Thursday, March 31, 2011

Buyer's Remorse

It was a perfect storm, really, a combination of events against which I was powerless.
Recently having played through Athena on the NES, I was in the mood for more action-adventure goodness. World of Warcraft was down for maintenance, so my lunchtime gaming was in jeopardy. I turned to Steam and saw an ad for Sega Genesis Classics, most of which I already own in one form or another on PS2 or 360, but... hang on... what's this? Wonder Boy 3: Monster Lair?

Many years ago, my friend Jason let me borrow his Power Base Converter and the Sega Master System game Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon's Trap. It was a fantastic platforming game with some RPG elements, had an exploration element, and was one of the few SMS games I ever played that felt like it could stand in the same league as the NES greats. I had always heard there was a Sega Genesis entry in the series. The numbering felt a little weird, but I chalked it up to my creaky memory. Maybe Dragon's Trap was actually Wonder Boy 2? (It wasn't.) Monster Lair is probably like Dragon's Trap, but with all the power of the Sega Genesis behind it!

So I bought it. It was only $2.99, after all.

It turns out that it's not the game I thought it was. I wanted another hybrid RPG action-adventure game, but Monster Lair is actually a... shooter?

It's a very basic one, too. Every World is divided into two stages. The first one is a forced-scrolling platforming stage where your life constantly degrades and you pick up fruit to fill it back up, and you get various powerups that let you shoot enemies with varying degrees of effectiveness. In that screenshot above I have the Wide Shot, which fires straight ahead of you and suddenly flies open into a nearly screen-high wall of death. This next screenshot reveals the powerup you never really want, the Whirly Blades. They spin around you extremely tightly, daring you to smash into enemies in an attempt to make this cruddy weapon useful.

The second stage of every World is a forced scrolling shooter where you're on the back of a dragon and have free movement, eventually facing off with a Boss. The Bosses up to the point I've seen so far (the fifth World, I think, although they're all pretty samey and run together) are not incredibly exciting, but apparently there are some interesting ones later on. Right now they seem to be bags of hit points that spawn streams of enemies at you to dodge.

It's not a *bad* game, and I've already put a couple hours into it and will keep going until I've seen more of it, but it's just not what I wanted. It's extremely simple and straightforward, just about the opposite of Athena in every way, and the only thing it shares with Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon's Trap is that it has similar character designs.

Oh, and if you're wondering, it turns out that there's the main Wonder Boy series, and some of those entries are part of the 'Monster World' sub-series. The Monster World sub-series is the one with the exploration and RPG elements I craved. So Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon's trap on SMS is actually Wonder Boy 3: Monster World 2, and the Sega Genesis game I was expecting is actually Wonder Boy 5: Monster World 3, or as it was called when it was released in the U.S., Wonder Boy in Monster World.

How could I ever have confused that with Wonder Boy 3: Monster Lair?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Five Things I Love About Final Fantasy VIII, Part Two

And now three more things I love about Final Fantasy VIII!

3. 'I'll be your knight.'

When the first trailer for FF8 came out (as what turned out to be the introductory FMV cutscene), the highlight was a duel between our main character Squall and a white-trenchcoated character named Seifer. Seifer blasts him with magic, and while he's recovering Seifer slashes him with his gunblade, drawing blood. Squall roars in retaliation, lunges up, we see flashes of scenes from other parts of the game, and...

... well, it still works today, twelve years later. But when the game came out, we were all sort of disappointed in Seifer. Our characters are all basically high school students, and Seifer comes across as a real tool. He and his posse make up the Disciplinary Committee, he doesn't follow orders, he acts like a jerk to our other party members, and he has a list of people he doesn't like and adds names to it like so:

Seifer: "...Instructor. I hate it when people wish me luck. Save those words for a bad student that needs them, eh?"
Quistis: "Ok then. Good luck, Seifer."
Seifer: "Add Instructor Trepe to the list!"

