E.V.O.: Search for Eden – A Retrospective Review

Chrono Trigger is one of the SNES’s best-loved role-playing games, with beautiful graphics, enchanting music and a sweeping story which encompassed time travel between many different eras of its world’s history. It wasn’t, however, the only SNES game with a focus on multiple eras. For instance, Maxis released a version of SimEarth: The Living Planet on the SNES, although as an awkward port of a mediocre title, it languishes in deserved obscurity. A more interesting title is E.V.O.: Search for Eden, a title developed by the Japanese developer, Almanic Corporation, and published by Enix in 1992.

It’s difficult to pin down E.V.O.: Search for Eden‘s exact genre, given that it encompasses elements from many different game genres. I think it would be best to describe it as a side-scrolling action RPG with platforming elements. By killing other creatures and eating their remains, you gain points which can be spent on developing your body to better suit the conditions of the era. Eventually, at the end of each time period, you face off against the most threatening creature of the era and progress to a later time period, often evolving into a different form.

The story, which is very much secondary to the gameplay, combines evolutionary theory with a sort of creation myth, where the Sun creates the nine planets (this being developed at a time before Pluto was demoted), and names one of them “Gaia”. Gaia is told that creatures may challenge to progress to Eden, but must complete the challenges before them through the multiple eras of the Earth. Your creature, as Gaia’s apparent favourite, is given guidance and challenged to progress through the different eras of Earth’s development, starting with the Cambrian era. The game begins with you playing a fish in the Cambrian period of the geological timescale, progressing to an amphibian, then to a reptile, before you are given a choice to progress into a bird or a mammal later on. However, some time during the amphibian stage, you are given some indication that there is outside interference in the evolutionary process, which could have dire consequences for the development of Gaia’s wildlife.

The more interesting part of the game lies in the gameplay. In each stage of your evolution, you begin with a weak example of the creature in question, such as a fish without a dorsal or pectoral fin, or an ichthyostega-like amphibian with puny frog-like jaws. In each evolutionary stage, you have a number of attacks which can be used to kill opponents, such as the bite or ram in the fish stage, or the kick available to mammals. Defeating and consuming other creatures gives you Evolution Points, which may be used to purchase more powerful body parts, such as more powerful jaws, a stronger tail or a more well-armoured body. Some of these improvements enhance your combative abilities, giving the ability to bite or ram more effectively, while others give you more protection against attacks, or more hit points to absorb damage. Not every improvement is entirely positive, and there is occasionally a trade off of protection against agility.

When you start out as a fish, the evolutionary system can seem somewhat like a gimmick, as there is fairly obviously a most effective path to take, and all of the other improvements are merely transitional. This gimmicky feel persists until the reptilian stage, where you begin to get mutually exclusive evolutionary paths which allow different body forms. It is in this stage where the system begins to show real promise, and while it’s somewhat disappointing that it takes until about two-fifths through the game for the system to really work, it’s imaginative and fun.

Unfortunately, the system, along with the fact that many of the levels are a linear affair and most of the creatures are easy to defeat with a simple strategy, encourages grinding over transitional evolutions. Indeed, grinding is often the only way to get your creature strong enough to take on the game’s bosses, who are substantially more powerful than the other creatures in the game. The difficulty of the bosses compared to the other creatures can occasionally halt progress as you try to figure out how to defeat them before they destroy you. It’s most unfortunate that perhaps the strongest boss in the game aside from the final boss comes at the end of the amphibian stage, before the multiple evolutionary paths have been unveiled and at a stage where the most effective body parts for defeating the boss also lead to low hit points and fragility.

There is, however, a way to subvert the battle system in your favour. The evolutionary system has a peculiar quirk where any evolutionary change leads to the regaining of life, leading to a way to cheese your way through fights by evolving cheap horns and removing them when your life gets low, or the four-legged mammal trick of shortening or extending your neck for low cost and little in-game effect. Given how cheap some of the boss fights can be, it can hardly be protested if you use a cheap trick in your favour to counter some of these tricks.

One of the most frustrating elements in the game which contributes to the cheapness of some of the boss fights is the near-lack of mercy invulnerability when one is hit. This is especially frustrating when it comes to collision damage, which can be a major pain not only during boss fights, but also during some fights with standard creatures, especially near the start of the game. I even would have accepted more powerful hits from creatures in exchange for some mercy invulnerability, as it would be a fairer prospect all round.

