Archive for the ‘Retro gaming’ Category

It’s been mentioned before on this blog that Tropico is my favourite game/series of games in the world. Shortly I will be reviewing the recently released Tropico 5, but before I do that, lets quickly recap how the series has developed thus far.

Taverns of Tropico

The taverns of Tropico, Top left – Tropico, top right – Tropico 2, bottom left – Tropico 3, bottom right Tropico 4

Tropico – 2001

It’s important to remember that the Tropico series dates back to a time when building/management sims were actually AAA games. Games like Sim City, The Sims, Railroad Tycoon and Rollercoaster Tycoon were all serious franchises that dominated shelves and discussions.

Tropico was from the makers of Railroad Tycoon and came into that market offering a quirky island version of a sandbox management sim. You picked a historical dictator (or created one of your own complete with backstory, talents and flaws) and tried to survive ruling a Caribbean island, complete with lush plants and impeccable Cuban music for the allotted 50 years. Your final score was based on not only how big and wealthy your island was, but also how much you managed to stash away in your Swiss bank account.

It was a remarkably deep simulation. You were forced to adapt your approach to economic growth in each game based on the skills of your dictator and the available resources of the island. As your island took off, immigrants would arrive looking to take advantage of the jobs and general idyllic lifestyle offered by your tropical paradise. Every one of these migrants had needs, a family and political leanings And so began your political problems. You needed to find ways to keep enough of them happy to survive regular elections, or risk being voted, Survivor style, off the island and into an instant game-over failure.

It was also a very small game. Unlike other similar games which could go for weeks, a game of Tropico was a pleasant 3-4 hours. Your island and population were also very small, around 200-600 citizens. It felt like everyone and their family mattered. With such a small population you seldom had enough time, money or construction workers to build everything the game had to offer.

This gave the game an amazing truthiness, you really felt like you were running a small, petty little island. Rather than gaming everything to min-max your economy and work out the perfect build order for everything, you instead would spend the whole game dealing with a list of strangely realistic problems. These might include winning a string of elections through micromanaging faction politics or dealing with rebels who would hide out in the jungles before attacking your favourite cigar factory. Most feared of all was trying to wrestle control over the economy back from the World Bank, who insisted on taking control of citizen wages (and hence general happiness) if the island went too far in the red. None of these were preset challenges or scenarios, they were just what happened to occur due to whatever area of the island’s development needs you weren’t quite able to keep up on.

Your problems might also be much smaller. In keeping with the island feel, Tropico managed to capture the idea of lazy tropical island life. Rupert the dockworker was going to go to the pub, go home, go to church and get his shots at the clinic no matter what. If that meant he wasn’t around when the trade ship came in, well, he’d help out on the next one. This made you care, to a ridiculous degree, about Rupert’s daily life.

Unfortunately, that significance of individual citizens was also the source of the game’s biggest frustrations, as an entire regime could be brought down because Pedro the 48 year old teamster died of a heart attack while pushing his wheelbarrow containing two years of cigar production down to the docks.

The combination of a quick, deep game that just felt perfect made Tropico being what I described as a “booty call” game. I would just get these random cravings to play one or two games, and then put it away for another couple of months.


Tropico 2: 2003

Tropico 2

Tropico 2 – completely different look and setting to the rest of the series.

In hindsight, Tropico 2 is very much the odd one out in the series. Unlike all the others, which take place primarily between the Cold War and today, Tropico 2 was set during the golden age of piracy.

Essentially you played the role of a pirate king. You provided a safe port and various ‘services’ to pirates who would go out, plunder the seas and bring back their treasure to spend and store on the island. By making them happier, and providing merchants to kit them out with cutlasses and parrots, you increased the potency of the pirate fleet, who in turn would be more successful and bring back more loot.

To complicate things, you essentially had two different populations. The aforementioned pirates stayed on the island, drank, visited bawdy houses and generally desired a good amount of “anarchy”. The other population were captives, who actually did all the work serving the alcohol, building buildings and providing, well, personal services. They were borderline (perhaps not so borderline in some cases) slaves who needed to be kept in check with “order”.