He's not what we were expecting, and it gets weirder when he joins up with the Sorceress and becomes our enemy. He's mentioned his romantic dream to us before, but when we're all captured and he's interrogating Squall and torturing him with electricity, he mentions it in more detail:

Seifer: "Even if you don't talk, others will. The instructor, the little messenger girl, or that Chicken-wuss... He wouldn't last 3 seconds!"
Squall: (Th...They're...) "...They're...all here...?"
Seifer: "Oh, you bet. But since I like you so much, I thought you should go first. I was hoping you'd be there, Squall. So... how'd I look in my moment of triumph? My childhood dream, fulfilled. I've become the sorceress' knight."
Squall: (...Sorceress' knight... ...His...romantic dream...? But... Seifer... Now, you're just...) "...A torturer." [Squall passes out.]
Seifer: "What did you say!? Passed out cold, eh? This is the scene where you swear your undying hatred for me! The tale of the evil mercenary vs. the sorceress' knight... The fun's just started, Squall. Don't disappoint me now!"

Seifer's in over his head. He's an immature kid given too much power, and for most of the game he doesn't really feel like much of a threat. His constant talk about being the Sorceress' Knight comes across poorly, like he's a wannabe, and it's further hammered home whenever the Sorceress speak to him; she talks to him with such loathing and dismissiveness that the business of being her knight seems to be completely in Seifer's head.

Over the course of the game, Squall's love interest Rinoa inherits the powers of a Sorceress, and we get this exchange:

Rinoa: "What'll become of me?"
Squall: "Don't worry about it. There've been many good sorceresses. Edea was one. You can be like her."
Rinoa: "But Edea's still... I can't guarantee anything, either, if Ultimecia possesses me again... You saw me. She controlled me in outer space and made me break Adel's seal. What might happen next time? What will I end up doing? Will I end up fighting everyone? ...Scary thought, isn't it?"
Squall: (Rinoa...... Even if you end up as the world's enemy, I'll... I'll be your knight.)

And with a single line of dialogue, suddenly we *get* what the business with Seifer was all about. It doesn't seem crazy anymore. That one line tells us a lot about how much Squall has changed over the course of the game, and it also makes us see Seifer in a different light. Not bad for a single line of dialogue!

4. The most bone-chilling moment in any Final Fantasy
You might think that's hyperbole. It's not.

Towards the end of FF8, Squall's love interest Rinoa is stranded in space. She's been possessed by Ultimecia, a sorceress from the future, and she's been manipulated into releasing the seal on Sorceress Adel's space prison. Her mission accomplished, Ultimecia returns to her own time, leaving Rinoa drifting in space. These scenes are pretty rough, as you get FMV movies of the air in Rinoa's spacesuit running out, and there are long lingering shots of her eyes blinking closed for longer and longer periods as she tumbles slowly further and further into the void of space.

You don't really think they're going to kill Rinoa, but then, tell that to Aeris. In this case, Squall eventually gets his act together and does manage to follow her, and just when it looks like they're both going to die in space they happen upon an abandoned spaceship, the Ragnarok, which was part of the team of ships that brought Adel into space seventeen years ago. It feels a little convenient, but it does serve to save our duo and get them back to the planet.

Fast-forward to the end of the game and the phenomenal ending FMV. Our heroes have successfully defeated Ultimecia during her attempt to cause Time Compression, which is supposed to make all times one time. What this actually means is open for debate, but during the ending our characters are lost and trying to find each other. Squall is wandering a metaphoric wasteland and he seems to be losing his grip. He keeps seeing shots from FMVs earlier in the game, many of which feature Rinoa, as you'd expect. He sees her at the dance where they met, he sees her at the flower field where they promised to find each other if anything happens, he sees her smiling during happier times.

