Espresso Shot Review – Alundra

Good morning and welcome back to another edition of Games with Coffee!

Today, I’m talking about a game that’s both close to my heart and one of my favourites for the original PlayStation (PS1) era – Alundra! It’s an underrated gem that’s similar to Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda, but with tougher puzzles to solve, lots of platforming elements and a great story with a compelling cast of characters that focuses on humanity, religion and the power of dreams.

I was introduced to the game back in 1998, in the sixth grade. I rented it at the same place where I rented Final Fantasy VII for the first time and I was surprised at the open, vibrant world and the quirky cast of characters that occupied the modern-looking village of Inoa. The game was much more challenging that I realized; the puzzles required a lot of thought to figure out and I needed to read the clues a couple of times until I could figure out the correct solution. One memorable puzzle in a crypt required me to speak to five spirits in a particular order. It stumped me, even after my rental period ended. Determined to solve the puzzle, I was led to a site called GameFAQs.com (formerly known in 1998 as gamesages.com and currently bought over by Gamespot) where I took a post-it note and wrote down the sequence: 3, 2, 4, 1, 5. That post-it note sat on my bedroom mirror for roughly 7 years until I eventually lost it.

This game had such an impact on me that I used it as a premise for (yet another) fanfiction-turned-creative writing assignment. I should mention that this particular assignment was part of a standardized test given to all Ontario students in the sixth grade. Needless to say, I bombed spectacularly. It was a terrible piece of writing (I think I threw in a spatula or something… I don’t know why), but I still had lots fun with it.

After the rental place shut down in the beginning of the 21st century, I was certain that I lost the opportunity to complete the game. While I spotted it in some niche gaming stores here and there, I didn’t have the money to pick it up for myself (I was but a somewhat humble, yet very broke high school student at the time).

All that changed when I got my PS3 and saw it was on the PlayStation Network, over a decade later. I instantly snatched it up, intent on finishing what I started. After getting past the crypt dungeon, I had discovered that the world Alundra and company inhabited was much darker than I realized. And once I finished it, I felt that I stumbled upon a masterpiece that was on par with games like The Legend of Zelda.

But questions remain here in 2018, what with the release of blockbuster games like God of War and other similar adventure games made by indie developers: does this feeling still hold true? Can this game be considered a masterpiece almost 20 years after its initial release? Top up your brew because I will attempt to answer these in the Espresso Shot Review:

Background

Box Art

Alundra was developed by Matrix Software and published in North America by Working Designs. Matrix Software, established in July of 1994, was partially made up of former employees of another developer called Climax Entertainment. This point is important to make, as Alundra itself is considered a spiritual successor to a little-known Sega Genesis Action/Adventure game made by Climax called Landstalker. Landstalker’s isometric views, multi-leveled platforming and puzzle mechanics and storyline were the blueprints that gave Alundra life, although the isometric view were ditched for the more traditional top-down view.

Matrix Software, in particular, is well known developing remade ports of the Final Fantasy series, starting in 2006 with the Nintendo DS remake of Final Fantasy III. It’s interesting to note that while they made their start in the action-adventure genre, they ended up developing ports for popular, classic RPG’s. Alundra was the company’s very first game, which took the better part of three years to develop and was released in Japan on April 11, 1997 and in North America on December 31, 1997.

Story

Alundra tells the story of the titular adventurer travelling to Inoa Village, in the land of Torla. He is summoned there at the behest of a mysterious figure who appeared in his dreams, begging him to help the residents overcome a malevolent force. While en-route to Torla, a sudden, violent storm scuttles the ship he’s travelling on, leaving many individuals dead and Alundra on the Torlan coastline, unconscious.

ON the shop

He is found and nursed back to health by Jess, Inoa’s resident blacksmith and a good-natured man, who fills him in on the situation. Since the King forbade the worshiping of idols some five years ago, the people of the land had lost their ability to create. In return, they found that they had the ability to control their dreams. Soon enough, those dreams warped into twisted and horrifying nightmares whose effects manifest in the waking world, affecting the villagers in a myriad number of ways. One resident – Nadia – causes explosions when they sleep, so she is forced to stay awake, losing her sanity all the while. A child named Sybil has prophetic dreams of the future while awake and she shares these with Alundra, giving him clues as to what he should expect from his journey.

Soon after Alundra is rescued by Jess, an elderly resident of Inoa –  Wendel – is stricken with a nightmare. Alundra is then introduced to Septimus, a scholar who relocated to the village to investigate the nightmares. After travelling to the scholar’s teacher’s house near the village and obtaining a tome for Septimus, Alundra learns of his true heritage – that he is a Dreamwalker of the Elna Clan, gifted with the ability to enter and influence people’s dreams, most times for the better. Using that power, Alundra starts to defeat the demons that haunt the villagers nightmares. However, despite his valiant efforts, some villagers still end up dying.

Jess 2

It isn’t until after the first few villagers pass away that Alundra finally meets the mysterious figure he saw in his recurring dreams. The figure introduces himself as Lars, who tells him that his true enemy is a being named Melzas – a demon who desires humanity’s destruction. Despite being sealed up in a lakeside palace by Lars and six others, he can still influence and control people through dreams and worship. Lars instructs Alundra to gather the seven crests held by the guardians that keep the seal of the palace intact, enter it and destroy Melzas once and for all before he truly awakens and brings ruin to all.

