Saturday, 1 February 2014

Super Adventure Island - Super Nintendo

A massive sign blocks the only way in to Adventure Island
Game: Super Adventure Island
Format: Super Nintendo
Developer: Hudson Soft
Year Released: 1992
Also released on: Nothing 
Now available on: Wii Virtual Console (800 points)

It's 2014 and the new generation of console gaming is finally with us. Once again, the three main contenders - Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo - have put forward their offerings for this latest bout. It's still very early days, way too early to predict a victor. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both appear to have got off to great starts and seem to be pretty much neck and neck, while the Wii U, even with the advantage of a year's head start, seems to be wandering around aimlessly like somebody's drunk uncle, not sure of its place or purpose, hoping that somebody will figure out that it is a brand new console and not just a variation of the original Wii.

New technology brings new capabilities, and this will undoubtedly mean that games become more realistic. This isn't just in terms of graphics, gameplay environments, physics and suchlike. Oh no. Developers are adding more depth to the characters in their games, giving them multi-faceted personalities and a greater variety of traits. They want gamers to become more emotionally involved in games, immersing themselves in the world of the characters that they are controlling - characters with human-like flaws, complexities, prejudices, their own set of morals - good or bad. The characters may not always be likeable, but as they possess more real personalities, gamers are likely to be able to empathise with them and understand how and why they behave in the way that they do.

Master Higgins is toast if he doesn't make these jumps
Of course, I've been empathising with video game characters for years. Master Higgins, of Adventure Island fame, is one such character I find myself relating to quite easily. You see, Master Higgins appears to frequent Adventure Island with a bizarre amount of regularity. It reminds me of my childhood when, no matter whether it was the summer holiday, Easter, half term or just a random weekend, I seemed to find myself at a caravan site in North Wales. My mum and dad having a holiday home there was probably something to do with it. I'm sure my adventures in North Wales weren't anywhere near as exciting or treacherous as Master Higgins' are in Adventure Island, but they probably come close. We once nearly got stuck in a flood near Cricceith, and I remember getting lost in the sand dunes on the beach once. I even very nearly had my very first kiss while there. And, this story of youthful romance even has a retro gaming element to it. It was the summer of 1992, and I'd spent three weeks on holiday there. I was at a special age, 13, nearly 14. And I became aware that I'd noticed a young lady with long dark hair while wandering around the arcade of an evening. I also noticed that she appeared to have spotted me too, and it became quite apparent that we spent much of the three weeks there giving each other knowing glances. On the final night, I was standing at a 5p-a-go fruit machine with a friend, watching him pump his pocket money into it in the hope he'd win the £2.50 jackpot. Behind me was the Out Run machine, and standing at it was the girl with long dark hair and her friend. All of a sudden, the friend walked over to me and asked me if I'd "go with" long dark haired girl. I froze on the spot. Back then, I didn't really understand what to "go with" somebody meant. I muttered something about having to go home the next day, which got the response "So?". After what felt like hours of standing there, wanting to say yes but not sure exactly what I'd be letting myself in for, the girl walked back to her friend at Out Run and they went away. And that was it. For years I kicked myself about the missed opportunity. Oh well. Yes, even in the romantic misadventures of my youth, retro games seem to feature. In fact, this wasn't the only time. A few years later, a Nintendo Entertainment System and Duck Hunt hampered another opportunity.

Worst date ever....
Back to Adventure Island where it appears Master Higgins had more luck with the ladies than I did, seeing as one of the reasons for him going there time and time again was to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend. Unlike my visits to North Wales, which have never (yet) been depicted in a video game, Master Higgins' visits to Adventure Island were immortalised in a series of games for a range of consoles, namely the NES, SNES, Gameboy, PC Engine, Wii and even the Gamate. Today we'll be looking at his first appearance on the SNES which went under the title Super Adventure Island because it was the fashion at the time to slap Super to the beginning of titles for games on the SNES. But before we do, let's take a quick look at Adventure Island's convoluted, complex but not-really-that-interesting origins.

Wonder Boy - Adventure Island's spiritual ancestor
Adventure Island began life as the arcade platform game Wonder Boy, which featured Tom-Tom's quest to rescue his girlfriend. Being named after a sat nav, Wonder Boy easily found his way to home computers and consoles with ports appearing on the Spectrum, Amstrad, Commodore 64, SG1000, Master System and Game Gear. Hudson Soft acquired the rights to produce the game for the Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System but legend has it that they decided to change the main character. Instead of featuring a nappy-wearing toddler named after a not-yet-invented satellite navigation system, it instead featured a caricature of Hudson Soft's PR man, Takahashi Meijin. They also decided to change the game's name to Adventure Island (for Westerners anyhow - in Japan the game's title translated as Master Takahashi's Adventure Island). However, seeing as the legend in this case is Wikipedia, there's a good chance that it's wrong. Other sources suggest that, although Hudson Soft acquired the rights to the game from Wonder Boy's developers, Escape (now Westone Bit), they didn't acquire the rights to the name and its main character, which were owned by Wonder Boy's publisher, Sega. Whatever happened, Adventure Island on the NES was basically Wonder Boy with a different name and without Wonder Boy himself and with a small number of creative changes. It's not quite as good a conversion as the one for the Master System, but it's not bad.