But then something disconcerting happens: her face starts to get blurry in these images. He keeps seeing these scenes, but now every time Rinoa appears you sort of can't tell if it's her. Her face is blurry, slightly off, pixelly. It looks like you're seeing her face through a whole array of Photoshop filters. There's a (popular/unpopular) theory out there that this is proof that Rinoa eventually becomes Ultimecia, and the quick (and only!) appearance of Ultimecia in an FMV superimposed over Rinoa here is often cited as support for that theory, but I think what this sequence is showing is simpler and more sad: Squall is forgetting what Rinoa looks like.

They're not done twisting the knife, though. Things are building to a climax now, the music is going crazy, the sound is at full blast, we see her falling towards the camera from the scene when Squall cut her free from the Sorceress Containment Prison, and then we see this:

It's horrifying, and the emotional impact of that single image has never been matched by any other game in the series.

5. Hand-held Video Camera

The ending of FF8 is done so masterfully that it takes up two of the slots on my list of five, but this entry is much lighter than the previous one. After Squall's terrifying memory/dream, we see a few scenes with other characters, including a heartbreaking one with Laguna and a silly tension-relieving one with Seifer and his posse.

The credits begin rolling on one side of the screen, and in a small rectangle on the left another FMV begins to play. This one is different than all the others, though: it's in the style of a camcorder recording. The idea is that Selphie is filming a celebratory party at the Garden after the events of the victory, and unlike the other FMVs in FF8, this one is intentionally wobbly, occasionally out of focus, and entirely convincing.

Irvine: as good at video as he is at sniping
There's some entertaining character stuff in here too: you see Irvine horsing around, bragging to Quistis about something or other; eventually Selphie hands the camcorder over to him and takes his hat to wear, but shortly afterwards he starts focusing on the other girls at the party and an angry Selphie storms back into frame. Zell finally gets his hotdogs, and then horror of horrors is caught choking on camera! How embarrassing, and also how very likely for poor Zell. The camcorder sequence also serves as a neat curtain call. You get to see your favorite characters again, and there are cameos too: even Angelo makes an appearance.

It serves another purpose too. For much of the ending, Squall's fate has been left in doubt. The last we saw of him, Rinoa was cradling his apparently lifeless body. Here at the party, the camcorder eventually finds Rinoa out on the balcony as the battery life indicator appears, and as we zoom in to focus on her, she turns to say something to someone next to her, and the battery runs out.

Obviously it's Squall, and the post-credits scene picks up right where the camcorder leaves off. Everyone's favorite mopey teenager gets a well-earned smile, and FF8 comes to an end.

The highs of FF8 are pretty high, and the lows are admittedly pretty low, but recent playthroughs leave me with a pretty favorable opinion of the whole thing.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Five Things I Love About Final Fantasy VIII, Part One

I've been playing Final Fantasy VIII again, this time on PSP, and having just finished it I want to talk about some of the things I love about this under-appreciated entry in the series. Expect spoilers. FF8 had an impossible task: how do you follow Final Fantasy VII, which introduced the Final Fantasy series to new legions of fans, becoming more of a cultural phenomenon than just another RPG? On my first playthrough I was disappointed, and it didn't seem that I was alone. People didn't like Squall (or Selphie, or Zell, or Irvine), people didn't like drawing magic for what seemed like hours upon boring hours, people didn't like the backstories of every character but one (they're all from the same orphanage!)

There is a lot to like about FF8, but a lot of it doesn't properly reveal itself until you've been through the game already. This subtlety isn't something we expected after FF7, which wears its plot points enthusiastically on its sleeve: we weren't sure what to expect from that photograph in Nibelheim, but we knew *something* was about to go down. In FF8 we wouldn't have been shown the photograph; we'd be told there might have been a photograph, but who knows where it got to?

So here, in somewhat-chronological order, are two of the five things I love about Final Fantasy VIII, the rest to come tomorrow.

1. The Timber TV Station Monitor

Midway through the first disk, our team of SeeDs are assigned to help enthusiastic but green revolutionary group the Forest Owls retake the city of Timber from its Galbadian occupiers. They learn that Galbadia's president, Vinzer Deling, has come to Timber to use its TV station to broadcast a message to the whole world. You see, no one has been able to broadcast anything over the air for seventeen years thanks to interference on every wavelength, so all long-distance communication since then has been by cable. Galbadia has been working to restore the broadcast station in Timber so they can air their message.

