A particularly powerful characteristic of games as a medium is that, in creating a virtual world with its own rules and that runs on its own time, they can not only achieve a level of immersion other forms of media struggle with, but also, they can employ and borrow liberally from the tools those other forms of media use without breaking the experience. There are multiple examples of games that do so, but the latest and a new favorite is 1000xResist.

To define 1000xResist succinctly is in itself a challenge: to simply say that it is a sci-fi narrative game does help a potential player tell if it's their type of game or not, but betrays the amount of layers there are to the game and how much there is to see beneath the surface. It's a groundbreaking work, and if I only have this one paragraph left to convince you, let me say this: if you enjoy narrative games in any way, and especially if you make narrative games yourself, this is the game to pay attention to in 2024.

It was developed by and is the debut title of Sunset Visitor, a studio composed mostly of Asian-Canadian folks, and the events of the game take place on Earth, over a thousand years from the present day. Somewhere near the middle of the 21st century, Earth was visited by aliens humans called the Occupants. The Occupants didn't attack, per se, but they brought with them a horrifying disease that caused humans infected by it to rapidly perish. Only one person was immune: a young girl named Iris, who seemed to become immortal instead.

Failure to develop a cure in time, however, left Iris as the sole survivor from our species, and all those who walk the Earth, one thousand years after the occupants arrived, are clones of her. She is revered as the ALLMOTHER, who fights the Occupants to reclaim the surface. Meanwhile, her clones, who call each other sister, live in peace within a large enclosed facility called the Orchard, each sister with an assigned role. This is where the player joins the story as the new Watcher, whose function is to experience the ALLMOTHER's memories in Communion and interpret her teachings.

Based on that synopsis, one might expect the story to approach the themes of religion at some point, which it does. With so much death and technology, maybe it would ponder the meaning of life and what being alive really is, and that's also here. But would you expect it to discuss diaspora, and the challenges it places on the people undergoing it? Would you expect one of the deepest and most poignant explorations of generational trauma ever to grace videogames? Do you think 1000xResist has something to say about real-world geopolitical conflicts? About the nature of totalitarian regimes and the process through which they are created?

Because it does discuss those things, and much more. That is why it is such a difficult work to define in just a sentence, because it juggles such a wealth of themes that focusing just on the speculative fiction premise comes off as empty. Not to say that that premise is disconnected from the themes, however -- far from it. Even more impressive than the breadth of themes is how seamlessly they are woven into the narrative, how all of them emerge organically from the elements and characters in the story. With 1000xResist Sunset Visitor achieved something extremely challenging: to create a work that takes a crystal clear stance on several political issues, while not even for a moment feeling preachy.

As fantastic as the setting might be, as many cloning facilities, infinitely renewable resources and impossible life support technologies it might feature, 1000xResist feels authentic, as if it was a continuation of human history itself, with each event but a natural consequence of that which preceded it. The characters also avoid the fate of being one-dimensional stand-ins for the ideas they represent and instead sound like real people, with beliefs and personalities shaped by the environments they lived in. It also helps that the game features extensive voice acting that feels, for lack of a better word, mundane – not in a bad way, but as if these were real people having conversations.

Which is a good segue to get out of the 'what' and, going back to the intro of this review, to talk about the 'how'. Gameplay is split between two parts: the Orchard and the Communions, and while it would be unfair to say that it is in the latter that the direction truly shines, it is in the surreal, dream-like sequences of the ALLMOTHER's memory that the game's inspirations become more evident. Each Communion has a distinct flavour to it: some borrow a lot from cinema, while others replicate books or theater in their presentation. Some sequences are straightforward, while others are maze-like.

Nier is explicitly listed as an inspiration for 1000xResist, and it shows: Sunset Visitor plays around with the camera and its own mechanics, sometimes subverting players' expectations of how the game would play, to add metanarrative elements to certain passages. Sometimes, the camera is used to communicate the constrained feeling of an environment. Other times, the layout of the stage expresses confusion or unwillingness of the ALLMOTHER to share details of a memory. In some of the game's more climactic moments, a barrage of different shots is presented interwoven, seeming, at first, like a series of unrelated facts, but that soon begin to coalesce as the game slowly and elegantly ties its own story together.

The use of color is also noteworthy, with the game making great use of colored lighting to establish moods and frame its many scenes. The expert craftsmanship is apparent: 1000xResist is a game made by a small team with a very low budget, but you wouldn't think so at first glance because the competent art direction knew which corners to cut. Characters are beautifully rendered and well animated, since they're the focal points of most scenes, but the environments' comparatively simple geometry and texturing is played to the game's benefit, with scene composition favoring strongly defined shapes, spaces and colors that effectively communicate what the artists and designers wanted to show or say. So many indie games display hideous, low-effort visuals and try to pass them off as "retro" or "low-poly", and it's great to see one that goes the complete opposite way and deals so well with its own limitations.

This is an outstanding game, no matter how you slice it. 1000xResist is a stellar work of art that has been living rent-free in my head since I finished it, and will probably continue to for some time. It absolutely should not be slept on. Hekki Grace, sisters!

Sayonara: Wild Hearts is a musical action game by Simogo that puts the player in control of a woman with a broken heart as she explores the surreal world inside her mind. It's also the source of the prettiest migraine I have ever had.

Speaking purely in terms of presentation, Sayonara is an achievement on its own. Using the familiar motifs of tarot arcanas, the game establishes its protagonist and the antagonists in gorgeously animated 3D scenes that seamlessly merge into the gameplay. Tension builds up and releases along with the beats, which in themselves are a treat for the synthwave enjoyers out there. There are also some fantastic ideas that mesh concepts related to sound and music to the level design in unexpected and mindblowing ways, the Stereo Lovers stage being my uncontested favorite.

But there is such a thing as too much color, too much flashing and too much motion. Having finished the game in a single sitting just over an hour long, I walked away with a headache so bad, the mere thought of playing the game again to attempt high scores or solve the riddles felt terrifying. I shiver to think of someone with actual epilepsy trying this game out, as even for me, as beautiful as the motorcycle ride through the Heartbreak Subspace was, it's hard to tell if it was worth it in the end.

Plus, as wondrous as the sights are, the gameplay lacks the mechanical precision that one would expect from a game tagged as rhythm. Controls feel floaty and the intense use of perspective and unusual framing leads to lots of avoidable mistakes when dodging or swaying. Plus, the intended movement rarely matches the beat, which means this is less of a musical game and more a game with music playing along the action. These are all intentional design decisions, mind you, and they work very well for what the game is trying to achieve, but it bears saying that this won't scratch the rhythm game itch nor does it have that extensive, satisfying replayability those games tend to have.

All in all, Sayonara: Wild Hearts merits a recommendation, but a very cautious one. You have to know what you’re getting into, and you should have some aspirin nearby just in case.

Sunny-side-up eggs and toast. A warm cup of coffee. Relaxing piano music. An easel and a canvas. What better way to enjoy a morning?

