Shantae: Risky’s Revenge (Director’s Cut) Review

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Slumbering within a dormant state for nearly ten years, the Shantae series looked to be a one-off title that failed to garner enough interest to launch itself into the world of memorable gaming franchises. In 2010, Shantae: Risky’s Revenge was released for the Nintendo DS as part of its DSi Software selection, a move that began to set the course for bigger and better things. The game received enough positive press that it ended up winning various awards from video game media sites such as IGN. Four years after its initial release, an enhanced port of the game was released on Windows (most notably Steam), dubbed Shantae: Risky’s Revenge – Director’s Cut. This version of the game is the subject of this review—and the first entry in the series I was introduced to.

One will be able to tell from screenshots alone that this game’s budget was not spectacular. The artwork and text bubbles, along with the incredibly short campaign (Less than four hours) almost gives the impression of a “last resort” type of momentum that goes along with the game’s structure. It’s a minimalist attempt at crafting the game for its gameplay rather than the wow factor of its aesthetics. In this way, it is almost completely opposite of Half-Genie Hero. That’s not to say either or is better or worse because of it, but it’s interesting to see what the comfort of financial security does to the realization of a game’s identity. A game looking as though it were made inside Windows Movie Maker playing as well as Risky’s Revenge does is impressive, nonetheless.

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Some may find the drawn artwork of the game to be charming, and while there are some designs I like (Squid Baron, Mimic), many of the female characters are little more than unattractive. It feels slightly too old-fashioned Disney for my tastes, and the necks are far too long. And try as they might, they aren’t all that sexy, no matter how little clothing. The real aesthetic appeal to Risky’s Revenge lies in the spritework, which is beautifully crafted and animated. It’s no coincidence that the game is primarily done in sprites, and without a lot of detailed cutscenes. I almost prefer that the games hearken back to olden days, though a little change-up keeps the experience fresh. This detail in the spritework gives life to those who choose to express their personalities within the game (such as Shantae and Rottytops). The number of different enemies and types also give off a fascinating amount of depth to the world of Sequin Land.

Speaking of Sequin Land, the map of the place is horrendous. The spaces and rooms that Shantae can traverse are all hunched together and made into a mess of trying to identify specific spaces and memorizing what is where. Upon my first playthrough, I didn’t use the map at all, trying instead to simply remember what every left and right room lead to among vertical planes and labyrinth-like environments. It’s nothing short of annoying and is one of the biggest issues of the game for those who get lost within Metroidvania games easily. I don’t, but I know plenty others that would in minutes.

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What has become somewhat of a staple of WayForward games is the witty and self-aware writing that lies within the character dialogue. Risky’s Revenge has some of this, but not enough to make the adventure feel more than just another adventure. Collect the things. Defeat the bad guys. Someone was kidnapped. Risk everything to save the world. Most of these humorous lines come from background characters, including those found idling within important areas in the game. It’s almost like uncovering treasure, out of the way of what’s being presented to the player in the game’s narrative. I feel sequels do a much better job of incorporating the dialogue into the main narrative to keep the appeal steady without getting too ahead of itself. When not so, the lines being spouted are almost boring; not to the point where characters are lifeless, but it doesn’t differentiate itself from the crowd of other adventure-platformers.

Characters being in the spotlight, not many do well enough to make themselves shine when given the opportunity. In fact, some of them feel as though they do too much, especially the Hypno Baron, who all but spouts out the entire script of the game upon encounter. There’s very little balance in Risky’s Revenge, such that it could make everything memorable instead of certain segments memorable for being inappropriately over-the-top. Of course, knowing the series as I do, some of the characters develop personalities that I don’t care for, so to see them prior to how they will eventually aspire to be is somewhat refreshing. If only said personalities were something aside from “Blank side character.”

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Oops.

The biggest compliment this game can receive is that it works very well. Throughout both my first and second playthrough, the amount of glitches, bugs, or overall grievances with controls was next to moot. Thought it was a tad odd to press ‘B’ to confirm things, but I got used to it quickly. WayForward, if nothing else, playtests their games to the very bone. The work they put into making the game as fine-tuned as possible is very much appreciated as a gamer, and their work definitely shows for it. Risky’s Revenge, for all that I complain about it, plays without any issue. Not only that, but it plays comfortably and suitably for the controllers it’s compatible with and the buttons that are designated for individual controls. Very accessible and very smooth, responsive, and enjoyable. Nothing short of perfect.

