NHL Hockey (Series)

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Grade(s):
NHL Hockey (1991) A-
NHLPA ‘93 (1992) A
NHL ‘94 (1993) A+
NHL ‘95 (1994) A+
NHL ‘96 (1995) B-
NHL ‘97 (1996) B+
NHL ‘98 (1997) C
Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 2nd
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Year(s): 1991 – 1997 (see above for specific years)
Genre: Whalers Fans Forever!

Start up a game of the original NHL Hockey, and the first thing you’ll see is this:

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To long time NHL fans like myself, that right there ought to bring a smile to your face. Or maybe a tear to your eye. It’s a snapshot from what was about to become a bygone era. The very next season, the North Stars would change their uniforms. The year after that, they would drop the “North” from their name and leave the Twin Cities to move to Dallas. To play ice hockey. That actually happened. The Penguins, for their part, faced bankruptcy, nearly moved, changed their logo to something that looked like an airline, changed it back (more or less), and somewhere along the line, that little pixelated guy in the white uniform up there ended up owning the team.

We do our best to keep nostalgia out of the discussion when talking about the Genesis Top 50 games. Our focus has always been on which games are still fun to play now, and how much fun we had with a game twenty years ago doesn’t make it any more enjoyable today. In this case however, it’s not the game itself we’re getting nostalgic about, but the time period it represents. It’s a throwback to a better time for hockey fans when the games were exciting to watch and teams played in cities that actually gave a shit about them. Back before expansion and the New Jersey Devils ruined everything.

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I mean, no disrespect to the Florida Panthers and their 40 or so fans, but NHL Hockey is better for not having any of the crap teams in it. That’s not to say that all the teams in the game are great, but every single team in the game is at least interesting – they all have a history, some good players, and established fan bases. The only exception is the expansion San Jose Sharks, but they at least have a cool logo, the novelty of being new (this appeal wears pretty thin when its being shared by 9 other new teams), the an the allure of being that city’s first professional sports franchise. Plus they were the developer’s home team, so how cool is that?


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Hey, when they’re about to have the opening faceoff at a Phoenix Coyotes home game, do the visiting players look around and go “Shouldn’t we wait until some fans show up?”

The fact that the NHL has had trouble gaining popularity in its newer markets makes the success of the game series all the more impressive. Madden is always going to be popular because people like football. NBA games sell well because lots of people enjoy basketball. But with hockey, we’re talking about a game that is not only less popular than either of those two, but also finishes behind lower-profile sports like figure skating, competitive gardening, or watching roommates fight over a pizza. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that more people enjoy the video game NHL Hockey than actual NHL Hockey, but certainly a higher percentage of Genesis owners enjoyed playing the game, than the general public did watching the real thing. In order to pull that feat off, you have to have a game that is not only fun to play, but also appealing to people who don’t generally watch the sport.  This series has probably turned more people into hockey fans than all the teams from the Southeast Division combined.

NHL 95003It’s perhaps a little telling that the game is actually a lot more fun with the rules and line changes turned off, or that this is the default setting on the earlier games. The key to success for any of the 16-bit EA Sports games has always been finding the right middle ground between a game and a simulation, and the NHL series did this particularly well. By relaxing the rules, you get a free-flowing game thats easy to learn, and by eliminating the need for line changes, you avoid one of the things about hockey that hurts its appeal to fans – that the best players are often on the ice for less than a quarter of the game. Mix in some solid control and good-looking graphics and the end result is a game that looks like hockey, plays like hockey, but is approachable for someone who’s appreciation of the game is limited to “try to get the little black piece of rubber past the guy in all the armor”. In other words, Carolina Hurricanes fans could play it… you know, if they were a real thing.

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What’s the difference between a Hurricanes fan and the chupacabra? Both are imaginary, but a few people at least claim to have seen a chupacabra.