Graphically, the game is nice, with decently coloured environments and sprites, although it doesn’t match the best on the SNES. There is a sort of cartoonish look to the game which suits it well; it’s not entirely serious, and merits something a bit out of the ordinary. This especially comes into play with some of the early stages of evolution for each creature type, which happen to look a lot softer and squishier than the ultimate progressions. The environments are, for the most part, attractive enough, but they’re hardly memorable, and really serve as a place for the action rather than being a centrepiece of the game.

The game’s music, composed by Koichi Sugiyama of Dragon Quest fame, is again for the most part nice, but inconsistent and not particularly memorable. The music ranges from the great, but not exceptional, final boss theme which reappeared in I Wanna Be The Guy, to the mediocre overworld theme, or annoying “Amphibian’s Land” theme. None of it is terrible, but the soundtrack is hardly up there with Chrono Trigger, Super Metroid or Final Fantasy VI.

Before I give the game a final assessment, perhaps I should delve deeper into the science of the game, given that it does have an evolutionary theme. The game does appear to contain a fair deal of the archetypical creatures of each geological period, such as ichthyostega and early dragonflies and proto-cockroaches in the amphibian stage and Tyrannosaurus rex, stegosaurus and pterosaurs in the dinosaur stages, although these are often out of sync with their real development. The evolutionary process is also stated on occasion to be tampered with, which perhaps explains some of the differences, but the game doesn’t entirely stick to the plan even during the early fish period.

All in all, the game probably presents a better view of evolutionary biology than most other computer games, or for that matter, cinema or television, but that says more about how bad the representation of science is in computer games than anything else. What is notable (and sad), however, is that looking up Wikipedia to see how accurate the game was taught me more about evolutionary biology than anything else I’d done since I last studied evolution at a second year university level two years ago. In that way, at least, there is some educational value in the game.

Looking on the game as a whole, it’s pretty easy to see why E.V.O.: Search for Eden is obscure. That’s not to say that it’s a bad game, because it’s not – although it can be very frustrating, especially considering the boss fights and the lack of mercy invulnerability. However, neither is it a brilliant game, and in an era of exceptional and excellent RPGs such as the aforementioned Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, or the likes of EarthBound and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, that would be enough to guarantee some degree of obscurity. Something that can’t be denied, though, is the game’s innovative structure and imaginative progression.

Bottom Line:Innovative, interesting, although occasionally frustrating, it’s easy to see why E.V.O.: Search for Eden is obscure, but it’s very different and perhaps deserves mention for its imaginative system of play at least.

Recommendation: This is not a game which you’d be running off to eBay to order immediately, but it would be a decent buy in a bargain bin, and perhaps deserves a rerelease on the likes of the Wii Virtual Console. If you can find it without too much effort or expense, and you’re in the market for a different RPG, you might want to consider a try.

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Kirby’s Dream Land – A Retrospective Review

Despite beginning their game development on very different home computer platforms, HAL Laboratory have, over the years, been one of Nintendo’s most important second-party developers. Indeed, Satoru Iwata, currently president of Nintendo, was previously president of HAL Laboratory and still works with the company to this day. Throughout the company’s history of working with Nintendo, they have developed a few franchises which have become intrinsically linked with Nintendo’s own story. One of these franchises is the Kirby series, which began in the early 1990s and has continued to the current generation.

Kirby’s Dream Land is the first game in the Kirby series, developed in 1992 for the Nintendo Game Boy. Kirby’s Dream Land is a side-scrolling platformer, a genre it shares in common with many of its successor games in the series. Kirby, the eponymous character, is a denizen of Dream Land and has a number of peculiar abilities including the ability to inhale large objects and spit them out with great force, along with the ability to inhale air and float. When Kirby learns that King Dedede, the dictatorial monarch of Dream Land, has stolen all of the food in Dream Land for a midnight feast, he goes forth to retrieve the food.

