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This is the fifth 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. This is the first year I'll be covering 10 games. 1989 kicks ass.
This is one of my favorite years in game history. Games from this year began to treat their players differently, using their form and content not just to satisfy, but to frustrate, to inspire. Storytelling in RPGs made a collective leap forward, and genre items became not just more substantial, but more expressive in their use of sound and image. My top 10:
Ys Book I & II (TG)
The Ys series is one of the longest running and most unique Japanese RPGs around. It had existed for some time before this release, which is a repackaging of the first two games in the series, but I feel that Book I & II really found the spirit of the series.
The Ys games are action RPGs, and the majority of them feature combat that doesn't have you pressing buttons to attack, but rather running around at high speed, bumping into enemies, almost as if you're assuming the role of a common enemy in any other game. The angle of your attack determines who gets hurt, and with no invincibility after a hit, it's easy to stunlock enemies to death, or get messed up yourself. It's a volatile, quick combat system that can feel a bit janky at times, but it always has you respecting the otherwise simple enemies.
It's this combat that makes the series distinctive, but it's the presentation that made it notable for its time. It makes great use of the PC Engine/Turbografx with animated cutscenes and voice-acting that help push the production value higher than its contemporaries. The real kicker is the soundtrack, which isn't just CD quality, but full of all sorts of rhythmic, catchy tunes with fun instrumentation.
It isn't a great RPG, though. Enemies are pretty much interchangeable, and the story is pretty straightforward. Environments, though distinct, don't amount to much more than mazes peppered with enemies. Bosses provide the most joy because of how much the rely on player movement, but the leveling system leads to the player either dealing barely any damage or smoking the boss in a couple hits.
But those moments when you actually are properly leveled for a boss fight can be fantastic. Moreover, the feeling of the game: zipping around a screen, skewering enemies while an electric guitar blares, makes it a memorable and frequently delightful one.
Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse (NES)
I have something against your average video game sequel: a game that refines and tinkers instead of injecting new ideas or innovating. Castlevania III is a game I feel a bit ambivalent about in that sense: it introduces new aspects, but they aren't ones that change the game that drastically to me. Despite my feelings, it's unquestionably the strongest Castlevania on the NES.
Castlevania III's biggest, best contribution is a series of branching paths. After nearly every level, the player is given the choice between a high and low road, along with some graphical information on what the possible levels ahead might entail. These levels are also illustrated on a map of Dracula's castle and surroundings, which keeps the purpose of the journey and its spacial context on the mind, which I like. More impressive is that these levels are all very distinct, with memorable, sometimes eye-singeing color palettes, platforming challenges, and a (usually) unique boss fight to top it all off.
The other big divergence is the inclusion of other playable characters. There are three, though the Belmont of this game can only be accompanied by one at a time. I never saw any of these three to be as rewarding as my whipping boy, as the game is more tightly designed around him, but one thing I do appreciate about these new characters (well at least two thirds of them) is that they carry new means of movement. Alucard can turn into a bat, and Grant can climb on walls and change his jump trajectory. I don't really find these specialties to be all that useful, mostly because they're paired with characters that can't attack as well as Trevor Belmont, but I like that the game put emphasis on how these characters can navigate a level; this is a platformer after all.
Castlevania is the breakout statement, Castlevania II is the ambitious failure, and Castlevania III is the refined trip back to basics.
In my mind, still the premiere Batman game. Mechanically, the game prioritizes close combat over anything else. To punch is free, but the useful ranged gadgets are a resource. To some, it might be a mistake to overlook the grappling hook, but without it we get some of the best wall-jumping on the system, overshadowing Ninja Gaiden in my view. Not only is it an integral part of the platforming action, it looks great too! The animation is wonderful, taking the full time to show Batman push off and turn around, which adds a realism and weight to his character.
The game looks fantastic as well. It sparingly uses extremely detailed animated cutscenes to help get the player in the mood and draw comparison to the film the game is based on. The gameplay itself is even more visually compelling. Deep, rusty greens, blues and reds seem to carve the environment out of the darkness. Girders bisect what looks like storefronts and avenues. It's a nearly abstract world, made of familiar textures threaded together by shadows.
Sunsoft, the developers, made a handful of games in the back half of the NES lifespan that genuinely felt atmospheric (one of which I'll be writing about in the next blog). Visuals, sound design, and music working together to evoke a mood suitable to its dramatic stakes and action. Batman is almost a little ordinary without the fascinating presentation of this game, but I suppose the same could be said about a lot of Batman stories.