To explain the quotation marks, “Order” and “Anarchy” were actually a kind of aura generated by buildings and decorations. Brothels and taverns created the “anarchy” atmosphere that the pirates craved. Alternatively, making the place look like the set of Game of Thrones with the gratuitous placement of gallows and skeletons provided the necessary “order” to keep the captives in line. It was frankly a strange system, which was downright problematic with respect to captives who had to work in the pirate areas. It is a good thing that this design feature didn’t make it into any of the other Tropico games, but it did at least have the aesthetically pleasing effect of making you develop areas of the island a bit like a theme park.

A final, tiny creative flourish which I particularly enjoyed was the ability to name many of the buildings on the island. This allowed you to really add character to your game as Pirates visited the SCUMM Bar or the Llama and Pickle.

Most important in the context of the Tropico series was that Tropico 2 was primarily built around a campaign. The campaign was a series of islands and scenarios that took you from your first little island through to a bustling pirate stronghold. This was to be an idea that would dominate subsequent games.

Tropico 3: 2009

It had been a long time between rum-based cocktails when Tropico 3 was released in 2009. PopTop the original developer ceased to exist in 2006 and it was generally assumed that we would never see another game. Somehow however the Tropico franchise found itself in the hands of a Bulgarian game developer called Haemimont Games.

Tropico 3

Tropico 3 – a visually stunning reboot/reskin of the original

Much as I loved the original two games, I was very nervous about how good the game could possibly be. Although I was somewhat encouraged by the fact that it was now coming out of a nation with relatively recent experience of dictatorship.

Fortunately I had no need to be worried. This was still Tropico, lush, green and infected with a terminal case of the mambo. Haemimont had been extremely faithful to the original, and most of the buildings, edicts and mechanics were identical to what they had been in 2001. As we wrote at the time

“It looks better, runs better and has ironed out a veritable fruit stall of little quirks and bugs”

Of course, after 8 years, presentation was a notable upgrade. The game was now fully in 3D and had an impressive day/night cycle. There was also a bunch of really nice touches. Your Presidente was now an entity in-game who could visit buildings to improve production, or stand on the balcony of the palace to deliver speeches. And OMG the radio. I loved the addition of the radio. Tropico had always had amazing music, but now it was delivered interspersed with quirky radio DJ commentary on how life was going on the island. Simply awesome.

El Presidente

El Presidente is now a customisable avatar who appears in the game world. Here he is portrayed by a greaser in a top hat.

Then there was the addition of vehicles, which completely transformed the game cosmetically and structurally. By dramatically reducing travel times it solved the “Pedro’s heart attack” issue mentioned earlier. Vehicles also made it possible to develop an entire island, rather than being trapped in the tiny corner that Rupert could reasonably walk to. Incidentally, and a little ironically, it also finally enabled your island to look like the opening sequence to the original Tropico.

There were negatives to the change however. With larger islands and populations, now easily over 1000 people, faction politics became significantly less personal. The game transformed from being about appeasing 200 or so people on an island into a game about supply chains and traffic management. Essentially it went from being a ginormous game of The Sims into being a tiny version of Railroad Tycoon.

The balance was also completely different. Where previously a larger island made life really tough politically, in Tropico 3 your island could just keep growing in a state of perpetual happiness once you nailed down the economy and traffic flow. Now you pretty much could, and would, build every possible building and solve every possible problem in each game. Tropico had turned from a pretty but flawed banana republic into an utopia.

This probably would have made for quite a dull sandbox game, which may be why they decided to take the scenario idea from Tropico 2 and run with it. The game now became very much about building an island according to the requests and parameters provided by the game, more so than the resource availability or needs of the island.

Despite these changes, it felt like the developer had Tropico 3 was a refined but faithful homage to the original game.

Tropico 4: 2011

Tropico 4 felt like it was when the developer really started to commit to the idea that Tropico could be a significant commercial franchise.