Behind the Frame invites its player to revel in that tranquil scenery. It tells the story of a young painter who's trying her best to enter an art exhibition in New York and, on an afternoon that would have been spent with the easel, ends up learning more about an old neighbor who doesn't interact with other people much. As a short narrative-focused game, it's better not to go any deeper into the story in a review: suffice to say, it's a touching and easy to relate to story about being true to oneself and one's feelings.

Much like Tangle Tower, another 2D hand-animated point-n-click on Steam, Behind the Frame immediately distinguishes itself through its immaculate vibes: the Ghibli-inspired characters and animation, gorgeous environments and emotional tunes are highly effective in setting the mood to our lovable artist's surreal adventure. The similarities end there, however, as Behind the Frame is much more focused on its narrative than anything else.

The game is strictly linear, with six chapters composed of events that unfold in sequence -- not unexpected from a narrative game, but the particular choice of mechanics here does end up giving off this distinct feeling of being constrained. It's also far lighter on puzzles, which, bar the ones at the tail end of the game, are solvable within seconds. This makes the package less attractive for its brainteasers, and more of a game to unwind to on a lazy evening. On that front, it makes a very compelling case for itself.

This is the first original IP from Akatsuki Taiwan, and it does leave a good impression along with the lingering question on whether they'll make more original games like this.

A fun side effect of writing about games, even on an amateur level, is that one ends up reflecting and researching on games a bit deeper and thus getting to know more about them than if they just hop from game to game. I originally planned to open this review by talking about the early days of the DS and PSP, how despite the DS being the best selling (and arguably best) portable in history, the two portables being presented in 2004 left audiences puzzled as to what Nintendo was thinking, and why anyone would want that quirky thing instead of the much slicker PSP. That's because I believed that to be the cause for Konami opting to play it safe and make the first DS Castlevania a sequel -- an assumption which proved incorrect.

No, Iga was pretty much sold on the DS from the start, and Aria of Sorrow's great sales on a Nintendo platform sealed the deal on the DS as the host for the next portable entry in the Castlevania series. As for why make a direct sequel, in particular, that is owed to Iga knowing that he and his team had accomplished something special with Aria, both in terms of storyline and gameplay. Iga truly loves the soul system from that game, and that would become even more evident years later, with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, but I digress.

As a direct sequel to Aria, Dawn of Sorrow might get criticised for being a rethreading of known ground, but the fact of the matter is, it's rethreading some damn solid ground. Most of what I mention in my Aria of Sorrow review applies to its sequel as well, from the robust gameplay systems to the beautiful sprite art. There are some areas in which Dawn attempts to stand out from its prequel, some of which are successful, some of which, not so much.

Immediately apparent from the cover of the game is that the art style for character art was changed, moving away from Ayami Kojima's (gorgeous) character portraits to... somewhat generic anime art. This change is said to be a result of demographics, with portable gamers being mainly children and, as such, it making sense to use character art that appealed more to that age group. Unfortunately, none of us happened to be in the room when that decision was taken to loudly point out that Aria was a success among that very demographic and that aging down the brand identity so suddenly might be a bad idea, so this is what we got stuck with.

It's not that the character art is terrible -- it reminds me of Rondo, which also used anime art and is still widely beloved by the fanbase -- but Dawn is trying to tell a story from a handicapped position and nailing the gothic horror vibes right from the cover would have helped its case by a lot. See, the position of a sequel to a work that was never written in a way to have one is a difficult one: the big twists have already happened and characters have experienced their respective growths, so what do we work with to make a new story?

(Incidentally, Dawn opens by spoiling the big twist in Aria, so absolutely play Aria first if you can.)

What immediately springs to mind are those Disney direct-to-VHS sequels that were mostly pretty forgettable, when not antithetical to the original work, as that's absolutely the vibe one gets when one mischievous gang of troublemakers shows up in the opening in Dawn to oppose Soma and his crew. The generic cartoon aesthetic makes for a poor first impression even though the storyline is actually quite competent and, for a game ostensibly marketed at children, it shows some rather dark imagery.

The idea is that, with Dracula being forever gone, a cult forms from people that desire a new Dark Lord, and a few of its head figures step forward as candidates to fill the power vacuula. They decide to have a go at Soma, attacking him and his girlfriend when the two are hanging out in town, and our boy doesn't take too kindly to that, setting out in pursuit of the group, pulling the whole crew from Aria in with him. What follows is a metroidvania romp just like Aria, which has Soma claiming monsters' souls as he brings down the Dark Lord wannabes.

Where Dawn successfully improves on Aria is in quality of life features as well as better tuning. On the former front, Soma can now use two different equipment sets that can be swapped at the press of the X button, a very welcome feature as it switching souls without entering the menu, thus letting the player adapt to each situation faster. The game also makes good use of the DS's top screen, displaying either the castle map or a screen with Soma's and enemy's stats. While having the map always visible is a godsend in this genre, having enemy info readily available is great when farming souls, as it does exactly the same thing the gadget from the Advance Collection does in Aria.

As for tuning, weapons have been rebalanced, emphasizing their variety. There's even a system through which, by imbuing weapons with certain souls, they can be upgraded, a nice addition that unfortunately ends up underutilized due to the rarity of some of the souls it requires. Having a use for excess souls, however, is a nice thought, and again I point to Bloodstained as the unofficial successor to Dawn, with Iga further refining this idea in that game.

Incidentally, while Aria already had souls that powered up with their count, Dawn brings this feature to the forefront explicitly calling it the Soul Level -- this is also a key feature in Bloodstained, where it exists for all souls-- uh, all shards. Souls have also been retooled in Dawn: while a lot of them are reskins from those from Aria, there are a handful of interesting new additions to the roster, and the player can expect to work with different toolsets than the ones the prequel gives. Of note is that late game souls are absolutely stacked, making them really gratifying to use.

And they have to be, because the best part of Dawn is its extremely challenging bosses. Aria's were great, but Dawn takes it to a new level: every boss is a unique enemy with a carefully crafted moveset, and their hits are extremely punishing. Even when spamming items, playing sloppily ultimately ends up in Soma getting overwhelmed, so instead, the player is expected to learn each tell and carefully avoid each attack. The magic seal mechanic is the cherry on top, forcing the player to remain vigilant for the prompt while adding flavor to finishing off the boss.

(Admittedly, if playing on an emulator, magic seals are an absolutely cursed mechanic, practically serving as an accidental form of anti-piracy . In that case, use the mod that removes them from the game.)

But is it better than Aria? Probably not: it will never be able to count on the simplicity and novelty factor that that game presented. However, even if it doesn't surpass its predecessor, it is a thoroughly enjoyable game that proudly stands at its prequel's side. Fans of Aria willing to look past a horrid first impression will find themselves a fiercely challenging game that brings back many of the original's boons.