Super Mario Land (GB)
One of my favorite Mario games. Explaining why can be tough, after the game-changing Super Mario Bros 3, or the traditional, in-line 6 Golden Coins that would act as this game's sequel. Clearly Mario isn't his proportional self, and neither is the world around him. Suspended blocks and preexisting enemies are far smaller and nondescript, and the new additions (a submarine shmup level..?) seem almost unrecognizable as Mario fare.
It might be easy to say that this is simply a good mobile Mario; that these changes and distinctions are only there because of hardware limitations. It would certainly be harder to say otherwise, but the game carries a very unique and catching tone that sits separate from its hardware. Like many of the best Mario games, this one is bewildering and oblong in new ways.
Its slimmed-down world and generally slower gameplay should, in theory, inspire frustration, but it retains the precision that Mario games are known for. Its slower place and shorter length helps it build an identity of its own; a playful, breezy one that's more focused on being its own thing rather than acting as a successor to Super Mario Bros. 3. The soundtrack, which is one of my favorite things about the game, is really jaunty and carefree, and fits in perfectly with its sly, bubbly attitude.
Super Mario Land isn't a great Mario game in the traditional sense, which is exactly why I like it so much. It's short, pleasing, and often surprising.
Twin Hawk (Arcade)
Toaplan was one of the premiere genre developers of this time, best known for their shmups (and eventually dissolving into multiple studios that would fight carry similar distinctions, like CAVE and Raizing). Their games implemented a checkpoint system similar to Gradius, and more interestingly, they were usually presented in a single scroll, which imagines the game as a one-way trip. After finishing a boss fight, the screen just keeps on scrolling into the next zone instead of kicking you back to a briefing screen and warping you into a completely different environment.
Twin Hawk is my favorite of their work, which isn't a very popular choice, given they have many more technical and difficult games in their catalogue. The main reason I love this game is the bomb button. Tapping it twice does what you expect from a bomb, but tapping it once does something sort of profound: it summons in six other planes to fly in formation beside you. They all have their own hurtboxes, and will be taken down by enemy fire. Tapping the bomb button again, will order any remaining fighters to crash, kamikaze style, into on-screen enemies.
It results in a mood that's unlike any other shmup from the time. One that builds a loyal, desperate group of wingmen around you, and directly relates your effectiveness in battle to their survival. Ordering a formation in, keeping it alive for a good minute, and then slowly watching it get whittled down, is surprisingly effective both mechanically and dramatically. The previously mentioned single scroll paired with the game's exaggerated World War II imagery builds a kind of extended bombing run mentality. It's really great genre work that's contextualized and improved through its design decisions.
Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap (MS)
At first peek, and even play, Wonder Boy III doesn't appear to have a whole lot going on. It looks a bit tacky, with a bright, saturated color palette and cartoony character designs that aren't always attractive. Jumps can feel a bit odd, and its art style: a world full of little blocks and doorways that appear and disappear don't really add up to creating a coherent world.
This is all a ruse, don't fall for it. Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap is one of the most hard-fought platformers of its time. The game starts with Wonder Boy defeating a dragon and being transformed into a dragon himself. This is the central mechanic: fighting bosses that will transform Wonder Boy into different anthropomorphized animals while navigating a semi-open world. It starts off simple enough with loose platforming and learning the space immediately around you, but it quickly turns into a series of pathways that open themselves depending on whatever transformation Wonder Boy is stuck as.
Trips to bosses, always stemming from the same hub, are tests of fortitude and understanding both your character and the path . Each major journey takes on a different flavor not just because of the change in scenery or new enemies; Wonder Boy's movement, hitboxes, and hurtboxes all vary depending on what transformation you're currently stuck as. Things like frame data don't usually factor that heavily into platformers, but this game features surprisingly punishing levels, ones that require careful movement and precise attacks. My experience was one of survival; trying to take as little damage while precisely stun-locking enemies to death so I would have the resources to take down the boss.
That last paragraph might have looked like an evocation of Dark Souls, which I think is apt. There's an absurd rigor to Wonder Boy instead of the mechanical cleverness that typified so many other platformers and adventure games from its era, and it's all the more fascinating because of it.
