Because the associated grades are smack dab in the middle of my grading scale, yellow scores are probably the most diverse when it comes my stance on recommending them. While a 4/10 would be an unlikely recommendation at best, a 6/10 is effectively an honorable mention. Remember that, unlike what you may have experienced in school, 5/10 is average on my scale. Anyway, here are the games that, for all intents and purposes, neither passed nor failed.
33. Wonder Boy
Well, here’s the first arcade game I ever reviewed on this site. I didn’t get around to it for a while because one of my unofficial rules precluded me reviewing any arcade games. Even adjusting for the kind of game it is, I just don’t think I could review something like Pac-Man using my metrics, which rely on the experience having a definite beginning, middle, and end. However, getting into the Wonder Boy series caused me to change that rule when the original reminded me that there are several post-crash arcade games you don’t necessarily play until you lose all of your lives. Now, the official rule is that a game has to have an ending or an objectively real win condition for me to consider reviewing it.
Anyway, Wonder Boy was the first game since Breath of Fire in which I couldn’t really name a field in which it excels. That’s true of plenty terrible games I’ve reviewed, but even with all of its flaws, I don’t think Wonder Boy is outright bad. That being said, it’s not particularly good either. Having been released in the wake of the genre-codifying Super Mario Bros., Westone had a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, between its useless power-ups and a stamina system that’s either pointless or insufferable depending on the circumstances, it’s clear that it doesn’t hold a candle to Nintendo’s effort. The only real advantage it had was the fact that players could experience a lengthy platforming game without having to spend money on a console. That was good for 1986, but today, that’s not really an advantage at all.
32. Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair
In this era of gaming, it seemed to be common for a popular game’s sequel to radically change things up. Super Mario Bros. would change its rules with a reskinned Doki Doki Panic, The Legend of Zelda became a side-scrolling action-RPG, Castlevania II introduced exploratory elements, and Fire Emblem Gaiden would place a greater emphasis on role-playing elements after its predecessor focused primarily on the strategy side of the equation. After that, the third game would be a return to form and be hailed as the single greatest game of the initial three entries (cf. Super Mario Bros. 3, A Link to the Past, Castlevania III, and Mystery of the Emblem).
Wonder Boy defies this trend somewhat in that, after the experimental Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Westone followed it up with Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair – a platforming shoot ‘em up. To summarize, there were three Wonder Boy installments and not a single one of them were in the same genre. They were all platforming games, but they played radically different from each other. While we can only guess as to how a platforming sequel to Wonder Boy in Monster Land would’ve fared, I can say Monster Lair felt like a major step back from its direct predecessor. It’s still better than the original game by virtue of being a little more ambitious, but chances are good you’ve played better platformers and better shoot ‘em ups than Monster Lair. If you can combine genres successfully, that’s great, but if not, you’re worse off than if you just committed to one.
Although Eversion isn’t as good as Braid, I do think the indie scene reached the glamorous spot it currently occupies due to having followed the former’s lead as opposed to the latter’s. This is because the creator knew exactly what kind of game he wanted to make and didn’t add any real fluff, filler, or pretentious grandstanding. Indeed, there’s something to be said for how when this game takes a turn, it lets the player react to it on their own terms as opposed to turning it into a half-formed metaphor for the atomic bomb. Regardless, it falls short in the sense that, to an even greater extent than Braid, it ultimately fails to capitalize on its gimmick, typically using it for stylistic purposes in later stages as opposed to puzzle-solving.
30. Ys III: Wanderers from Ys
Speaking of sequels that radically altered the series’ gameplay, here’s Ys III. The problem with recommending Ys III in its original form is that there are so many better side-scrolling hack-and-slash games out there that this game comes across redundant. Even for its time, however, it doesn’t do much to impress. It’s like what would happen if you took the original Castlevania, stripped it of the sub-weapons, and gave Simon Belmont a weapon with worse reach. Sure, you still have to worry about ring power in Ys III, but there is still a distinct lack of complexity to be found. Try to defeat the boss, and if you can’t, level up for a bit and then try again. There is a little more to the level design than in the Ancient Ys Vanished duology and seeing Adol speak is a treat, but otherwise, it’s an overall step back from either game.
29. Ys IV: Mask of the Sun
Mask of the Sun is better than Ys III or Ys V by virtue of coming closest to emulating what made the original two games such unique experiences in the late 1980s. However, it’s also guilty of copying the most interesting aspects of those games without grasping what made them work in their original configuration. While the return to form is appreciated after the mixed results from Ys III, Mask of the Sun is as boring of a token sequel as it gets. It lacks the interesting adventure game elements from the Ancient Ys Vanished duology or the incredible presentation of their TurboGrafx-16 CD ports (though the latter is understandable given technological constraints). Tonkin House may have had their game published before Hudson Soft’s own attempt at creating an Ys IV, but I think I know who the real winner was.