Even at the early stages of the series, one could see many of the distinctive elements of the Kirby series take root. The ability for Kirby to inhale his enemies was distinctly different from the head-jumping attacks of Mario or Sonic, for instance, and the ability to float changed the flow of the game distinctly from other platform games. Some of the elements which would come up in later games is missing, though; most distinctly, the ability for Kirby to copy his enemies’ abilities, which was introduced in Kirby’s Adventure is missing, changing the dynamics of the game to make using the spitting attack more prominent in standard gameplay.

The game takes place over five levels, all with different themes. One of the levels is an extended boss rush, however, so only four of the levels have real substance to them. This makes for a rather short game, which on one hand is merciful, because the Game Boy cartridge has no save game capacity, and on another hand is somewhat disappointing. The standard game is very easy as well, for that matter, although some additional length and difficulty is added by the bonus game, a rerun of the game with more difficult enemies.

Most of the levels follow a distinctive pattern, with a mini-boss battle in the middle segmenting portions of the level with standard enemies, along with a boss battle at the end. The mini-boss and boss battles are substantially more difficult than the battles against standard enemies, which are made easier by the fact that you can often float over them, and the large amount of vitality that Kirby possesses against these enemies, with six hit points as opposed to the regular one or two found in many other contemporary platformers.

If an enemy does damage you, there are power-ups to replenish life, and the four lives you’re given at the start of the game can be supplemented by additional lives along the way. Unless you’re very inexperienced with platformers, you won’t need these much in the standard game, although the bonus game might be somewhat more difficult. It’s all very forgiving compared to the likes of Super Mario Bros., though.

Graphically, the game is simple but effective. There’s only so much you can do with the monochrome screen of the Game Boy, and while there are games with more impressive graphics on the Game Boy Color, HAL Laboratory certainly didn’t do a bad job with the more limited Game Boy screen. The sprites, in particular, are not that far off those that would be seen on Kirby’s Adventure a year later. The sounds are similarly simple, but again effective. Apart from the eminently hummable Green Greens music, most of the tracks don’t stand out too much, but they’re adequate.

All in all, Kirby’s Dream Land serves as a decent introduction to the series, and as a decent introduction to platform games in general. The lack of difficulty in the standard game is a blessing in some regards, as it lacks the unforgiving gameplay of many other contemporary platformers, although it does make for a very short game at the standard difficulty. The main problem with this game is that it has only been released on the original Game Boy, which means going back a few generations before you can get a handheld that can actually play it natively. The game also doesn’t exactly bring anything to the story of the series that you’d miss, so if you’re not looking for an easy introduction to platformers or if you’re not a massive fan of the Kirby series, it would be tempting to give this game a miss. On its own merits, it stands up relatively well; in the context of the series, it’s not the most unmissable game out of the many Kirby titles that have been released.

Bottom Line: Kirby’s Dream Land is a decent platformer, with very forgiving difficulty. It is somewhat let down by its short play time, the platform it was released on and the lack of save games, but it was a good first attempt by HAL Laboratory.

Recommendation: If you can find it in a bargain bin somewhere and you’ve got a Game Boy, Game Boy Color or Game Boy Advance, you could do worse than to get this game. Bear in mind that it is very short before taking a bite, though.

Rugby World Cup 1995 – A Retrospective Review

It’s often a difficult task to review old sports games. With the incremental development of many popular series, such as the FIFA and Madden NFL series by EA Sports, those things which seemed cutting-edge at the time can quickly become stale. That said, rugby union is not a sport which has enjoyed a huge amount of computer game titles throughout its history, and there has been less diversity in the developers of those games than the likes of association football or professional wrestling, for instance.

One of those few rugby union titles is 1994’s Rugby World Cup 1995, purportedly developed by The Creative Assembly, more widely known for their Total War series, and published by EA Sports. This game was released for the Mega Drive in Europe and the United States in conjunction with the Rugby World Cup of 1995, which was held in South Africa. This World Cup was historically significant for being held after the apartheid regime in South Africa ended and for the resurgence of one of rugby union’s great contenders, and was dramatised in the film Invictus.