If only that perfection could go into the enjoyment of browsing through various environments. The all-in-one world map is an interesting take of the game and certainly does enough to make the world feel expansive and diverse, but excluding the Warp Squids (Thank God), traversing these areas left to right feel more like a chore than anything. Most of this is specifically because many of these rooms are simply left to right corridors. Run from one end to the other, all while avoiding or taking down enemies that spawn with every pixel advanced or retreated. Many would argue that the essence of a Metroidvania is to immerse oneself in exploring and finding goodies within the environment. Here, many come in the form of secret paths and rock tunnels that Shantae can crawl into. Sometimes they feel natural, while others somewhat block the flow of the game. But more on that later. Fighting enemies usually don’t take more than a few hair whips to defeat, and the game gives the player an assortment of different ways to combat enemies. When discovering an area for the first time, fighting enemies is fairly entertaining, but when trying to get to an exact destination, they become a nuisance.

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Risky’s Revenge’s story in general is pretty forgettable on its own. Shantae’s uncle, Mimic, presents a Genie’s Lamp at some exhibition of sorts, which triggers Risky Boots to break in through the roof and snatch the Lamp for herself. Shantae defeats her, then is given information about how three seals are necessary to obtain the Lamp’s power, which she then sets out to collect before Risky does. Once this set-up is complete, the rest of the way is paved through character interaction and the thrill of adventure, as the main narrative essentially steps aside. It leaves room to let the characters make the adventure memorable through their own charisma, though as stated before, the characters are little more than goalposts. Not much is presented to keep the adventure interesting, aside from a few odd fetch quests and such. The ending does equally little to present any reason to continue on with the series, settling to get it wrapped up as quickly as possible. But hey, the player is treated to some nice sexual fan service should they do it fast enough. That equates to reply value, right?

As for another of the staples of the Shantae series, the genie transformations are incredibly underutilized and oftentimes break the flow of the game. To transform, one must press and hold a certain button, then wait until the corresponding dance triggers the transformation the player wants. It’s not too bad when going into Monkey form, as it is the first dance, but the Elephant and Mermaid dances take a little while to get to, constantly pausing the game to advance a few yards or so. One is given only three transformations to choose from, a far cry from the original title’s (technically) five. These transformations (aside from Elephant) are only useful for travel and convenience, as two of the three can’t even attack (before the upgrades). The conveniences of the transformations are only good for exploring, as anywhere else, one would likely dread having to transform into them.

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(This image was obtained via Google.)

As it is, the game isn’t that great. It has a collection of different problems concerning its narrative focus and character spunk, along with the incorporation of its Metroidvania inspirations. Setting all that aside, however, the game plays wonderfully and boasts a charming buffet of spritework that breathed new life into a struggling franchise. Should one be willing to excuse the game for its “First attempt” style of execution, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the game, even with multiple playthroughs. Unfortunately, Risky’s Revenge only does just enough to get a passing grade with even the updated product. Still, I can only thank it for arousing my interest in the series just enough to try out the next game.

Final Score: 5.5/10

The rating for this title and more can be found on MyVideoGameList.

Shantae: Half-Genie Hero Review

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The Shantae series is one that has recently gained steam among the gaming community as a quality franchise of spectacular platformers. This was shown by the development of their most recent game, funded almost entirely on Kickstarter, amassing around $750,000. With three years and nearly a million dollars, WayForward was tasked to make a proper sequel to the acclaimed Pirate’s Curse, and for a while, the hype leading up to the game’s release (following a three month delay) seemed to encourage something spectacular in the making. Its release marked a pivotal moment in the franchise’s history, establishing itself as a potential powerhouse with four games—and likely more coming—under its belt. It’s been a long time coming for Shantae, but its late season renaissance is as magical a run as one would expect from a half-genie hero.

