Super Mario World [NA/EU] / Super Mario World: Super Mario Bros. 4 [JP]
Year: 1990, 1991 | Developer/Publisher: Nintendo | Played on: SNES and Game Boy Advance [Super Mario Advance 2: Super Mario World]
The first 16-bit Mario title was not only one of the first games I played on the SNES, but it was also one of the first Mario games I ever played as well. This classic game has plenty of charm, fun levels, smooth visuals, secret exits (ninety-six in total) that lead to different areas, a nonlinear structure, high replay value, simple yet great play control, memorable music, plus it introduced the lovable companion Yoshi; and Super Mario World has held up so well after all these years, in my opinion. Now, is it safe to say that I find it a little overrated? It's not that I don't love it, I do (in fact, I think it's fantastically great), and it's not that I feel it isn't deserving of its classic status, I think it does. I just feel that it more often than not garners the "best ever" rank from many gamers, not to mention it's often preferred to its excellent sequel Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, which I personally feel is superior. The former I can understand since it revolutionized platforming for generations to come (and I respect that, even though I honestly feel there are better platformers available on the system), and the latter's just me being selfish, but that's just me. Regardless, the areas are neatly designed, and there's a lot of variety to be found here. The enemies are neat, Mario's cape ability is nice, the difficulty's easy and decent, and there are even a few exits that are slightly hard to access. The Star and Special stages are amazing, and the Haunted House stages create a good amount of atmosphere. Only flaws (nothing big) are that Luigi is around Mario's height and you can only save after beating the Fortress, Castle, Switch Palace, and Haunted House stages. Super Mario World gets a lot of praise, and I agree with a lot of the praise it gets, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it the best. Once again I digress; I love Super Mario World, but the sequel I adore (more on that later).
Illusion of Gaia [NA] / Illusion of Time [EU]
Year: 1993, 1994 | Developer: Quintet | Publishers: Enix/Nintendo | Played on: SNES
Having enjoyed SoulBlazer a lot prior to playing this game, I admit I was a little worried as to how I would feel about its spiritual follow-up Illusion of Gaia considering some of the lopsided opinions I heard about it beforehand. But when I eventually played it for the first time (and finally quenched my longtime curiosity towards it), I was pleased to find that it's a really great game. It's not perfect, for it has a few issues (which I'll get to in a little bit), but boy is it fun! The soundtrack is mindblowing in both quality and style, and a lot of it can be quite effective at times depending on the situation, which is rather impressive; the score ranges from cheerful to ominous to mysterious to epic to foreign to emotional). The play control is versatile, and I love how Will and his alter ego Freedan learn new moves from time to time which not only makes your attacks more powerful but are also put to use when it comes to working your way through a dungeon, which is very unique. And speaking of unique, Illusion of Gaia has a cool leveling up system, where if you defeat all the enemies in the same room or floor, then you'll gain a stat increase (whether it be health, defense, or strength). Love it! Visually it's impressively colorful and detailed, and some of the puzzles are pretty good. There are even a few moments where, if you pay very close attention, there are allusions made towards SoulBlazer (even a few sprites from that game appear in this action-oriented RPG). I enjoy the dark tone, and each dungeon has a variety of designs and ideas (like the floating Sky Garden in the Nazca Plains, and the Lost underwater Continent of Mu), which I really enjoy. The enemy designs are neat, and the boss fights are cool. I admire the fact that Will can jump from cliff to cliff and fall down several stories without taking damage; now that's awesome! The plot by itself is decent, but there are (nonsensical) moments throughout the game that may make gamers raise an eyebrow or two (like that Incan Gold Ship: what happened there?). Another aspect that's not really at its strongest is the difficulty itself; though there are a few spikes along the way, Illusion of Gaia is not very hard. Some of the complaints I notice whenever someone talks about the game is the plot and the difficulty, which some claim is hard. By going at a steady pace, not to mention increasing your stats along the way, especially considering the expanded movement controls, I feel it's a little easier than SoulBlazer; I know not everyone will agree with that, but oh well. The battle with Dark Gaia is simple once you know what to do, but everything else makes up for those points. The atmosphere is intriguing, the locations are incredible, and the way that Will's hair is blowing in the wind is nice. The ending and credits is the first time I've nearly cried while playing a video game, for the music was unbelievable and the impact was incredible. Wanna know what makes Illusion of Gaia stand out from the rest of the Quintet games? A secret dungeon and boss fight! By collection all the red jewels scattered throughout the game, you'll be brought to a dungeon that cannot be accessed otherwise, and in the end you'll bout with a boss who previously appeared in SoulBlazer. Fantastic!! For all the flaws it has, I really enjoy playing this game, as I think it's great. This game would eventually be followed by Terranigma (which is at the top my my wishlist), which is often considered one of the best games ever, but sadly it was solely released in Japan and Europe.
Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest [NA/EU] / Super Donkey Kong 2: Dixie & Diddy [JP]
Year: 1995 | Developer: Rareware | Publisher: Nintendo | Played on: Nintendo Wii Virtual Console
Out of the three games in the Donkey Kong Country trilogy I haven't played in its original SNES format or even as a kid, this second one would be it. I don't think I'll ever understand why that is, but it doesn't matter, because this is the best game in the trilogy as far as I'm concerned. Donkey Kong has been kidnapped, so it's up to Diddy and his close kin Dixie to get him back from the evil King K. Rool, who for some reason had all his cronies decked out in pirate gear. Donkey Kong Country 2 has an incredible atmosphere, and the amount of depth is just impressive. The controls have significantly improved from the last one, and the stage designs are ingenious. It's also the best-looking and best-sounding entry in the trilogy, for the ACM-rendered visuals are great as always, and David Wise really outdid himself this time by incorporating both melody and ambience at the same time (the "Stickerbrush Symphony" song is so haunting, for one). The adventure is longer, and the game is more challenging than both the first and third game combined. There are still secret areas to be found with closer inspectoin (including a secret map location), and trying to get the highest completion rate possible proves to be a huge challenge. The animal helpers are great as always, and I love how Diddy or Dixie celebrate their end of stage victory. Cranky Kong's still around and still possesses that charm that made gamers love him in the first game, and the dialogue is still nice. If there's one thing many don't like about the second Donkey Kong Country iteration is the fact that most of the time, you'll need a few coins in order to save the game (you won't always save for free). This is also one of those games that I feel fall under the category of sometimes being a little too challenging for its own good. Even so, it's not impossible, and there's plenty of variety to be explored. Donkey Kong Country 2 proves to be a great epic in the end.
Arcana [NA] / Card Master: Seal of Rimsalia [JP]
Year: 1992 | Developer/Publisher: HAL Laboratory | Played on: SNES
Shortly before Kirby would star in his own series of enjoyable platform games and spin-offs, HAL tried their hand at creating a turn-based RPG, one viewed in first-person perspective. I think it's no secret how much I love this game. A lot of gamers will either praise it for its submersive and enthralling feel, or despise it for being repetitive and "difficult". Arcana is by no means a flawless game: a lot of the areas look the same, with the exception of Draven Pass, Forest of Doubt, and Bintel Castle, not to mention the fact that trying to fill up the map in each chapter can be a bit time-consuming (but it's worth it if it leads to several treasure chests). Speaking of which, the map fills itself as you explore each area bit by bit, so you won't have to worry about getting lost, which is nice. Jun Ishikawa and Hirokazu Ando's soundtrack is brilliant, for the songs create a good sense of atmosphere, and during some moments it can be really effective. The gameplay is good, and the battles even go by quickly, which is very great. The story's good to a point, and I love how pretty much every character, enemy, and treasure chest is represented by a Tarot card, which is quite unique. I love how submersive this adventure is, and the epic final encounter with Rimsala is one that still makes me nervous to this day. The reason most gamers find Arcana to be difficult is because random encounters are abundant, and losing just one human character will result in starting over from the last saving point. Keeping all the characters alive are only a portion of the challenge, and being well-prepared, going at a steady pace, and leveling up enough are sufficient to ensure survival. Apart from those aspects, I thought the difficulty was just normal, and never anything too hard for me (the only two times I ever lost was during my first playthrough of the game, and I never once got defeated by a boss). The main letdown for me, besides the fact that the translation is slightly bad, is that the ending was just bad. I acknowledge that this was HAL's first and only attempt at turn-based RPG storytelling, but couldn't they have made the ending a little more competent? The rewarding ending music makes up for it, though. In my eyes, Arcana is a great adventure game, and one that I personally feel is underrated.
The Great Circus Mystery starring Mickey & Minnie [NA/EU] / Mickey & Minnie: Magical Adventure 2 [JP]
Year: 1994 | Developer/Publisher: Capcom | Played on: SNES
Gasp! Yes, it's true! I like this game more than its predecessor The Magical Quest starring Mickey Mouse, for several reasons. First of all, I played this first, so I'm more fond of it. Secondly, you get to take control of either Mickey Mouse or his girlfriend Minnie, which is nice. Even though the first game's visuals were pleasing to the eye, The Great Circus Mystery starring Mickey & Minnie boasts more colorful and gorgeous visuals, plus the animation is fluid as always. The new outfit power-ups are great, and I like the way the stages are designed, especially that one tower portion of the third stage. Bosses are fun, and the gameplay is solidly polished. The Magical Quest had charm, but The Great Circus Mystery has got twice the charm, in my opinion (even though admittedly it is easier). This game really took me by surprise, and the final boss Baron Pete is enjoyable. Quickly became one of my favorites! I hope the third game in the series Mickey & Donald: Magical Adventure 3 is fun, because I really like these Disney-themed platformers.