Sweet Home (FC)
A little bit of a foreword: this game is based on a Japanese horror film of the same title released in the same year: a fun, moody haunted house story about a group of filmmakers who break into a dilapidated mansion in order to capture/report on a fresco and are then terrorized by a vengeful ghost. It's directed by the incredible Kiyoshi Kurosawa---one of the best living filmmakers before his breakout, and it is produced by and stars Juzo Itami, a notable film figure in Japan best known in the West for directing the international hit Tampopo.
Kurosawa and Itami are important because they both also collaborated on this game along with Capcom heavyweight Tokuro Fujiwara, and the result is unlike anything else in the medium thus far. It's a turn-based RPG with a heavy emphasis on environmental exploration, and item and character management. The plot is similar to the film, but with several frescoes, that when photographed, uncover journal entries that help layout the history of the mansion and its residents.
There are five characters in this game, each with a kind of sutured item (a camera, a vacuum cleaner, etc.) that are extremely important for survival and navigating the hostile environment. One of the game's greatest conceits is that party size is limited to three, which makes the player toggle between controlling more than one group of characters. It factors directly into the trope of splitting up in a haunted house (ever seen Scooby Doo?) and results in navigating the mansion carefully and thoroughly. Some hazards exist solely to separate party members from one another and enemies hit hard, so it can be nerve-racking piloting a less than adequate party through an area full of tough enemies.
And why would it be especially nerve-racking? Because there's permadeath. If a character dies, you're treated to a particularly gruesome death scene and now have to scour about for a replacement for the useful skill that they had. A loss is more than being handicapped in fights; it's a blow to inventory size and capabilities, which makes survival and organization feel more crucial than in a normal RPG.
Sweet Home is something special. It's a weird, unexpected anomaly that (along with two other games this year which I cover below) helped to change the shape of the JRPG, and it also practically invented another genre in survival-horror. Apparently Resident Evil, what many see as the first true survival-horror, started as a remake of this game.
Phantasy Star II (GEN)
I was never big on the first Phantasy Star game. I appreciated its science-fiction fantasy and its low-stakes beginnings, but I found it too slow and hated the first-person dungeon crawling. It wasn't a game I finished, but I appreciated what I played of it. Despite these feelings, I adore Phantasy Star II, even if, in some ways, it's one of the most ridiculous JRPGs around.
Let's get this out of the way: Phantasy Star II is tough and its dungeons are stupid. Not because there are too many; there actually aren't many for how long the game is and they're each visually distinct, which is great. The problem is that the layouts of these dungeons progress from maze-like to complete shit-shows, and wind up being being a chief frustration and generous blemish on this otherwise incredible game. Play with dungeon maps in the back half of the game, doing otherwise is torturous.
Tough it out, and you're left with one of the best RPGs around. Its story concerns the fate of a terra-formed world run by a supercomputer. The main character Rolf, a civil servant, is first ordered to investigate the appearance of monsters, but quickly begins to unearth a conspiracy which threatens the world and his place in it. Phantasy Star II has an excellent pace to it, overhauling the mission of the lead characters at several crucial times to keep things engaging. These plot points are often illustrated through cut-scenes that are really well storyboarded, that don't just get across information in a coherent and dramtic way, but (especially in the opening and ending sequences) craft a mood that's mysterious and dire.
Rolf is accompanied by a host of party members (most notably his right-hand cat-woman Nei), who are all given reasons for joining him, and all have a unique set or combination of abilities. Though character development isn't a primary focus, it's neat to have such a distinct party in an era that usually relied on the player to personify and ascribe meaning to a group of blank slates.
Phantasy Star II's astuteness in storytelling and commitment to its world culminate in one of the great endings in the medium's history: a devastating revelation paired with a wonderfully appropriate send-off to its cast, all capped off with surprisingly effective final quote. It's rare that a JRPG or a video game in general ends in such a way (excessively playing things out and wrapping up all loose ends seems to be the norm), even today.
River City Ransom (NES)
This game is so ahead of its time I can hardly stand it. River City Ransom takes a still growing genre, the beat-em-up (which would promptly hit a dead end in half a decade), and elaborates so thoroughly on it, it makes even modern efforts feel trite and unfocused. It's a game that understands its space and the people that inhabit it, in surprising and sometimes profound ways.
A player character in a beat-em-up is often extremely powerful and reliably static. An average beat-em-up is linear (usually with a prompt, urging you to march forward), with an abbreviated or novel sense of space. River City Ransom changes both of these characteristics. Player characters are built upon, learn new moves, and exist outside of hand-to-hand combat. There are several enemy-free shopping districts in the game that allow players to wander about and visit shops that provide stat-building foods and books that contain new attacks. Currency is found from defeated foes, transformed from the genre-norm of 'here's something to add towards your point total' to something more appropriate: a means of improvement.