Half-Genie Hero does little to deviate from traditional formula within the franchise. Shantae wakes up to encounter an ominous conflict. Risky Boots stirs up trouble and leaves Shantae with the brunt of the blame from the town’s goofy mayor. Adventures ensue with key items to find scattered around the land. It’s a game that reuses and enhances the experiences that made the Shantae franchise what it is and rolls with it. That in mind, it’s simple to its very core, whether in regards to story, characters, or artwork, as all are fairly straightforward and easy to register. It’s almost disappointing to see so much change with the transition from in-game spritework to fully-blown drawn animations without much regard for any other aspect of the game. Still, one could say that the results are within the level of enjoyability that made the Shantae series as lovable as they are.

Upon loading the game, what becomes immediately apparent is the extravagantly minimalist art design. Gone are the sprites that made the game so deliciously retro. Half-Genie Hero exerts a fashion sense that speaks to modern times with its near chibi-like, colorful cast. Eyes are long and pointed, color is hued to the most vibrant of hues, and every character gets an HD-esque upgrade from previous games. It’s definitely a stark change for veteran players, but newcomers will likely prefer the change and find it hard to go back to the spritework (shame as that may be). Aside from characters, the backgrounds and aesthetic environments are all vastly detailed and well-defined within their settings. Back are the “one-type” levels that have a main theme, whether it be “swamp level” or “spooky level.” There is some variety to them, but not much to really distinguish them outside of a single word. A small nitpick, but some sky environments feel a little too “brushstroked.” Clouds feel like a simple sway and swish from a brush. There’s minimalist, then there’s too minimalist. Despite this, the artwork and design are all splendid and very easy to immerse oneself in. It’s the context of it all that makes it feel a little empty.

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It’s a common perception of the most, ahem, “dedicated” critics to identify trends and how they equate to the quality of a specific subject. One trend I’ve found to be quite prevalent (though not necessarily new) is that when something shows to be completely fresh and new in one aspect, the other aspects tend to remain within the realm of their own comfort. This is a nice way of saying that they’re not up to par with the expectations set by the single, extraordinary aspect. With Half-Genie Hero, the art and design of the game takes center stage, awing the crowd with its grandeur. Unfortunately, not everyone is so taken by the outer exteriors and wish for something more ambitious deeply below. Where the art shines and the gleams of radiance bedazzle some, the story, the writing, the level design, the soundtrack, and the character hijinks are all far below the expectations set by Pirate’s Curse.

At first glance, there’s a clear emphasis on making the levels feel more streamline, more left to right (usually) and beginning to end. Almost like games such as Mega Man. While this isn’t necessarily a fault on its own, one might miss the balance of this type of streamline and the exploration of more typical Shantae games from Pirate’s Curse. It makes Half-Genie Hero, in comparison, feel a lot more linear in its progression, something most Metroidvania fans loathe. To re-open this same wound, as past Shantae games allow you to re-explore former areas at your own pace, Half-Genie Hero requires you to go back to previous stages almost immediately after beating the level after it in order to advance the game. Not only is the player pushed back into levels they’ve already played that are still fresh in their mind, but it causes said areas to lose their essence of individuality as they become a dump site for all sorts of things one couldn’t get going through the first time.

The structure of these levels also cause some concern for veteran fans of the series, as there’s almost nothing to them. While the puzzles and the constant use of a number of Shantae’s transformations make the areas easy to maneuver and fun to traverse, there’s so little of it that one could beat it in under ten minutes, should they know what they’re doing. Previous games had overworlds that harbored a theme and played it out to extreme levels, then provided a dungeon that served as the “meat” of the meal. Here, the meat is ripped into tiny pieces and scattered around a single plate. Again, the linearity makes these areas feel too much like levels in a game than environments worth getting immersed in. The constant use of going back to previous levels to grab random items conveniently needed to advance the “plot” is padding at its finest and bumps up the total runtime to twice as much as it probably should. There’s an achievement one can receive on Steam for beating the game within two hours. Two hours.