I've been debating for a while whether I wanted to write a review for Silent Hill: The Short Message. I actually had one half-done and completely scrapped it because dogpiling further on something that's already being (rightfully) bashed by half the internet felt like a waste of energy, and I'd rather just spend my time turning "pixels make monkey brain release happy chemicals" into several paragraphs, or at the very least discussing something that has pros and cons. TSM kept showing up, though, and after seeing a bit of the developer interviews, I felt like I needed to write something, if only for the sake of catharsis. Strap in, this is going to be a long rant.

Content Warning: Spoilers, plus every warning that comes with this game (suicide, self-harm, bullying, parental/sexual abuse, etcetera).

My understanding of the current strategy at Konami is that the years of mismanagement left the company devoid of its original talent, so the same people that ran the company into the ground now try to find a way to outsource as much they can of their existing IP, see what sticks, and run with it. Silent Hill is their main victim, and The Short Message, their latest attempt at "reviving" the once prestigious series by having developer HexaDrive puppeteer the corpse.

And I wouldn't have touched it with a ten-foot pole -- I accepted long ago that Silent Hill is dead -- but I heard someone say that it was made by an indie developer and it was about gay girls and grief, which picked my interest. After going through TSM... I guess I understand how one could conclude that's what was happening if they squinted? But like, really squinted, and missed the collectables that establish Maya as not only heterosexual, but also pregnant? It's really not a queer narrative -- but never mind that, because that's far from biggest problem.

The Short Message can be described as an infinite trainwreck. It's not simply that it's bad -- it is, right from the start -- but as it goes on and on, as you stare in disbelief as more and more train piles up and the carnage keeps increasing, it becomes so much worse. In my first run, I wrote it off as a well-meaning but horrendously hamfisted attempt at tackling a serious theme, but as I dove into it, the more it felt like an offensive, out-of-touch caricature of what it portrayed, then finally as an harmful, exploitative piece of media and a terrible omen for the future of Konami properties. And instead of jumping right through to the end, let's go through each of those stages to understand why defenses offered for the game's many issues are absurd.

Hamfisted

One of the greatest tools a horror writer can employ is the uncertain, the unknown. Scares are not nearly as effective as the anxiety that precedes them. Show the monster and we'll run the opposite direction. Imply a monster and we'll be tense the whole day, not knowing what it is or when or from where it will jump out at us. This goes for smaller and/or more abstract aspects of the world, as well: information that is directly told isn't as impactful as that which the reader pieces out on their own from breadcrumbs scattered in the text, and then some of their own imagination. The keyword here is "subtlety".

Think of Silent Hill 2. In that game, protagonist James Sunderland is invited to Silent Hill via a letter from his wife Mary, which is especially suspicious considering that Mary has been dead for three entire years. Except not really, as we soon find out. Even worse, we start discovering that James not only is not sound of mind, he might not be the good person he says he is. These things come up organically over the narrative: there are multiple things we can deduce about James as a character from his behavior, and he is a textbook example of an unreliable narrator, which leaves the truth behind multiple events undetermined.

The Short Message, on the other hand, features teens toxic relationship with social media, so in a span of thirty seconds, the main character looks at her phone, concludes and states aloud that she'll always have less followers than her friend, and decides to kill herself right then and there. Y'know. Just in case you didn't realize that she has a bad thing going on with social media, like, she has very low self esteem, and is depressed, and... did I mention social media? Because maybe you missed that.

Whether the writers think of themselves too highly or of their audience as complete idiots, the fact is that The Short Message is more afraid of its player than the opposite. It is a game desperate to be understood, certain that its player won't manage to grasp it, leading it to spell out everything in eye-rollingly clear detail. Every character's motivations is expressed plainly, every note, flashback and monologue recounts events in vivid, unnatural detail through writing so stiff it could qualify as a blunt weapon, and nothing is left to be felt, interpreted or speculated.

The result is a mix of second-hand embarassment, accidental comedy and tastelessness, and there are many, many examples of that we could pick apart, from the way the game communicates the protagonist's suffering of parental abuse, her relationship with social media, views on mental health... Even the names. Maya's full name is Maya Hindenburg. There are a bunch of problems with the game's supposedly German setting, starting with the name "Kettenstadt", and as a non-German person, I'll leave that to the German folk to elucidate but calling a German character, especially one like Maya, "Hindenburg", is truly something special.

One of the worst offenders, though, actually has nothing to do with any of the characters and is instead a note that describes "The Silent Hill Phenomenon", a medical phenomenon where mentally distraught people will sometimes see fog outside in days of clear weather. "Societal uncertainty or apprehension about the future manifests as fog". It's a desperate and transparent attempt to explain how one can silent hill outside of Silent Hill, and as such, this is a Silent Hill game!

Besides lacking any sort of grace or mystery, this excuse is being made about something that truly doesn't matter: the physical location of games has been the least of the franchise's problems in the last decade or two. Resident Evil 4 took place miles away from Raccoon City and the T-Virus, but it was a great game, so who cares? Heck, P.T. took place in a hallway and people went nuts over it, and it's unlikely the hype would have died down if they'd announce it wouldn't take place in literal Silent Hill. But apparently, it's such a big deal to the writers that they needed to include this note about it in the game.

Out-of-touch

The Short Message isn't a queer narrative, but the first chapter definitely has one thinking otherwise. Was this intentional? Was the developer queerbaiting for clout? At first, it felt like this might be the case, but then Hanlon's razor hit, and one look at the rest of the script revealed that the explanation was probably much simpler: this story about teenage girls had probably been written by an out-of-touch middle-aged man who only ever observed them from afar. This suspicion was later confirmed in the developer interviews.

There's a tendency for men like that to, mixing their own perception of sexuality with their ignorance on the nuances of social interactions between young women, write characters that read as absolute gal pals, but are actually super straight, creating these fictional people that register as unnatural to most people and as somewhat revolting to queer folk, as they reinforce the narrative that homosexuality is just a phase people grow out of while simultaneously fetishizing same-sex attraction.

Not that it's worth lingering on the topic of queerness, because unfortunately, that's just the tip of the iceberg as far as TSM's portrayals of people go: the way teenage girls are presented registers like a condescending caricature made by an older generation, complete with an understanding on how young people engage with social media that could reasonably air on your regional equivalent of Fox News. Furthermore, the events involving bullying are so surface-level that they seem straight out of some American rom-com -- the jocks 'jumpscare' gets more laughter than gasps -- and the portrayals of mental illness are uninformed at best and harmful at worst.

The latter is especially problematic because TSM operates under the guise of doing public service and warning about suicide -- more on that in a second -- but good intentions aren't enough when talking about such a theme. Much to the contrary: because vulnerable people will very easily shut themselves off from others, reveling in platitudes like TSM does is far more likely to have the opposite effect from the desired one. Ironically, the game alludes to this phenomenon, but misunderstands it and paints it as a character flaw.

