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This is the fourth part in a series that I'll sporadically work on over the next couple years as I go back and play every game I have interest in and access to, and attempt to catalog my favorite games of each year and do my best to explain why these games are special to me. I've decided to stick to 5 for now, as I prefer to write about games that I'm passionate about, and have no intentions of padding these lists. This will change in the next blog entry. From 1989 onward, each blog will be a top 10.
1988 in my mind is a unique year. I'm not sold on it being one of the best ever, but I think that there is a curious quality to some games from this year.
In '88 there was a change in scope. Not necessarily in the sense of games becoming bigger, but in the sense of games becoming more than what they were. This change can be seen in the fusing genres, finding new, more meaningful means of presentation, and carrying through on the potential of their series.
The Guardian Legend (NES)
1988 saw the release of two games that bifurcated themselves with top-down shooting segments. One was this game, The Guardian Legend, which was one half shmup, the other was Blaster Master which was one half 2D platformer. I struggled a little to figure out which one would go on my list, but I went with the one with a more compelling tone and a more drastic difference between its two gameplay styles.
The Guardian Legend is about a lady-robot-transformer from Earth sent into space to dismantle a doomsday weapon. The game uses this character's ability to transform to smartly maneuver between its two genres, maintaining consistency. Though not as bewildering as Metroid (which it clearly takes inspiration from), The Guardian Legend has a suitably strange atmosphere, which, in its top-down, exploration sequences almost recalls tracing over circuit boards.
Compile developed this game, a company best known for their solid Aleste series, so the ship combat definitely doesn't feel like an afterthought. It's responsive, challenging, and fast despite not being as thoughtfully designed as other works in the genre, environmentally speaking. The top down exploration and shooting isn't quite as impressive, but its spacious, and its mini-bosses are pretty fun.
The problem The Guardian Legend runs into, and what keeps it from being a classic, is that it can't keep its environment interesting. It either needed to cut its length or shake things up in terms of design, because alternating between the same two things without much in the way of progress (visually, mechanically, narratively) all while being restrained to a single location can run a bit tiring. Regardless, this game is a solid experiment in genre that's more than worth a play.
Mega Man 2 (NES)
The word I would use to describe Mega Man 2, is 'confident'. It's a game with such a complete understanding of what it is, and what makes it fun. The first Mega Man established the unique aesthetic and structure (which are both great), but the sequel pushed just about every aspect further. It's really easy to see why it's considered one of the greatest games on the system.
Another word I might use to describe this game is 'synthetic'---in two ways. One way meaning that I feel like most of this game's greatness comes via the synthesis of different ideas. Take a level, for example. Air man's stage has big platforms with spikes that spawn monsters, enemies that drop eggs with monster swarms, and clouds that obscure your vision of Megaman. These aspects aren't dumped all at once, but introduced on their own before mounding together as the level progresses. This game finds a number of pretty original platforming hazards and combines them in interesting and challenging ways.
The other way is more literal. Mega Man can of course synthesize with the bosses he defeats in order to gain new abilities, which is almost the basis of the game, but I suppose I mean it in a more critical way. Mega Man looks great. It's colorful and coherent, serving its gameplay perfectly. It's also unfeeling, which is what puts me at odds with this series in the long term (along with how content the series is to repeat itself). Every level is themed, every level has an infectious, driving tune, but everything lacks a tone, mood, or even sense of place.
But for what it is, (a beautiful, taut expression of refined control and clever design) it's almost perfect. Its reputation as the definitive Mega Man title is well-deserved.
Dragon Quest III (NES)
Dragon Quest II tried to be a worthy successor to the first game but missed the mark. It added party members, a much longer quest, and a far, far bigger world. An abridged version of the world of the first Dragon Quest even exists on the map (with the original overworld theme---a nice touch). But it's so vague, there's so much traveling, and it just doesn't have the precise, quaint charm that made the original so catching. Dragon Quest III stands as a kind of do-over.
Like the second effort, Dragon Quest III is a very large game, and the bulk of the quest is spent gathering a handful of powerful artifacts to vanquish evil. There are a number of things setting these two games a part from one another, but the big one is that Dragon Quest III sees a multi-part quest as an opportunity to tell multiple, unique stories instead of a single, prolonged one. The different locales journeyed to are visually distinct as to be expected, but also present their own arcs which compliment the epoch of the game as a whole.
One particular village houses an abridged version of the Orochi myth, wherein a woman must be sacrificed and it's your responsibility to defeat the demon strong-arming the community into the tradition. Another village is completely desolate until you revisit it at night, as it's flourished into a popular hanging ground for ghosts. My favorite place in the game is a small trading post. In order to complete the story, you have to recruit a player character as a merchant and leave them at the post in order to develop it. Over time the post grows into a bustling town, which eventually falls into a dictatorship under the character you personalized and left at the location.