Throwing an axe at an innocent looking snail in Wonder Boy (arcade version)

Despite their shared beginnings, Wonder Boy and Adventure Island went on to become two independent franchises - kind of. Whereas subsequent Wonder Boy games contained more role-playing elements, Adventure Island's sequels mostly kept to the arcade platform style of the original. Wonder Boy was first followed by Wonder Boy: Monster Land in the arcade in 1987, which like its prequel received conversions for home computer and consoles aplenty, mostly under the name Wonder Boy in Monster Land, sometimes with a Super at the beginning of it. In Japan, the Master System conversion was named Wonder Boy: Monster World and was the beginning of the Monster World franchise. As with the NES conversion of Wonder Boy, Hudson Soft's conversion of Wonder Boy in Monster Land, this time for the PC Engine, featured different characters and a different name, becoming Bikkuriman World with characters based on those in a Japanese anime. To confuse things further, Hudson Soft's mobile phone port of Wonder Boy in Monster Land in 2005 was called Super Adventure Island, not to be confused with the SNES game with the same name that I'm meant to be reviewing here. I'll get there eventually.

Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair was the third and final Wonder Boy arcade game, appearing in 1988. It was converted for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis in 1990 and PC Engine/TurboGrafx in 1988. Hudson Soft handled the PC Engine conversion and this time tampered with the name by just calling it Monster Lair. In Japan, a Master System sequel to Wonder Boy: Monster World (the one known elsewhere as Wonder Boy in Monster Land) was developed. It was to be known as Monster World II: Dragon's Trap. However, as the Master System had been dropped in Japan, the game didn't get a release over there until it later appeared on the Game Gear in 1992. But, over in Europe, where the Master System was still a big seller, the game did get released in 1989 under the title Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap. It really is one of the Master System's greatest games. Hudson Soft, once again, had their mitts on rights to this game, releasing it on the PC Engine as, um, Adventure Island. Gah! In the US for the Turbografx, it became Dragon's Curse.

After two different Wonder Boy III games, Wonder Boy's fifth appearance was on the Mega Drive, where, in 1991, he appeared in Wonder Boy in Monster World in the USA and Europe, and Wonder Boy V: Monster World III in Japan. The game also appeared on the Turbografx-CD as The Dynastic Hero. The game was also released on the Master System in Europe in 1993, keeping the name Wonder Boy in Monster World. The final game in the Wonder Boy/Monster World series was Monster World IV, a Mega Drive exclusive released only in Japan in 1994. The Wonder Boy name had been dropped from the title, and the game's main character was a girl. Monster World IV finally made it to Western shores in 2012, appearing on the Wii's Virtual Console service. Since its appearance there in 2012, no more Mega Drive games have been released on the Virtual Console.

So, that was Wonder Boy. I have a headache now. Fortunately, Adventure Island's history is slightly less complex, especially if we ignore the fact that some conversions of Wonder Boy sequels had Adventure Island in the titles. A couple of sequels followed Adventure Island on the NES, namely Adventure Island II and Adventure Island III. A fourth game appeared in Japan for the Famicom, apparently the last official Japanese Famicom game to be released. Two Adventure Island games appeared on the Gameboy, Adventure Island and Adventure Island II. Adventure Island was based on Adventure Island II for the NES, and Adventure Island II was based on the NES game Adventure Island III. Super Adventure Island and Super Adventure Island II appeared on the SNES. Super Adventure Island was released on the SNES after Adventure Island II on the NES so is the third home console Adventure Island game. The fourth was New Adventure Island for the PC Engine/Turbografx. Super Adventure Island II on the SNES went down the role playing adventuring route of the Wonder Boy sequels. This was Master Higgins' final console appearance until he returned in Adventure Island: The Beginning for the Wii in 2009. Coincidentally, I returned to the holiday park of my childhood in 2009 too. And this kind of brings my whole point about empathising with Master Higgins full circle and concludes my quick but possibly inaccurate summary of the Wonder Boy/Monster World/Adventure Island series.

One of the best things about the Wonder Boy and Adventure Island games is that many of them are still available to play on several of the latest consoles. Pretty much all of the Wonder Boy games are available on the Wii Virtual Console, along with the Adventure Island games, while some of the Wonder Boy games make appearances on the Xbox and PlayStation online services.

Totally rad skateboarding skillz here dude
So, after an introduction which went on much longer than I anticipated, it's finally time to join Master Higgins for his first 16-Bit based trip to Adventure Island. The story begins with Master Higgins and Tina sitting atop a tree, gazing at the stars. While Master Higgins occupies himself by rubbing his head, the evil Dark Cloak casts a spell on Tina and turns her into stone. Angered, Master Higgins waves his fist at Dark Cloak as he flies away. A rather large bird picks up Master Higgins and whisks him off to Adventure Island so he can make his way to Dark Cloak's castle and give him his comeuppance. Tina remains at the top of the tree in her stone-like form. That's the plot, a plot which is clearly so great that the writer of it gets first billing in the end credits. Forget about the graphics designers, programmers, musicians and so on. Their talents are nothing compared to that of the author of the story behind Super Adventure Island.