At one point in the story, Anita tells her friend via text that "adults don't understand". It's meant as a failure of her character -- she won't reach out -- but she's right. Adults don't understand. They forget that being a teenager is a messed up part of life, where these developing kids struggle with all sorts of intensive changes to their brains and bodies, as well as a gamut of emotions adults may have gotten used to after years of living them, but teens are definitely not. If anything, the amount of vile discourse around perfectly normal teenager insecurities TSM sprung out of people is proof that we definitely don't care enough for our teens, and are probably encouraging them to shut themselves off instead of seeking help.

Which is a very good segue into the next point: a lingering question throughout The Short Message's runtime is "does this game have anything to say?". Yes, social media bad. We know. Facebook has been there for 20 years and we've all seen it. And yes, depression bad, and that hotline number spammed on the player's face will maybe help. And? Are you going to say something about it, open some sort of discussion, make some criticism that isn't of the main character herself?

Let me help with some leading questions: how does our current societies and the physical spaces they occupy shape teenagers relationship with social media, and are the problems in that relationship exclusive to that age group? What could be changed about social media to avoid that? What sort of structures are in place that allow, if not incentivise bullying to happen, and what groups are more often targeted? What about cyberbullying, specifically? Are women more vulnerable? Are artists and artistic-minded folk more likely to suffer from mental illnesses?

There are many discussions TSM could bring to the table if it would just stop and focus into one theme. The problem is, it isn't remotely interested in any of those things.

Exploitative

A somewhat frustrating take that's taken over discourse around the Silent Hill series is that it's all about "trauma". It's a reductionist view, for one, as the series presents a variety of fascinating themes, and trauma is mostly worked on in Silent Hill 2. Even looking at that game alone, however, the lens it uses to examine that subject is important: when people say SH2 is about trauma, they refer to how that game examines it through people who have suffered through it, not focusing on their past, but instead, on their present. It's not literally about trauma, it's about the broken husks of people that trauma leaves behind.

In TSM, there's a scene somewhere in the first half of the game triggered by interacting with a bloodied sink where a razor sits. It's a graphic scene that shows the protagonist inflicting self-harm while crying and begging for forgiveness, and from the start, it registered as tasteless and unnecessary: looking at the sink already told the entire story, and if you've dealt with people that practice self-harm, you know it's not something to be shown. Much worse than misguided, however, hearing the developers themselves repeat this idea of Silent Hill equaling trauma and how it shaped their entire work reveals the ugly truth: TSM is entirely about trauma and in no way about people.

Suicide isn't a theme to be discussed, but rather, it's material, and the point of the game is not, in fact, in starting conversations about the topic, nor in building characters or exploring their mental states. Instead, it wants its small cast to suffer as hard as possible, in as many ways as possible, for the audience's perverse appreciation. It's a theme park ride where we tack as many mental illnesses and assorted cruelties as possible onto the character so as to... scare? the player? "To your left, right now, the liiiiiiiiving room of chiiiiild abuuuuuse!!! 👻". It has been labeled "trauma tourism" by some, an accurate descriptor for what the game actually achieves.

It turns out, and gamers with lower constitutions might want to sit down before hearing this, but good horror isn't just a slideshow of bad stuff. It's actually an elaborate sequence of build ups, releases, and developments. Shocking, right? It goes further than that: psychological horror isn't quite the same as flipping through the pages in the ICD's psychiatry section. Doing so is more likely to confuse than to terrify, and the fact that people who didn't understand these things got a few million dollars and the license to a high-profile IP is disturbing.

Or, really, understand anything about writing a good story or dealing with sensitive subjects. To think HexaDrive was once being considered as developers for the Silent Hill 2 Remake... if these people had written Silent Hill 2, they'd place a note with a psych evaluation of James somewhere so as to clue the player in. There would be more flashbacks showing Eddie being bullied than actual meetings with Eddie, and they'd be sure to show Angela being violently abused on camera. Otherwise, how would the player realize why those characters act the way they do, and how would they be able to empathize?

Not that Bloober Team is set to fare any better, but we'll cross that (burning) bridge when we get there. For now, Silent Hill: The Short Message is a pathetic addition not simply to the already bastardized enough Silent Hill series, but to gaming in general, and the fact that it claims to have a message of any sort, to have importance, is offensive. If anything, it serves as a strong proof that free can sometimes be too expensive a price of admission.

The chase sections

...oh, yeah, this is not a pure walking sim, there's chase sections and such. Bolted on chase sections, so I might as well bolt on something about them to this review. There are a few chase sections where Anita is pursued by a cherry blossom monster in the Otherworld, and you know they're coming because she will begin to desperately pant and whimper as soon as she steps into one such area, almost as if the game was telling its player it's time to be scared.

What's most jarring about these sections, however, is how HexaDrive managed to make something entirely composed of outdated horror game tropes. There's even a bit at the very end of the game that's reminiscent of The Eight Pages, except with none of the depth, or charm, or... anything that already lousy game had to offer. I doubt ever they played The Eight Pages or even lived through its heights of popularity to understand what made it click, anyway.

Likewise, some believe Silent Hill: The Short Message to be some sort of response to P.T., as if to show they don't need Kojima to make a beloved free teaser. I refuse to believe the anyone involved in this nonsense ever played P.T., or even know it existed. If they did, and this was truly an attempt to replicate it's success... let's say it's no simple feat to miss the mark by this much, and congratulations are in order.

I didn't expect to be saying this about a Konami product from the 2020s, but Castlevania: Advance Collection is a gold-standard for what a collection of retro games should be.

This collection features all three GBA Castlevania games, those being Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow, all of which can be played in their American, European or Japanese versions. There is little to no input lag, at least on the PS4 version, and the emulator comes with all sorts of convenient functionality, like save states, a clip function, a rewind function and remappable controls, a checklist that not all retro game collections manage to fill.

It goes a step further than that, however, adding an encyclopedia with information on all enemies and items, as well as what it calls "gadgets". Those gadgets are helpful UI elements that aid in the completion of each game: in Circle of the Moon, they show which enemies carry an unobtained DSS card; in Harmony of Dissonance, they show key items and furniture pieces present in an area; finally, in Aria of Sorrow, they show whether Soma has picked up the soul of an enemy he's fighting at that moment. All three gadgets are very welcome additions to their respective games.

The collection also comes with the SNES port of Rondo of Blood, Dracula X... but we try not to talk about that one.

Before being retconned out of the series chronology, Castlevania: Legends used to be the very first game in the series' timeline. It features the first incarnation of Count Dracula as well as the first Belmont, Sonia Belmont, to rise against him. For what would be a pivotal game in the series chronology, it's... definitely one of the Castlevania games ever made.

The Game Boy and Game Boy Color were filled with boneless, unambitious platformers, be them licensed games or attempts to bring home console franchises to the portable, and Castlevania: Legends is one more game in that latter pile, featuring uninspired level and enemy design, a janky, barebones implementation of traditional series mechanics and encounters that are an exercise in frustration. It has a very short runtime, but even so, it's better off being skipped.