However, it appeared that Melzas was a few steps ahead of the Guardians before Alundra arrived. The demon employed the white-haired monkeys known as the Murgg to infiltrate and steal the crests, thus hastening Melzas’ reawakening. As the plot starts to thicken, the Murgg have managed to steal two of the seven, meaning that Alundra would have to work double time to hunt down the remaining five and find a way to regain the two that were stolen.

Melzaz

Midway through the game, another Dreamwalker named Meia arrives in the village. Initially cold towards her fellow clanmate, she warms up to him after he learns of her tragic past and actively assists him in saving the villagers from Melzas. She’s also a great foil for Septimus; her sardonic outlook on life counters that of the scholar’s eternal optimism and makes for interesting conversation.

Meia

The story makes many dark turns as it progresses and the game is not afraid to kill off the odd character or two. Some deaths were shocking to behold, specifically, those where a child and a character central to the plot were murdered. The villagers are affected greatly by these deaths, their conversations changing as the game progresses, up to the point where they become despondent enough to place the blame solely on Alundra. Although it’s not without some influence.

Enter the priest Ronan. Religion plays an important role in the game, in that the priest and his disciple, Gilles, are highly circumspect of Alundra and his miraculous dreamwalking powers. He preaches to the villagers to reject the notion that Alundra is a savior and instead reaffirm their faith to their god, which the player eventually learns is Melzas himself. Through Ronan, Melzas attempts to discredit Alundra and turn the villagers against him by pointing out that those he attempts to save usually end up dead and that everything was fine until he showed up. Ronan’s descent into madness and fevered devotion to his false god are what makes him both so reviled and so interesting as a character. He’s killed innocent people to satisfy the status quo, rejects all notions that his faith is so badly skewed and truly believes in Melzas’ twisted message of salvation, so much so that he’s willing to sacrifice his own humanity for that cause. He makes for a very interesting villain.

One last note in this section: the English translation of the game’s script is incredibly quirky and entertaining to read. Characters exude plenty of charm and some of the things they say are hilarious to behold.

Gameplay

Alundra is an action/adventure platforming game displayed from a top-down perspective, similar to the The Legend of Zelda games. The character can move in all directions, jump, attack with a weapon, execute a dash and shoulder charge and use equipped items, like recovery herbs, bombs and capes and magic items.

Platforming in this game can be an exercise in patience since it’s sometimes difficult to judge both how far Alundra can jump and the distance between platforms themselves. To add to that, platforms can be hidden behind objects or backgrounds, meaning that the player must investigate every nook and cranny to advance. One area in particular that frustrated me to no end was an underwater section, where the water physics affected the timing and length of my jumps. I would over or underestimate the length and timing of my jump to the next platform and fall to the bottom level, where I had to maneuver through a maze to find a bubble to get back to the upper floor in order to try again.

Two things make this game stand out. The first being the fiendishly difficult puzzles. There is an enormous variety of puzzles to solve in this game, including pushing ice blocks, stepping on or flipping switches in a particular order or arranging items in a certain order. Many puzzles require close reading of the clues in order to solve, such as the puzzle at the crypt entrance, where a spirit tells you to speak to five coloured spirits in order from most revered to least. Another example is stacking a set of symbol blocks in reverse order, which the clue mentions briefly. For the majority of the time, however, it’s a word or a phrase that is overlooked that’s the main cause of confusion for solving these puzzles. Some require a combination of timing and thinking outside of the box to solve as well and some solutions, especially in the final dungeon, span multiple rooms and may require solving smaller sub-puzzles to advance further. I’ll be honest, I needed a guide at some point to solve some of these.

The second is the amazing dungeon design, especially the Dream Dungeons. Each of these dungeons are specific to the character affected and alters the dungeon mechanics to reflect that character’s personality. Take for instance Elene, who suffers from disassociative identity disorder or multiple personalities. Her Dream Dungeon is actually four mini-dungeons that reflect the four personalities Elene possesses. Another great example are the identical twins, Nestus and Bergus, whose connection to one another allows Alundra to travel between both brothers via their dreams. This reflects on their dream dungeon, where everything is a mirror image of each other! It’s quite well done.

There are three collectibles, of which two are vital to your quest. They are the Life Vessels and Magic Seeds. Life Vessels permanently add a point of health to Alundra’s HP, which maxes out at 50 HP. The Magic Seeds increase Alundra’s magic ammunition, to a maximum of four uses. Gilded Falcons are optional collectibles, but they allow Alundra to access special items and additional Life Vessels once you’ve obtained enough throughout the game.

Gilded Falcon

One complaint I have is that some areas become inaccessible later on in the game, meaning that constant exploration is needed to avoid missing collectibles, like Gilded Falcons and Life Vessels. This is especially apparent in the Dream Dungeons, since you can’t reenter a dream once it’s over. It’s an annoyance, albeit a minor one really.

