I have to admit, last week’s PATN nearly broke me. I was happy to see that one of the games didn’t work, and despite initially seeing 5 titles I had to run through, turns out I just can’t count. That being said…it’s a little late in the week for me to start playing my 3 games, and I think mostly it’s because my brain still thinks the worst is yet to come. “Why did you start such a ridiculous quest? Don’t you know it’s all garbage and the NES only has a handful of good games? What are you doing, man?” I want to trust my heart and know that this is not the case; that there is hope for my next few years of playing Nintendo games. Well, with relief I can assuredly say that this week is definitely a breath of fresh air.
I have the ripe pleasure of playing 3 games from the same series, and even more pleasure in the fact that they are platforming games, a genre that I relished in as a kid, and still enjoy today. For me, this was the heart of the NES. An adventure that was based in skill and action, that felt like a story, that felt like a quest even if literary content was lacking. For me this was Mario: and while those games are quite a bit down the alphabetical pipeline, I have reached a series that was mostly in keeping with many of the principles those games laid down. Let’s start with the first one, shall we?
Adventure Island came out in 1987 (a few years after the Super Mario series broke new platforming ground) and developed by Hudson Soft, which was already near and dear to my heart with its creation of Kirby among many others. This was going to be a direct port of a Sega property called Wonder Boy, but they decided to change the main character model to, of all things, the Hudson Soft spokesman. I’m guessing since your character name is Master Higgens and it says “Hudson’s Adventure Island” on the cover, that maybe they pulled a Stan Lee. I did watch some gameplay footage of the Sega Master system’s Wonder Boy, and it is very similar in most respects. The mechanics of Adventure Island feel akin to the original Super Mario game, jumping especially, with the fact that it’s hard to double back once you get going in one direction. A fun addition is the stone axes you have (think Hammer Bros), which are enjoyable to throw and hit enemies from relatively far away: which can be fist-pump inducing. I had to try to break my mental block that stomping on enemies was a thing, because in this game it killed you instantly. In fact, touching many things killed you instantly or slowly (like the energy bar that depleted to your death when you didn’t eat your fruits: like a video game PSA!) but thankfully another lovely feature of this game was its use of checkpoints: they are even numbered and on flags! How nice of them. I played the first 2 of 8 areas without help, and while difficult, it always felt doable and that made it addictive. Sadly, once you lost your three lives the game starts all the way over at the beginning. There is a cheat code, very much like Mario again, that gave the ability to continue. I utilized my Game Genie again, which is becoming the standard way I do things it seems, and trudged on with infinite lives. This was far different from invincibility, as I still needed to pass the level to make it through. I made it most the game, but the repetition of the level design did start to wear on me after a while. Here’s a forest level, here’s a cavern level, here’s an ice level, here’s a forest level, here’s a cavern level and so on. What’s interesting about this series to me, is that the sequel is actually a sequel to this game, as opposed to the action RPG that Wonder Boy became in subsequent games on the Turbo Grafx 16 (another big Hudson Soft venture). My approach for these reviews as been to play one game and write my blurb and then move on to the next, as to make sure this captures my first impressions. I am hoping that the 2nd game takes this concept and runs with it: tightens the controls and makes lives an easier thing to gain (I saw only one 1-up the entire time I played). This feels very near Mario quality to me and it easily makes my top games I’ve played so far. The soundtrack is bouncy and memorable, the colors bright and fun. It’s a game that makes you smile and want more. Play it!
So Adventure Island II: is it any good? Well, let’s just say it’s as if they read my article before it was published, got in their time machine back to 1990 and created what I would consider to be a classic game. It plays like someone at Hudson Soft wasn’t too happy with their first take back in 1987 and made it their mission to expand, revise and rework everything while keeping most of the elements the same. Our white-capped/green-shorted hero is largely unchanged, but has a much nicer looking sprite (with a strange but charming permanent frown, save for when he jumps and has a big ol OOO on his face) and he controls like a dream as he quests to save his beloved Tina. Everything has a sheen of quality to it, from the overworld map, to the opening minimalistic title screen. The backgrounds are more colorful and more artistic: You can tell this is a later game for the system. The levels are difficult, but the addition of specialized dinos is a master stroke. This comes even before Yoshi and you can tell Hudson really wants their game to rival Miyamoto’s moustached creation here. I really feel like they are on to something too. It’s a shame that this series didn’t take off to the extent of its rival. There’s even water levels (much to my chagrin, but hey! Variety!) and new bosses instead of the same Witch Hunter over and over like in the first game. It’s amazing how many of the characters are brought back here, and how similar the first level is to the original. It’s not pixel by pixel, but I immediately thought I was playing something like a HD remix. This draws you in with familiarity (the skateboard is back! hey I still die pretty much immediately upon touching anything!) and then up’d the ante with new locales (hey a desert world that’s not level 2!) and new enemies. One interesting omission: the checkpoint flags were gone and instead they made the levels shorter, which works, but I’m not sure which I prefer. Some of the items let you bypass nearly entire levels, which felt odd. Super Mario 3 came out this same year, and while Adventure Island is impressive, it doesn’t hold up against that masterpiece. The music is good, but I’d say the first game was a bit more memorable overall with the score, even if that soundtrack was more limited. The overworld maps are impressive, but are only so the first few times you see it and doesn’t provide the same kind of wow factor you get from SMB 3. While I still believe it is a classic, it’s hard not to compare it side-by-side. Adventure Island II feels like a very polished 1987 game: it doesn’t really innovate, just perfects an old formula. I still love it and am excited to delve into the 3rd iteration. The pink frog can die in a fire, though. Play it now! (I’ll use this designation to showcase what I consider to be games that are a cut above)
I had to do a double take. For much of Adventure Island 3 (see ya Roman numerals!), I felt like I was playing nearly the exact same game as II. Here is the title screen, minimal and blue, very similar. Here is the overworld map, while at least having a different map, is virtually unchanged in overall appearance. The music for the overworld map is exactly the same, however, as is much of the music overall. The original soundtrack that existed felt really noodle-y, meandering and even strangely dissonant at times. The controls also took a little step back though I’m not sure why it was changed at all, since it was so fantastic. It’s subtle, but noticeable to me: There wasn’t hardly any inertia for Master Higgens. Here we have basically DLC in the retro era. Pretty much note for note but with different stages and a few new enemies and weapons (like the boomerang, which was underwhelming). The background and look had a more minimalistic flair but I think it too was also a step down in terms of quality. Everything felt repackaged and maybe even rushed, given that this came out only 2 years after the second game. This game makes me a little sad, honestly. They were on such a great path to really crank out a memorable trilogy and fell short by quite a margin. It may be unfair of me to be harsh on this game when it’s so similar to a really great game, but I think that’s why it rings so hollow with me. Sure, if this had been the only game of the series I had played, I would have been none the wiser. It’s a solid game and has real merit, but mostly because it’s just more of the same. I expect more from Hudson Soft, just given how other game series’ were able to improve by leaps and bounds and here we have Master Higgens just running through the motions. I wish more information was available about how these games came into being, more about the trials and tribulations they faced. Maybe they had the most amazing 3rd game in the works and then suddenly something happened, code was lost… or something was disliked by the producers….something that would explain why it feels so recycled. If I end up doing more research into this, I will let you know because I think it could really lend some perspective on these games. They are such near misses to greatness. Play it but only if you don’t have access to Adventure Island II already or just want more of the same!