And things only got better over the years. It’s easy to get jaded about annual updates to sports sequels these days, but back in the 16 bit era, this was a new and welcome idea. Before then, if your favorite sports game was pretty good but had a few noticeable flaws, well too bad – maybe if you were lucky, that company would come out with a better sequel in a few years. Probably not, though. EA changed this whole dynamic by putting out a new and improved version of their sports games every year. The NHL series wasn’t the first to experience this (the 2nd Madden game came out the same year the first NHL game), but it may have benefitted from these annual upgrades the most… at first, anyway.

Over the years, the NHL series underwent the familiar peak-and-fall progression that we also saw with Madden and the NBA series. For a while, things got significantly better. NHLPA ‘93 made drastic improvements both in gameplay (a little faster, much smoother, less unintentional interference and cheap goals) and presentation. The game lost it’s official NHL license that year, but managed to disguise it pretty well with the old trick of using city names and team colors in lieu of team names and logos (other than on the title screen, where the goalie’s blank, beer-league-worthy jersey is kind of hard not to notice). Instead, the game has the license from the players association, meaning that for the first time in a hockey video game, real-life NHL players had their names in the game. As an added bonus, this meant the box could have pictures of star players like Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque and, uh, Rick Tocchet. Sure, why not?

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In the game cover’s defense, Rick Tocchet was like the 4th or 5th most famous player on the Penguins that year.

While not as drastically improved from NHLPA ‘93 as that game was to the original, NHL ‘94 stands out for many as the high point of the series. With most of the major work already out of the way, the developer was freed up to improve upon the game’s core, making numerous subtle refinements to the gameplay. Once again, the game got a bit faster, the control became a bit better, the AI finally started to resemble the behavior of actual hockey players, and the goaltending was improved. The big new feature that year was the inclusion of one-timers, which for non-hockey fans, is a play where one player passes to a teammate, and instead of stopping it and skating with it, the receiving player just shoots the puck immediately. This is the play that most NHL teams spend their powerplay trying to set up, except for the Buffalo Sabres who, in keeping with a team tradition dating back to the 1980s, prefer to spend their time with the man advantage turning the puck over and listening to their own fans boo them.

There are those who claim the series took a step backward the next year in NHL ‘95, but having played the two games back to back, I don’t see it. The differences are pretty minor, but not in any way negative. Still, having refined NHL ‘94’s gameplay to a blissful, near-perfect experience, there wasn’t much left to do for NHL ‘95 but add features. So we finally got player creation, trades, and most importantly, a season mode. In fact, we got one of the best season modes ever seen in a sports video game.

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The thing I love about NHL ‘95’s season mode, the thing that hardly any other sports game gets right, is that, if you’re so inclined, you can play every single game, for every team. This means that if you and a friend each want to choose a team and play in the same league together, you can do so. Or you could play through as 5 or 6 teams if you wanted. Or if you’re playing as the Boston Bruins (maybe you have brain damage or something), but happen to see a particularly intriguing Chicago/Detroit matchup you’d like to play, you can. Just as importantly, the interface is clean and easy to use. Far too many games, even today, lock you into picking just one team and only being able to play their games. And even the ones that do let you play as multiple teams are set up in such a way that it becomes a nightmare. You could jump into NHL 13’s season mode (if you can find it buried near the bottom of the menus) and take control of multiple teams. But it’s such a mess that you won’t want to.

There’s just one problem with this – NHL ‘95 is notorious for losing save games. Rumor is there was a batch of bad batteries that went into the games, but I’ve had no luck even after replacing the batteries (yes, this is the kind of love the game inspires, I bought a 2nd copy, tore the cartridge open, and replaced the battery), so it might have been some other kind of glitch. Or maybe it’s just one of hockey’s great injustices. Tampa Bay won a Stanley Cup. People in Quebec supported the Nordiques like crazy and they still moved to Denver.  NHL ‘95 has an awesome season mode, but won’t save. Things don’t always work out the way they ought to. All I know is that I’m starting to wonder what would happen if I left a Sega Genesis running for eight weeks or so.

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Bad things. Bad things would happen.