The Forest Owls decide that after Galbadia is done, they'll use the equipment to broadcast a message about Timber's independence. On their way up to the TV station, they pause in front of a giant TV screen, and your SeeDs see lines of gibberish scrolling up it.

Rinoa: "This is creepy...What is it?"
Squall: "This noise is broadcast over most of the frequencies. Something has to be done about this before they can broadcast it over the air."

This was in the days before HD, but even then it was clear enough to make out that the interference Squall is talking about wasn't gibberish, but consisted of actual phrases. Like this one:


Or this:


Or this unpleasant sentiment:


You find out much, much later (two disks later!) that Sorceress Adel is trapped in a containment prison in space that serves to block her powers. The radio interference that blankets the entire world are her angry, angry thoughts. You first hear about the radio interference maybe two hours in, and two or three hours later you see this TV monitor, but it's another fifteen or so before you find out anything about Adel and the containment prison. It's a creepy but forgettable moment your first time through; on subsequent playthroughs it's an early indicator of a major plot development later on.

2. The Lunatic Pandora is Everywhere

Another example where FF8 almost requires you to play through it once in order to understand what's going on involves a giant rectangular structure called the 'Lunatic Pandora.' You first hear about it on Disk 3, talking to NPCs who seem to assume you already know what the Lunatic Pandora is. Things like this:

Doc Odine: "Why iz Lunatic Pandora here now? Who iz moving zat thing?"
Doctor's Assistant: "Galbadians, sir. They're the ones that salvaged it. We must sound the alert in the city now!"

By the end of Disk 3, you've slowly pieced together the timeline:

1) A Crystal Pillar fell from the moon during the Lunar Cry that destroyed the Centra continent eighty years ago.

2) Sorceress Adel had the Crystal Pillar excavated and had a Laboratory constructed to build a casing for it. This giant rectangular casing was called 'Lunatic Pandora' and could be moved, so it could be used as a weapon. Tears' Point was constructed as the other half of its weaponized use.

3) After Adel was overthrown as the ruler of Esthar, the new president (Laguna!) deemed that Lunatic Pandora was too dangerous to keep around, moved it out into the ocean, and sunk it.

4) In the present day, Seifer was used as a pawn to find Lunatic Pandora and move it out of the ocean. He brought it to Tears' Point, causing another Lunar Cry, and Adel's space prison was brought back to the planet in a flood of monsters.

5) The team assaulted Lunatic Pandora in the Ragnarok at the close of Disk 3.
It's fairly straightforward when put in sequence, but remember that it's shown to us all out of order and without the necessary context. But, and this is the cool part, not only have we seen the Lunatic Pandora before all the exposition of Disk 3, but we've even been inside!

Lunatic Pandora being ominous
 Way back on Disk 1, before we really know what's going on with these sudden scenes with Laguna and his friends (they're flashbacks to the past!), Laguna and Kiros and Ward are out patrolling as part of their duties for the Galbadian army. They get lost and end up in an excavation site. Esthar is digging something up, and soon Laguna and co. are inside the whatever it is: a giant crystal structure with tunnels inside it.

It's the Crystal Pillar that will eventually become the core of the Lunatic Pandora! Laguna spends awhile inside it messing with things: accidentally opening hatches, dislodging boulders, setting off the wrong bombs... hilarity ensues, and much of Laguna's charm comes from being sort of a bumbler. Much later on, you can see the result of his actions when the party boards the Pandora; do the right things and you have access to all the treasure locations.

Later on, Laguna auditions for a part in a B movie in order to make some money. In the distance you can see a giant rectangular structure: the Lunatic Pandora.