It's a shame, too, because it features a female protagonist, whose appearance on the cover of the game was what drove me to try it in the first place. Sonia is pretty cool, it's just that her game is... not. I do enjoy the implication in the best ending that she had a son, Victor Belmont, with Alucard, thus forever tying the Belmont bloodline to Dracula. My gal literally doomed her entire bloodline to get a piece of that gorgeous dhampir, which... based and goals? Mad respect for her.

Besides, just think about it: had Legends stayed canon (which in my heart, it did), it would recontextualize every one of Alucard's appearances as him looking out for his great great great great grandchildren. "Richter, get down from that throne, you're going to hurt yourself". "Trevor, take an adult with you to fight grandpa's dad, okay?". I can only assume Iga struck the game out of the continuity because he was too afraid of how powerful such a narrative would be.

Confession: I didn't actually buy the Advance Collection for a history trip with the Castlevania series. Instead, I just wanted an excuse to play Aria of Sorrow again, with some other games as a bonus. Aria was my first contact with the Castlevania series, something that was both a blessing and a curse, because from then on, playing other Castlevanias always gave a feeling of "this is not quite it". Of course, in revisiting an old favorite, there's always the risk of one's memory not holding up and just not remembering the game's flaws.

One thing I definitely didn't remember was that the protagonist, Soma Cruz, is actually an eighteen year-old high-schooler, to which my immediate reaction was "no he's not". Just look at his portrait, beautifully rendered by Ayami Kojima. That piercing gaze? Shining white hair? That black turtleneck with the sleek fur-lined coat? This man is the definition of too cool for school. If he's a high schooler, he probably takes love letters out of his locker on a wheelbarrow. And he ignores them all, because that's how cool he is.

Erm-ahem. Fan fiction aside, the game takes place in Japan in the year of 2035. A solar eclipse is happening on that day, and Soma is headed to Hakuba Shrine to meet his childhood friend Mina and watch the event from there. Upon arriving at the shrine, however, Soma loses consciousness, and the two are transported to a mysterious castle, where they meet the enigmatic Genya Arikado. At first, he doesn't know what to do about the two teenagers, but as the trio are jumped by monsters, something unexpected happens: Soma absorbs the essence of a monster he defeats, obtaining its power. Having witnessed this, Arikado then ushers Soma to reach the top of the castle so the group can escape from it.

Aria was the last Castlevania game made for the Game Boy Advance, and it shows. The mastery over the limited hardware and small screen is displayed in some of the most beautiful spritework on the system. Soma himself is a shining example: the fluidity of his walk cycle, the turning of his body as he puts his strength into a swing, the way his coat gently sways with the wind... the amount of detail crammed into this not even 40 pixels tall character is impressive.

One might say that putting a lot of work into the main character is standard, as that will be the focus of the player's attention most of the time. The idea with such an approach would be to put a lot of work in the main character, and then not push enemies and other characters too far. Which is fine, except that no sprite artist at Konami got that memo, because they flexed all over the place. Enemies look positively gorgeous in Aria, from the first disgustingly goopy zombie met in the Eternal Corridor all the way to Dracula's final form, all of them are carefully designed, colored, shaded and animated.

To say nothing of the environments, which are a further step up from Harmony of Dissonance and look especially smooth. Parallax and Mode 7-like effects are a given by this point, but Aria takes it further by incorporating animated tilesets for lighting effects. The save room in this game is the most beautiful in the series, with the flickering of the flame on display through the walls and the statue in the center.

And the sound design? There are a surprising amount of voice clips for a GBA game, and enemies make all sorts of noises that give them more personality -- I especially like the intense death screams. It should also be said that the game's original soundtrack is one banger after another. Konami is really bad at this memo thing, because the composer also didn't get the one that said "these are the first and second areas of the game, no need to go all out". To say nothing of the moments where it actually made sense go hard, which... Incredible stuff.

Everything in Aria feels just right, like after a couple of games of trying to iterate on Symphony of the Night, something just clicked. The castle is a perfect mix of maze and proper castle, with the areas that branch and connect unpredictably, but without losing the feeling of distinct zones, which happened in HoD to some extent. Aria even went back to having transition rooms like SotN did, which despite being technically unnecessary in a GBA game, feel extremely natural from a design standpoint, creating some breathing room between areas that emphasize the difference between them.

In addition, the game maintains a consistent level of challenge from beginning to end, with enemies and bosses that are varied and engaging. Plus, with Soma not being a vampire hunter, the player is not locked into a whip for the entirety of the game, and he instead gets access to an arsenal of swords, lances, axes and blunt weapons. The choice between them is not simply about aesthetics: each individual weapon has a different range and hitbox shape, as well as distinct swing and recovery times. It's often advantageous to swap between weapon types for specific encounters, which speaks to how well designed equipment is.

Aria's greatest asset, however, is the Soul System and its monster abilities, through which you-- yes, you -- can now be the little asshat throwing bones from higher ground, living the ultimate Castlevania power fantasy. As established in the opening segment, when defeating enemies, Soma might obtain a soul, which when equipped, enable either a passive, sustained or instant ability related in some way to that monster. Souls are both a means of progression, with key souls obtained in specific rooms allowing access to new areas of the castle, and for combat purposes, replacing the series' traditional subweapons.

At first, this might seem similar to the DSS in that abilities are obtained as random drops from monsters, but it's far superior. For one, there's a direct connection between the monster and what its dropped soul does, which gives the system more personality. Moreover, unlike cards, every monster has a soul. In the face of the low drop rate, while it's unlikely the player will obtain every soul as they travel through the castle (unless your name is TASBot), the law of averages results in them obtaining some set of souls that they can work with. The result is that every playthrough feels slightly different as the player works with a set of tools. Also, completionists have their work cut out for them, hunting exotic monsters with the aid of late game mechanics that boost drop rates.

Souls are also an important metanarrative element that lends credence to Soma's growth. Unlike Juste before him, Soma is a student with no formal combat training, and this is reflected on his initial abilities, which are restricted to jumping and a weak attack. As he explores deeper into the castle, however, he grows stronger and faster, becoming a real powerhouse by the end of the game, and souls make that growth over the course of the story, down to the completely artificial video game notion of levels, seem justified.

Incidentally, Aria of Sorrow features an outstanding central narrative. This is largely owed to its mysterious and layered characters who make frequent appearances throughout the castle, and also to the unusual circumstances surrounding Dracula's castle in the year of 2035 itself. Similarly to HoD, ol' Vlad is nowhere to be found, this time because Aria takes place in an age in which Dracula was permanently destroyed by the Belmonts, and the characters, from church officials to government agents to soldiers to our unlucky duo of teenagers, have different ideas on why the castle reappeared.

There's no feeling quite as refreshing as returning to a childhood classic and realizing it's just as outstanding as it was all those years ago. Aria of Sorrow is the result of years of iteration and passion, and stands amongst the best Castlevanias and the best metroidvanias ever made. It alone justifies buying the Advance Collection.