Here's the reason why sealions shouldn't hold their breath.

Climbing a tree covered by snails. Nasty things snails.
Totally destroyed my strawberry plant last year.
Master Higgins arrives at Adventure Island unarmed, but he quickly picks up an axe which he can throw around at will. And at snails and other such creatures. At first, you can only throw one axe at a time but collecting more axes scattered around the level increases its throw rate and power. At maximum power, the axe turns a purple glowing colour and can even destroy rocks. But that's not all. You can also exchange your axe for a boomerang. The boomerang is handy for attacking enemies from long range and above or below you. The axe remains good at short range. Conveniently, the game tends to ensure that the best weapon for the task ahead is usually made available to you just when you need it. Handy.

An end of level baddie with a light saber. Or glow stick.

It's gone mighty chilly on Adventure Island, and Master
Higgins has only packed his grass pants.

Unlike the original Adventure Island/Wonder Boy, it isn't possible to make Master Higgins run faster by holding down the fire button. This can cause a few frustrations when making longer jumps as you don't get chance to build up speed and go for it. It also sometimes feels like although you've timed a jump well, you actually fall short of your target, usually resulting in your death. It is possible to do high jumps by holding down when you jump and this becomes quite easy to pull off when you get used to it. Alternatively, for greater speed, a skateboard is sometimes made available to you. Unfortunately, you can only go in one direction on it and it doesn't usually take you long until you lose it by colliding into something. If you do manage to still have it by the end of the level, you aren't able to take it onto the next.

Special stage a go-go!

Inside the belly of a beast. Looks like he's been eating
pinepple and kiwi, and eels.
Super Adventure Island is split over five stages each containing three areas plus a boss bottle. Most levels are your typical left to right side scrolling affairs, although there are a couple of upwards scrolling and swimming levels, plus that old platform game favourite, a mine cart level. There are also special stages available, although accessing them appears to be by throwing your weapon into an empty space - good luck remembering where you found the special stages when trying to locate them again! Each level, area, or whatever you want to call it is different to each other in appearance- no two levels are the same. Even so, the game does feel a bit repetitive as the basic format remains the same throughout. Run, jump and smash the crap out of the weird and wonderful creatures of Adventure Island with your axes and boomerangs. Each level is also quite short, with most (once you get used to them) taking only a minute or two to get through. This means that you don't really get the opportunity to feel immersed in the theme of the level that you're in - it just seems that you're passing through them. The end of stage boss battle is varied for each one, but they remain consistent in that they're all a piece of piss to beat. The only one that offers any challenge is the final one, but this isn't a battle as such as it doesn't require you to use any weapons. A battle of wits and skill maybe.

The obligitory mine cart level.

Meeting a foe in the forest.
The graphics in the game are great, and remain consistently high throughout. Levels are colourful, sprites are large and detailed and everything looks the part. Music is also fantastic too and is more representative of early nineties dance and R&B than typical videogame music. The man behind the tunes was none other than Yuzo Koshiro, better known for composing the famous soundtrack of the Streets of Rage games. Overall, the game feels very polished, and doesn't bother itself with unnecessary intermissions and cut scenes. It just keeps to the arcade game style of Wonder Boy. In a way, this is one of its problems. It perhaps feels too much like an arcade game for a console. It's addictive (if a little frustrating at first) and easily draws you in, but it doesn't last long at all. You'll keep coming back for more because, each time, you get a little better at it. But, once it's completed, there isn't really any return value. And playing it through doesn't give you a feeling of being part of an adventure in a series of engrossing worlds. It's great that the game tries not to repeat the themes of levels over and over again, but you just don't have time to even feel part of a level before you're on to something completely different. You can have the game done in half an hour, which simply isn't good value for a game that would have cost you £40 on release. It's undoubtedly a fun little game which looks and sounds great, but it's frustrating in parts, a bit too short and it isn't really that captivating. Nowhere near as captivating as my holidays in North Wales were.

After years in the spotlight, Dumbo turned to a life of drugs and drink and general rebellious activity. Here he is at
a particularly difficult stage in his life.

Presentation: 80%
A title screen and animated introduction are all there really is presentation-wise, but this feels right for the game. Less is more as they say. 
Graphics: 85%
Although they don't push the SNES's abilities too much, the game features large colourful sprites and a great variety of graphics which represent each level's theme well, although the graphic designer's efforts are a little wasted as you don't get chance to look at them for very long. 
Sound:  90%
A selection of funky tunes plays throughout the game and add some coolness to the game. 
Playability: 80%
The game feels a bit clunky at first, especially if you're used to controlling the main character in the original Adventure Island/Wonder Boy, but once you're used to it, it becomes quite an enjoyable game to play. 
Overall: 82%
A true arcade-style platform game. Not the greatest SNES game, and probably a bit too linear and short to retain your attention, but most definitely worth a look.

Super Adventure Island playthrough on YouTube

Oh yes, not only have I spent forever trying to write this review, I've also played the game through, recorded it and uploaded it to YouTube. Enjoy!