The game includes a reasonable complement of international teams, including the 16 nations that would compete in the World Cup, a number of other nations hailing mostly from Europe, but also including the United States, and two fictional “all-star” teams (although playing with these teams feels faintly like cheating). One peculiar detail of real-world rugby union that appears to have been preserved here is the presence of distinct performance tiers, something which has even been acknowledged by the International Rugby Board in their ranking system. The performances of the teams are therefore reasonably accurate, although there are some teams which feel weaker than they should, such as South Africa and New Zealand. Conversely, some teams feel stronger than they should, such as the United States, who failed to qualify for the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and Wales, a perennial contender who nevertheless failed to make it out of the group stages in 1995.

When it came to the fourth-generation console war, the Mega Drive seemed to have the edge over the SNES when it came to licensed sports games, especially when it came to the FIFA series. The strengths of the FIFA series seem to have crossed over to Rugby World Cup 1995, and in fact, the whole game feels very similar to the contemporary FIFA titles. The game menus have been nicked wholesale from FIFA International Soccer, the game has a comparable in-game isometric perspective and a similar set of weather and gameplay options.

Rugby World Cup 1995 appears, however, to be a somewhat more simulationist game which somewhat rewards strategy and experience. It’s not a perfect simulation of rugby union, removing various rules of the game in the sake of gameplay, including the fair catch (or “Mark!”) rule, and the stamina system seems slightly wasted without the provision for substitutions and the lack of proper injuries. Nevertheless, enough of the rules of rugby union are included so that it actually feels like a game of rugby, rather than an aimless kickabout.

This game, therefore, is not especially easy to just pick up and play, and proficiency with the game requires somewhat of an understanding of the rules and strategies of rugby union. A lot of the defensive manoeuvres in the game are handled by the AI, although it is possible to take manual control of a player and tackle an opposing player, Offensive manoeuvres, on the other hand, are handed over to the player, and playing bad rugby won’t do you any favours when it comes to taking on the AI opposition, who, to the credit of the programmers, are reasonably strong.

The controls add to the early confusion, not being entirely intuitive to begin with. Certain parts of the game, including scrums and place kicking, are done rather well, both rewarding strategy while being fairly easy to pick up immediately. The other controls, however, require a bit of practice. Passing takes a few moments to figure out, but at least can be executed within the flow of the game without much fuss. In-play kicking is a different story, requiring a look at the manual before you can figure anything out but grubber kicks, and requiring one to either take their thumbs off the directional pad or move them in opposition to the flow of play to execute the other types of kick.

Once you get the controls down, though, they do feel relatively smooth and can be executed within the flow of the match. All in all, the controls make it possible to both play good rugby by learning how and when to execute them, and bad rugby otherwise.

The game’s options allow you to play in one of a number of different game types, including a friendly exhibition match, a conventional round-robin league and a Rugby World Cup-style elimination league. In all of these game modes, the weather and pitch conditions can be selected, including a random selection, along with the length of each half in increments ranging from two to forty minutes per half. The game, not being a perfect simulation of rugby union, stands up best to half lengths between five and ten minutes, long enough to execute a few attempts at scoring per half without slogging on.

Graphically, the game could be described as adequate now, and good in relation to its time period. The isometric view resembles that of a contemporary FIFA game, and for most intents and purposes works well in respect to this game as well. Some flaws exist, such as the occasional graphical glitch which causes some sprites to disappear for fractions of a second, and the difficulty in sending off long passes to people on the blind side of the isometric view, but otherwise, they suit the mechanics of the game. The notorious “muddy palette” problem of the Mega Drive fails to be a concern here, with the game requiring relatively few colours for rendering the pitch, and a few others for rendering the players and their uniforms.

The sound for this game is also adequate, although the sound selection for a missed tackle is a peculiar choice, sounding more reminiscent of a back on the wing being crushed by a 22-stone lock. The music, on the other hand, is not a strength of this game. It isn’t terrible, but it is bad, sounding extraordinarily cheesy, even by the standards of other EA Sports titles of the time, and was described to me as resembling “porno music”. If you’re going to play this game, do yourself a favour and play it without the music.

Bottom Line: Rugby World Cup 1995, a rare example of a rugby union game, manages to stand up on its own merits and is still playable today. You won’t go back to it like you might some of the more spectacular sports games of the time, but it does prove enjoyable over a short-term period.

Recommendation: This isn’t a game you should be rushing onto eBay to pick up at the soonest opportunity, but if you were to find it for a couple of quid in a charity shop or the like, it would be worth looking into.