Thursday, October 19, 2006


The Golden Age of Black and White

I remember, when the era of Super NES vs. Genesis was beginning to reach a ripe old age, an article in EGM that rated the various video game systems that were still on the market. I don't remember much about the fanboyism expressed over the various consoles (I have a vague memory of a comment about the Super NES: "If you have to play Super Mario, get Sega's new hockey game"), but one thing did stick with me: their unbridled fury that the Game Boy should even still exist.

In a time when the industry was beginning to swoon over 16-bit processors and fancy graphical effects, Nintendo had the audacity to continue supporting a chunky black and white portable system that was probably best known for Super Marioland (a 12-level, shrunk down homage to Super Mario Brothers) and Tetris. The Game Boy was a ghetto. It became a haven for quick license cash-ins and badly-mangled ports from the NES and SNES. And with the Game Gear available down the same aisle, with its colorful, glow-in-the-dark effects, it was easy for Sega to paint Game Boy fans as hideous, socially deficient morons who were just as easily entertained by bug zappers or hallucinations induced by hitting themselves in the head with petrified squirrels.

Well fuck you too, Sega and EGM. The last half of the era of the black and white Game Boy was marked by some of the most creative and fun video games that Nintendo has ever made. It was like there was a hidden treasure chest of fun lurking down the video game aisle, and all you had to do to open it was to suffer through some black and white graphics. Super Marioland 2 wasn't, ultimately, a classic for the ages, but the technical tricks that made the Game Boy process all of that information and all of those huge (for the system) sprites were put to good use, and Nintendo started dishing out classic games on the system like no one's business.

So here, in no particular order, are ten of the Game Boy's best kept secrets, the games that you play in black and white. If you can still find them today, snatch 'em up.

Warioland: Super Marioland 3

I fell in love with Wario at first sight. The concept of a villain who could turn the tables on Mario and use his super powers against him was just plain flat-out cool. I was reluctant to pick up Warioland though -- I thought they would rely too much on the novelty of playing as the villain from Marioland 2.

Boy was I wrong.

Warioland quickly became one of my favorite platforming games ever. The level design is just as clever and fun as Super Mario Brothers 3. Wario has a total of three different powered-up forms, and unlike in recent Mario games (Super Mario World and Marioland 2), they were all pretty well balanced. And the bosses were terrific -- difficult, imaginative, and fun to battle. And the best part of the game was the treasure hunt. Wario's on a quest to find enough money to buy a castle that'll put Mario to shame, so every coin you get on a run through a level goes into Wario's bank. Much more importantly, you can find treasures hidden away in certain levels, and if you bring them to the end of the game, you can cash them in for thousands of coins apiece. Lots and lots of fun.

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening

This game, based vaguely on A Link to the Past, was the first Zelda game I ever truly fell in love with, and certainly the first Zelda game I'd ever had the patience to finish. It had puzzles, side quests, secret items to find, a bittersweet story, and lots and lots of humor. I'd never laughed out loud while playing a Zelda game before, but Link's Awakening is a riot. It was the first Zelda game to introduce a button-activated shield, and thanks to the Roc's Feather, it had lots of platforming bits, from both an overhead view and a side view. This was one of the games that was colorized for the release of the Game Boy Color. I still have both versions.

Metroid II

Okay, confession. I'm not a Metroid fan. Still, I can understand why fans of the series appreciate it so much. So here's Metroid II, a perfectly servicable sequel to the original Metroid, notable for having a very secure place in the series' continuity despite only being available in black and white on the Game boy. Enjoy it with my compliments.

Donkey Kong (1994)

To hell with the Super Mariolands -- this was the big Game Boy Mario adventure. It starts with the four levels from the original arcade game, but just as Mario and Pauline are about to ride off into the sunset, Donkey Kong leaps up and snatches her away, leading Mario on a whirlwind chase through forests and deserts, cities and mountains, and even along the back of an airplane in flight. The familiar Donkey Kong gameplay is apparent in the new boss encounters that pop up every four levels, but the meat of the game is in its puzzle levels that borrow elements of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, Super Mario Brothers 2, and some acrobatic stunts that we wouldn't see again until Super Mario 64. More than just barrel-jumping, this game will challenge you to find a key and bring it to the door to unlock the exit to every level. The quantity and quality of animation packed into the cartridge is unbelievable. And look out when Donkey Kong Junior is added into the mix at the midway point of the game!