Once Laguna gets to Esthar, in fact, he works at the Lunatic Pandora Laboratory, and interacts with Doc Odine, the man responsible for weaponizing the Pandora.

All of this before the player has any idea what the Lunatic Pandora is or does. It's just invisible on a first playthrough, or worse, confusing. On subsequent playthroughs you see how involved the Lunatic Pandora really has been in the story and it's quite interesting.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Athena, Final Thoughts

For the last two weeks, I've been writing about my experiences attempting to play through Athena on the NES, something I'd never managed before. I've always liked the game, and in some respects it's typical of the sort of games I like to this day: multiple routes through individual stages and occasionally a choice of stages; upgradeable armor and weapons with different strengths and utilities; and a final level that takes elements and lessons from all the previous levels and uses them to great effect (see also Rez, Braid, and Flower for great examples of this).

But here at the other side of my first successful playthrough, some of my appreciation for Athena has been tempered by a more complete understanding of the game as a whole. I've always thought that the average gamer could get to the third level, the World of Sea, where he'd probably be stymied either by losing the Shell Necklace before the narrow passage or by the difficulty of fighting the Boss. I think the skilled gamer could get to the fifth level, the World of Ice.

My main disappointment with Athena, now that I've seen all of it, is that it requires an incredible amount of fore-knowledge to be successful. Look at this list of things you *need to know* in order to get through Athena successfully:

World of Sea - You need to get and keep a Shell Necklace in order to pass through the narrow gap before the Boss. If you want to take advantage of the safe spot to attack him, you need a ranged weapon like a Wand or Bow.

World of Sky - You need to know that once you drop down to the lower level, you need to climb back up to the upper level instead of passing through the wall if you want to fight the Boss. If you don't have the Lamp and you fail to do that, it's back to the start of the World.

World of Ice - You need to have a Bow before you fight the Boss, or you will be unable to damage him at all. You'll need to die and restart the World of Ice from the beginning. Furthermore, when you kill the Boss you must be SURE to pick up Pandora's Box. If you don't, your game is over and there's no point in continuing.

World of Hell - You need to know that if you die on this World and don't have a K Slate, meaning that you lose all your items, your game is over and there's no point in continuing. You can't damage the Boss unless you have Pandora's Box from the previous World, and if you lose it there's no way to get another one.

World of Labyrinth - You need to know that there is no Boss on this World, so you're dependent on getting a Lamp if you want to finish the level. Furthermore, you need to know that the Harp of Protection is hidden in the World, but there's also a Fake Harp that will take away all your items. You need to know which Harp is fake and which one is real.

World of Worlds - You need to know not to pick up the Flaming Sword right before the Final Boss, or you'll be making life extraordinarily difficult for yourself. You also need to know the sequence of targets on the Final Boss (shield arm, sword arm, chest mouth, flying heads) and also that though it may seem like you're not damaging the heads, you need to trust that swinging your sword when they get close is in fact hitting them.

For all of these reasons, it's very clear to me now that I was never in any danger of finishing Athena during my childhood. Even if I had consistently been able to clear the World of Ice, there were still the undocumented pitfalls of the World of Hell and the World of Labyrinth remaining, not to mention an incredibly long final level (die once and it's all the way back to the beginning of the World of Worlds, not just the beginning of that particular section) and very frustrating Final Boss encounter.

I still like how complicated Athena is, and how much game there is that most people never saw, but from a design perspective it's incredibly obtuse and unforgiving. I'm glad I've seen the ending, such as it is, but part of me is a little sad that my positive impression of Athena receded somewhat the more I played of it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Athena, World of Worlds, Part Two

This is it, everybody. We're halfway through the final level of Athena on the NES. If all goes as it should, I'm finally going to see the end of this game after all these years! We're not out of the World of Worlds yet, and now we're getting into the Bosses that caused me so much trouble the first time through!

I'm in the World of Ice now, and if the Boss still has his immunity to everything but the Bow line (and there's no reason to suspect that he doesn't) I need to seriously think about finding a Bow. In fact, the Bosses in the World of Worlds seem to arrive very quickly, so there's not much space in which to find a Bow.