Despite the fact that the two games looked very similar, Tropico 4 was a lot more sophisticated in almost all areas. The roads and traffic elements were balanced and no longer needed the obsessive control that they did in the previous version. The campaign was longer, more detailed and structured around a cast of jokey voice acted characters like Reverend Esteban the drunken priest and Brunhilde Van Hoof, a spoof of Margaret Thatcher.

The game also had a large amount of downloadable content (DLC). The previous games, going all the way back to the original each had expansions, but this time there were also ten small $5-15 packages that typically provided a building, a new scenario and some cosmetic changes.

In terms of actual gameplay, not much was different. The main change was the introduction of progress over time. Certain buildings would only become available later in the game. This continued the trend of increasing the potential island population size and reducing the importance of the island’s resources. By the end of the game you replaced your traditional resource gathering and dwellings with aesthetically ridiculous biofarms and ziggurats which enable you to house and feed a population the size of Shanghai on Nauru.

Tropico 4 ziggurat

The ziggurat – a visually ridiculous addition to your island utopia.

Another change, not huge in terms of gameplay, but significant in terms of the series was adding a sense of character development to your Presidente. While previous games had you pick a series of talents and flaws – eg an administrative genius with flatulence and a gambling problem, you now picked from traits which would “level up” and provide more powerful effects as you played more games. Now even Presidente could be perfect.


Tropico has evolved and developed much like one of the islands it lets you run. At the beginning it was a tough, tight little political simulation in which, like Civilization 5, you had to balance the strengths of your leader with the resources available to you. Islands were small and your objectives were focussed purely on satisfying the needs and desires of each citizen if you hoped to finish the game and not get voted off the island.

Over time the gameplay has experienced somewhat of an urban sprawl. By Tropico 4 it has become a game about managing traffic and supply chains to build incredibly large and densely populated cities. Winning/finishing the game is now achieved by completing a series of pre-ordained quests. It now feels like an anachronism that it is possible to lose the game instantly by losing an election, not that it is ever likely to happen since it is now also possible to build a tropical utopia ruled by the most talented person on the planet.

That could be characterised as an evolution into a more focussed, tightly designed game with a defined and desirable objective. All of which are good things and make Tropico 3 and 4 games I love to go back to on a regular basis. And to be honest the original Tropico, like many retro games, is now practically unplayable due to its old bugs and limitations.

But I do miss the days of seeing if an entrepreneurial former-nightclub singer with a severe case of kleptomania could survive ruling an island of 150 religious nutters.


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Within the next few weeks, the Xbox One and PS4 will both hit the marketplace. This essentially marks the beginning of a new generation of games and consoles. With that in mind, we thought it would be good to quickly revisit the impact of what we like to call the “three” generation of the Xbox 360, PS3 and their old rival, the PC.

Here are the five storylines from that generation.

New storytelling techniques

The techniques for storytelling in games has evolved over the 8 years of the three generation. Much of this can be attributed simply to the evolution of the medium. Gaming has become a big business and more mainstream, this has led to bigger budgets and the ability to draw on more and more talented people, enabling the discovery and development of new ways of telling stories interactively. The increased graphical and computational power that the generation brought with it certainly can’t be ignored either.

Perhaps the strongest new developments over the three generation has been the move of games to be more cinematic in scale and scope, as well as the increased use of the environment to tell stories. While neither are completely new ideas in themselves, they have taken a particular form in this generation, specifically;

–          Shorter 10-30 hour games

–          Snappy dialogue, frequently delivered during “down time” while travelling between encounters

–          Separation of a main plot told through dialogue, and a ‘world story’ told through found items, radio chatter, looted items, and the art design of the world

–          Increased use of significant NPCs to create an emotional attachment with the player, these NPCs are frequently companions and things that happen to them are used to drive the drama of the final segment of the game

In my opinion, Grand Theft Auto IV was the first big “blockbuster” title of the three generation, and established both of these elements. Despite its length, GTA:IV told a very film-like story, a three act drama of a refugee finding his way in America, full of conflict and sub-plots. It also oozed story out of every part of the environment, from the posters on walls, to the chatter on the radio and all the little bits you could interact with such as watching TV.