28. Wonder Boy in Monster Land
Wonder Boy in Monster Land has a legitimate claim of being the single most ambitious game to ever debut in arcades. Even in the late 1980s, people usually thought of the Pac-Man model when bringing up the subject of a video game. Super Mario Bros. challenged the status quo significantly by presenting players with a win condition – something practically unheard of outside of computer role-playing and adventure games. For Wonder Boy in Monster Land to provide an action role-playing experience in the arcade scene was practically unheard of. Sure, there was Namco’s The Tower of Druaga, but that game relied heavily on shared knowledge to complete. That’s technically true of Wonder Boy in Monster Land as well, but one could conceivably beat it without resorting to that – difficult though it may be.
Otherwise, despite (or maybe even because of) its ambition, Wonder Boy in Monster Land is a difficult sell. Being released in arcades may have given it a bit of an edge over its competition, but it was more of a hindrance than a help, hounding players with a time limit that drains their health all the while. It is a game that begged to be released on consoles, yet when it was, the creators opted not to address any of these issues. Therefore, which version you decide to play is a “pick your poison” situation. Do you opt for the tough version that lets you play indefinitely as long as you have enough quarters or the one that only gives you a single life? That you don’t have to grind levels incessantly places it ahead of Earthbound Beginnings, but it’s definitely one of the weaker entries on this tier.
In hindsight, part of the reason I ended up lambasting Ballz and Bubsy 3D is entirely because Nintendo had already provided an excellent precursor to 3D gaming in the form of Pilotwings. One could say that it has the Pokémon Snap factor against it in that it relied too heavily on its presentational gimmicks to carry the experience, but I don’t think that’s quite the case. This is a game that actually used its proto-3D appearance to a great effect, presenting players with the type of experience a majority of them had never seen before. In fact, if there was a bit more variety to the missions and the game hadn’t introduced the action-oriented helicopter missions, which feel really out of place, I probably would’ve rated it a bit higher. As it stands, it’s a lot like the original Super Mario Bros.; an important piece of gaming history that isn’t inaccessible to those curious enough to seek it out, but also one surpassed many times over in the coming years.
26. Ys: Ancient Ys Vanished – Omen
Although I feel the Ancient Ys Vanished duology is worth playing in its entirety, it is worth noting that, individually, the games are fairly unimpressive by today’s standards. Still, the original Ys does provide a compact experience with surprisingly interesting story beats. It also helps that, unlike Mask of the Sun or Ys V, it also didn’t rely entirely on its (overly simplistic) combat engine to carry the experience, having adventure game elements to help things along. In fact, the reason it comes out ahead of Pilotwings is primarily because it had an abundance of very forward-looking ideas such as the ability to recover health in outdoor areas and providing boss intricate boss fights you actually needed to strategize for. When you consider that boss fights in this era of gaming were only slightly more difficult than normal enemies, this was commendable.
Matt Thorson is one of the very few game creators (or artists in general, really) I knew of before he became famous. While some people may have looked back upon this game after playing Celeste, I played it for the first time back in 2005, accidently discovering it through a Google search when looking up information for an unrelated game. When you play his first game of note, Jumper, you really see a lot of what made his smash hit, Celeste, so good. This is as pure of a platforming game as you can get, and a lot of the challenges it presents, though difficult, is surmountable with enough persistence. That said, if you want to get into it, you will have to adjust to the strange physics engine. Ogmo stops as soon as you let go of the arrow key, so if you’re used to games whose characters have actual momentum, this one could easily throw you off.
24. Jumper Two
Jumper Two is very much the kind of sequel you’d expect out of the days in which platformers ruled the gaming scene. It takes the original game and gives you just enough upgrades that you walk away from the experience just a little bit more satisfied. Even so, it’s highly impressive that Mr. Thorson made the game mere months after the original (and even collaborated with another creator for a game called Dim while he was at it). Platforming fans will love these games, though I think everyone else is just fine sticking with Celeste.