River City, shop districts and all, is one of the best articulated spaces in 80's gaming, a world that's wonderfully detailed, in which everything contained within it makes sense. Side streets, alleys, city blocks, parks: all rendered in a non-fussy but pleasantly stylized way. These locales aren't connected in a string, but with forking paths and dead-ends which feels natural (unlike the mobius strip of its semi-sequel Downtown Special).
The naturalism of its world is offset by the people within it; all of which are stocky with accentuated features---particularly the eyes and mouths. These characters animate in broad, expressive ways and smack-talk the player when fighting. When not fighting, they're more pleasant and even goofier. The player can go relax at the spa (with a famous, complimentary bare-butt sighting), and get food---complete with animation of ordering food, eating, and exchanging pleasantries. My favorite moment in the game is ordering a smile from the girl at the fast food restaurant. It's on the menu as 'free' and makes your character blush. Lovely.
This heightened sense of character (in just about every sense) informs and contextualizes the fighting, but something needs to be said for the fighting itself. Of course it's excellent; stun-locking enemies and pitching them into the air with an uppercut will always be a good feeling, but River City Ransom does this all with a little more personality. Weapons, which are all appropriate back-alley fixtures, can be taken from enemies, thrown, and larger ones will skid along the ground, knocking people over. There's a wonderfully scrappy, improvisational tone to the fighting; different from other, cleaner, more acrobatic games in the genre.
It remains one of the great works of the genre, and still seems to point to unexplored possibilities and quirks for the beat-em-up.
A second groundbreaking RPG came this year as the result of collaboration from outside the realm of programming or typical means of game development. Pop-writer Shigesato Itoi approached Nintendo to direct a game: a modern-day set RPG inspired by Dragon Quest about a young boy battling aliens. While it's subject matter can't be disputed (it's still very clearly a game about a boy battling aliens), it's a lot more than that.
Mother is one of the earliest games I've played with a very distinct, clearly expressed thematic goal. Mother isn't so much a hero's quest as much as it is a more frequently traveled, emotional one: the quest of maturity as a child. Ninten, the protagonist, starts only with guidance from his parents (the father, though caring, is absent, communicating only by telephone) and slowly, spatially, socially, emotionally, moves further away from them. This transition isn't looked at with tragedy, but with a particular bitter-sweetness that almost seems culturally specific to Japanese storytelling.
The game is built in a way that immediately has the player relying on their mother. Mom has the ability to cook your favorite meal for free (which you get to name!) which restores your health entirely, and the world of Mother is very unforgiving. Returning home can be done at any time, but naturally becomes less convenient as
lifethe game moves on. No status ailment like the sequel; this game relies upon the player's grace to visit mom. Alone, Ninten wanders about, battling childhood fears and anxieties, eventually making friends with Lloyd, a bullied child at a local school---which not only adds dimension to the story and gameplay, but changes the overworld theme to the jauntier "Bein' Friends".
Ninten and company also travel to an imaginary realm called Magicant, one of my favorite places in the game. It's full of several supportive NPC's (most grown-ups in the actual world treat Ninten with ambivalence), including the flying men. Magicant is, when first encountered, a very tough area, and a maze full of tough enemies is the only escape. The flying men are almost necessary, willing to take hits on your behalf. If one dies, you can return to their house, walk past the grave they just dug for their brother and ask for more help, which they will accept despite their likely fate. At the end of the maze isn't some boss, but a figure in a doorway with a destroyed sense of self-worth whose words and actions seem to contradict one another, like a depressive making a reluctant plea for help.
The journey moves on and Ninten meets a girl named Ana that admires him, and has similar talents. The three continue traveling, using public transit for the first time and adventuring into abandoned locales. Their friendship, and in Ninten and Ana's case, first love, are expressed through dance. The game ends not by destroying the final boss, but reminding them that they were loved at one point. The title, Mother, isn't exactly literal; this is a game about everyone that exists. The only reason we're here at all is because someone cared for us until we were capable enough to fend for ourselves; our figurative mothers. Mother allows its message to be what wins the game, which is astounding.
So what's missing? What did you make of the year?
Obviously I'm a big fan. The three games closest to this sentence are all-time favorites for me, and I'm not sure if there's a better year until maybe 1993.