If it was GTA: IV that heralded this type of storytelling for the generation, it was the Bioshock series that took the idea of environmental storytelling and really developed it. These ideas and techniques have now become incorporated into almost all big-budget, story-based games, and at the end of the generation, games like The Last of Us are a sign of just how far we’ve come.


Bioshock showed the world how a story could be told using the environment.

Bioshock showed the world how a story could be told through environment details like the layout and appearance of objects.

The death and resurrection of the PC

The PC has faced a remarkable cycle during the three generation. Much of this was as a result of the generational shift in TV screen technology. For much of the generation all three platforms competed on the equal playing field of the ubiquitous 1080-line resolution.

In the early years of the generation, the Consoles appeared to have a clear ascendancy. In addition to operating at an equivalent resolution to most PCs they had a cheaper entry point, hardware consistency, effective online stores and DRM. They also had the benefit of big-spending owners who ensured that developers prioritised the development of games as console-first, often to the detriment of PC versions.

Naturally this led to a lot of stories about the “death of PC gaming”, which for a while seemed to be sustained exclusively by World of Warcraft and a few die-hard FPS enthusiasts who refused to give up point-and-click shooting.

Things have changed towards the end of the generation however. Predictably, over the eight year cycle, the power available to PCs has increased well beyond what the consoles can manage. Less predictably, digital distribution on PC, particularly through Steam store has grown to rival anything on the consoles and the PC has actually found itself at the forefront of business innovations with the emergence of web-based and free-to-play gaming.

Content and services beat hardware?

Sony clearly went into the three generation with the most powerful console. It wasn’t really until the Kinect came out in 2010 that you could really say that there was anything that the Xbox could do better than the PS3 (is this perhaps why it is such a big part of the Xbox One?).

Tech gear is typically sold on power and features. And yet, despite the power disparity, the two consoles maintained a relative stalemate in terms of market share.

It’s hard to ignore the aggressiveness of Microsoft releasing a year before the PS3, and spending big on exclusive content as being part of the reason for their success. Early in the generation, Xbox established a strong exclusives line-up involving Halo, Gears of War, Viva Pinata and the GTA:IV DLCexpansions.

Cross-platform publishing

Once parity was established between the two platforms, it became entrenched. The large third-party publishers such as Ubisoft, EA and Activision all maintained a largely agnostic approach to the two consoles and PC. Games were built to look and play as identically as possible on all three. Arguably this was to the detriment of the PC and PS3 who had their versions restricted to what was possible on an Xbox 360.

It is also fair to say that the PS3 proved to be simply too difficult to write for. Only a very small number of first party games really showed that the PS3 was capable of doing more than the 360, and almost all of those seemed to suffer blowouts in terms of release schedules. Perhaps the greatest evidence of this is that the hardware for the PS4 is no-where near as idiosyncratic as its predecessor.

Changing of the guard of dominant franchises?

The eight years of the three generation also saw a shift in the dominant franchises in gaming.

Arguably the biggest franchises coming into the generation were GTA and Halo. Both had huge releases within the first year or so, but then had a large hiatus in which they dropped out of the public consciousness. In the case of GTA it has only just re-emerged 5 years later, having had 3 major releases in the 5 years before GTA IV.

In the middle of the cycle, the rhythm game phenomena of Guitar Hero and Rock Band dominated Christmas shopping and DLC purchases, but both died out during the course of the generation.

Now at the end of the cycle, Call of Duty is the biggest game in town. It has managed an annual release through the entire generation, and has really kicked on since the landmark Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007. If you only see one TV ad for a game this year, it will almost certainly be for Call of Duty.

Speaking of annual releases. There has also been a bit of movement in the sports games genre. Early in the generation EA Sports managed a complete victory in NFL by wrapping up an exclusive license for the game and shutting down all competition. They won it the right way in football however. Fifa adapted better to the generation than PES, and since 2009 has been the clearly dominant game. It hasn’t all been good for EA Sports however, as the NBA 2K series has established itself as the premier basketball franchise, perhaps because 2K sports doesn’t have to invest in NFL rights and development any more.