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There’s this odd phenomenon in writing within this game that a lot of (typically random) characters embellish. The short, quick sentences that serve to prolong the point. Something that’s meant to make a character seem paranoid and somewhat crazy? Kind of like this. Y’know? Always mumbling. Never really saying anything. Whatever and such. Yeah. With an occasional character, it’s fine, but there are a good number of characters (including established characters) that have a bit of this added in for whatever reason. The writing seems to have taken a turn for the quick to add in both the wit and parody present in most games while getting to the point (or prolonging it for comedy). Otherwise, dialogue consists of the one-shot personalities of the characters. Sometimes charming, sometimes not. A far cry from what it was in previous installments, but still enough to satisfy most.

While not usually a large factor to my impressions of a game, the soundtrack for Half-Genie Hero is almost as forgettable as Risky’s Revenge‘s. Only a few tracks really stand out to me, while most serve their purpose for the setting of the environment. There’s an impressive amount of variety in music, however, as the levels change rooms, which gives a lot of music to listen to in general. The sound seems to be a sultry mix of a variety of different instruments, combined with electronic doo-dads and just a touch of dubstep (which I don’t personally care for). Classic themes return in the form of remixes, and there are a large number of new tracks (or other remixes I simply can’t recognize) for new players to listen to. Very few really evoke any tension or weight to a particular area, but its upbeat fashion is sure to get some head bobs out of some.

I realize I’ve been comparing this game to Pirate’s Curse quite a bit, as I feel I should be. Pirate’s Curse established a course for the Shantae series that lit the fire in such a tremendously positive burst that I couldn’t help but feel enthusiastic as to how far they’d take it. Everything just felt right; the characters, the depth of the story, the writing, the structure of the world. Half-Genie Hero struggles in a lot of these areas, however there is one thing in particular that I’ve yet to really address: the gameplay.

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If not for the art, gameplay would be the biggest benefactor of Half-Genie Hero. Controls are tight and fluidly responsive. Controls are mapped to comfortable, attainable locations and everything worked to impressive degrees. Except for hooks. Hooks are evil. Enemies and battling and platforming are all present in the highest quality, along with a variety of different things to do in-between. The difficulty of puzzle-solving is a tad simple, but a few managed to add some genuine thought to the environment of the level. Along with puzzle-solving, the overall difficulty of the game is, again, a tad simple. Bosses aren’t exactly hard to figure out (some are simply susceptible to hammering the attack button), while the only degree of difficulty one could probably have is solving how to collect all the miscellaneous items. Running through each area has its own challenges, but with how short each area is, one likely won’t have a lot of trouble with it. If nothing else, it’s fun. A kind of fun one could have with a large number of games without that lasting impression that a few special games have, unfortunately.

Everything about this installment feels rushed, rushed in the sense that everything is too straightforward and simplistic. The characters only serve specific purposes and little else, the levels are quick, left to right gauntlet runs, and the story is a typical good vs. evil narrative of world-threatening proportions, on top of a treasure hunt. A review I read while editing this post referred to the title as a “Soft reboot,” which I think fits the style of the game well. Though, I wouldn’t call it a “reboot” as much as I’d call it “soft.” It’s similar to that of The Legend of Zelda’s Skyward Sword, a game whose quality is divided among the fanbase for being “too linear” and “sticking too close to the script.” Half-Genie Hero is similar in that regard, as it takes a lot of what made the previous Shantae games great and blends it into a simple, easy format that everyone can be accustomed to. Not everyone will appreciate it, though.

From an objective angle, there isn’t too much about Half-Genie Hero that hampers its quality to horrid status, something that remains fickle to many critics alike. It is the context that makes the game less than meets the eye, as those who have played previous installments know that the game is capable of so much more. These subjective qualms add up to create an asteroid of complaints that drag the game into the depths of mediocrity. With three years and $750,000, WayForward gave birth to a purring kitten; cute and cuddly, but will never obtain the ferocity paved by Pirate’s Curse‘s lion-esque presence.

Final Score: 5.5/10

The rating for this title and more can (eventually) be found on MyVideoGameList.