So, we started out with the NHL Hockey, the first ever game with an NHL license, but no player names, then the next year NHLPA ‘93 gave us the player names but lost the league license. The year after that we got both team and players names (another historical first) for NHL ‘94, but still no season mode. NHL ‘95 had a season mode, but the damn game wouldn’t hold your save. Along the way, the gameplay evolved from excellent to near-perfect. So NHL ‘96 is the year everything finally came together and we finally got the perfect sports game, right? Well…

The best sports stories are always the tragedies. Those are the ones that really affect you emotionally, and stick with you until the end of time. Not the US Olympic Hockey Team winning gold in 1980, but Vancouver Canucks in 1994, coming out of 7th place to get within a game – within minutes, actually – of winning the Cup before falling to the Rangers, a big-spending team that everyone had known was going to win before the season even started. It’s those ‘91 Minnesota North Stars that we saw in the picture at the beginning of this article, fighting their way through every powerhouse team in the Campbell Conference, only to get destroyed by the Penguins. It’s the state of Connecticut doing everything that was asked of them to keep their team, and having the Whalers move to Carolina anyway; and it’s the 2006 Buffalo Sabres putting together the best team in their franchise’s history, but losing nearly all their defensemen to injury by Game 7 of the Conference Finals and finally succumbing to those same Carolina Hurricanes.

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Seriously, fuck the Carolina Hurricanes.

And so it is with NHL ‘96. It’s hard to fault EA, really. There was nowhere else to go, by this point the NHL series had gotten as good as it possibly was going to get and the only thing that could possibly make it better was to start over with a new engine. Bold move on their part – it would have been easier to have just done a roster update and watched the money roll in. But the resulting game was… broken. Not broken in the sense that, say, Gargoyles is broken, in that you can barely play it. But broken as in, hey you broke my NHL ‘95, and now it’s something less than what it had been.

NHL 97 (USA, Europe)002Is NHL ‘96 a terrible game? No. In a vacuum, it’s decent enough, and if you go to the used game store and it’s the only hockey game you can find… well first of all, seriously? Old sports games are like loose change – they just turn up everywhere, even in places where it makes no sense for them to be. I could probably go to an retro game store in the Deep South and still find a few copies of NHL ‘94. Nobody would know who bought them, how they got there, or even what hockey is, yet they’d be there. But anyway, if you go to this theoretical game store and all they have is NHL ‘96, yes, go ahead and get a copy. It’s fun. Just not nearly as much fun as the games that came before it. The control is loose, the game speed isn’t right, and the whole thing just feels off.

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A valiant effort was made with to improve things for NHL ‘97, and a lot of the problems from the year before are… well, not better, but less bad. It’s still not as good as the games from earlier in the series, but at least the gap is narrower. Of course, by the point, people were leaving their Genesis for the PSX, so this effort was largely unappreciated. Oddly enough, NHL ‘98 seems to have taken two steps backward, as though the people making it ignored the improvements in NHL ‘97, played a copy of ‘96 instead, and then said “Ok, now how can we make this worse?” It’s just as well that not many copies of this game were made, because the only enjoyment to be gotten out of it is as a collector’s item.

Hey, speaking of that…

Availability: Well, the NHL series is still going strong, so you could buy the latest entry in the series for either the PS3 or Xbox 360. But those games are drastically different than their Genesis counterparts, which you’ll need a Genesis to play. EA has teased the idea of re-releasing NHL ‘94 as bonus content on one of their new NHL games a few times, but it’s never come to pass. I keep hoping someday EA comes to their senses and just makes an XBLA or PSN game that’s basically NHL ‘95 except with today’s teams and players, but so far I seem to be the only person who likes that idea.

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Getting your hands on one of the Genesis games shouldn’t be a problem, though. I have a copy of every single game from this series, all boxed, with instructions, each one in nice shape, and it’s the pride of my Genesis collection. Combined, the whole thing probably cost less than my copies of Warsong or Castlevania: Bloodlines. Admittedly, when I bought them, I lived in Buffalo, which is basically a suburb of Canada. Finding a copy of an old hockey video game in Buffalo is like finding a person wearing pajama pants in public in Buffalo. You could go into pretty much any used game store and see stacks of them (the games I mean… well, no, actually that statement applies to both).