Alundra_Life_Vessel_1b

Alundra has access to a variety of weapons, each required to accomplish a certain action. Along with his sword, he also uses a Flail to break blocks, a Crossbow to activate switches from long range and the Fire and Ice Wands to both solve puzzles and deal elemental damage. The Sword and the Fire and Ice Wands all have access to a charge attack when you get them (Alundra starts with a dagger with no charge attack), while charged attacks for the Flail and Crossbow are obtainable once you pick up their upgrades. Alundra also has access to spells of the four elements: Fire, Water, Earth and Wind. Each spell can be upgraded (from scroll to book) and they’re ridiculously powerful, to the point where they’re game-breaking.

There is also a secret, incredibly powerful sword called the Legendary Sword that can only be obtained if the player dies multiple amounts of times. This is akin to an easy mode combat-wise, because it one-shots virtually every enemy and makes Alundra absolutely unstoppable. Getting the sword does not make the puzzles any easier, I’m afraid.

Alundra also has access to armor, which reduces the damage he takes from enemies. He starts with basic cloth armor and can obtain upgrades as the story progresses. His boots are also upgradable; each new pair increases his jumping ability, grants him the ability to swim and allows easier travel through difficult terrain, like sand and shallow water. Two of these are required to complete the game while the final and ultimate version of the boots is a missable item.

There are a lot of enemies in the game. One thing I’ve noticed is how much endurance even the simplest of foes have. The Pukas and Slimes (similar to the Zols in the Zelda games) basically take five hits to beat at the start of the game and they’re found all over the land. There are ogre-like warriors called Gragg, monkey warriors named Murgg, mud golems, reapers, Lizardmen, Evil Trees, Mummy Guardians, you name it. Some of the most interesting monsters are found initially in the Nightmare dungeons, like Soul Devourers; odd, Lovecraftian monsters with tentacle-like appendages that extend from their abdomens and that can teleport all over a stage.

I find that some enemies, like the Sand Worms and the Bug Bags, are supremely annoying to deal with or hard hitting for the stage of the game that you fight them in. Sand Worms make an annoying squelching sound whenever they appear and disappear, which aggravates me to no end. Furthermore, once hit, the worms immediately enter the ground again. Bug Bags can surround you, take off a chunk of health and they can absorb a large beating before dying off. Plus, they leave behind residual bugs that do contact damage once defeated, which only adds to their annoyance factor. Lizardmen are also tough fighters to attack and defend against; they are quick with their shields and have a powerful dashing attack, which makes for a challenging set of foes.

The first two or three bosses are not very impressive to start with. This changes after the Coastal Caves – the boss here is an water demon with various area-of-effect attacks and is a challenge to defeat. Subsequent bosses afterwards require certain strategies to defeat. The Giant, Nirude, is an interesting fight in that you don’t fight at all; you have to survive his onslaught long enough to prove your worth. My only gripe is the last few bosses in the game. Apparently, because your weapons at the later stages of the game are so powerful, the game’s designers nerfed their effectiveness against some of the late game bosses, including Melzas. Regardless of what weapon you use at that stage, it will take roughly 30 to 60 hits to defeat these powerful foes. Magic is an exception in that they are much more effective than standard weaponry alone.

Visuals

Alundra is a very pretty game to watch. At the time of its release, 2-D graphics were slowly on the outs, replaced by flashier (and blockier) 3-D polygonal models. It’s in the present time however, with the resurgence of retro graphics in indie releases, that Alundra’s visuals really shine forth. The level of detail and polish on the sprites and backgrounds are stunning; shadows, colours, textures effects and the like really brings the fantasy elements of the story to life. They are charming to look at.

I really liked the design of Inoa Village: It has a nice, modern look to it and it appears  like a pleasant village to stay in, despite the fact that the residents are plagued with violent nightmares. It somewhat reminds me of Kakariko Village in Breath of the Wild, minus the Asian influence.

Inoa Village

Visually speaking, Alundra is a red-headed version of Link, elf ears and all. The only differences are that he doesn’t wear a hat or green clothes and that he can jump. Nevertheless, Alundra’s animations and actions look very smooth.

The only complaint I have is in regards to the platforms. Alundra’s visuals sometimes makes it difficult to gauge your distance between platforms; you’re either over or underestimating the distance between ledges, pillars and overhangs. In any case, it’s only a minor annoyance.

Enemies also look visually appealing, in the sense that they look tough and intimidating. The bosses from the Coastal Cave and beyond are also particularly impressive looking. The bosses in some of the Nightmare dungeons are truly terrifying, including one that attempts to suck you into its gaping stomach like a grotesque version of Kirby.

Kirby boss

Audio

I personally adore Alundra’s soundtrack. The theme for Inoa Village is one that stuck with me for years before I replayed the game and is one of my favourite tracks. It’s upbeat and catchy nature juxtaposes against the despair of the villagers, creating an interesting contrast.

The Wind That Shook The Earth is Alundra’s overworld music. It really captures the spirit of adventure and exploration, in that it’s powerful and epic and has the propensity of making me smile whenever I hear it. I honestly can’t get bored of listening to this song.

Alundra also has some great dungeon music. The House of Tarn, which you hear in a couple of dungeons, is a tense and mystery-filled piece that makes me feel like there’s something lurking in the dark corners of the dungeon. The generic Nightmare dream dungeon music really reflects the nightmarish feeling that Alundra encounters when he enter’s the villager’s dreams.

My personal favourite song in the game is the first one you hear when you start a new game: the track that plays when you’re on the ship, heading for Torla. It really makes one feel that they are travelling to a foreign land and starting a brand new journey. I love it.

