Yesterday we examined the cream of the crop of the glory that was 16-bit gaming. Today we’re gonna look at another two great games, one of which was super close to being on that list yesterday.
As stated before, these games do not automatically earn a place at the “Table of Honor,” but they do get the “all-stars” tag in the post to denote their excellence. Also note that, unless otherwise denoted, runner-ups are not listed in any particular rank or order. So let’s get this party started:
This first runner-up was just barely edged out by Link to the Past, only because it just didn’t have that je ne sais quoi that Link did. Here’s a hint: you could find out who the protagonist was using Justin Bailey, but chances are you would have been shocked to find out that he was a she. Yeah, that was pretty obvious, our first runner-up is Super Metroid.
Runner-up: Super Metroid
Super Metroid is yet another one of those games that I never played during its actual lifespan. A full two systems after the launch of the game, I finally played Super Metroid on a ROM (DISCLAIMER: ROMs are morally and potentially legally wrong and I do not play them any more at all) prior to the release of Metroid Prime, just to see what all the hubbub was about and get some perspective on one of the most lauded franchises that I’d never played.
Since I was playing this game in 2002, I was decidedly unimpressed with the opening vocals, but I was very quickly pulled to attention by the instantaneous breakdown of events. The space station was trashed, thanks to the pirates, and here I was being called in to clean up the Alliance mess yet again. I’ll be the first to say that I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes to horror aspects of any type of modern game, but I remember being distinctly creeped out by the empty space station that provided no resistance to Samus as she wandered around, looking for traces of the Space Pirates and the last Metroid and passing the dead bodies of science team members. I also remember, and don’t laugh, this was my first Metroid game and I was playing it on a keyboard, losing to Ridley in the first boss fight of the game.
Poor video game skill aside, I also got a quick taste of the trademark Samus Aran escape sequence once I finally conquered Ridley. Yeah, I knew about the escape sequences, I mean, I didn’t live underneath a video gaming rock, I’d just never played Metroid. This is when the real story starts, as Samus lands on Planet Zebes and begins her trek into the Space Pirate’s subterranean fortress. Of course, when I say story, I mean it very loosely. We had that bit in the beginning and we’ll have a bit at the end, but the rest of the story, in typical Nintendo non-Zelda fashion, is really just boss battling and item collecting. Retro Studios would later correct this in its Metroid Prime series with a really cool scanner feature, but despite the lack of story, I still found myself feeling like I was a part of an epic mission. I can only attribute this to excellent game design if they can make me care about working my ass off to fight a boss just to get a heat-resistant suit to explore the next area.
This type of item/upgrade-driven gameplay is primitive, that’s for sure, but it’s also elegant in its simplicity. There’s no pretending that there’s some sort of necessity for you to get the wave beam beyond the fact that you can’t proceed any deeper without it. There’s definitely a more epic arc to, say, obtaining wings on the Epoch in Chrono Trigger to gain access to the rest of the map, but, as I’ve said, it says something when I can just get an upgrade for the sake of making myself more badass and still be content with that.
I think that the real reason that I had to put Super Metroid as a close fourth to Link to the Past has everything to do with the lack of a story. I can still connect with Samus as a gamer because she’s a part of an expertly constructed video game, but there’s no pathetic (as in pathos) connection. Samus Aran links up with the part of be that likes to blow evil Space Pirates up, but not to the more human emotional parts of my personality. I think Nintendo knows this now too and they’ve done a lot more on this front with Metroid: Zero Mission and Metroid Fusion, particularly in the latter, to try and connect you on a more than superficial level with the most badass bounty hunter in the galaxy.
What else is there to say about Super Metroid? The ambiance is perfect, the pacing (as in when they dole out boss battles and weapon/equipment upgrades) is spot on, and the bosses are all (mostly) really cool. From the first time you open a blue door to the moment you blast off of Planet Zebes trying to not get blown up, you’ll be on the edge of your seat anxious for more (unless you get hopelessly lost, like I frequently did).