But even if you don’t live in hockey country, these shouldn’t be too hard to find, NHL '94 (USA, Europe)002and probably not that expensive. Like I said earlier, old sports games are everywhere. And if you can’t find them at a game store, they’ll definitely be online. Probably for less than a dollar. In fact, you’re actually better off buying them at a store rather than buying them online, because the shipping will likely cost more than the games.

The only game from this series that is rare and expensive is NHL ‘98, which is a blight on the series anyway, and you should only buy it if you’re a collector.

Note: of all the games in this series, these were the editor’s personal favorites:
Brad: NHL ‘95
Stryker: NHL ‘94
Mr. Do!: NHL Hockey (original)

Starflight

Starflight00B

Grade: A
Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 8th
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Year: 1991
Genre: Mining

Whether or not you enjoy Starflight might come down to one important question – are you the kind of gamer who relishes the idea of keeping a notebook handy in order to jot down important information about the game they’re playing? Most people don’t remember this anymore, but in the old days, it wasn’t uncommon for an adventure-type game like this to require some serious note-taking skills. Starflight is one of those types of games, and in fact, it’s a big part of its gameplay.

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Pictured: gameplay.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not so militantly old-school that I somehow find the journals, quest logs and other note-keeping methods included in modern games offensive somehow. For the most part, I find them quite handy, and huge games like Mass Effect or Skyrim would be pretty much unplayable without them. Seriously, could you imagine having to write down “Ysolda needs a Mammoth tusk”, and “check out the crashed satellite in the Horsehead Nebula” and the hundreds and hundreds of other little notes those games would require? By the time you were done, you’d have binders, notebooks, and flowcharts and would probably have to hire an intern to organize it all. Games would be sponsored by Office Depot.

Starflight013Still, these handy automatic note-taking features have one critical side-effect – they filter out all the unnecessary information and focus exclusively on exactly what you need to know to progress through the game. And again this is handy for most games. To go back to my Skyrim example, your quest log would be a lot less useful if it includes tidbits like “Belethor would sell his sister if he had one” or “Aerin is hopelessly stuck in the ‘friend zone’ with Mjoll”.

(Quick Skyrim related aside here – Seriously, Mjoll? Aerin pulls your near-lifeless body out of a trap-infested Dwarven ruin, nurses you back to life, let’s you live with him, follows you around all day and listens patiently while you complain ceaselessly about the corruption in Riften, and you won’t even go out to dinner with him. But you’ll run off and marry the first person who retrieves your sword? That sucks. Aerin would have loved you unconditionally until his dying day and you could have gone on countless adventures together. I, on the other hand, kept you as a housewife in my manor in the middle of nowhere, and then stuck you with two random kids I adopted on a whim without asking you first. Meanwhile I’m off doing quests with Aela the Hotness and running special errands for any random chick who happens to be wearing a tavern dress. Hope you’re happy with your sword, though.)

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Wait, what were we talking about?

Anyway, unlike most other games, Starflight absolutely would not work with any kind of an automated quest log. The whole point of this game is to gather information, and a big part of the “gameplay” is trying to determine which information is useful and what’s just extra dialogue. There are times when I’ve gotten stuck because I ignored an important clue I had been given, and other times where I’ve gone on wild goose chases following what I should have realized was a bad lead. If the game filtered out and recorded all the useful information for you, there wouldn’t be much of a game left.

This makes Starflight an adventure game in the truest sense, and while that term might conjure up bad memories of illogical puzzles and insane logic, I’m talking about something else entirely. The focus of Starflight is really on exploration, information gathering, and understanding a threat to the universe before it’s too late. There isn’t a lot in the way of twitch action, or stats-building, or strategy. This game is more story driven, and more focused on solving a mystery. You follow up on the few scant leads the game gives you to start off with, chat, threaten, or bribe the aliens you come across for useful information, and track down lost settlements. It’s like a bizarre mixture of sci-fi and a detective noir.