Luckily, I find one on the screen just before he appears. Piece of cake! Standing on his right side nd pegging him with arrows causes him to explode, and he drops Pandora's Box, just like he did the first time.

It's a good thing, too, because I was wondering if Mado would still be immune to damage without the Box. If the Harp of Protection ensures that you don't lose your items (as I think it does), we won't need to worry about it. A little more World of Ice until we drop down to...

...the World of Hell. This stretch is actually fairly simple. The jumps aren't as tricky as on the first visit, and the dark section is short and familiar. I pick up a Red Sword, which I'm happy about.

Mado himself is incredibly easy since I have Pandora's Box, and afterwards we go to the World of Labyrinth, not through a hole in the floor like the previous Worlds, but through one of those mid-room teleports. I had hoped that since the World of Labyrinth seemed to be treated differently in the game itself (accessed by the Key, no Boss), we might not need to revisit it; but that's not the case.

Quick access to the Pegasus Wings makes me feel better about the whole thing. Shortly afterward is a huge wall of blocks, and enemies running in from the left side of the screen try to trap me by dropping Bows! Before long I pick up a Flaming Sword, which fully heals me. Remember this sword. It'll become relevant a couple angry minutes from now.

A little further to the right and it's the Boss, either of the World of Labyrinth or the World of Worlds; in any event, it's the Final Boss of Athena on the NES!

Immediately his three heads detach and start flying randomly around the room. I can stand on his shoulders and attack his shield arm, and then his sword arm, and then jump down onto his back and attack the mouth that fires those discs. Meanwhile, his three heads are flying around aimlessly.

Unfortunately, that Flaming Sword I picked up turns out to have not been such a great idea, because every swing of it depletes my life gauge by one bar. It takes so many hits to destroy all the pieces of the Final Boss that by the time I'm ready to tackle the heads (which also need to be destroyed), my life gauge is so low that one or two hits will do me in! Furthermore, even the magic of modern technology won't save me here, because I don't have a save state available before I picked up the Flaming Sword!

So I play through the entire World of Worlds again, and this time I don't pick up the Flaming Sword.

This time I have a lot more health when it comes time to take on the floating heads. This is incredibly annoying, and takes forever! Since the heads move so erratically, it's very dangerous to chase them down. Instead I stand in one place, swinging my sword and hoping they fly close by. There's no indication that I'm even hitting them, but eventually one disappears, and then a second, and then there's just the one left.

It seems like he never wants to get close enough to get damaged, but eventually he explodes!

Victory! I'm actually really excited. I've never finished Athena before, and now I'm finally going to see the ending, which can't have been seen by very many people. The background flashes triumphantly, it fades to black, and it fades up on a picture of Athena's castle.

The music from the World of Forest is playing, which seems fitting, since it's the song I most associate with Athena. I let it sit there for awhile, but when nothing happens I start trying to move Athena. Nothing continues to happen. No credits, no 'Congraturation!' or similarly endearing Engrish, nothing.

That's it. I don't know what I expected, but it was something more than that. Maybe they didn't think anyone was going to get this far?

I'll have final thoughts on Athena for the NES on Monday, I guess. I can't believe that's the ending!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Athena, World of Worlds, Part One

I know I promised the end of Athena on the NES this update, but it turns out there's a lot more to the last level than I expected! This one'll be spread over two posts.

So last time I successfully nabbed the Harp of Protection from the Goddess and found a Lamp to allow me to escape the World of Labyrinth, and when the screen for the next World comes up... it's blank? Normally this is where it would say 'World of Sea' or 'World of Ice,' but this time it says nothing. According to the Internets, this is the World of Worlds, and soon we'll see why.

It looks like the World of Forest, it has the same enemies as the World of Forest, and the music that plays is that of the World of Forest. In fact, in just a screen or two I find that it has the same Boss as the World of Forest!