A man dressed in black holds a young woman at gunpoint. He's a hitman, hired to erase all those who possess knowledge about something our unlucky gal has stumbled upon. Between her and the barrel of the shotgun is a man, who realizes what's going on and wants to do something to help. Except... he's already dead, his body lying face down in the ground, and his disembodied spirit just watching helplessly.

Not all is lost: with the help of another ghost nearby, he learns of a spirit's ability to possess and manipulate various objects, as well as, when faced with a corpse, the unbelievable power to turn back time to just before that person died. After a bit of trying, he is able to prevent the girl from being assassinated. All is well! Only, he's still dead. Even worse... he has no idea who he is, or why he died. With the girl he saved being the only person who might have a clue about what transpired, he elects to follow her, and the night that follows is an escalating sequence of events that will decide the future of the world.

Coming out of several years in a row working on the Ace Attorney series, director Shu Takumi wanted to try something different, creating a new IP that pushed the beloved style character-focused stories of his previous works even further. To achieve that, he planned on using a disembodied spirit as a protagonist as a means to explore multiple locations and connect more intimately with more characters, in a way a person with a physical body wouldn't be able to. This opus took years to come into fruition, and how cruel it was that, in the saturated and piracy-ravaged market of the Nintendo DS's later years, it earned the label "cult classic" instead of the shorter and more deserved "classic".

Ghost Trick is an adventure game unlike any other ever made. Its unique style of puzzle gameplay puts the player in control of Sissel, the amnesiac spirit, whose most basic ability is to hop between highlighted objects in a scene and use them in some way, like moving a cart or turning on a light. In the most basic stages of Ghost Trick, that's just his goal: traverse a certain location to cause something to happen, or to eavesdrop on a conversation and obtain a piece of information.

Everything changes once he finds a dead body and travels back in time to exactly four minutes before that person's passed away. We're presented with the sequence of events that led to that death, and are then set loose in the scene with the goal of altering it and preventing that terrible outcome. Naturally, Sissel cannot talk or otherwise directly interact with anyone in the past, so in case he needs to change someone's behaviour, he must use his powers over objects to induce them into the desired course of action.

These sections are superb puzzles. They force the player to go through the scene several times, understanding what are the pivotal moments in the scene and what tools they have to work with. Sometimes, it's a simple matter of finding the right timing to perform a certain action, or finding a way to gain more time. In other occasions, the paths Sissel can take in a certain location must be thoroughly explored in order to gain more information and act appropriately. There's even cases where more elaborate chains of object manipulations must be enacted -- if the thought of preventing crimes by building Rube Goldberg machines sounds appealing in any way, this is the game you need to play.

More than the puzzles themselves, however, what's most intriguing is their execution. A pitfall games centered around puzzles often fall in is that those get in the way of the narrative, especially towards the end of the campaign where the difficulty is at its highest. Ghost Trick, on the other hand, follows in the footsteps of Ace Attorney, interleaving them with action and character moments. In addition, as the story progresses, the game focuses on offering a larger variety of puzzles through exploring different locations and featuring new characters instead of scaling the difficulty. Both of these decisions confer a flawless pacing to the narrative. The final section of the game, in particular, is so extraordinarily well paced that it doesn't feel like playing a game, but being part of a story yourself.

A story which is in itself, exceptional, and alone worth the price of admission. Shu Takumi was cooking he put forth the idea of a ghost used to explore a large cast: there are many, many characters in Ghost Trick, all of them worthy of being someone's favorite, and the game has the time and means to move between scenes, giving each person time on the spotlight and exploring their personality and motivations. Of note is that Ghost Trick is home to the single best dog in all of gaming: Missile, the Pomeranian, based on Shu Takumi's real life dog at the time, is a standout character whose energy and charm wins over just about anyone who plays the game for a bit. The uncontested best boy.

Each scene in Ghost Trick is rendered in a sidescrolling 2D view, which is in itself pretty rare for a narrative game, but the way the story is presented is what really makes the game shine: the scene direction treats each sideways view of a location as a stage, making heavy use of theater language to convey thoughts, emotions and information to the spectator. This is reinforced by the team's rejection of motion capture, which led them to hand-animate the flashiest, most unique and detailed animations for each character, sometimes establishing a character's entire personality simply from the way they walk into the stage. The game's flat colors and strong shapes may make every frame of it a painting, but seeing it in motion is the truly breathtaking part.

Ghost Trick's only debatable flaw is that the story being told here is so extensive and so complex that it makes the experience into one the player has to give credence to, and has to be willing to stick with to the end. The script very slowly unveils its hand, and it might feel, at times, like certain arcs were forgotten or huge plot holes are being opened. And that's not true: the plot is masterfully paced and paints a complete and concise picture by the time the credits roll, but because that process takes time, it demands a certain openness from the player, a willingness to engage with the narrative and let it unfold on its own time.

Which is to say, its only flaw is being too good for its own sake, a demerit that can no doubt be worn as a badge of honor. Ghost Trick is an exhilarating experience, and it is a blessing that it survived its weak sales performance on the DS and went on to be ported and remade for other platforms. Sissel's supernatural adventure between the worlds of the living and the dead deserves to be seen and enjoyed by more people.

One thing that often surprises people that haven't studied other cultures is that, just like there are multiple languages in the world, not every civilization that existed used the same numbers. In fact, the Arabic numerals we use today are barely a millenium old, and only established themselves as the standard among Western cultures by the 15th century. Roman numerals are generally going to be a person's first introduction to a system that operates with different symbols and logic, but there are many others.

Among those are the Cistercian numerals, created in the 13th century by an order of monks of the same name that was widespread in Europe at the time. This system was designed to represent numbers from 1 to 9999, each with an individual glyph. It is no longer used, and one doesn't have to concern themselves with it unless they are reading medieval manuscripts... or if they happen to be playing Cipher Monk.

Cipher Monk takes the player through thirty five levels where they're tasked with reproducing a certain quantity in the Cistercian system. It provides a chart with several examples of numbers through which the player is expected to derive the intuition behind the system -- in this, the game could have done a better job of explaining the intuition behind certain patterns, which might not be immediately obvious to those who are only familiar with the Latin alphabet and Arabic numerals. There was also a missed opportunity in introducing the history behind the system.

Better controls could also have been on the table... But then again, it's a one dollar game that lasts 30 minutes. It literally took me longer to research and write this short review than to fully complete it, so maybe it's best to keep expectations in check. For the asking price, it's a fun puzzle game to kill a small amount of time -- just make sure immediately click the eye on the top right corner to hide the "Current" number display, as relying on that resource can ruin the game.

Moving on from the fiasco that was Circle of the Moon, the Advance Collection now treats us to Harmony of Dissonance. Will this be an improvement, or a further step down for the series? Let's find out.

Like with Circle of the Moon before it, the main cast is small. The story centers on a trio of childhood friends: the playable Juste Belmont, a descendant of Simon Belmont and inheritor of the Vampire Killer; Maxim Kischine, a trusted fellow vampire hunter who trained alongside Juste; and Lydie Erlanger, a young lady who's very dear to both. Lydie has disappeared, and Maxim was the last person to see her -- he, however, has no recollection of what transpired, recalling only the existence of a mysterious castle lost within the mists.