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No, you may not land on a star – unless you want to be awesome.

In terms of structure and gameplay, I’d say that the game that Starflight is most similar to is Rings of Power. Which isn’t a very helpful comparison considering that even fewer people have played RoP than have Starflight, but it’s hard to compare Starflight to a game more of you might be familiar with, because they don’t really make a lot of games like it any more. Though to be fair, they didn’t really make a lot of games like it back then, either. That’s part of what makes this game special.

Starflight038The defining trait of Starflight, which is so exceedingly rare in gaming that I can only compare it to other obscure 20-year old Genesis games, is how completely unstructured it is. Most games, even ones that are built around the idea of being open-world and nonlinear, still at the very least have a main storyline with a series of objectives or missions that need to be completed in order to beat the game. Even Rings has some of this, though it’s disguised by the fact that you can pursue multiple objectives at once. Not so with Starflight. You’re given a ship, a brief outline of the plot, and a couple of leads. Then it’s up to you to go explore. If you know what you’re doing, you can beat the entire game in a few minutes.

Of course, pulling off such a feat is pretty much impossible until you learn the necessary steps. And in order to do that, we’re going to have to do some mining in order to upgrade the ship to  a vessel capable of exploring the far reaches of the galaxy through what can often be hostile territory. What, did you think the government just starts handing people spaceships just because nearby stars keep going supernova and nobody can figure out why? Hell no. If you want to save the galaxy, go grab a shovel and start digging. The apocalypse is not the time to start turning into a bunch of socialists.

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Explore the galaxy. Discover new worlds. Drive around on them and try to dig up plutonium.

No seriously, this is a game about space travel and saving the universe, in which you spend a not-insignificant time mining for rare minerals. I’ll admit that sounds pretty awful, but bear with me here. First of all, going against anything I know about game design or just logic in general, it’s actually kind of fun. And no, it’s not fun because the mining is a cool little minigame or something; you just drive around on the planet and press the “B” button, and sometimes it tells you you found minerals. That’s about all there is to it (you do get a scanner to show you where the minerals are supposed to be). There aren’t a lot of sights to see (Oh hey, green terrain! And there’s some brown terran. And this ground is a little wavy. Woooo!), or enemies to fight or anything like that.

Don’t ask me why this is fun. Maybe the random nature of finding the minerals makes it feel like gambling. Or the sense of progression that comes as you sell these minerals and upgrade your ship from a small freighter to a fully equipped battlecruiser. I can’t quite explain it but, for a little while at least, the mining really is kind of enjoyable.

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Not as enjoyable as discussing the engineering of heaven with robots, but then again, what is.

The other thing to keep in mind about mining is that you only have to do it for a little while. After an hour or two of mining, just when it starts to get a little old, you’ll have earned enough money to get the most important upgrades for your ship (engines, shields, a fully pimped out mining vehicle), and can get on with the important business of saving the galaxy. After this point, mining becomes something you only have to do occasionally to buy more fuel, and it’s more of a “well, as long as I’m on this planet anyway” kind of thing. The pacing in Starflight is one of its best features – in the beginning, it’s really just about going to nearby worlds, harvesting minerals, and trying to earn enough money to upgrade your ship. This will help you learn how the game works and get the hang of things. Then, as you get better equipped, your range gradually expands, and the focus shifts from making money to exploring the universe and trying to solve the mystery at the center of the plot.

One of the neat things about Starflight is that it let’s you pick out your own crew, and some of your crew members can – and absolutely should – be alien species. Each alien race has natural inclinations, so it’s important to choose the proper one for each task. We suggest a human scientist, insectoids for engineer and navigator, and sentient plants for communications and as your doctor. Plants make great doctors, because in a pinch, they can just grind up their limbs to create medicine and grow them back later. I’m not sure why the game also favors them so much for communications, but it’s possible that the most forms of expression throughout the galaxy involve fragrances and bright colors.

