Game Boy Advance

Like many other titles from Atlus, [i]Summon Night: Swordcraft Story[/i] quietly sailed in under most gamers’ radars (and in low quantities), but its quirky charm swiftly earns it a warm spot in the hearts of those who discover and play it – usually via word-of-mouth. It’s nothing revolutionary or world-shattering, and the box art and unwieldy title might actually turn some gamers away; it’s simply a solid (if brief) action-ish RPG with some interesting twists that make the game feel unique enough to stand out from the usual crowd of Square-Enix cookie-cutters or [i]PokA

Despite the incredible success of the Nintendo DS, the GBA is still very much a dominant platform and as such new games are coming out every week. [i]Drill Dozer[/i] is one of the more recent titles to be put out for GBA.

In [i]Drill Dozer[/i] you play Jill who is the spunky daughter of the head of the Red Dozers, a band of thieves. The story kicks off with the Skullker gang attacking your father and putting him in critical condition in an effort to steal the precious red diamond. You must lead the Red Dozers through level after level of destruction to recover the red diamond.

The Drill Dozer is your main weapon and vehicle in your fight against the Skullkers. Your drill dozer is capable of drilling in any of the four cardinal directions to advance through levels (up, down, left, and right). The level design is the real obstacle here as you have to strategically get around various parts of the level in a very specific order.

As your make your way through the levels keep your eyes peeled for various items to collect. Your Drill Dozer has 3 gears that it is capable of drilling at. To upgrade to the 2nd and 3rd gear you need to find the additional gears and upgrade your Dozer. In addition to the gears you can also collect chips from enemies and destroyed items to buy upgrades at the shop. At the shop you can purchase collect special equipment that allows you to fly or operate your Drill Dozer underwater as well as maps to unlock bonus areas.

[i]Drill Dozer[/i] is quite a shallow game, but provides a decent level of entertainment for those quick gaming sessions on the go. The cartridge is a little large, due to the included rumble pak, and will stick out even further on your DS Lite than standard GBA games which may be a deal breaker for some people. I found [i]Drill Dozer[/i] to be enjoyable, but not something I can confidently recommend you to run out and buy with your last $30. Save [i]Drill Dozer[/i] for a rental or borrow it from a friend, because for $30 there are much better games to be had.

[i]Tales of Phantasia[/i] was originally released more than a dozen years ago on the SNES in Japan where it was a huge hit. Now sometime down the road the game is being brought to American shores as a port, not on a console, but on the Gameboy Advance. This being my first experience with an RPG on a handheld system I wasn’t so sure what to expect, not to mention how far the genre has come since [i]ToP[/i] was originally released. Will [i]ToP[/i] on the GBA live up to the accolades of the original title?

In [i]ToP[/i] you play the role of Cress, a young boy from a quant, innocent, little village with not a care in the world – until his village is burned to the ground and everyone including his parents are killed, that is. You then start out on a quest for vengeance, to find the responsible party and dispose of said party accordingly. You soon find out that the culprit, Dhaos, is only vulnerable to magic, something that doesn’t exist in the current time in the world.

The one thing that has the [i]Tales[/i] series apart from other RPG’s in my eyes has been the combat system. A linear, side to side blend of RPG item management and menus mixed with combat that is very much like that of a traditional fighting title i.e. [i]Tekken[/i] or [i]Soul Calibur[/i]. This system, however, doesn’t translate so well to the GBA world. The combat rather than being the addictive full on action of the other [i]Tales[/i] titles we have come to love feels crowded and is actually rather boring. This same feeling of crowdedness is even more apparent in the menus and windows within the game. At times you will need to press two or three buttons just to see the stats of an item and who can wear it. Other than this the controls of the game actually work pretty well, your usual RPG setup so they should be easy to pick up and play with.

Your combat party consists of up to four members so the AI is a matter of some importance. You have different strategies you can tell each of your CPU counterparts to use. You might think after hearing this that combat would be better than what it is but that isn’t exactly the case. The AI of your team is offset by a few different things. First off, the combat is rather hard. Even when taking ample time to level up you will struggle against many of the enemies you come up against, including bosses where it is almost guaranteed that you will die once or twice before besting the opposition. This is only magnified by the fact that your other party members, despite the good AI, are rather useless.

This being one of my first games on the GBA, first RPG on the system, I wasn’t sure quite what to think of the graphical side of the game. The game seems to be rather dull looking, while the characters are actually rather nice and detailed. The world map is by far the visual low point in the game, something that appears to have come straight from the days of the NES. The sound effects in [i]ToP[/i] are, as might be expected, very bland and dated. What was surprising to me, however, is the score which is rather complex for a handheld title and very well put together.