The SFX in the game are also pretty good and remind me strongly of The Legend of Zelda, specifically Ocarina of Time.

Replayability

This game is pretty long, clocking in at over 20 or so hours of solid gameplay, possibly 25 if you’re a first time player thanks to the brutally difficult puzzles. After beating Melzas, there’s not much to do post-game – you could try your luck in the secret casino area? That’s assuming you picked up the Secret Pass in Inoa Village. You could try your hand at hunting down all 50 Gilded Falcons (Good luck with that…) and trade them in to get an extra special item that virtually makes you all but invincible. I’d play this game again and again because of how great this story is, but that’s my personal opinion. (To date, I’ve replayed it about six times now – I’m currently in the middle of a playthrough as I speak!)

The Last Drop

Pros:

  • Beautiful visuals and sprite art.
  • Interesting and intelligent dungeon design.
  • Quirky characters and a great story.
  • Open world exploration with lots of hidden secrets and collectibles.
  • Soundtrack is well done.
  • Boss fights are challenging and engaging.

Cons:

  • Brutally difficult puzzles, some which may require a guide to solve.
  • Developers nerfed the damage done to some of the end game bosses since Alundra is incredibly powerful at that point of the game.
  • Platforming can be tricky and frustrating at times.
  • Some enemies can be downright annoying to deal with (eg: Sand Worms, Bug Bags, Lizardmen, etc.).
  • Lots of missable items that requires paying close attention to detail in dungeons and/or backtracking throughout the land at every opportunity.

Alundra is truly one of the PlayStations’s Hidden Gems; a game that you come across at random, but yet leaves a lasting impression on you after you play it. Even though the puzzles and platforming elements can be on the difficult side at time, it’s story, combat, open world and quirky dialogue more than make up for it. If you’re a fan of open world adventure games or of the Legend of Zelda, this game is definitely for you!

4.5/5

4.5 out of 5

Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior: Espresso Shot Review

Good morning and welcome to another edition of Games with Coffee! Let thy cup runneth full of beany goodness!

If the slight Olde English hasn’t tipped you off yet, today I’ll be talking about the very first RPG I’ve ever played: Dragon Warrior for the Nintendo Entertainment System! Also known as Dragon Quest in Japan, this is the first installment of the long running Dragon Quest series.

This game has many memories associated with it – every game I’ve played on the NES as a child was a challenge, but few have challenged me so like this one. But now I wonder, after almost 32 years since its original release and 29 years for the North American version, how does it fare in my eyes in the present day? Well, its the subject of today’s Espresso Shot Review! Let’s take a look:


Dragon Quest was released on May 1986 in Japan and in North America in August 1989 under the name Dragon Warrior, by Enix, a company producing RPG games before they merged with their rival, Squaresoft, in the early 2000’s to create Square-Enix. Dragon Warrior is considered to be one of the grandfather’s of Japanese RPG’s, setting the base template for all modern JRPG’s to follow.

I will be reviewing Dragon Warrior, released in August of 1989 for the NES, just over three years after Dragon Quest was released for the Famicom.

Dragon Warrior (USA) (Rev A)-0

Story

Dragon Warrior takes place in the kingdom of Aelfgard, a series of modestly sized lands with rivers, islands and the like. Many years ago, when darkness covered the land, a hero named Erdrick brought peace to the kingdom by slaying a great evil and using an artifact called The Ball of Light to banish the remaining dark creatures. He handed it over to the King in Tantegel Castle, ensuring that the kingdom would be protected.

One individual was not a fan of the Ball’s radiance; he was the Dragonlord, a man corrupted by evil magic and who could control dragons. He gathered an army, invaded Tantegel Castle and stole the Ball of Light, casting the kingdom back into darkness. He then went on a reign of terror, razing towns and causing generic havoc before settling down in his castle, Charlock, on an island surrounded by impassable waters near Tantegel.

Years later, a prophet proclaimed that a new hero will emerge – a descendant of Erdrick himself – to save the land. After the Dragonlord kidnapped Tantegel’s beautiful princess, Gwaelin, a man (the player character) arrives at the kingdom, proclaiming himself to be that descendant. The current King, believing him, instructs him to save his daughter, defeat the Dragonlord and bring the light back to Aelfgard.

dragon-warrior-usa-rev-a-1-e1519351446161.png

This is the hero of our story! His name is Roast.

As far as story goes, this is pretty cookie cutter: save the princess, defeat the bad guy, save the world. It was a common storyline at the time when the gaming industry was slowly transitioning to a more narrative structure as opposed to typical high score arcade fare. While common and accessible in its time, today, the storyline wouldn’t find as much traction, given that, in this writer’s opinion, older gamers yearn for more complex narratives. And yet, the simplicity of the story presented in Dragon Warrior makes this game a great, entry-level RPG for a child aged 7-10.

The most charming aspect of the story is the English translation’s use of Elizabethan (aka Olde) English. It gives the story and the dialogue a more Shakespearean, medieval tone and helps make the player feel like they’re in the middle of a fantasy world.

Gameplay

Dragon Warrior is a heavily text-based game. Every action, from talking to NPC’S, to searching for items and opening chests and to attacking and using spells, is controlled through several menu-driven options, accessed using the A button. Menu options include context specific actions like Talk, Search, Take and Door, along with traditional RPG staples like Item, Magic and Status. The interface was designed to be as simple as possible, given the limited number of inputs available to use.