Metroid: Zero Mission Review

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At one point, Metroid was my favorite game series of all time. However, upon revisiting the series and its games in the past few years, the overall glamour and appeal to the series started to dwindle in my mind. That’s not to say that I feel the games are lacking in quality, but rather they aren’t nearly as enjoyable as I once felt in the past. One such example is Metroid: Zero Mission, a remake of the first game in the Metroid series, for the Game Boy Advance. The game is essentially an updated upgrade with some added features here and there, including spectacular graphics, added items and platforming mechanics, and a brand new ending sequence. To its credit, the game is very well made and has a lot to offer in its time-span, but that effort can only be appreciated by those willing to overlook the key flaws.

Right from the get-go, I’ll admit that I really don’t care for the original Metroid. Its lack of a map, lack of any coherent purpose, lack of rewardable upgrades, and lack of health replenishments makes the game exceedingly dull, confusing, and needlessly difficult. Almost by default, this makes Zero Mission, which has more of all of these lacking aspects, better in comparison. However, I feel the game doesn’t entirely do a good job of balancing out all of these factors.

Zero Mission is almost laughably short. People complain that indie games like Undertale and Shantae aren’t worth the price tag that the amount of actual gameplay provides the player. But putting this into perspective; the last time I finished Zero Mission, I finished it in two and a half hours, on the normal difficulty, with 74% item completion. Retail cost for this game back when it was released was $25-30, from what I recall. That’s ripe for some complaints. In a sense, this short time-span can make the game feel like nothing really happened, or that everything happened too quickly to fully be immersed in the gameplay. I think both things apply in this case, but I’d probably be more disappointed if I felt the gameplay was easy to be immersed in.

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One issue with Zero Mission that I never seemed to notice as a child is that the gameplay isn’t entirely varied. Most of the time the player will be tasked with jumping on platforms and shooting enemies in a rotation-like fashion, along with running down a straight corridor blasting anything in your path. That’s the issue: shoot. Press B. B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B. That is, for the most part, all you really need to do to progress, to defeat the enemy, to achieve your goal. B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B. Or. (Hold R) B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B. This, in the long run, gets far too tedious for me to really enjoy past the first few areas. What makes this worse is that it is the most effective way of eliminating all threats. You can experiment with missiles, Morph Ball bombs, or other gadgets, but the quickest and most effective way of taking down a majority of enemies is the normal blaster (until the Screw Attack, which you get very late in the game). It works for Mega Man because his level design compliments what he is capable of doing, while with Metroid, it becomes more dull the more powerful you become.

Boss battles aren’t immune to this, either. Kraid is entertaining simply because it requires a condition in order to actually hurt him, along with the platforms in which you stand on eventually breaking the more damage Kraid takes. It takes a little skill to defeat him as quickly as possible. Ridley is a complete pushover, as all you need to do is aim at him and fire missiles. Mother Brain’s difficulty skyrockets due to a bunch of shit flying right at you as you tiptoe along a narrow block suspended over a lava pit. Otherwise, wait for Mother Brain’s eye to be exposed, then shoot missiles. Simple. Mecha Ridley, the last boss in the series, is essentially Mother Brain but with a different weak spot. Wait for it to be exposed, then shoot it with a missile. Simple. There are a number of mini-bosses scattered throughout the game, too, but they’re hardly worth mentioning. Most fall prey to the same “wait for weak spot to be exposed -> fire” method.

This issue, like the first, never bothered me much in the past, but does incredibly now. The game is far too easy. Not only is it easy, but it is intentionally made easy and player-friendly. Most common enemies can be taken out with a few shots or one or two missiles. Boss battles are little trouble at all. Missile and energy expansions are marked on the map. Chozo statues show you exactly where you need to go and heal you completely of energy and weapons. Dangerous and hidden areas are marked differently on the map. There are save stations fucking everywhere. And I was playing all of this on Normal difficulty. I’d hate to see how easy it was on Easy mode. I died once during my last run, and that was because of the bullshit that was Mother Brain’s boss fight. Otherwise, it was a breeze most of the way through. This easiness factor only heightens the repetitive and overall gray feeling that overtakes me when I play the game.

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Just to rub salt in the wound, Ice Beam also makes the game about a hundred times easier. Depending on the strength of the enemy being fired at, the enemy will freeze over for about eight seconds after one to four shots. What easier way to defeat an enemy than to freeze it and continue to fire without any feedback? Ice Beam is also one of the first beam upgrades available in the game. B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B.