That’s our five top storylines from the generation. What do you think are the biggest developments and changed in the gaming landscape that have occurred over the past 8 years?

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Its that time of year, where instead of counting months, we’re counting days until the new year.  And what better way to start a count down to the new year by marking each day with a video game from yesteryear.  Think of it as kinda like an advent calender – except healthy. (updated 19 December 2010, guessed by LewisPackwood)

1984 – SKULL

Think of this game as a very early and less complicated Etrian Odyssey for the Commodore 64.  But in reverse insofar as instead of a map being charted by you, it is being taken away from you as time goes on, which essentially forces you to rely on memory to navigate the maze and find the treasures hidden within.  Oh yeah, by the way there are skulls chasing you through the maze that mean insta-death if they catch you. Again, kinda like Etrian Odyssey.

26 Years ago – 26 Days to Go




Do you know the game? Post your guesses in the comments section.  Come back tomorrow for another game in the countdown to 2011!


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Tomorrow’s edition of this blog is proudly brought to you by:

See, its funny because we’re Australian. And its true because its from a Cinemaware classic.

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Anyone tried playing that classic game that you always loved and for 15 years have told everyone that you wish more games were like it, and that you wish they’d make a sequel?  I have.  That game was Killer Instinct.  And before you answer, no, you don’t wish that game had a sequel.  Go back and play it, and tell me its still relevant.  Tell me that its a good game, and if you can try and think back to playing it back in the day and whether it actually WAS any good or if your views had been tainted by your peers at school; by the snazzy graphics it threw out of your SNES back in the day; or – and don’t ever admit this to a brain professional, the violence.  I’ll answer all those questions for you.  The game really wasn’t that great and in fact Street Fighter II which by that point was pushing half a decade old, to put it bluntly, sh!ts all over it.

But ask anyone that played it back in the day what they thought of it, and they’ll swear by it.

I bet you don't remember it looking like this

I have been having a pretty hard time writing anything coherent lately.  If I’ve written anything at all, that is.  But I think I know why.  I like new games, yeah, they’re great.  But I’m not really passionate about them, if that makes any sense.  I could write ad nauseum about why Red Dead Redemption is a new benchmark in open world gaming, but I could also then go on to say that as great (fantastic really) that it is, it can get repetitive and struggles at times to hold my attention.  But that’s a symptom of my strange relationship with open world games in that I sometimes get so sidetracked by the plethora of stuff to do on the side that when it comes to the main quest I find that I’ve spent about as much time as I want to in that world.

But I digress

So while I spend money on these games, and play them, I have been finding it increasingly more difficult to write about them and make them somehow relevant to me.  Lets face it, you’re not coming to me for an opinion and honestly, I wouldn’t either when the great people over at Giantbomb are doing such a cracking job of that themselves.  So really there’s not a whole lot left for me to say about these games apart from maybe saying in a somewhat Daisy Steiner fashion “I Like them, I think they’re good”.

But one thing I do like is old games.  Or new games that are like old games. Or bat shit crazy games.  And portable games.  These really are the bread and butter of what I know and love.  And I know them well.  So rather than me ranting about stuff that I really struggle to write more than a paragraph on, and as such leave this good intentioned little blog somewhat neglected for large periods of time, I think a change in focus should make it easier (and hopefully more interesting) to continue putting stuff up on here.

What does that have to do with Killer Instinct?  Well I wanna be the guy that tells you old games were great, even when they’re not so great anymore.

So if you want more ranting about Powermonger and how its a human rights violation that it hasn’t appeared in any form since its release in 1990 (not to mention how great its intro cinematic was) or how badly we need to stop the successor to President Margaret – PC Bil, from being elected then this may be the place for you.  If you got that last reference then I think we both need a life.

So where to from here?  In the coming weeks you’ll be seeing a dramatic shift in the stuff I put up here; from finishing up that list of the Essential Game Boy games that has taken me far too long to finish, to writing about those games that don’t get enough written about them – starting with a love letter to Cinemaware’s classic It Came from the Desert.

In short, I’m sorry I ran away when I said I was just going out to grab some milk, but I promise that I’ll look after you and our baby from now on.  Wait, that’s from my other blog….

