

Other Games in this Series: 

LoZ –  LoZ II – Link to the Past – Link’s Awakening – Ocarina of Time – Majora’s Mask – Oracle of Season & Ages – Wind Waker – Four Swords – Minish Cap – Twilight Princess – Phantom Hourglass – Spirit Tracks – Skyward Sword – Link Between Worlds – Breath of the Wild

Update: Turn of the Century Wrap-Up

I know… I said it last December. But this time I mean it. My “turn of the century” playthrough reviews are almost at an end. I thought I’d be done with these reviews at the beginning of the year. But, my plans were delayed by the building of my new PC. Then, a change to my work routine caused a huge reduction in my gaming time. Plus, every time I think I’m coming to a reasonable end of my backlog, a few games pop back up on my radar. But finally, the end of the PS1/GBC/N64 era is upon is. I am down to what I call the Final Four.

By the end of this month I will be posting three reviews:

For GBC: The Legend of Zelda – Oracle of Seasons/Ages

For PS1: Legacy of Kain – Soul Reaver

For PC: Forsaken (Remastered)

The Zelda titles have been on my list from day one. Soul Reaver should have been, since I reviewed the original game a while back. But somehow I overlooked it when making my list last year. Forsaken was a bit of a surprise. This was a game I enjoyed when it was originally released, but there just wasn’t a decent way to enjoy it on modern hardware. Then, out of nowhere a remastered version was announced and released by Nightdive. This update merges content from both the PC release and the N64 version of the game. I simply couldn’t pass the opportunity up, so I added to the queue.

The end of this month will also see  the long awaited release of the Shenmue I and II remasters. I never owned a Dreamcast, so I totally missed out on these classic games back in the day. Since they also fit into the era of games I’m currently reviewing, I naturally decided to include them. I have them preordered and I plan to dive into them on day-one.

Once these Final Four reviews have been posted, I can finally close the door on this era of my backlog. However, before jumping into the Game Cube/ GBA/PS2/Xbox generation, I do have a few miscellaneous things that I would like to do. 

Before proceeding, I’m going to do a quick “catch-up overview” of the previous eras that I’ve covered so far. For example, while discussed, I never had the chance to fully share my thoughts on a handful of ATARI 2600 classics for example. I also want to cover a few of the more obscure PC and console gems that I might have missed the first time around. Of course, I’ll still be peppering in a few modern reviews here and there.

In a nutshell, I fully expect to begin the 128-bit era at the beginning of next year… Yes, I know. A year later than expected. But I’m getting there!

 

Star Wars: Canto Bight – Various Authors

Next up on my list of unread Star Wars novels is Canto Bight, a collection of short stories that take place on the casino world of – you guessed it, Canto Bight.

Now, I know that in the eyes of many (myself included), the Canto Bight sequence of The Last Jedi was probably one of the low points of the film.  But, I usually enjoy the Star Wars short story collections, so I decided to go into this book with an open mind. Sadly, it seems that even the printed word can’t save Canto Bight from its cursed reputation. 

The tales included in this collection try really hard to entertain. Collectively, they all do an excellent job of providing backstory to the infamous casino city. But the content of the stories themselves are pretty shallow. I found many of them to simply be nothing more than classic heist tropes, or high stakes Vegas drama wrapped in a Star Wars skin. At points, some of the stories manage to be interesting, but they almost always fall flat in the end.

If you’re a fan of capers and con-job tales, you might actually find quite a bit of enjoyment in this book. But general fans are likely to be left rolling their eyes. Canto Bight is already unpopular with a majority of Star Wars fans and this book doesn’t it any favors.

Story: This collections feels largely uninspired and is often downright silly. There are certainly entertaining moments to be found, but overall, I was very let down.

Recommended:  Fans of capers and pulp heist stories might feel right at home with this collection. However, the general Star Wars reader base is likely to find nothing but disappointment here. 

D&D: Family Game – Lost Mine of Phandelver (pt 1)

If you follow the Dungeons & Dragons posts on this site, then you’ll know that my ultimate plan has always been to chronicle an ongoing D&D campaign. Ever since I was first introduced to the game as a child, I’ve been a rabid fan. However, my desires to play were often squashed by my inability to find other like-minded people. Growing up in a rural area certainly contributed to this. And, when I did manage to find other people interested in the game, I was often put off by various things about them. For example, their immaturity, drug use, or sometimes even their personal hygiene. Yes, as sad as it is to admit, many of the stereotypes about greasy, neck-bearded nerds are sometimes very true. Thankfully, with the popularity of the Internet, it is easier than ever to find normal people to play with. Of course, my biggest obstacle today is finding the time to actually sit down and play the game. So, I decided to take the problem into my own hands and start a game at home. This way, I can play with my family on a timetable that works for us.