Contra III: The Alien Wars [NA] / Super Probotector: Alien Rebels [EU] / Contra Spirits [JP]
Year: 1992 | Developer/Publisher: Konami | Played on: Nintendo Wii Virtual Console
Konami sure knows how to create memorable games. This third installation in the Contra series boasts adrenaline-pumping action, energetic music, and vastly expanded play control. The futuristic setting is grim, and the time has come for the heroes to take back their planet and fight off the alien horde. I love the look of each, and there are even a couple top-down ones that implement the Mode 7 effect. The action is epic, the (mid)bosses look monstrous, and the inclusion of using either one of two weapons is a very nice touch. Like Axelay, it's a little on the short side at only six stages, except this time the game actually is challenging. Running'n gunning at its finest.
Equinox [NA/EU] / Solstice II [JP]
Year: 1993 | Developer: Software Creations | Publisher: Sony Imagesoft | Played on: SNES
Now as much as I enjoy Software Creations' other overlooked gem Plok, I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed Equinox a lot less. On the contrary, I find the game really fantastic in its own right. I guess I have a thing about obscure games that I find very appealing. The isometric viewpoint is ingenious, the ability to rotate the map which ends up giving a 3D effect is nice, not to mention the atmosphere is extravagant. I love it when games make you feel like you're submersing into their own world; the locations are pretty and ominous (like the underwater dungeon of Atlena and the overly vegetated dungeon of Quagmire), plus Tim and Geoff Follin's outstanding soundtrack blends in to the surrounding of the area so perfectly thanks to the ambience throughout the middle of the song. Glendaal controls very smoothly, and throughout the game you'll find different set of weapons and magic that'll help aid in your survival. I like the challenge of this game, and several of the puzzles are rather clever, though it really could've used some shadows to tell whether the platform is above, below, or in front of you. The boss fights are cool, especially the final fight with Sonia, though I really hate hearing Glendaal's shriek for whenever you lose a life. Some of the reasons I prefer this game to Plok are that 1) it's challenging, but not to the point of being unfair (for the majority of it), 2) the ambience is really, really absorbing, for it can really make you feel like you're in a forgotten location, 3) the variety of weaponry and magic makes the experience fresh (from weakest to strongest), and 4) finally, you don't have to beat Equinox in one sitting. [Plok fans: "Boooo!!!"] I know it's an unfair comparison, but come on, the file saving in this game is what keeps this experience from being so strenuous. Also, by feeling through certain rooms, you'll find an abundance of hidden rooms from the second dungeon onward that can lead to very useful rooms, and there is a lot. Equinox is a game I enjoy playing every once in awhile, and I love persevering each time I play it. Oh, and one more thing: this game is not RPG!
Super Mario Kart
Year: 1992 | Developer/Publisher: Nintendo | Played on: SNES
Aside from being one of the first SNES games and Mario games that I played, Super Mario Kart was the first kart racer experience I've ever had. Displaying well-done Mode 7 graphics throughout the game, the first in the Mario Kart lineup of games still proves to be a timeless classic. Racing against other characters is very enjoyable, and what keeps things very fresh is how you (or the other characters) can use items throughout each race that will either help (or hinder) your progress. The racing settings are memorable, too, like Ghost Valley, Vanilla Lake, and even Rainbow Road. Another thing that's always fun is the battle mode where you compete against another player and must try to get all three of their balloons popped. The game controls nicely, and it's really charming. It's that great!
NCAA Basketball [NA] / World League Basketball [EU] / Super Dunk Shot [JP]
Year: 1992 | Developers: Sculptured Software/HAL Laboratory | Publisher: Nintendo | Played on: SNES
On the outside it's just your regular ol' basketball-based video game, but at its core it's something much more. Choosing from a wide selection of teams from any of the five conferences of the I-A NCAA Division, NCAA Basketball plays very well, and it plays just like a regular basketball game (right down to the fouls and the two or three point shots), which is very nice. What makes it great, however, is the Mode 7-driven gameplay throughout the court, making it the first 3D basketball game ever made. Viewing the court from different angles and seeing it scale and rotate while playing it is very impressive. I would've liked to have been able to make three-pointers during each game, but otherwise I think it's brilliant.
Prince of Persia
Originally on: Apple II, 1989 Brøderbund | Year: 1992 | Developers: Brøderbund/Masaya/Arsys | Publisher: Konami | Played on: SNES
Jordan Mechner's classic has an ever-so great Arabian setting, and the stages are well-crafted if not devilishly designed at times (not to mention highly improbable in terms of anyone getting around, but I digress). The main character's rotoscoping animation is massively fluid and detailed, and the controls are great, though they'll take a bit of time to get used to. Each area looks good, and the background music is fittingly appropriate during the many situations. Throughout the game there are rooms to explore, fights to partake in, and traps to avoid; and the game must be beaten in below two hours if the princess is to be saved in time. The game's got a great amount of challenge, and the fight against each enemy proves to be very intense. Luckily there are five practice stages in order to get a very good idea of what the game's twenty regular stages have in store for you. Prince of Persia has a lot to offer, and it's just fantastic.