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Plants and insectoids also get along really well, due to the latter’s willingness to help the plants “pollinate”. They’re like the wingmen of the galaxy.

One last thing about Starflight – it has one of the best plot twists I’ve ever experienced in a game. The surprise ending seems so obvious in retrospect (there is even a species of aliens who do nothing EXCEPT give away the ending, albeit in a not entirely clear way), yet it still managed to catch us completely unprepared. I won’t give anything away here, but I will say it made us question the righteousness of our endeavor.

Availability: Spiral notebooks and pens can be found at any office supply store, or even most supermarkets, for next to nothing. If that somehow shouldn’t work for you, you can always use some scrap paper and, I don’t know, steal a pen from a coworker or something. Seriously, if you somehow don’t have access to PENS, you might need to stop playing Genesis games and refocus your priorities. I mean, even people in jail get access to pens, and they mostly just use them to stab each other.

Oh wait, were we supposed to be discussing the availability of Starflight?

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The space squid is not amused by our foolishness.

Well, unfortunately, Starflight falls into the same gap as many other EA-published Genesis titles, such as Road Rash, Jungle Strike, and Rings of Power – it is not available for modern consoles in any shape or form. This means you’re going to have to find a Genesis copy of Starflight which, even back in the Genesis days, was a tough game to find. I remember trying to track a copy down back in 1996, and it took a while. The passage of time certainly hasn’t made the game any less rare since then, but the growth of the internet has at least made it easier to find. Nice copies can be bought online for less than $20, and cartridge only versions often less for $10. Still, if you’re feeling lucky, or live near a really good used game store, you might be able to find an even better deal that way – I got my copy (box, but no instructions) at a store for $8.

The game originally came with a star map that had some important information and locations on it. It’s nearly impossible to find a copy with the map these days, and without it, the game does become quite a bit more challenging. Fortunately, the internet is here to save us. I especially recommend this site when you get stuck (don’t scroll down on that page until you’re ready for spoilers).

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Alternately, you could try to find the PC version of the game, which actually has more features, more worlds, and is overall a bigger game. Many gamers consider the PC versions of the game to be superior, and while I understand why they feel that way, I actually prefer the more simplified and streamlined Genesis version myself. Compatibility may also be an issue – getting games from two decades ago to run on modern PCs can sometimes be… problematic.

Landstalker

Grade: B+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 20th

Publisher: Sega

Year: 1992

Genre: Pain

Do a Google search for the word “dominatrix” followed by whatever city you happen to live near, and you’ll end up looking at a listing of nearby ladies who, for a modest fee, will happily tie you up, whip you, walk on you, or – I don’t know, make you do the dishes or something? This sort of thing isn’t really my bag, so I’m not exactly sure how it works. Given how many professionals are out there though, I’m assuming this has quite an appeal for at least a fair number of people. When we first found out about this stuff (by the way, thanks yet again, internet), neither of us could really understand what would cause a person to get their wires crossed and start mixing pleasure and pain in such an extreme way. This is a completely alien concept – my love of Double Dragon instilled in me a supreme aversion of whip-wielding women, and Stryker prefers to get lady-tortured the old-fashioned way, through marriage. But now… now I think I know:

Those dudes probably all played Landstalker back in the Genesis days.

 

Kind of puts a whole new spin on this guy’s upcoming “session” with Madame Yard, doesn’t it?

See, Landstalker combines fun and suffering in a most dangerous sort of way – the enjoyable parts are so completely interlaced with moments of annoyance and outright sadism that it’s sometimes hard to know where one ends and the other begins. A typical game usually eases this transition – you might play through a hard level followed by an easy level, or an area where you face a bunch of pushovers followed by a challenging boss fight. By contrast, Landstalker flips back and forth between fun and frustrating like a small child playing with a light switch. If you’re not careful, both will start to blur together until each part of the game seems equally cruel and enjoyable, and that’s when you’re in trouble. Once that happens, you’re really only a couple of steps away from paying some leather-clad chick to kick you in the junk. And that’s probably not good.