So in the end my first experience with an RPG on a handheld wasn’t exactly a positive one. I’m not sure if this is simply a poor job of porting the game itself or if RPG’s don’t work so well on a handheld level but I was expecting more in many ways. The story is there, but it’s dragged down by everything else. Tedious combat, lack of enemy variety and dated sound effects. If you’re a die-hard [i]Tales[/i] fan or desperately need your handheld RPG fix you may want to give [i]ToP[/i] a try – everyone else may want to keep their distance.

Fast… That’s right. This game is FAST. [i]Sonic Advance 2[/i] is one of the fastest Sonic games to ever come out on any system. While this is a great part of the game, it is also one of its biggest drawbacks, but only to an extent. I will get to that though.

[i]Sonic Advance 2[/i] is another classic side-scrolling Sonic game, this time, for the Game Boy Advance. Because it plays in the same style of the Sonic games of old, it will be easy to pick up, however, you will be pleased to notice some additions to what you are capable of in the game. Of course, these new capabilities are character specific, which means you will have to master all of the characters, but thankfully, it’s like learning a new language. Once you learn one, each of the others is cake.

Speaking of characters, let’s get into that. Naturally, with this being a Sonic game, it has Sonic the Hedgehog. Of course you really can’t have a Sonic game without Tails… if you don’t have Tails, it really feels like you are missing something while playing(like Sonic and Knuckles for instance.) Considering I just brought it up, Knuckles is also in this game. Then there is a new character as well. Cream the Bunny is adorable as hell. She can flap her bunny ears to fly around, much like Tails can, and she also has a sidekick. She has a Chao named Cheese. Yes, that’s right. Cream… Cheese… Yeah… I know it’s not that funny, but how could I not mention it?

Sonic is his natural speedy self, but to add to his normal attacks, he has a sliding-style quick-stopping move, and a tornado spin when flying through the air. Also, a move that all the characters share is an extra upwards boost through the air after getting big air from a large ramp. This helps a lot when you are just short of what you were aiming for. As long as you have the reflexes, you’ll hit your mark most every time. Tails can smack people with his tail while he is on the ground. That’s about the extent of his abilities. Knuckles can punch enemies and like past games can soar through the air while pounding through his opponents. Cream spends her time flinging Cheese at enemies and flying around like the rabbit from Monty Python and The Holy Grail.

Now, back to my complaint about the game being fast. While a Sonic game indeed should be fast, due to the small screen size, this game is almost too fast. I tend to get hit by things that I don’t see quick enough, or I can’t see where I am going to land and I have to estimate it in my mind. I found that in order to get through most of the levels, I had to memorize them. This isn’t exactly the fault of Sonic Team. It’s more due to the GBA screen’s resolution. It is a minor flaw in an otherwise great game.

Onto the bosses. Unlike Sonic bosses of the past, you fight all but one of these bosses while running at full speed. These bosses tend to be quite a fair challenge, and are the biggest reason that I had to retry several zones due to running out of lives. I would clear through the levels easily early on, but even the early bosses were whooping my ass because I couldn’t get the pattern down.

One boss in particular handed my ass to me on a silver platter over and over and over again. When you fight the boss the first time you are against Knuckles in the contraption, but as every other character, and once you have unlocked Knuckles, it will be Robotnik every time. Anyhow, the reason this boss kicked my ass so many times is due to an oversized hand literally bitch-slapping me to death repeatedly. Now, this wouldn’t have happened, but for some reason, this ONE boss was able to do one hit kills. That’s right… this boss could kill me even if I had 6,000 rings in my possession. There’s no clear sign of when I would die though. Sometimes he would hit me and I’d be fine, but other times he would hit me and I would die while I still had rings. I can’t tell if this is a game glitch or a bad idea by Sonic Team. Either way, this is the 2nd flaw in the game.

At the end of the game, you have to fight all the bosses again in classic Megaman style. Thankfully, these bosses require less hits to kill, but it can still be tedious if you had issues with the bosses the first time through. Thankfully, some of the playable characters are easier to use than others.

Let me explain. While Sonic is great and has his own variety of moves, he probably is the hardest character to win with. Since he is the first you have to play with until you unlock the other characters, he will be harder to use due to the new terrain. Tails is nearly as hard to use as Sonic… mostly against bosses. When he is flying, he can’t “unfly,” for lack of a better term, until he hits the ground. This makes it a pain when fighting bosses. Knuckles is quite an easy character to use. His flying/cruising across the landscape and his ability to climb walls also helps in finding Special Rings to access the 3D levels to attain the Chaos Emeralds. I’ll get into that in a moment as well. Cream is the easiest character to use. She can fly, which naturally helps, but her Chao, Cheese, is highly useful against bosses. You can attack from afar and stay safer than trying to go in close and still beat them. Cream was almost too easy to use.