23. New Super Mario Bros.
I believe independent gaming critics grossly exaggerating the extent to which Nintendo relies on nostalgia can be partly blamed on Bob Chipman and Yahtzee Croshaw’s misbegotten attempts to inject film critic sensibilities into this medium. I appreciate what they were trying to do on paper – elevate the medium so that it’s taken as seriously as films, literature, or other art forms. However, in practice, this was akin to jamming a square peg into a round hole because it doesn’t account for the medium’s unique properties. Sequels are far more common in this medium because a gaming flop is generally far more damaging than a film flop. This doesn’t necessarily mean that developers are afraid of innovating — quite the opposite, in fact. One of the greatest things about game sequels is that the developers usually know they have a devoted audience, which allows them to throw experimental ideas that their loyalty will help catch on in turn. Indeed, one of Nintendo’s strong suits is that they can innovate a lot within their franchises. Coming off the heels of the highly arcade-y Tri Force Heroes, it’s hard to believe the open-world extravaganza known as Breath of the Wild is even in the same series.
But, you wouldn’t get that impression if you played New Super Mario Bros. After Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World pushed the series’ side-scrolling installments to heights most developers could only dream of achieving, Nintendo really rested their laurels with New Super Mario Bros. Admittedly, it wasn’t really obvious back in 2006. At the time, it was quite a treat seeing Nintendo create another side-scrolling installment. However, in practice, it was kind of the video-game equivalent of The Force Awakens. It was something that plenty of people had been looking forward to for a long time and got a lot of critical acclaim upon release, yet in hindsight, spent more time wallowing in past accomplishments than actually elevating the series.
22. Pokémon Red and Blue
And here it is – the review that likely cost me the support of the Gen I enthusiasts. Believe me, I was one of the many kids swept up in the Pokémon craze back in the late 1990s, and I have plenty of great memories of these games. It was a real treat revisiting it two years ago after I had built up many of the sensibilities over the course of playing various other JRPGs. It also can’t be denied that saving the Game Boy from destruction was a lasting benefit for the medium, allowing handheld gaming to survive in the coming generations. However, none of this changes the fact that these games really have not aged well. The amount of level grinding you have to do, while not horrible, still drags the pacing of the game down to a screeching halt. And of course, the balance is all but nonexistent with Psychic-type Pokémon utterly dominating anything and everything the game can throw at you. For those who like these games, Red and Blue are worth looking into to see how the franchise, well, evolved since its humble beginnings. Everyone else is better off looking into one of the later generations. For what it’s worth, I will say these games now occupy the top position on this tier.
21. King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella
Handing out a grade to King’s Quest IV proved a bit more difficult than it should have been. I was seriously considering giving it a 5/10 because it a lot of its design decisions are some of the absolute worst the genre had to offer. Even worse than the dreaded “Dead Man Walking” scenarios, King’s Quest IV features staircases that are nearly impossible to navigate and a random encounter that doesn’t allow for any kind of saving throw.
There is a possibility I may reduce the grade to a 5/10 in the future, but I’m going to stick with a 6/10 because I do think that King’s Quest IV was, in many ways, the step forward for video games as a whole that its immediate sequel failed to be. Its protagonist is a princess who had just been rescued from a fire-breathing dragon. What does she do after her father falls ill? Immediately goes on an adventure to find a cure for his condition. In an era in which female characters existed to be rescued, this was highly commendable. It helps that the puzzle solutions, while still slightly obtuse, began to follow a real line of logic by this point, and it does just enough right for me to consider it an honorable mention – for now, anyway.
20. Wonder Boy in Monster World
I wished the localization team had kept the Japanese naming convention for this series. Wonder Boy V: Monster World III is a little cumbersome, but it does get the point across considering how much the series had changed from the original by this point. Wonder Boy in Monster World sounds like an enhanced remake of Wonder Boy in Monster Land. Perhaps this is part of the reason why it’s not as well-remembered as The Dragon’s Trap. Then again, it could also be because Wonder Boy in Monster World is a fairly bland sequel. It’s very much a Metroidvania made before typical Metroidvania sensibilities had cemented. It’s certainly more playable than the original Metroid, and it does have its moments. Still, considering that The Dragon’s Trap played around with ideas you wouldn’t see for another few generations, Wonder Boy in Monster World is a little disappointing.
19. Super Widget
Anyone who read my review of the original Widget was likely caught off-guard by my take on Super Widget. The original was an uninspired, barely functional Mega Man clone. What happened in order for its sequel to have been such an improvement? Atlus happened, that’s what. In fact, this is the very first Atlus game I ever owned. I wouldn’t hear from them again until I got my hands on Persona 4 nearly fifteen years later. Anyway, for those looking for an obscure platformer from the genre’s glory days, Super Widget is worth looking into. Atlus is primarily known for their JRPGs, but their forays into a more action-oriented genre turned out better than I think most people would expect. With an intuitive power-up system and no shortage of the Atlus-brand difficult boss fights, there is quite a bit more to this game than Wonder Boy in Monster World, which was mostly content to go through the motions.