In fact, to make sure that doesn’t happen, we recommend taking a break from playing Landstalker every couple hours or so to do something purely enjoyable and pain-free. Maybe have a bowl of ice cream or play with a puppy or something. You know, just to remind yourself that delight doesn’t necessarily require any suffering. It’ll be good for your mental health plus, hey, ice cream.

Or raw meat, I mean, whatever you like, really.

Landstalker is an Action/RPG, and simply by mentioning that hybrid genre we’re obligated to compare it to The Legend of Zelda. There’s actually a law that says that. Some have even gone as far to call Landstalker Sega’s own version of Zelda, but the games really aren’t all that similar. Yes, both of them have swordfighting, exploration, and puzzle solving, along with visiting towns and interacting with NPCs, but Landstalker  puts a much bigger emphasis on platforming. Whereas the Zelda games have little to no jumping sequences, getting from one ledge or floating platform to the next accounts for maybe as much as 50% of Landstalker’s gameplay and about 99% of the accompanying swear words. Have I mentioned that this game gets difficult at times? Oh, I have? Well, it does.

By the way, if you really want a truly Zelda-like game for the Genesis, check out Beyond Oasis or Crusader of Centy… actually, you know what? Just check out Beyond Oasis.

Before we go any further, let’s make something clear. Many games are hard. Landstalker is cruel, and believe me, there’s a difference. Usually, a game will present you with a difficult area, say a series of really hard jumps, and you might get stuck and have to do it over and over a thousand times before you get it right, but if you ever do get through it, you’re set and won’t have to do it again. What Landstalker will do will put the next series of hard jumps directly above the previous series, so that if you miss one on the second set, you fall all the way through the first area, and have to do that again, too. This is pretty standard stuff for Landstalker. There were some mean spirited people at work on this one.

Most games just test your skill, but thanks to its sinister design, Landstalker challenges your patience, too. The toughest parts of the game have as much to do with fighting enemies or making jumps as they do with not throwing your Genesis out the window. We failed numerous times on both fronts.

So why bother with a game that presents a hazard to the well-being of both your sanity and the Genesis you happen to be playing the game on? Because Landstalker, despite all its evil, is still a lot of fun. The combat is a simple, fast-paced affair that you don’t mind doing over and over again. There puzzle parts are even better – a lot of them require genuine brain power, and it’s not unheard of to get stuck on one for a while, before finally having that satisfying “Aha!” moment.

In fact, it’s the puzzle/exploration aspect that will really keep you coming back for more. What’s really impressive about this part of the game are how many false leads this game throws at you. Most games, both new and old, are actually very efficient; just about everything put into a level – a switch, a room, an item – is there for a reason. Once you begin to understand this, solving parts of a game become a lot easier. If you get stuck, it’s usually just a matter of looking around and going “Well, they must have put that ledge (or “empty” room, or dead hooker, etc.) there for some reason,” and then figuring out what to do with it. Even games that do include empty areas tend to put secret items there as a subtle hint to the player that they have no further purpose. Conversely, Landstalker adds in some legitimate dead ends, useless areas, and other red herrings. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with a few extra pieces in it – you never know for sure if something that seems extra truly is or not, and it makes the game a lot more interesting. It’s noteworthy because this is such a rare thing in gaming. If you don’t believe me, think of a few other exploration and puzzle solving  games where you would expect to encounter this – Tomb Raider is basically an entire game just running from one thing you jump or grab onto to the next, and Zelda’s idea of throwing you off the scent involves adding an extra statue next to the one you have to push. Most games are remarkably streamlined when you really think about it.