Dragon Warrior (USA) (Rev A)-1

On the field, opening the menu and selecting an action will execute that action in the direction the player character is facing. So, if you wanted to talk to someone or examine an object of interest, you’d have to face in that direction, otherwise you’ll get a notice saying no one is there. Also, to use the Door command, you’ll need Magic Keys. This is a bit irksome, since it would be easier to walk up to a door and press A to open it as opposed to opening the menu and selecting the Door command itself. Future installments, along with remakes, have addressed this, but it’s still a slight chore.

The field is separated into three types: Towns, the Overworld map and Dungeons. Towns are where you can obtain information for your quest from townspeople, buy items and gear and rest to recover HP and MP.

The Overworld is the area where most of the time is spent; players must travel to towns and dungeons to progress with the story. You’ll find random encounters with various monsters. Players will encounter stronger monsters or experience higher encounter rates depending on the terrain. An interesting thing about the hilly terrain is that there’s a slight pause as you walk across, making it feel like you’re actually crossing hills.

Dragon Warrior (USA) (Rev A)-2

Bridges serve an additional purpose besides connecting landmasses, as players will see a clear difference in enemy strength once crossed. This invisible difficulty barrier helps players identify which areas to avoid until they get strong enough to go through without trouble.

dragon-warrior-usa-rev-a-31.png

In dungeons, players will encounter stronger monsters at an increased rate, but they will find rare weapons or items necessary to complete the game. Also, since these areas are shrouded in darkness, a torch or the Radiant spell are required to be able to see your surroundings.

When a monster is encountered, a different set of commands become available: Fight, Magic, Item and Run. Fight makes your character attack with an equipped weapon, with its effectiveness dependent on the players current strength and the weapon’s attack rating. Magic casts spells in your repertoire, like Heal and Hurt. Item allows the use of items in your inventory to use in battle and Run makes your character attempt to run away. You won’t be able to escape all the time; your success rate is based on how high your agility stat is. Upon wining the battle, you gain experience points and gold.

Regarding stats, they are easy to follow and keep track of. Besides HP and MP, strength, as mentioned above, relates to fighting prowess, defense is for taking monster attacks and agility indicates if you attack first before the opponent does, if you are able to strike without missing and if you are able to run away from the fight. Status effects are limited to falling asleep, being prevented from casting spells via Stopspell and being cursed by wearing cursed items; this is expanded in further installments. Compared to the intricacies and nuances of the modern RPG, with its various stats and ailments, Dragon Warrior simplifies it all, making it very accessible to newcomers.

Dragon Warrior (USA) (Rev A)-8

At death, you get a message, saying “Thou art dead.”

If you die, either on the field or in battle, you return to the King with half your gold missing. It’s good in a sense, since you don’t lose progress in terms of leveling up, but if you’re trying to save up for the more expensive items for your quest, then you’re out of luck.

A few problems players could encounter are that the difficulty level ramps up quickly as you progress and that the only way to save is to return to Tantegel Castle and speak with the King. It’s wise to keep some Wyvern’s Wings with you, in case you’re knee deep in more difficult parts of the world, you’re out of magic and need to make a hasty retreat (or if you’re finished playing for the day and want to turn it off.). This archaic save mechanism continued to be a staple in later installments, (instead of speaking to a king, you’d confess in church), whereas other RPG’s settled for allowing players to save on the Overworld or save points within dungeons.

Another major problem is that, besides sleeping at an Inn or speaking to an wizard behind a desk at Tantegal Castle, there’s no way to recover spent MP. This makes conserving magic extremely important, as you can run out of it fairly quickly if you’re not careful.


Visuals

Legendary manga artist and creator of the Dragon Ball series, Akira Toriyama, lent his artistic talents to the Dragon Quest series. He created the artwork for characters as well as monsters, the most famous being the Slime creature, the mascot of the series.

Dragon Warrior (USA) (Rev A)-0

It’s interesting to see how his art style influenced the series over the years, especially Dragon Quest VIII, my favourite of the series. But we’re talking about the very first game, so let’s segue on back…

Graphics-wise, the 8-bit style hasn’t aged well. Colours and textures are very simple and conservative in nature, but in the present day, they look very dated. The overworld sprites, emulating the Chibi art style, look cute and animated.

Dragon Warrior (USA) (Rev A)-5

Dragon Warrior (USA) (Rev A)-6

Dragon Warrior (USA) (Rev A)-7

My biggest criticism has to be the dungeon design. It’s very bland in nature. Only when you reach the last area where the Dragonlord lies is there any difference in how dungeons look.

The biggest strength to the game’s visuals is the monster art. Toriyama’s art style ensures that the enemies silly appearances belies their terrifying strength.

Dragon Warrior (USA) (Rev A)-13

Dragon Warrior (USA) (Rev A)-14

Dragon Warrior (USA) (Rev A)-15


Music

There’s very little music in the game, but some are quite memorable. One in particular is the title theme when you turn the game on. This title theme would go on to be used in all subsequent entries of Dragon Quest, making it a well-recognized theme.

I’m particularly fond of the overworld music. It gives off a medieval, I’m-crossing-the-land vibe and adds to the atmosphere.