Unfortunately, the game doesn't support this storytelling with much character work. It goes the same route as the early, odd-numbered entries in the Final Fantasy series, zeroing in on blank slates that you can customize with separate jobs; this allows for more opportunity in combat, but less dynamic narrative possibilities. Still, Dragon Quest III is, for its time, one of the most complete, well-rounded, and surprising RPGs.
Bionic Commando (NES)
I wanted to see how much about this game I could write without mentioning its wonderful crux, but my attempts seemed really contrived. Bionic Commando is a platformer where you can't jump and it's amazing. It puts forth a fresh, unique means of traversal that it elaborates upon with fiendish level design. The grappling hook works wonders to feel elegant in long strides and swings, and also powerful and manic in short, straight bursts. The animation of Spencer slowing down from a full swing in order to climb onto the platform above him is one of the best in the era.
But Bionic Commando is a lot more than swinging, shooting action (though it would be fine at just that). It has a greater focus on its world than a lot of other games do in the genre. It presents the levels on a map that is maneuvered over by Spencer in a helicopter. These levels aren't just places full of enemies that have to be fought through, a number are friendly strongholds with valuable items and other characters to talk to. Patrolling convoys can be battled as they also travel about the world map, and completing levels requires radio communication be made with other soldiers.
Is it nuanced? Not really. Fighting patrols is boring, and the story isn't interesting at all. Is it even coherent? Again, not really, but I think that fact is important. Bionic Commando builds a comprehensively incoherent world for itself, full of approximations and wacky attitude. The world map skirts representing enemy lines or even geographic clarity with its chunky, RGB-colored design, while the soundtrack seems to hapzadardly screech its weird melody. The color palette for this game in general is really crazy, mostly reflecting Spencer's fluorescent green outfit and watermelon red hairdo.
Bionic Commando smartly and stylistically represents itself as a pulpy genre piece, which I feel is different from games of the same era that more blatantly take from preexisting works of visual fiction. It's a unique, original game with an equally unique look and sound.
Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES)
But then there's this game, which I think looms over everything else in its year. This isn't just a sequel, it's a kind of revolution. It doesn't fulfill promises from the previous games, it comes up with its own promises and carries through on them in the same instant.
It's an improvement not just in scope, or features; but in aesthetics, concept, and narrative. The world map itself is such a wonderful staple. The notion isn't anything new for the form, but how it's implemented is fantastic. It visually communicates longstanding shorthand in platformer game design; shortcuts and bonus stages are given spacial context, for example. Moreover, it's a lively, pliable world map. Items found can influence the world and Mario's place in it, from creating shortcuts by changing the geography of the map itself to flying over levels entirely. All the while trees bob, the on-map enemies amble about, and the the castle calls for help.
The game operates on the same rules that the first Super Mario Bros. does, but with every concept pushed about as far as it can go within its given framework. Levels often require more than moving right and timing jumps, with some asking for vertical traversal and others auto-scrolling. Resourcefulness, and use of stored powerups play a part in completion, but also help to smooth over what might be considered flaws in the first game. The plodding underwater sections can be helped with the frog suit, precision long-jumping can be helped with the raccoon tail, and if those hammer bros pissed you off you can can even use their annoying powers for yourself. Super Mario Bros. 3 isn't just some formulated improvement either, it impresses in wild, memorable, and flamboyant new ways. A sun that pursues the player, a big green boot you can high-jack and stomp about in, hell, an entire world that's way bigger than you are. Part of why I love this game is for how nutty and unhinged the whole thing is; how it's able to stick to the spirit of the series while also transforming it so much.
Though ostensibly being mid-life for the NES, there weren't many games for the system that looked better than this one. The color palette is generally lighter, allowing for greater contrast when the darker stages roll around, and a greater emphasis is put into perspective, with shading, edges that appear rounded, and drop shadows all playing really well despite the limitations. What's most impressive to me is that the game flirts with artifice. Parts of the stage look to be held up by screws or constructed by wood, some platforms have gears and paths cut in the sky for their movement, the floor of a stage sometimes appears to slope towards the screen---like down stage at a theater. All the while the game is opened and closed with curtains. This all helps to contextualize the game's story, but also seems to ask the player to notice the craft, the art, of the game itself.
My single favorite moment of the game is the ending, or at least a part of it. I don't mean the Bowser fight, but what comes immediately after it. Peach is shown crying in a room with dark blue tile walls. Mario enters and stands in the doorway. A beat afterwards, the tile walls shift color to pink, and Peach turns around right after. She doesn't hear him or see him, but notices his presence. Her emotional shift and realization is reflected in the environment. It's an awesome bit of storytelling, something that speaks louder than any grand gesture or piece of dialogue could.
So what games from 1988 impressed you the most? What did you think of the year?
I think it's pretty solid, though I don't think it holds a candle to '89, which I'm looking forward to writing about. There's a good 6 or 7 games from that year I adore. Thanks for reading!