I jump over his flailing branch, hit him in the face, and he goes down easy. There's more of the World after him, and eventually takes me to a pit. When I jump down the pit, I land in...

... the World of Cavern! I see what they're doing here. It's a 'best of' level and a Boss Rush rolled into one! Interesting!
I don't have the Pegasus Wings this time, so I actually have a harder time with the Golem than I did in the real World of Cavern. Once the head flies off screen and I can jump behind the body, it's business as usual. After some more caves, I fall down a pit to the...

... World of Sea! After you drop down into the water, it's very important to grab the Blue Hourglass in the blocks on the left, since the World of Worlds is so long and time could be crucial. I'm going to want something long-range to attack the Boss of the World of Sea, so I pick up a Wand from the merfolk and upgrade it to the Scroll.

There's no narrow passage to navigate in the World of Sea Redux, so I don't need to stress about remaining a mermaid, which is nice, and before long I'm firing my magic discs at the too-large hitbox of the Boss.

He goes down easy and it's time for the World of Sky, which feels like a nice breather. I'm starting to worry about what will happen if I die; will I start from the beginning of the section I'm at, or is it all the way back to the start of the World of Worlds? I feel like it's probably the latter.

Tomorrow I'll continue with the World of Worlds, and answer the million dollar question: have we, in all the Worlds we've traversed to this point, seen the most annoying thing Athena on the NES has to offer?

Sneak preview: no we haven't.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Athena, World of Labyrinth

My journey through Athena on the NES nears its end! We've arrived at the World of Labyrinth, which I've only seen a couple times before; it's either the second-to-last level in the game, or the third-to-last.

Huh? How is that possible, you ask? The answer, which I've only learned since the Internets have come into their own, has to do with the Labyrinth Key I picked up in the World of Hell. You see, the Key makes you play through the World of Labyrinth as your next level. So if you pick it up in the World of Hell, like I did, then the next level you do will be the World of Labyrinth. However! There's another Key in the game. You can find it somewhere in the World of Sky, though I didn't on this playthrough, and if you do you'll play the World of Labyrinth between the Worlds of Sky and Ice.

So that's the solution to how, when I played Athena as a kid, I was able to see the World of Hell once, and the World of Labyrinth a couple times, and have no idea why the game seemed to be so uncertain about the sequence of the stages. Mysterious!

The World of Labyrinth is an extremely complicated maze. Like the other stages, it consists of an upper level and a lower level, but in this case each level generally has three separate corridors which connect and intertwine, separated by blocks and pits. Since my childhood arrivals at the World of Labyrinth were so fleeting and opaque, I have no idea where to go and die easily.

No K Slate, so this means I start fresh and have to reacquire my gear. I get a Club and a Hammer from the cyclops guys, and encounter a room that will be very familiar before this is over: a column of space the whole screen tall, with three archers popping out of windows in the middle of it. Further along I find the K Slate I wish I'd had earlier.

I find a Blue Hourglass, one of the more important items in this level, given how long it's taking to find my way. At some point I fall down to the lower level, find a Ball and Chain, and climb my way back to the upper level again.

And now I'm trapped, because the only way forward requires me to break blocks below me, and the Ball and Chain can't do that. This might not be the best weapon to hold onto for this level. Next time I get equally lost and find the Pegasus Wings.

You can see that I'm wielding a Club, too. I'll gladly take a Hammer, but that's as high up the chain as I'll go -- mobility in the World of Labyrinth is much more important than damage. Before we leave, it's apparently important to pick up the Harp of Protection.

Not that one! That's not the Harp of Protection, that's a fake! That angel is a Bad Goddess, and can't be trusted! Her Harp will cause you to lose all your items and equipment. In the room after the Bad Goddess, Athena dies. What?

It turns out there is no Boss in the World of Labyrinth, so the only way to escape is to use what in other Worlds was just optional: we need to find a Lamp in order to safely make it past the last room.