What I found interesting is that the dungeon music drops in octaves as you descend deeper down the floors. It’s an unique approach to identifying which floor you’re occupying, since most times you have no idea which one you’re on in the first place. This has also carried on into later installments.

There are also a few jingles that either have carried over to future installments, like the music that plays when you level up or when an enemy is defeated, or stand out, like the death theme.

The rest of the music featured in game are simple and repetitive, yet pleasant to listen to.


Replayability

In terms of post game content, there really isn’t any. Once you finish the game, you finish the game. This was standard practice at the time for early JRPG games; it was not until the mid 90’s where, as an additional challenge, optional bosses could be fought for great rewards.

The few things one could do would be to either grind for experience to max your character’s levels or to try beating the game at a low level. Both are a slog. The hardest thing someone could accomplish, however, is to speedrun the game. Yes, you read that right; Dragon Warrior can be speedrun. Check out the video below as this runner for Games Done Quick manipulates the RNG to complete the game in less than half an hour! It’s insane!


Wrapup

As I mentioned at the start of the review, Dragon Warrior is one of the original RPG’s in which future JRPG’s modeled themselves after. Positives for the game include its story. which is easy to follow, the pleasant music, the excellent enemy art done by Akira Toriyama, and the accessible, if clunky at times, menu interface. Negatives include the dated graphics, the bland dungeon design, the odd game save mechanics and the steep difficulty curve, which may throw new players out for a loop.

Overall, Dragon Warrior is a fun retro game to play and an excellent way to pass time. I give it:

4 out of 5

4/5

Espresso Shot Review: Golden Axe

Good morning, and welcome to another edition of “Games with Coffee.” It’s Espresso Shot Review time! Today, I’m looking at Golden Axe for the Sega Genesis – a game I’ve never even played before, surprisingly enough. I was introduced to it from a guest review on The Well-Red Mage’s blog and I decided to look into it myself. How did it fare in my eyes? Read on and find out!


Introduction

Golden Axe (W) (REV 00) [!]_004.jpg

Golden Axe is a side-scrolling, beat-em-up/ hack-and-slash action game. First introduced in 1989 in arcades, it was ported to the Sega Genesis (or Megadrive) and Master System of that same year. It’s been a part of several compilation titles, such as the SEGA Smash Pack and Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection and is presently part of the SEGA Forever collection of free, mobile titles available on iOS and Android.

Story

Taking place in the Conan the Barbarian-inspired land of Yuria, Golden Axe tells the story of three warriors who are tasked to save the King of the realm, his daughter and the titular Golden Axe from the Death Adder – A powerful warlord who threatens to kill the royal family and break the axe unless the people in the kingdom acknowledge him as their ruler. Each warrior however has their own motivations for defeating the Death Adder beyond saving the king and his daughter; Ax-Battler, the barbarian who wields a sword and Earth magic, seeks vengeance for his mother’s death. Gilius Thunderhead, an axe-wielding dwarf from the mines who uses Thunder magic wants the Adder’s head after his twin brother was killed by his henchmen. Finally, Tyris Flare, an Amazon warrior who specializes in longswords and Fire magic, will stop at nothing to pay back the Death Adder for the death of her parents.

It’s a pretty simple story that’s common for this era of gaming, but its nice to see that the characters also have their own reasons for fighting; it makes them look less one-dimensional and allows the player to empathize to their situation.

One complaint I have is that the in-game story doesn’t exactly match what’s listed in the instruction manual. In game, each character mentions that their friend, Alex, died in battle and that they will avenge him while saving the land. I would much rather have the game narrative to stick to the “avenging the death of loved ones,” plot instead of avenging some random dude named Alex.

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Who is this “Alex” you speak of, Battler? Aren’t you supposed to be avenging your mother?

Gameplay

Controls are simple in Golden Axe. The directional buttons move the character, the A button activates magic, the B button makes the character attack and the C button is the jump button. In addition, there are several moves that can be useful as you traverse the game. You can hit an enemy multiple times by mashing the B button, but it leaves you open from behind. If you’re in close while rapidly tapping B, you’ll pick up and throw the enemy, good for giving you some space when you’re surrounded. Double tapping left or right makes the character break into a run; hitting B while running initiates a dash attack, useful for getting the drop on an enemy. You can also use aerial attacks by jumping and hitting B while in midair. Doing a jump attack while running yields a more powerful attack that can one-shot or severely damage enemies, but it’s a bit tricky to pull off. Finally, you can use a powerful reversal attack by hitting B and C together, but it’s  hard to connect and leaves you open if you don’t.

In terms of gameplay, Ax-Battler is the most balanced in terms of strength, movement and magic, Gilius has great strength and speed but lacks in magic and Tyris’ strength lies in her magic, but lacks in physical strength and reach compared to the other two.

Each character’s magic meter has a different maximum level. Gilius maxes out at three, Ax-Battler maxes at four and Tyris maxes at six. Each level corresponds to the strength of the magic used, so, while it’s easy to max out Gilius’ magic, his strongest spell is much weaker compared to Tyris’ strongest spell. an awesome fire-breathing dragon used when her magic meter is at level six. To use magic, you’ll need to collect blue pots, which are only dropped by bag-carrying Thieves. You’ll have to smack them a few times to get the pots. You’ll sometimes run into these guys as you progress through each level, but at the end of each level you’ll enter a bonus round where you battle with at least one Blue Thief and sometimes a Green Thief who drops meat, which restores one bar of your character’s health.