I wasn’t originally intending to keep putting commercials in these, but since speed runs are boring and I didn’t want to show a boss battle, ending, or soundtrack snippet, here’s the Japanese commercial for Super Metroid:
The American one sucks. Don’t bother watching it, it’s boring…
Not being able to find a good Youtube clip for Metroid is making me kind of blue. I could probably be pulled out of this stupor by a gold ring or something. Maybe something with “NONSTOP POWER PLAY!” and a “New Save Feature!”
That’s right, got the commercials out of the way early. There’s something…well, not better, but different at the end of this one.
Yeah, it’s Sonic the Hedgehog 3
Runner-up: Sonic the Hedgehog 3
While it’s not the first third-party game to make any of my lists, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is the first to make it on a non-Nintendo platform (but will it be the last?). I want to start by addressing the whole Sonic & Knuckles thing. I know that technically Sonic 3 and S&K are really the same game split in two to cut costs and even Yuji Naka has claimed that the true, full game is Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Still, it didn’t feel right to give the combined games a spot on the list, since you could totally be like my family and own Sonic & Knuckles, but not Sonic 3. The only way we were able to experience the splendor of Sonic 3 was by renting it. So, if I was able to own one and not the other, it’s conceivable that many did not own both. Plus, they were released as sequels. If I could combine the two games into one, well I could just add entire franchises all willy-nilly to this list, destroying its integrity. If I ever have a top list of games that could be combined to form one game, I’ll be sure to include Sonic 3 & Knuckles and those Legend of Zelda: Oracles games.
Sonic 2 did something pretty neat by introducing the expendable sidekick Miles “Tails” Prower, allowing younger brothers everywhere to not be quite so bored when their older brothers were playing Sonic games. Tails and Knuckles, by the way, are the only two characters added to the Sonic universe that don’t make me want to end my life whenever I am forced to listen to them babble in the lame 3-D Sonic games of the present. They were truly the last two cool additions to the cast, but I digress yet again.
So Tails was added in the last game and he makes a return in three, but this time you can even play as him in the single-player mode. This basically means that You have one way of getting through the game, Sonic’s speed, and another where you’re able to fly as Tails. They also still had the familiar two player mode that even allowed you to carry Sonic to unreachable locales, combining what was cool about both characters. If you can’t tell from the comments by my brother, my household was huge on co-op gameplay (holy cow, how could I forget to mention yesterday that FF VI let you play with a buddy during battle?), so being able to play as Sonic and Tails was a huge plus for us, even if Tails would oftentimes get screwed by Sonic’s selfish actions…
Sonic 3, as the last true side-scrolling Sonic game of the 16-bit era also managed to be the best of the lot. The trip through the Angel Island is as tight a platforming experience as the series has ever seen. Sure, it’s got the Sonic level clichés like the water level, casino-type level, industrial/futuristic level, etc., but they’re all so well done that you don’t recognize that you’ve been through these levels twice before. The Robotnik battles are all creative and fun and some are just downright tense. Then there’s the music. If you watch old video, you’ll recognize very quickly that the Genesis hardware really didn’t handle music well. At all. Listening to each of those tunes brings back such fond memories that I can’t help but overlook the awful music processing hardware and just enjoy the bloops and bleeps as I run through the loop de loops of Memory Lane.
It’s a real shame that the only modern Sonic video games of any worth come out on the Nintendo DS. I’d love to see Sonic Team not suck as bad as it does nowadays, get its act together, and make Sonic Unleashed everything that Sonic 3 was for a new generation. I’m just not that optimistic that it can happen, what with every Sonic franchise getting progressively worse with each release.
On that slightly depressing note, here’s a video by some sick bastard who likes to watch Tails suffer:
“Wow Dan, the 16-bit era sure seemed awesome! I can’t wait until you start to cover the next era!”
Whoa there, slow down buddy, we’re not done with 16-bits. Tune in on Tuesday for more runner-ups!