There are apparently two Lamps hidden in the level, but the one I find is hidden in the ceiling not far from the start. Now that I have a Lamp, I need to not die, find the location of the Harp of Protection, and get back to the end of the level... in that order!

Those discolored cylinders in the floor look suspicious. I bet that's where I need to go. Sure enough, beneath those cylinders leads to a section of the lower level I couldn't reach before, a giant room full of blocks. Breaking all those blocks reveal a second Goddess, in addition to a number of floating heads that exist just to make things interesting.

This Goddess has the Harp of Protection! Now I need to work my way back to the last room of the level, past the Bad Goddess with the fake Harp (DON'T pick it up!)...

... and to the last room of the World of Labyrinth! As long as we have the Lamp and the Harp of Protection, we should be all set for whatever awaits us in the final stretch. I've never gotten this far before. Next time: will I finally see the end of Athena on the NES?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Athena, World of Hell

We're getting near the end of Athena on the NES now, but it's going to be rough going from this point onward: I've only seen the World of Hell once before this playthrough. I'm starting with the Ball and Chain, so it's the same old story of trying to avoid Pyutans and the Blue Swords they drop.

I'm threatened by a new monster with an ox skull head, but he doesn't seem to be more dangerous than the other land-based enemies. They're most deadly when on the edges of ledges, trying to mess up your jumps.

There's another trick in the World of Hell that we haven't seen before: dark areas. Certain sections of the level have a black background, and blocks in the dark area are also black, making them effectively invisible.

After the dark area, I miss a jump and fall to the lower level... which is full of water?

It's neat to have unexpected underwater gameplay (is this the River Styx?), but unfortunately I'm still terrible at underwater levels and pick up a wand by accident. Let's upgrade it to the Scroll, which is the higher-tier weapon of the Magic line.

That's not a fantastic screenshot of the Scroll, but that disc that it throws out moves in a straight line and destroys any blocks that it touches. It's powerful, but it isn't enough to keep me from the death screen.

'It's just as well,' I think at the time. 'Maybe I can avoid falling down to the lower level and having to deal with the swimming.' I didn't know at the time, but I had just made a drastic and game-ending error. But we'll let Past Me catch up.

Without a K Slate, I've lost all my equipment and items. With all the Pyutans on this level, the Sword line is a clear choice, and I collect a helmet and a shield. I'm slowly rebuilding my gear, and take special care on the tricky jumps that sent me down to the water last time.

In a later dark area I find a Flaming Sword! Things are going great as the Boss slowly scrolls into view. His name is Mado, and he seems to be a multi-armed red lobster sort of creature.

Mado begins shooting fire even as his room scrolls into view, and it can hit you while you're locked into the scrolling of the screen, which is annoying. He disappears and reappears in one of several locations around the room, spewing fire. I wail on him with my Flaming Sword, getting in a lot of hits, and... nothing. For awhile there I have a good run of avoiding his shots, and still he's taking forever to defeat.

I look to the Internets, and it seems that Mado is completely immune to all forms of damage if you don't have Pandora's Box, which drops from the Boss of the World of Ice. Well, that's no problem, because I have... I have... oh World of HELL.

When I dropped down to the lower level and died without a K Slate, I lost all my gear and equipment, which means I also lost Pandora's Box. Worse: there's no way to get it back, since it's impossible to return to the World of Ice to get it again. Through the magic of modern Time Distortion technology, though, I can restart from the beginning of the World of Hell, complete with Pandora's Box. So let's!

That's Pandora's Box up there in the upper-left corner. So I play through the entirety of the World of Hell again, staying on the top level. I make it to Mado, and...

... well, that was anticlimactic. He dies in about one hit if you have Pandora's Box. Somehow that makes me even angrier about the whole thing. World of Hell indeed!

He drops the Labyrinth Key, which opens the way to the next World: the World of Labyrinth. Could it be more frustrating than the World of Hell? Spoiler warning: yes.