April 18 will be an aging gamer's smorgasbord of delight
It really sucks about tax day being April 17th this year, but apparently the games industry is determined to heal those IRS-inflicted sorrows by giving all of us old video game types a lot to look forward to the following day. April 18th is now confirmed to include no less than three excellent-looking reworkings of classic games. It's kind of an embarrassment of riches, if we're being completely honest here.
Here's what we aging nerds can look forward to:
Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap
We've known about this one for a while, to the point that we produced an entire episode about the series last year. I finally had a chance to go hands-on with The Dragon's Trap at Game Developers Conference a couple of weeks ago, and the only word I can really think to use to describe it is "legit." You hear the term "labor of love" tossed around a lot; this game truly embodies the concept. It came into being because programmer Omar Cornut invested years into deconstructing the code for the original SEGA Master System game as a hobbyist, and eventually that evolved into a proper top-to-bottom remake.
The truly remarkable thing about The Dragon's Trap is that it plays exactly like the original version. Everything from the physics to the semi-open world layout are completely identical to the Master System version, to the point that you can toggle between the new graphics and old at the press of a button... not unlike with the Halo anniversary remakes. Make no mistake, though, it's not simply the old version running under emulation, because toggling to original 8-bit graphics still allows you to play with widescreen visuals rather than constraining the action to 4:3 proportions. Cornut has rebuilt the original game code for modern platforms (including Switch, which you'd better believe will be my platform of choice for this one), transplanting an 8-bit classic into a new format with absolute fidelity.
I'm equally impressed by the new visuals, which have a fluid European art style and really bring the world and characters to life. If you're like me, you tend to be wary when the terms "European art style" and "challenging platformer" collide, because the former element tends to wreak havoc on the integrity of the latter. Think games like Rayman which, while lovely, prioritize animation cycles over responsiveness. That's fine in a meticulous Prince of Persia-style game, but Wonder Boy is vintage SEGA: Fast, unforgiving, and already tremendously challenging by default. Happily, The Dragon's Trap manages to balance its lovely visuals and its unrelenting-but-fair difficulty level by causing animation to act as a secondary consideration to controls. Actions cancel character movements here, whereas many platformers featuring lush animation force you to sit through a movement cycle before responding to player inputs. And hit boxes are tuned to be forgiving where the new illustrations don't perfectly line up with the original sprites; for example, Wonder Boy's lion-man transformation now drags his massive claymore behind him rather than holding it upright ahead of him, but the greatly expanded character sprite is no more vulnerable than the original bitmap version, and he swings the blade with the same effective speed and arc as before.
On top of all that, Cornut made use of some unused dummy data in the original code to add in a few new challenges. You can generate a password for your progress in the remake, input it into the Master System version, advance the game, then bring an updated code from the Master System game back into the remake. And since the reward item for discovering the new secrets is tied to data that was tracked by but unused in the original game, you won't lose the remake's bonus item even if you play for a while in the 8-bit game. It's a minor detail, sure, but it really speaks to the lengths that Cornut and LizardCube have explored in order to preserve the integrity of the original game while making it more palatable to contemporary audiences.
Full Throttle Remastered
I admit I don't know this one as well as Wonder Boy; Full Throttle was one of the last hand-animated LucasArts point-and-click adventure games, and I picked it up back in the day. Alas, I never made much progress; the burly biker theme didn't do much for me, despite the quality of the writing. I definitely will give the game a second chance now that it's been prettified (and moved to consoles), though. Full Throttle Remastered foregoes the obvious remake approach by not converting the original game's lovely, low-rez, Disney-esque drawings into clunky 3D but rather recreating them in high-resolution 2D. The use of bold, varied line weights keeps the newly reworked animation from looking like Flash animation — think Archer versus Homestar Runner. Pretty classy! As much as a game about a heavy metal biker dude can be classy, anyway.
The Disney Afternoon Collection
And finally, one that's not a remake at all but rather a compilation. Bringing together six Capcom NES games — DuckTales 1 & 2, Rescue Rangers 1 & 2, Darkwing Duck, and TaleSpin — the Disney Afternoon Collection comes from Digital Eclipse and occasional Retronauts guest Frank Cifaldi. This is the same combination that brought us the excellent Mega Man Legacy Collection a couple of years ago, and one would assume it runs on the same NES interpreter engine as the previous compilation. I think it's safe to expect the minor hiccups that affected the Legacy Collection to have been sorted out for this new release.
I know this compilation was something everyone involved in the Legacy Collection had hinted at wanting to create, but given the precious attitude Disney has towards its properties I really didn't expect it to happen. So it's a pleasant surprise to see a whopping six Disney classics contained in a single package. This, of course, is not the full catalog of Capcom/Disney games for NES, but as the title indicates, these six come from television properties rather than films or Disney real estate concepts. (And, let's be realistic: These were the good Capcom/Disney games.) In any case, it very helpfully contains the two most ridiculously overpriced Capcom/Disney collector's pieces, DuckTales 2 and Rescue Rangers 2, both of which command eBay prices that will make your toes curl and wallet shrivel... even as bare cartridges.
As with the Legacy Collection, the Afternoon Collection will contain a huge array of supplemental materials, such as promotional art and development sketches. It'll also include some custom-made challenges for the more obsessive fans to tackle. About the only downside to the collection I see is the widely lamented lack of a Switch version, which isn't terribly surprising. I can't imagine the Disney license came cheap or easy, and Nintendo systems are very much in a transitional state right now; Capcom probably didn't want to risk committing to a new console. Now that Switch has seemingly proved its appeal (having already moved 1.5 million units worldwide, which has prompted Nintendo to double its production numbers for the coming year; there'll be more Switches produced in the next year than Wii U systems that were ever made), I would be pretty shocked if Capcom didn't announce a belated version for that system as well. I mean, it just makes sense... which I realize isn't always quite how business works, but I suppose we'll see.