These clearly established, strong bonds between the characters, plus the mystery setup regarding Maxim's amnesia and a castle in which Dracula is nowhere to be found set the game off to a much better start than its predecessor. There are, in fact, twists hidden in the way the castle is laid out in itself, which I won't spoil for the purposes of this review because they do result in something of an "a-ha!" moment in the midgame, by which time Juste will have had multiple run-ins with Maxim and with the denizens of the castle, and it's clear that no one knows what's going on, but this is definitely an unusual situation even as far as the forces of evil are concerned.

As far as the metroidvania gameplay goes, the castle is... complicated. It's definitely a huge improvement from Circle of the Moon: Harmony of Dissonance does away with the silly obstacle courses that defined its predecessor, with branching areas that develop unpredictably and mesh into one another, and the result is much more surprising, and thus more satisfying zones to explore. Those zones also offer a multitude of treasures to find, making the exploration of every nook and cranny a rewarding one.

On the other hand, it's not like the player has a choice: they have to explore every single square of the castle map, as rooms that might seem optional or empty can actually be essential to advancing. Likewise, equipment plays an important part in Juste's adventure, and there are many key items masquerading as normal items. This is not new for the series, with Symphony of the Night's Holy Glasses allowing access to the second half of the game, but HoD employs this idea much more often. As such, it's important to inspect the inventory descriptions for all items that are picked up and make notes of rooms that seem suspicious.

It's not that these design decisions were bad -- they force engaging with the castle on a deeper level, which is a positive -- but it's easy to see someone coming out frustrated from the game due to being stuck for a long time because of a detail they didn't notice. This is compounded by the biggest point of contention, which is another castle feature that has the player traverse every area in the game at least twice. The result is that there is a lot of repetition to Harmony of Dissonance -- even more so to a player who doesn't quite know where to go.

So the castle in this entry is controversial. However, in my review of Circle of the Moon, I claimed that a bad castle isn't as much of a problem if the game plays well, and if anything, Harmony of Dissonance is proof of that statement. Clearly, someone looked at Nathan and Alucard side-by-side and realized the next lil' guy had to be more like former: Juste plays amazingly smoothly right from the get-go, with a directional dash move performed via the trigger buttons that allows him to traverse rooms like a speedrunning lunatic. Later additions to his moveset reinforce this agility, making it much less painful to travel long distances.

This also greatly helps his combat capabilities: by dashing, he can quickly move in and out of combat, which in turn rewards players that play aggressively. Juste's abilities are even further reinforced once the player finds their first spellbook: there are five in total, and each of them transforms the subweapon ability in unique ways. This means that, despite being a whip user for the whole game, his moveset has a few more tricks that help him deal with faraway or aerial enemies.

When one considers Juste's full moveset, he is rather overpowered. And he feels as such, too. CotM had that Game Boy Color feel to its graphics and animations, and it, too, impacted the player's perception of the game. Juste is not only better animated, he retains that shadowy trail that's a page taken straight from SotN, making it clear that this he is not just a guy. It's almost... too much. Before I noticed the "Belmont" attached to his name, I was under the impression Juste was a vampire like Alucard, not a vampire hunter. But I suppose that Dissonance (ha!) is a small price to pay to have a character that feels good to control.

Symphony of the Night it is not, but Harmony of Dissonance presents a fun take on the Castlevania formula. It's true that the game might demand patience from its player, but for those willing to stick with it, there's plenty of fun to be had in Juste Belmont's unexpected battle against evil.

Frog Detective 3 sees the conclusion (for now?) to the story of the eponymous amphibian, taking them to the sands of Cowboy County to solve the mystery of the missing hats. New gameplay elements include a scooter, which also allowed for a larger environment... and that's it. The rest is the same point-n'-click, item trade chain type of game.

Anyone who's made it to game three in the trilogy already knows what it's like, and whether or not it's for them, but nevertheless: Frog Detective is a great pick for young kids, who will probably adore the cute visuals, witty writing and the scooter. As for the adults, it's a bit more hit-or-miss. There's very little complexity to the investigation, so it's up to how much the jokes land.

On a side note, it's such a bummer that none of the games in the trilogy used the magnifying glass for something.

The biggest puzzle surrounding Circle of the Moon to me is how it came to be. Could it be that it's a B-team game that went sour? Perhaps it was a rush-job to get something out for the Game Boy Advance's launch? Or maybe, it was born from a legitimate desire to mesh Symphony of the Night's level design with more traditional Castlevania gameplay. It's even possible it was all of those things combined. Regardless of the answer, however, it's clear that it was a mistake.

Circle of the Moon is economical in regards to its storytelling: the cast is restricted to Dracula and a cohort along with three vampire hunters, and one can count the total cutscenes on their fingers. In fact, after a very short introduction in which Dracula gets resurrected, the player gets thrown straight into the action -- literally, as the hunters fall into a trap hole, becoming separated. The group is composed by the mentor Morris Baldwin, who's captured by the antagonists, along with his two apprentices Hugh Baldwin and Nathan Graves, the latter being the playable character.

Dracula's home, this time around, is a complete bore. Unlike the game worlds one will see in most metroidvanias, this one isn't structured in a way that the areas mesh into one another: each area presents a more or less linear layout, an obstacle course built around the power-up required to access it. At the end, there's a boss, and right after them, a power-up that opens the next area. The power-up also unlocks a shortcut near the boss room which leads out of the section of the castle they're in, which in turn, the player will likely never have to enter again.

It's very easy to see this weak design through the castle map itself: notice how Abyss Stairway, Eternal Corridor and the left part of the Audience Room together link to the entrances and exits of almost every area in the game, like this ugly glue between levels. Now compare it to the SotN map, which is much less regular and loops around itself in multiple parts. Also note how the warp points are spread out throughout the castle and are actually useful in SotN, unlike the ones seen in Circle of the Moon.

And we're still not done tearing into this castle because our vampiric host had the god-awful idea of having every optional pickup be an HP, MP or max heart increase, with new equipment being obtainable only from enemy drops. One can only imagine that this choice was due to gear being mediocre anyway, offering only stat increases or decreases, but the result is that exploring alternate paths or finding secret rooms is never met with an exciting reward. In fact, by the end of the game, it's an activity that will likely be entirely ignored, as the difference between 252 and 256 hearts is negligible. Again, compare with SotN and its flashy swords and suits of armor that make Alucard immune to different types of damage -- it's harder to justify not exploring in that game.