Now to the emeralds. The emeralds are really just an afterthought in this particular game. They serve little to no purpose really. You unlock a few minor things that no one cares about. If you get all the emeralds as one character, which one I’m not sure, you get the sound test option. If you get them all as every character, you unlock Amy. You may remember her from Sonic Adventure. She was more or less useless in that game, and due to that, my motivation for getting all the emeralds in this game is all but existent. I probably wouldn’t mind trying to get them all if it wasn’t such a pain in the ass to even access the levels to get the emeralds. In every level there are 7 special rings. If you can find them all, without dying, and get to the end of the level, then you access the special level. You run around in 3D, which naturally is hard to control with a control pad, and you collect rings. You just avoid a bot and collect rings. You need to get enough in the allotted time. It’s really a tedious task, and considering what you get for accomplishing such a goal, it is not worth you time or effort. This is the last, and likely the most major flaw of this game.

Despite the few flaws, [i]Sonic Advance 2[/i] is an excellent side scrolling 2D Sonic game. It really made me feel like I was playing a classic Sonic game with an emphasis on speed instead of platforming. Overall this is a very solid game, and considering that Game Boy games are rather cheap, this is certainly a worthy buy. Any Sonic fan should love this game, regardless of the three minor abrasions on this otherwise polished gaming experience.

Golfing on a handheld. Is this a good idea or a bad idea? Well, the only way to tell is to try it out, and I’ll tell you something. On the GBA, it works out well.

[i]Mario Golf: Advance Tour[/i] is the epitome of handheld golf. Thanks to Camelot, this game could not have been done better. In fact, I dare say that it is even better than [i]Toadstool Tour[/i] on the Gamecube. That’s right, this game is that damn good. Now, that’s certainly not to say it’s perfect, but really, not many games are. This one though is really special.

What is [i]Mario Golf: Advance Tour[/i] exactly? Well, take one part [i]NES Open[/i](the original [i]Mario Golf[/i], which happened to be superior to every golf game in the 8 and 16-bit era), add in some [i]Golden Sun[/i], and then finish it off with [i]Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour[/i]. When you mix it all together, you get [i]Mario Golf: Advance Tour[/i], and that my friends, is a good thing.

[i]Mario Golf: Advance Tour[/i] has a good deal of variety in it. You have your obligatory story mode, the quick game mode, and of course the multiplayer mode via system link, or on the single GBA. The system link is the preferred multiplayer experience though, since it gives you the ability to pit your best character against your opponent’s. Amongst the game modes, there are four standard courses, what could be described as a bonus course, and then five more “star” courses, which are basically more difficult versions of the original five courses. You might think that there’s just not enough courses to keep you entertained, but trust me, there are. Between all the game modes, all the courses, and collecting badges for each hole, there will be plenty of replayability. Then of course there’s the leveling system which forces you to play courses repeatedly.

As you play through courses, you gain experience that you can use to level up your character, or your CPU controlled partner(I recommend keeping all the experience points to yourself until you are maxed out). As you level, you get an attribute point that you put into various categories. There’s distance, fade/draw, spin, impact/control, and height. These stats will determine how your character plays. You can’t just put all of your points in distance though, because as your distance improves, you must keep up in the other categories. Otherwise you’ll have a 400 yard drive, but it’ll be incredibly hard to control, quite inaccurate, and simply put, suck. Balancing these attributes, and making sure they stay balanced all the way up to level 99 is key. Once you reach level 99 with both characters, then the experience becomes a moot point.

As you level up, you of course should become a better golfer, but no matter how good a golfer is, you can only be as good as your equipment allows you to be. That’s where the customization shop comes into play. As you travel around the [i]Golden Sun[/i]-looking game world, you’ll find a shop where you can get custom clubs, but in order to do that, you need to get a custom ticket. By performing various tasks in the world in story mode, you can get these tickets, and in turn, you get to cash them in for better clubs. Some clubs have better distance, some hit the ball lower so wind affects it less, and others have a bigger sweet spot. Determining what clubs are best for you is also vital in becoming a good [i]Mario Golf: Advance Tour[/i] player.