I’ve toyed with launching a family campaign for quite a while now. Of course, I needed some time to collect materials, brush up on the rules, and prepare myself mentally for the task of hosting the game. Now, I feel that I’m finally ready. Yesterday afternoon, I sat behind the Dungeon Master’s Screen for the first time in over twenty years.

Our family game consists of myself as Dungeon Master, my lovely wife (who has never played D&D), as a tiefling sorcerer, my fourteen-year-old son (who has played), as an elf sorcerer, and my-ten year-old (who also has never played), as a human fighter. To simplify things, I helped my wife and oldest son create characters several weeks ago. We then revisited them a few days ago to tweak some of the smaller details, (character backgrounds, flaws, etc).  For my youngest son, however, I decided to simply provide him with a pre-generated character. (His focus is on the actual experience, and not the number crunching).

Considering that it had been a while since I last played and that most of my family was new to the game, I decided to start with a simple adventure scenario. In this case, I chose the Lost Mine of Phandelver module that is actually included with the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. This scenario is written specifically for both new DMs and Players. The text itself offers a little hand-holding so that new DMs will be able to ease into their role. I spent about a week reading over the module in my free time, so that I would have a pretty firm grasp on the material.

Despite all my preparation, as soon as I sat down behind the DM screen, I began to feel apprehensive. In fact, I was downright nervous. I suddenly felt extremely unprepared and I was worried that I wouldn’t live up to my oldest son’s expectations. A part of me wanted to retreat and call off the game, but I knew he would be even more disappointed if I did – so we continued. Before beginning, I gifted each one of them with a polyhedral dice set to call their own. I broke the ice by having everyone discuss their character backgrounds a little. We fleshed out how the characters met and I provided the set up for the adventure.  

Like all of the early 5E content, this adventure takes place in the Forgotten Realms.  I toyed with the idea of converting it to a homebrew world, but in the end, I decided to keep things as simple as possible. 

Now, if  you have not played this scenario and plan to, you may wish to stop reading now. The next couple paragraphs are going to be very spoiler heavy. You’ve been warned! Spoiler alert!!!

In the first part of the adventure, the characters are tasked with escorting a supply wagon from the city of Neverwinter to the small mining town of Phandelver to the south-east. The journey is largely uneventful until the party is a few miles from their goal, where they come across evidence of a previous ambush. While stopping to investigate the scene, the party is attacked by four goblins lying in wait in the forest on the side of the road. 

This encounter serves as an early introduction to combat. Having never refereed combat in this edition of D&D, I was a bit worried that I’d mess something up, but we took our time to read over the rules and it didn’t take long for things to click. The party was able to defeat the goblins with little effort. It was after this encounter that we ended the game for the afternoon, with plans to pick it back up Thursday evening. 

All in all, I felt our first session went pretty well. Looking back, I was able to identify some mistakes that I made when presenting some of the material. For example, during the goblin encounter, two goblins were supposed to rush forward and attack the party while the other two were supposed to keep their distance and attack from afar. In the heat of the moment, I overlooked that block of text and had all four rush out to meet the adventurers.

As for my family, everyone did wonderfully. My wife enjoyed herself more than she expected to, and both of my sons were very excited to play. I was glad to see that my youngest was attentive and actually thought things out before simply rushing in blind. In closing, it was a very positive experience! 

I’m excited to see how things progress and I will post an update after a few sessions.

Nerd Fuel: Green Mountain – Breakfast Blend

It has been a few months since I posted a Nerd Fuel review. So this time, I decided to go back to basics. No fancy foreign coffees, no seasonal blends, etc. I just wanted to try something simple. This morning I took a trip to the local grocery store and picked up one of those small three-pod boxes of Green Mountain’s Breakfast Blend. It doesn’t get an simpler than a “breakfast blend” brew.  “Breakfast Blend” coffees are typically defined as light or medium-light roasts with very balanced taste profile. They are not particularly strong and they go well with most morning meals. Green Mountain’s Breakfast blend is exactly that.

Now, just because this isn’t an elaborate, exotic-origin coffee doesn’t mean it is not a quality product. As soon as I started the brew, I could tell from the rich aroma that this was actually going to be a pretty decent cup of coffee. It had a very silky and rich aroma, not the dank “wet paper” smell some brands give you. Being a light roast, I was surprised at how aromatic it was. I was equally as pleased with my first sip. The coffee itself has a very mild, but well balanced flavor. It’s smooth, with a bright – almost sweet/woody essence to it. To be honest, it was much better than I expected.

I usually prefer bold and flavorful coffees. But I really wanted to try something outside of my comfort zone. Regardless, I honestly went in to this review expecting to find a bland, boring cup of joe. I have to admit, I was proven wrong. In fact, I think this might end up in my top ten list. If you’re a K-Cup addict, you owe it to yourself to try this. Don’t let the boring name fool you.

Score: 4 out of 4

Would Purchase again?: Yes! This is a quality product. The blend borders on perfection for a “general purpose” coffee. I was pleasantly surprised by this one. A must try!