As awful as the castle is, however, it would have been far more tolerable if Circle of the Moon just played better. Nathan Graves has that name because that's where we'll all be by the time he finishes swinging his whip -- even compared with Richter from Rondo, which is a far more punishing game than every Igavania, Nathan attacks more slowly. In fact, almost every action this man takes has to be accompanied by lengthy, uncancellable anticipation and/or recovery animations: one of the earliest power-ups lets him tackle and it's more like an awkward tumble forward, barely usable for its designated purpose of breaking obstacles. Later on, a pair of magic boots enables a wall-jump, which was clearly gimped at some point in the design phase so it wouldn't allow just any ascent, and god forbid Nathan jumps from too high a platform while climbing because he will have to spend a while getting back on his feet.

To make things even worse, Nathan has a low default walking speed, which is meant to be counteracted with a dashing ability that is one of the earliest power-ups. To dash, the player must press left or right twice, a choice of input that greatly increases the likelihood that the action of simply walking out of harm's way will come in too late or that the input itself will be dropped. Which leads us to the deeper issue with this moveset: Circle of the Moon's enemies were seemingly created assuming a responsive character, coming at Nathan with fast attacks, wide movement ranges and plenty of projectile spam. This is especially true for bosses, which aren't all terrible -- most are -- but often feel like playing chess against an opponent that's playing StarCraft.

In an attempt to add some sort of spice to the gameplay, enemies also drop cards, which are used to cast buffs and spells through a system called DSS. The DSS can be seen as a precursor to the Soul system seen in Aria and Dawn, but one that's still anemic and dysfunctional. Every card is a random drop from enemies; only specific enemies drop them, at a very low rate; at least two cards are required to trigger any sort of effect; only one DSS ability may be active at one time; switching between abilties requires entering the menu and pressing L while on the ground; so on and so forth. The Advance Collection goes out of its way to display which enemies drop which cards and provides a list of what each combination does, which can only be construed as an admission that the DSS is unusable without a guide.

But hey, once the game is finished, it invites the player to try a new file in Magician mode, which changes Nathan's stats and gives him all cards from the start. Maybe now the full potential of the DSS will be unlock-- just kidding, it just means he's now a weaker version of himself that will spam the same screen-wide spell the whole game, thus providing a final testament to how shallow the system and game is. The bottom line is that Circle of the Moon is a half-baked attempt at a Castlevania that is best avoided: with loads of great Metroidvanias in the market nowadays, it's a hard sell even for the diehard series fan.

Dracula X is a soft remake of Rondo of Blood made for the SNES, a relic from a time when game code was entirely specific to a platform and porting over a game meant rewriting everything from scratch. In adapting to the limitations of the new platform compared to the PC Engine, the port was made much lighter on content than the original game, featuring less stages, characters and types of enemies, and also removing the animated cutscenes that told Rondo's story.

Taken as what it is, it's... passable. It's an SNES platformer, like so many others at the time, and can last through a couple hours of enjoyment -- if that's your thing, that is. Personally, clunky combat and instant death pits are not my favorite features in a game, and Dracula X sure is packed with those, even bastardizing the iconic Dracula fight to include a bunch of pitfalls. However, I can see an SNES owner getting this game as a kid and loving it.

In 2024, though, a more pressing question than "why would one play this" is "why would anyone play this instead of Rondo of Blood itself". Even for those craving some classicvania, there's not much to see here that's not already in Rondo. Dracula X's inclusion in the Advance Collection is thus, puzzling.

So, 2024, That's practically 2014, right? I'm still in time to check out A Link Between Worlds? Yes, of course.

Despite it having been sitting in my shelf for some ten years by now, I knew almost nothing coming into A Link Between Worlds bar its central gimmick and connection to A Link to the Past, and even in the latter there was a bit of a surprise: in Japanese, the game is outright called 神々のトライフォース2, which would be equivalent to naming it A Link to the Past 2. It's good that they changed it in the West, not only because sequels tend to intimidate people who don't know the original, but because A Link Between Worlds has its own, unique game feel to it, almost like a reimagining, which naming it "Thing 2" betrays.

It is a direct sequel, though, that is not up for debate: it takes place in the same Hyrule as A Link to the Past, decades, maybe centuries after the events of that game. You play as, as one would guess, Link, who's the apprentice to a smith in Kakariko Village. Link's day starts out just like any other, that is, with him oversleeping and being late to work yet again. During a delivery of a commissioned sword, however, he is met with the eccentric Yuga, a man possessing magical powers who attacks the local church. Sword in hand, the descendant of the legendary hero sets out to find a solution to this new threat.

It pays not to know much about the narrative of A Link Between Worlds because, surprisingly for a Zelda title, there's a lot of depth to it: it expands upon the lore of the original game, building its story on top of established elements and motifs, while at the same time, providing us with fascinating new characters and settings. The cast is wider than that of the prequel, and the slowly unfolding narrative has a lot of twists and turns to its plot, which wraps up to a beautiful ending.

It's one of the ways in which ALBW incorporates the sensibilies of more modern Zelda design, and it goes even further than that: despite the world map being mostly unchanged from the original, the game brings a completely new twist to its dungeons, abandoning the grid-based design of the original in favor of more varied rooms. A few dungeons retaining the feel of the original while others explore other concepts, like more vertical and/or more open layouts. On the surface, some of them even resemble the DS Zelda games more than A Link to the Past.

But then comes another twist: equipment is no longer found within dungeons, being instead required to enter them in the first place. A mysterious merchant named Ravio sets up shop in Hyrule and helpfully offers to sell or lend Link helpful items, like a bow or a hammer. The economics of Ravio's shop are a bit confusing -- Ittle Dew presented a more elegant implementation of the same concept -- but it does serve a purpose in that it rewards thorough exploration while at the same time not requiring it. Plus, it's one of the game's many rupee sinks, which help solve the problem of rupees being useless that's often seen in the series. In A Link Between Worlds, it's unlikely, unless the player intentionally grinds, that they'll finish the game with maxed out rupees.

The potential problem with this setup is that each dungeon assumes the player has one specific item and only that item, and simplistic puzzles can arise from having a single answer to any problem. "Oh no! I'm stuck in a puzzle in the Bow® Dungeon™! Whatever shall I do? I guess I will use my Bow®!" Fortunately, A Link Between Worlds's level designers were aware of this issue, making full use of the game's 3D nature to create complex rooms, and also incorporating a variety of stage elements to support the creation of each dungeon, preventing the one-answer problem and making each one feel unique. The result was some of the best dungeons in the series.

One mechanic shared by every dungeon is the wall traversal: it's the one thing that drew the most skepticism on my part coming into the game, and I cannot believe how wrong I was. The wall mechanic is, at the same time, mind-bending and intuitive, creating a complete paradigm shift on how dungeons are traversed while still feeling perfectly natural to the game. There are a myriad different ways in which A Link Between Worlds uses its central gimmick in its many environments, exploring verticality, connections between rooms and so on.

It's the cherry on top that makes the game, more than excellent, feel irreplicable. A Link Between Worlds is a fantastic reimagining of a classic game that's so dear to my heart, blending its iconic motifs and clever design philosophies with more modern aspects of Zelda games' design. Don't be like me: don't wait for a full decade to play it. It's a treat that deserves to be enjoyed.