18. Pilotwings 64
Pilotwings was a lot like the original Metal Gear in that it always begged to be in three-dimensions. Indeed, by being rendered in 3D, Pilotwings 64 actually lets the level design be something greater than a glorified runway/landing pad. The original pretty much existed solely for the purpose of showing off the SNES’s graphical limitations. One could argue the same thing applies to Pilotwings 64, but with a greater mission variety, better level design, and a choice of six different pilots to play as, I can imagine someone approaching the game from a modern standpoint and still having fun with it. It edges out Super Widget because, despite being an early 3D game, it is better optimized. Super Widget was a decent effort, but certain quirks about it such as the character needing to be a little more than halfway across the screen are not indicative of good design. Pilotwings 64 has its own problems, but that it turned out half as good as it did is truly admirable.
17. Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter
Professional film critics have a strange relationship with the concept of sequels. If you took their words at face value, you would get the impression that sequels have no business existing at all. It’s particularly damning that of all the sequels to pass through the ranks of the world’s most prestigious film festivals, only one managed to get any recognition from them. With my placement of Ys II on this list, I kind of understand where they’re coming from. This is a game that begs to be played immediately after its predecessor. Playing them alone simply wouldn’t do the experience they provide justice. In fact, this is precisely why many remakes pair them together – certain versions won’t even allow you to skip to Ys II first, turning the duology into a single game. Combined, I would give the games a 7/10 because it was easily one of the medium’s first epics. Even if the combat engine hasn’t aged well (though it works surprisingly well in a mobile format), it’s still worth seeing through to the end.
16. Pokémon Gold and Silver
And if my take on Red and Blue didn’t alienate me from old-school Pokémon fans, my Gold and Silver review certainly did. Again, I can agree that these games were significant steps forward for the franchise. The idea of having a persistent clock would have been notable on home consoles at the time, so to see it implemented on a handheld game was nothing short of remarkable. Not only that, but it is balanced much better with Psychic types having lost their indomitable advantage in the metagame. That being said, there is no getting around that Gen II hasn’t aged so well. If anything, certain issues – most notably, the sheer amount of level grinding you must do – are even worse in these games. The Gen IV remakes do a lot in addressing the biggest issues holding the originals back, but not enough to where I can award them additional points. Nonetheless, I do think that if you wish to experience these games in some form, the remakes are the way to go. I also feel that, despite the strikes against them, they do provide a more sophisticated experience than Ys II if for no other reason than because they can stand on their own.
15. Luigi’s Mansion
Luigi’s Mansion is actually a lot like Pilotwings in that it comes across as a tech demo for the Nintendo GameCube. It’s a little less blatant because it feels more like a fully-fledged product. What causes me to get that feeling from this game is the fact that it is incredibly short. There is something to be said for providing the player with a compact experience, but while the exploratory elements and ranking system allow for a degree of replay value, I feel the development team ultimately failed to get enough mileage out of their ideas. Still, for what it’s worth, I would be a little more likely to recommend it over Gold and Silver simply because it has significantly less filler.
14. Super Mario Sunshine
I can’t help but think of Super Mario Sunshine as the Mario equivalent of Skyward Sword. It does come out ahead because, while it doesn’t quite match Skyward Sword at its best, it’s also not as bad as that game at its worst. It also helps that Super Mario Sunshine doesn’t have a character as annoying as Ghirahim. Il Piantissimo and the Piantas as a whole do push it, but the game’s heavy reliance on gameplay makes them easier to tolerate. Plus, it helps that other characters find Il Piantissimo annoying as well, so there is more self-awareness to be found in this game. For that matter, Super Mario Sunshine could be the game most responsible for future teams injecting a lot of variety into the average 3D Mario installment. The sheer diversity in the challenges outsteps almost anything you could find in Super Mario 64.
What ultimately holds Super Mario Sunshine back from a passing grade, however, is that it ultimately subscribes to a “quantity over quality” ethos. Later teams would be able to expertly implement unique one-shot mechanics in Mario’s 3D adventures, but Super Mario Sunshine invariably suffers whenever you’re not controlling the title character normally. The game is optimized to have F.L.U.D.D. present at all times, so whenever he’s taken away, the platforming becomes an exercise in frustration and trial-and-error. It’s also the installment in which the life system really began showing its age. If you know how to deal with it, it becomes entirely pointless. If you don’t, be prepared to waste time with a tedious trek to wherever you died over and over. All in all, it’s not bad – certainly coming across as a more complete experience than Luigi’s Mansion, but it falls into the same tier due to a distinct lack of focus.