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The first Super Mario Land for Nintendo’s handheld was good – great even, but in an ‘its a portable game’ way. I say that because, as good as the game was, it didn’t feel like a proper Mario game.  It didn’t feel like it could almost belong in the living room displayed on an old wood-paneled television set (in 1993 no less).  That’s not to say I didn’t love the game, I mean being one of the first three games I owned for what was then easily my most played gaming platform, it holds a special place in my heart.  But it was a tad on the easy side, and simply just didn’t feel complete.

But Super Mario Land 2 – man, that’s a different story.  It felt right.  Not that it fixed everything, for one it was still a walk in the park when compared to the NES games and Super Mario World, but for once it felt like it didn’t matter what all the other kids were playing on their home consoles, I had something just as good in the palm of my hand.  It had everything I wanted.  World Map, Check.  Mario power ups, Check.  I mean goddamn it, Mario was ACTUALLY recognisable as Mario in this game rather than 10 pixels jammed together to form some sort of a mustached silhouette as was the case in the first Game boy outing.   Each world was like venturing forward to something completely unique, there was a sense of discovery in each level; and finding that there were actually secret worlds was really just the icing on the cake.  This was what portable gaming was becoming.  It was almost as if they had read my 11 year old mind and delivered to me exactly what I wanted.  Except for one thing.  It still didn’t feel like a Mario game. But thats not necessarily a bad thing.

How humble were the days where we dreamed of a world map in the palm of our hands.

Developed by Nintendo R&D1, who have some serious street cred when it comes to development of  portable video games, Super Mario Land 2 really was the beginning of what was to come in so far as the portable platform being taken seriously in gaming circles.  And although it definitely is a great game that happens to have Mario in it, looking back now Super Mario Land 2 feels more like a test bed that would pave the way toward the look and feel of future games coming from that studio.   Although the game itself was directed by Hiroji Kiyotake, who is also credited for the design of Mario’s other nemesis, Wario, who first appears in Super Mario Land 2,  R&D1 were responsible for the creation such portable greats as Radar Mission, the excellent Warioland series, both GBA entries in the Metroid series and most noteworthy, the sublime Warioware Inc  in 2003.

In short, this is one studio that knew how to develop for the Game boy.

And Super Mario Land 2 was certainly a milestone in the history of portable gaming.  At the time Super Mario Land 2 was notable for a couple of reasons, but the most important was that Super Mario Land 2 was a BIG game.  A whopping great 4MBs of data were contained in that unassuming grey cartridge, much larger than the 512kb cartridge that the first SML came on.  And although it doesn’t seem like much now, but back in 1993 when it was released in Europe and Australia, 4MB meant a world of difference back then.  Everything from the soundtrack, composed by none other than Kazumi Totaka (aka K K Slider), to the highly detailed (if a little large) sprites felt absolutely epic for a portable game.  Each world, and each enemy contained within oozed detail and personality.  Even the Goombas looked like Goombas this time around rather than something more akin to less detailed blobs found in any Castlevania game.  In fact, one could argue that they were more detailed and animated than the ones in Super Mario Bros 3 on the NES.  But even more impressive was the thought that was put into level design, no better example of which is the final level in which you make your way through the corridors of Wario’s Castle to the final confrontation of Mario’s newly canonised rival, Wario. To this day, this particular level still remains one of my favourite of all time.  The combination of an incredible sequence of twitch-enducing traps and obstacles that require incredible dexterity, timing and a little bit of sheer skill, and what ultimately is a worthy end-boss encounter with Wario in the throne room and what ended up being, to date at least, the last appearance of the Carrot Rabbit power up in a Mario game.

Its the way it should be, a good platformer should lead up to something in the end, a climax, that is the sum of the rest of the game’s parts.  Luckily, the rest of the game is mighty fine in an of itself.  From the outset, Super Mario Land 2 takes you through world after world of memorable locales, enemies and bossfights.   The weirdness of climbing up through a giant replica statue of Mario in what is easily the weakest part of the game in the Mario Zone is still memorable, and the Turtle Zone which takes you from the surface down through a submarine and ultimately through the inside of a whale is actually a water-centric world that doesn’t suck.  Super Mario Land 2 simply is a game that, although over quickly, is every bit as memorable as Super Mario World.