Difficulty has sort of an interesting effect on how much you enjoy a game. Whether someone finds a tough game to be utterly frustrating or refreshingly challenging really depends on how much fun the rest of the game is. This makes sense – if a game is really good, you don’t mind as much if you have to play parts of it a few extra times before you get through them, and when you finally get through a tough part, you’re rewarded with new levels or areas to enjoy. This is completely reversed in a bad game – there isn’t much point to suffering through a level of Cliffhanger over and over, if the only reward is going to be having to play more Cliffhanger.

 

Whereas in Landstalker, your reward is a refreshing “NOT” joke.

Besides, there’s something satisfying about getting through a difficult game. Being good at Landstalker may not be as useful of a skill as, say, talking to supermodels or being Batman, but there’s something kind of cool about finally breezing through a tough part and thinking, “I used to be really bad at that, but now I’m pretty good.” I think that’s a feeling people crave psychologically, and it’s probably a big part of the appeal of video games in general… or at least it was back when they still made challenging games. It’s kind of hard to get that feeling these days when you’re beating everything on the first try.

In a weird way, you’re probably better off playing Landstalker now than you were then. The game came out in an era before the widespread internet, and back in a time when few games had hintbooks. Back in 1993, if you got stuck in a really tough part of Landstalker, your options were basically to either hand the controller to one of your friends and watch him die over and over in the vain hope he’d figure it out, or call a 1-900 hint line and pay $3 a minute to get helpful advice like “Stop sucking at the game”. By our calculations, it would have cost approximately $7,000 in phone calls to beat Landstalker in the early ‘90s. These days you can just look up a free strategy guide online, or go on YouTube and watch of video of the part you’re stuck on to see if you’re at least on the right track.

The story is good, too – it’s fun and moves the action along without taking itself seriously. There are some genuinely funny parts, and the game never gets too bogged down explaining plot points when it could be giving you more things to kill. The game centers around Nigel, a treasure hunter seeking the legendary treasure of King Nole. What’s refreshing about this is that at first, Nigel’s interest in the treasure seems to be purely monetary – as far as he knows, the treasure doesn’t have some great power, and isn’t the key to unlocking some ancient evil or destroying the world. Think about how rare that is. Two of the other games on this list – Shining Force 2 and Gunstar Heroes, center around stolen gems that unleash doomsday scenarios. Even games you think would be about pursuing treasures simply for treasure’s sake, like Tomb Raider, usually end up being about all-powerful world-ending artifacts. In fact, near the end of the Landstalker, when the treasure’s secret powers are finally revealed (I’d apologize for the spoiler, but I mean, really? It’s a treasure in a video game, of course it was going to have mystical powers), it actually seemed like a bit of a disappointment. What’s so wrong with going after a treasure just so you can get rich? That’s a lot more relatable if you ask me. There seems to be this notion that gamers need to have some sort of higher goal is order to play through the game, but… I mean have you ever met a gamer? We’re not such noble creatures as you seem to think.


Seriously. You could toss a bag of Oreos at the back of a cave and most of us would murder a hundred virtual giant dragons or demonic warriors to get at them.

One last thing that adds to Landstalker’s appeal is the fact that a lot of the people who made Shining Force worked on this (it was actually made by the same developer that made Shining in the Darkness, the game that Shining Force is the sort-of sequel to). Although the games are completely different in terms of gameplay, there is an obvious influence in both the graphics and (especially) the music, which is a very good thing. A game that looks and sounds like Shining Force and plays like Zelda, except with improved exploration and puzzles? Impossible jumping sequences or not, that’s something we’ll sign up for.

Availability: While Landstalker is respected by many hard-core gamers, it’s never quite achieved the cult status of games like Gunstar Heroes or Toe Jam and Earl, meaning that it also doesn’t suffer from the price inflation that those games have. See? The next time you complain that some great game never got the respect it deserved, just remember it’s that same lack of respect that allows you to buy it for considerably less. Anyway, we had no luck trying to find it in stores, but copies can be found online starting at around $10, or closer to $15-20 if you want a box and instructions. Alternately, it is also available for download on the Wii Virtual Console.