What I said above about balancing out this game in comparison to the original Metroid is most of the issues I have with Zero Mission. While the original game made it far too hard and vague, this game makes it far too easy and clear. It doesn’t have that sort of balance that makes traditional games in the Metroid series so fun to play. There’s little variety, little challenge, and little experimentation, only a watered down shoot ’em up with pretty visuals and designs. Thankfully, the game does try to some extent to make this game a little more juicy.

Some of the more memorable and fun aspects to Zero Mission are when the player is challenged to platform or complete specific tasks to progress further. Most of these challenges are done through breaking blocks in the structure of the area with various weapons or suit upgrades like the Speed Boost. Other times, it’s just trying to take advantage of timing the Morph Ball bombs correctly to boost the player to new heights. I will give the game credit for giving the player the ability to sequence-break, without having to resort to glitching. In a way, this may feel too “Mario-esque” in nature, but I rather like the platforming bits in this game. After all, Nintendo knows how to make a platformer. The Power Grip item, while making the platforming easier, also makes jumping from place to place feel more fluid.

There is actually one thing about Zero Mission I genuinely love, and that is infiltrating the Space Pirate frigate at the end of the game. Ironically enough, I hated this part in the past, only to rediscover how fun the entire section really is. Through means of story I don’t entirely wish to spoil, Samus ends up infiltrating a Space Pirate frigate without the aid of her Power Suit, showing the debut of her Zero Suit in-game. She has a single pistol that can do nothing but stun enemies once charged up. The only thing from her Power Suit she retains is the Power Grip, leaving her almost entirely defenseless. This part of the game is awesome. Everything that I complained about up to this point is now nil. Suddenly, the game is challenging, the game has some sense of fear. The game has you hide from the Space Pirates, requiring you to be stealthy and to be quick when the Pirates (inevitably) discover you. And you can’t fight back. The player’s only choice is to run; run and hide. It seems almost uncanny to praise a Metroid game for being anything like a Metroid game, but it works wonders here, and part of me wishes they’d flesh this concept into an entire game. Alas, it isn’t until <insert story plot here> that you’re able to regain your (now more powerful) Power Suit… and the game goes back to being rather easy and bland.

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As much as I complain about the context, the game has a lot of effort put into it. The visual interpretation of the game, its environments, and its atmosphere are all very detailed. The music is atmospheric and chilling to a degree. I wouldn’t call it great, but certainly memorable. The visual aspect is also very noteworthy, as the smooth animation and crisp, colorful design of the game is magnificent and easy to appreciate. The backgrounds are interesting, the enemies are varied, and the bosses all look fantastic. It’s one of the best looking handheld games I’ve ever played and is always a pleasure to take in.

From a technical standpoint, the best thing about this game is the control. Samus controls about as tight and as accurately as she possibly could in a 2D side-scrolling game. I haven’t a single complaint about how the game handles or how it incorporates movement or button-specific scenarios. It’s almost so good that it only further proves my point about how dull it is. It feels so good that its effortless to traverse the area the way the player wants to, running and jumping and shooting all the while. This by no means implies that I think the control suffers from my subjective criticisms, but rather that it enhances my subjective criticisms. The game responds well enough to make the platforming, the preciseness of certain obstacles, and the overall experience far more enjoyable.

Putting everything aside, Metroid: Zero Mission is a game with a lot of heart, but simply doesn’t give me the same type of thrill while playing other titles in the series. A lot of the factors behind this are based on the decision-making of the developers when deciding how easy to make this game, along with its relative shortness. The argument many people have behind the rating of a game is how much fun they had while playing it. Well, I only had fun sporadically when playing this game, so by that account, the rating will suffer accordingly. However, I feel that the amount of effort put into all aspects of a video game are worth taking note of, and Zero Mission isn’t an entirely bad game; rather, it’s more good than bad. It’s just not really a game catered to my interests, as cold as that sounds to my younger, Metroid-loving self. I appreciate the effort and love put into it, but it’s wasted on the cracks that appear beneath the surface.

Final Score: 5.5/10

(All gameplay screenshots courtesy of SaikyoMog.)