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Zelda GB BoxWas it Bette Midler who sang “Save the best for last”?  Actually, no, it was Mariah Carey.  Whoever it was, it was a terrible song; and it personally makes my ears bleed, despite reducing grown men and women right the way around the world to tears. I hate the song so much that I’m going to defile its core message; here is the best of the best.  Right here, right now.

Actually, was it Vanessa Williams? (It was). Whatever. The fact is, I just couldn’t wait to talk about this game.

After a less than fitting introduction, enter the Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.  The game which single handily, from my accounts at least, turned primary school bullies – the most hardcore kids around, into nerds who would bring their Game boys to school just to show off that they owned it.  The same kids, who would turn a game of lunch time football (soccer) into rugby as soon as they conceded a goal and started losing, would spend their precious lunch times hunched over the Game Boy’s green screen guiding Link through the dungeons contained within the bounds of Koholint Island in search of the instruments that would wake the legendary Windfish in order to help Link leave the island after a storm leaves him shipwrecked.  All of this at the same time that the only games that were widely spoken of in the school yard by nerds and cool kids alike were Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II. Yes, Link’s Awakening was something special: unless you don’t like the Zelda series.  In that case, it’s more of the same that you hate.

There is no doubt about it, this is a Zelda game

There is no doubt about it, this is a Zelda game

Link’s Awakening at the time though was a major detour from the tried and true ‘formula’ for the series. Hyrule, the Tri Force and Princess Zelda are all ostensibly absent in Link’s Awakening, instead the game focuses more on the experience itself.  An experience no less, that could just as well have sold itself as a major console release unchanged (aside from the obvious graphical improvements) if it were on its console big brother.  And really, this is what makes Link’s Awakening a timeless classic.  While its brethren was serving up ‘kind-of-like-console’ games, Link’s Awakening dropped jaws with its depth, and gave us all an insight into how portable gaming could go toe to toe with living room gaming.

I’m a realist though, so I don’t like to intentionally don those fashionable rose-tinted glasses.  Nor am I a fan boy that would claim that Nintendo’s urine could turn lead to gold.  So I’m gonna tell it like it is, Link’s Awakening is great, fantastic even, but it’s not without its problems. While the game’s story drives you forward toward the infuriatingly frustrating ending (Spoiler: it’s all a dream), in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really add a whole lot to the game itself.  If anything the lacklustre narrative detracts from the overall experience.  But where it is best, it shines.  And like all the Zelda games before and after this one, the Dungeons are the real stars of the show.  And you know what, that’s why I love it.

The interesting thing about the game itself when I reflect on it now, is that I imagine it differently to how it actually looks on screen.  In the same way a book encourages its reader to imagine the story, the setting and the characters in their own mind.  The visuals are rich and detailed, the world is charming and most of all, and the dungeons all have their own character.  But the overall feel of the world is open to your interpretation – which is what makes the game so memorable.  The side-scrolling elements of the game, which occur in certain rooms throughout the games, provide a different, more personal perspective from which to view the game; which in a way allows you to fill in the gaps when you’re traversing the world from a top down view.  The result being a game world that is as filled with life and detailed as any of the 3D instalments in the series, even if it was your own personal interpretation.

I have always maintained that Link’s Awakening is the best top down 2D Zelda game of all time, if not the best Zelda game of all time (I was slightly late to the party on Ocarina of time).  But essentially it is a Zelda game in the strictest sense. And despite the shadow of Ocarina that has been cast over every Zelda game ever, Link’s Awakening has still managed to build itself a special place in the minds of kids who grew up in the Game Boy era. The only other time I can remember a game having such a grip on widespread popular culture was the original Pokemon Red and Blue, released almost half a decade later. And that in itself is testament to the impact that The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening had on gaming culture way back in 1993.

For more of Old Gaulian’s essential game boy games series, click here.

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