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Hey! Give those back!

There are seven types of enemies, including boss characters, to be wary of, from henchmen who use maces and clubs to axe-wielding Amazonian women, skeletons who use swords and shields, giants wielding hammers and powerful, armoured knights. You can easily tell the difference in how strong they are based on their colour pallet.

They might not seem like much at first glance, but it’s advised to avoid being surrounded, because even the weakest of enemies can overpower you when they’re coming in from both sides, which happened to me quite often and resulted in me losing a lot of life. I would have liked the reversal attack to be easier to connect so I could get out of those jams without being overwhelmed. I also found that the enemies were a bit bland at times and I would have liked to see some more variety. I compare this to the TMNT 2: the Arcade Game port for the NES, where there were a TON of different flavours of enemies to fight against. I do like how the giants wielding hammers laugh at you when you’re knocked down.

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Quit laughing at me, you bastard…

Boss fights either pit you against a gauntlet of enemies, or you fight against the Death Adder himself at the very end. What’s interesting is that for the home console version of the game, they added two extra levels and a new final boss – the Death Bringer, mentor to the Death Adder.

Another feature that made the game interesting is the use of creatures as steeds. Enemies usually ride these, but they can be easily knocked off with a well-placed kick. There are two types of rideable creatures – a Chicken Legs who attacks by swiping its tail or a Dragon who can either spit fireballs or breathe a jet of fire that incinerates your foes. The creatures are really fun to use, but if you are dismounted more than three times, it runs away. A minor annoyance, but it’s fair; the creatures would have made it all to easy to beat the game.

Speaking of which, the difficulty is not too bad compared to other beat-em-ups, which is a good thing because it allows for anyone to pick up and play it without becoming too frustrated. It’s also pretty short, at about eight levels, meaning it won’t take more than a few hours to fully complete it.

Visuals

While the graphics are dated, for a game that’s almost 30 years old, they aren’t that bad looking. The playable character sprites have a fair amount of detail in them and their animations are pretty fluid.

I do like the environments, they really elicit a medieval-fantasy like feel.  I also like how there’s a day to night transition right before a boss fight, it makes the game feel more alive and the stakes more dire.

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Sunset Showdown!

In stage 4, your battles take place on the back of a giant eagle, which I though was pretty cool! Though, I had to wonder, “How does a pathway exist on an eagle?” Also, “Why are there skeletons burrowed in this poor eagle’s back?”  It somewhat didn’t make sense, but hey, who am I to complain?

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That must take some serious pruning to maintain…

I didn’t like how some of the enemies looked; again, they looked a bit bland, but from the animation standpoint, at least they didn’t move as blocky as they looked.

Sound

I found the music and sound effects to be a bit on the tinny side, but still enjoyable nonetheless. Stage 1’s music really set the tone for the game – it gave off an “I’m storming your stronghold and taking you down, if it’s the last thing I do!” kind of feel, which was pretty rad.

The death screams were somewhat hilarious, but they started to grate on me a little bit, especially after hearing my character die again and again (Beat-em ups aren’t my specialty). It didn’t stop me from enjoying the game though!

Replayability

With three characters to play as and each differing in magic, reach and speed, there are some opportunities to replay the game. The story doesn’t change for each character however – it’s still the same.

On top of the arcade mode, which you can play with two people, there is a Beginner mode, consisting of the first three stages with easier enemies, perfect for those who are either new to the series or need a refresher on how to play. Also, there is The Duel mode, where each round pits you against different types of enemies and the goal is to survive for twelve rounds. Each duel is also timed – if you don’t win in the allotted time, you lose one bar of energy.

It’s quite challenging, considering the fact that you can’t use magic at all in this mode; you’ll have to focus on weapon skills if you are to succeed. If you’re playing with two players in The Duel mode, you fight against each other instead.

Conclusion

Golden Axe’s cast of characters, use of powerful magic and rideable creatures help make the game stand out over many others in the genre. But the low variety in opponents and their blandness, coupled with the fact that it’s easy to become surrounded and a lack of a proper reversal technique hurt it in the long run. Nevertheless, it’s still a fun game to pick up and play, especially for two people!

3.5 out of 5

3.5 out of 5

Espresso Shot Review: Sonic Mania

Good morning and welcome to another edition of “Games with Coffee!” Today, I’m introducing a brand-new segment I call “Espresso Shot Reviews.” Put simply, I’ll be reviewing games both old and new and will give my personal opinions on them, as well as a rating out of five. Each review will be short (less than 1000 words), but packed with intensity and detail. It’s like an espresso shot, hence the name.

Today’s review will be on Sonic Mania, released on August 15, 2017 for PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch and August 29, 2017 for PC. I’ll be going over the story, gameplay, graphics, music and replayability (or replay value).


Developed by Christian “Taxman” Whitehead in partnership with PagodaWest Games and Headcannon and published by SEGA, Sonic Mania is a 2-D sprite art, physics-based platformer. It’s a tribute to the old-school, 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog games of yore and was released in celebration of Sonic’s 25th anniversary.