Mole Mania

A truly original game, and well-deserving of a sequel on the DS. You're a mole on a quest to save your family from a cabbage farmer. To save them, you have to brave dozens upon dozens of sliding block puzzles -- your progress is blocked by stone walls, and the only way to destroy them is to roll a big black ball into them, but obstacles and enemies block your path. The most interesting part of the game is that, being a mole, you can burrow underground. Naturally, there are some key differences between the layout of the surface and underground that will make traversing one or the other particularly tricky. Strategically placing your holes and burrows is a major part of solving each room.

Mario's Picross

Before there was Sudoku, we had Mario's Picross, a beautifully elegant logic game. It's difficult to describe, but with a little thought and the game's patient tutorial, you can become a Picross master too. The object of the game is to fill in boxes on a grid to create a picture. The boxes that you are allowed to fill in are dictated by numbers that run along the rows and columns. The only way to get the complete picture is to figure out how the numbers relate to each other. Clues are available -- if you're weak.

Game & Watch Gallery

Yes, Game & Watch Gallery. Oh bite me, it's fun. Those little LCD portable games of yore still have a certain goofy charm to them, and the Modern versions help to make things a bit more interesting. Sure, I'd probably prefer the series' best entry to date, Gallery 4, but with Manhole, Fire, and Octopus all on one cartridge, it was a pretty good start to a great series.

Warioland II

And now we come to Warioland II. What can I say except wow. This game struck new ground in so many directions and succeeded so consistently with everything it tried to be that it leaves me in awe.

First of all, the cardinal rule of video games goes out the window. Wario can't die. That's not to say he has unlimited lives or some sort of cop-out like that -- there is literally nothing in the game that can kill him. Sure, he can get smacked around by enemies and hazards a bit, but the consequence is generally that he gets knocked back a bit and some coins drop out of his pockets. Sure, there are the usual assortment of pitfalls, but the pits aren't bottomless -- you'll merely find yourself backtracking to a lower part of the level. This gave the developers license to create some cruel, cruel platforming situations. Very tricky jumps and maneuvers are nearly everywhere in the game, and missing them often means having to redo very long stretches of the game.

Second, Wario's transformations. He's flattened. He's inflated. He's shrunk. He's zombified. He's set on fire. He's frozen solid. He's swallowed whole. Enemies do everything except kill him. Every transformation he undergoes limits his movement and attack options, but also allows him to do something he couldn't ordinarily do. A zombified Wario can't jump and walks very slowly, but he also destroys all enemies on contact and can slide down through certain kinds of floors. Some levels are set up so that you'll want to avoid the transformation. Others are set up to make you take advantage of your special transformed abilities, so you'll have to be clever enough to avoid the cure!

And finally, there's the multiple endings. If you just play straight through the game, you'll get to play 25 different levels. After you beat the last boss, the story map will open up and show you all of the stages you missed. As in most Mario games, there are certain levels that have multiple exits. But if you find a hidden exit in Warioland II, the storyline will actually change to reflect it. For example, the goal in a level set on Captain Syrup's pirate ship is to find the anchor and knock it into the water to stop the ship. If, instead, you find the secret path to the very bottom of the ship, you can smash a cork that'll spring a leak in the ship. Instead of docking, the ship will sink to the bottom of the sea, and you'll open up a world that takes place underwater. Most hidden paths like these lead to alternative endings.

And of course, the treasure hunt from the original game is back. There are a total of fifty treasures waiting to be found, one for each level in the game. If you can get each treasure and all of the puzzle tiles that are available in end-level minigames, you'll unlock the extra-secret, extra-difficult Really Final Chapter and turn the tables on the Brown Sugar Pirates once and for all.

Totally fantastic game. Even better translated into color.

Game Boy Camera

It came out of nowhere, and boy was it fun. You could turn your Game Boy into a digital camera, take pictures, edit them, make animations, make weird minigames, put your face into a Game and Watch, make stickers -- it was a handheld creativity studio. The followup for the Game Boy Advance never materialized, and it's a damned shame.


And the rest, as they say, is history. With Pokemon, the Game Boy was suddenly a contender again. Ironically, the system that everyone else had written off became Nintendo's raison d'etre a generation after it, by all rights, should have been succeeded by something else. It's kind of funny, in a way. Nintendo could have just let the Game Boy peter out to its quiet, natural death, but they kept plugging stubbornly away, making games for it as long as a decade after its release. And when one of them caught fire, it helped to save their company from an ignominious slide into total obsolesence as the Playstation arose to lord over the home console industry.

It makes you wonder. What else are we missing out on in our rush toward the next generation?


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