Let’s get down to the actual gameplay, shall we? Basically, as you play, you start out viewing the course from a bird’s eye perspective. You will do most of your aiming from here. Then you go into the behind-the-player perspective, and you can do more adjustments from there, or simply take the shot. When the shot is taken, it goes back to the overview to show you where the ball is going, and when you get close to the green, it zooms in so you can see how accurate your shot will be. Also, when you take your shot, you have the simple yet oh-so-effective shot-bar on the bottom of the screen. You tap the button to get things going, tap it again to measure your distance, then tap it again for accuracy. Even though that follows along with the general simplicity of the gameplay it certainly does work out just fine. Overall, the gameplay is done about as well as could be expected for a handheld golf game.

My only gripe about the gameplay is that when I’m on the green and trying to putt, I can’t zoom in on the hole to make a more accurate shot, I have to keep pressing left and right or up and down alternatively until I know I’m right where I want to be. Of course, even then it doesn’t always work out. Due to the low screen resolution, the hole appears to be bigger than it actually is, and until your ball gets a few feet away and you go into closeup mode, you won’t know if your shot is as accurate as expected. That’s a very minor gripe though. I had few problems with that. Half of the issue was that initially I just wasn’t any good at the game.

On the topic of putting, I feel that I should mention that this is the biggest difference between [i]Toadstool Tour[/i] and [i]Advance Tour[/i]. I find the putting to be much easier, and with the overhead view and the tiny arrows representing hills, a la [i]NES Open[/i], I find that I simply have a far better short game than I did in [i]Toadstool Tour[/i]. Simply put, [i]Advance Tour[/i] is just better.

Now to go into the sound department. While some of the sound effects and more specifically the music, may feel a bit like they belong in [i]Golden Sun[/i], it is all original music. It’s simply that Camelot seemed to go with a similar style of music overall. The thing about a golf game though is when it comes to music and sound effects, nobody ever expects anything fancy, so even though it’s only a bit above average, for a golf game it’s quite good.

Forget about sound though. I think one of my favorite features of the game is the ability to hold up to five played holes in memory for your good shots. That is to say that five birdies, eagles, hole in ones, and albatrosses get saved for you so you can view your awesomeness later. After fifty hours of gameplay though, I still haven’t gotten five hole in ones or albatrosses. While there’s a fair deal of skill involved, just like in real golf, there’s a fair bit of luck as well. There are some pros out there who have never gotten a hole in one, yet they can land the ball within five feet of the hole on a regular basis. That’s just how golf is, both real and digital. As much as skill is involved, there’s luck too. Still, I’m so glad that my flag shot that fell down and right into the cup was saved on the cartridge. That’s such a good feeling to see that shot and know that luck or not, I made that shot.

There’s only one problem with [i]Mario Golf: Advance Tour[/i]. As good as it is, it’s not perfect. I think what aggravates me the most is Doubles Play. The problem is my partner, whether she’s at my level or not, just absolutely sucks. I find that I feel more like I’m competing with her than my actual opponents. Let’s say I have a bad shot that lands behind a tree/cactus/etc. Instead of hitting it ten feet to the left or right, she sometimes hits it all the way back to the tee. In fact, one time she did this and hit the ball back behind the tee. She aggravated me to no end, and it made it really difficult to even beat my opponents with her “helping” me. I swear, the AI for my opponents was better. Sure, they made mistakes, but nothing like what she does. There were times she’d try to hit the ball over an area of water even though her best club doesn’t have the range. She’ll hit it right in, and then you get a penalty stroke. She was the bane of my existence in this game, and when I got the option to change her name, I changed it to “Bitch.” Oddly enough, she said she liked it.

Speaking of computer AI, another minor issue, and this is quite minor, involves when the computer is thinking. If it’s changing where it’s aiming and thinking at the same time, you will see game slowdown. This of course only happens when they are taking a shot, so it has no actual affect on how the game turns out, but it is a minor nuisance in an otherwise near-flawless game.

The last minor problem I had with this game is that if you are playing in story mode and trying to get the rest of the badges for your holes, on the Links and Mushroom course, you have to watch the credits again. Unless I didn’t know the proper button combination, there is no way to skip the credits even if you have already seen them once. It’s a bit of a disappointment. Especially if you’re just trying to beat your own best score in story mode. A minor thing, but still a nuisance if you just want to try the course again.

Overall though, I’ve found that [i]Mario Golf: Advance Tour[/i] is a very good game. This game was just meant to be played on the GBA, and it’s actually one of the better golf games I have ever played on any system. I even feel that it is better than [i]Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour[/i], which proves that graphical prowess and full 3D doesn’t always mean everything.