Sonic Mania - Title

Story

Hot off the heels from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Dr. Eggman and five of his Egg-Robo’s have returned to Angel Island and extracted a strange gem called the Phantom Ruby. When Sonic and Tails catch up to the mad doctor, the gem’s dimension-warping effect sends both heroes, along with Knuckles, to Green Hill Zone. The gem also had an effect on the Egg-Robo’s; transforming them into the much tougher Hard-Boiled Heavies. The heroes must now travel through twelve zones spanning multiple dimensions, retrieve both the Phantom Ruby and the Chaos Emeralds and defeat Eggman and the Heavies before they conquer the world.

Gameplay

Gameplay-wise, Sonic Mania plays exactly like the originals. Each level (Zone) is divided into two huge Acts chock-full of quarter pipes, loops, ramps, springs and other things to help Sonic and company get around. Obstacles abound; from Badniks to spikes and traps, to bottomless pits and crushing objects, there are plenty of things to be wary of.

The twelve zones consist of eight popular zones from the first four Classic Sonic (Sonic 1-3 & Sonic CD) games and four new zones introduced to the series. The first Act of each classic zone is a combination of that zone’s original first and second Acts, while the second Act remixes elements from the original zone with features from other classic levels and adds new elements to spice things up.

The four new zones are inspired by some of the series’s most iconic levels. They also presents a theme derived from SEGA’s history as a publisher. Examples include the Streets of Rage aesthetic combined with Casino/Carnival Night Zone elements in Studiopolis Zone and the Shinobi-inspired second act of Press Garden, which also brings forward elements from Ice Cap and Mushroom Hill Zones.

Each act contains multiple paths to traverse through, encouraging the player to either find the fastest path through each level or explore to find Large Rings – entrances to a special stage where a Chaos Emerald can be earned.

Large Ring

While I enjoyed the selection of classic zones, I would’ve liked to see more new zones added to balance things between old and new.

Bosses are encountered at the end of each act and require different strategies to win. Most fights were fun but I felt a few bosses, such as the ones in Hydrocity Acts 1 and 2 and Studiopolis’ Act 1 boss, were a bit tedious, while Mirage Saloon’s Act 1 boss was just too easy. My favourite boss fight was Metallic Madness’ Act 2 boss – the miniature theme was extremely creative.

Metallic Madness Act 2 - Boss

In addition to the basic moveset (run, spin attack, spin dash and jump), the three characters also have their own special moves and properties. New to Sonic’s arsenal is the Drop Dash – used in midair to drop down into a spin dash. It’s useful for gaining momentum after a jump, or to strike a Badnik that can’t be jumped on without losing your momentum. Tails’ flying ability makes a comeback, with Sonic able to command Tails to fly him up to new areas and Knuckles keeps his gliding, climbing and wall breaking abilities. He doesn’t jump as high as the other two, however.

Rings are essential for survival – you lose a life if you’re not holding any in your possession. Collecting 100 rings nets an extra life. Power ups include the elemental shields from Sonic 3 and the Hyper Ring from the obscure Knuckles’ Chaotix game, along with staple items, like the Power Sneakers and Invincibility.

Graphics and Art

What I enjoyed the most about Sonic Mania is how animated everything looks, thanks to the game running at 60fps. From how fluid each of the player characters moved, to the little details in the environments and the colours in each zone, the game’s high-quality pixel art exudes plenty of charm. I noticed no slowdowns or lag when I was playing it on the Switch.

I especially loved the art direction for the new zones. Studiopolis and Press Garden stand out the most for me, because of how breathtaking the visuals look between Acts 1 and 2.

Music

Music has always been a strong point for the Sonic series. The music was done by Tee Lopes, who I think did a really good job remixing the classic zone tunes. The audio for the new zones are catchy and upbeat until you hit the last zone, which threw me off a bit due to its brooding and serious tone.

Chemical Plant Act 2, Press Garden Act 2, Studiopolis Act 1, Stardust Speedway Act 1 and Mirage Saloon Act 1 as Knuckles are my favourites to listen to:

The boss tunes are also great earworms; the boss theme for the Hard-Boiled Heavies, along with the Eggman Boss theme (Ruby Delusions), are some of the best boss themes in the series.

Replayability

There are lots of replay options available after beating the game. You can try your hand at Time Attack mode, or settle differences with friends through Competition mode.

In-game, hitting star posts with more than 25 rings in possession opens a portal to the Blue Spheres minigame from Sonic 3. Beating the stage earns a medal, which unlocks a variety of new playing modes, including the use of Sonic’s old Insta-shield, Debug Mode or the &Knuckles mode, which adds the echidna as a partner character.

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For a special surprise, finish the game as Knuckles & Knuckles. It’s hilarious!

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While there could have been more original zones and less tedious/more challenging boss fights, Sonic Mania nevertheless celebrates the best of the character to great effect. It’s a perfect example of how enduring Sonic is after 25 years and how he’s still going strong.

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4.5/5


How’d I do? Let me know in the comments below! Coming up on “Games with Coffee,” I’m back in Wraeclast with more Path of Exile, and I’ll be sharing my favourite remixes from OverClocked Remix! Stay tuned!

With that, this has been Ryan, reminding you to Keep Gaming and Keep Brewing! See ya!