Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Son Son II

NEC Avenue / Capcom

Son Son II's soundtrack caught my attention immediately; it definitely ranks among the catchiest in the PCE library. I was truly surprised by just how awesome the melodies are, as cartoony platformers of SS2's ilk usually feature merry little jingles that just aren't my thing. The first stage's theme is pleasant enough, but then comes Stage 2 with a fantastic hook, Stage 4 with a wonderful bass-heavy number, and the final board with a fast-paced classic that had me pumped for the entire last stretch.

The bright, colorful graphics also pull their weight. They reminded me a bit of Tiger Road's at first, but with emphasis on vibrancy rather than grittiness. In fact, early on I was concerned that the whole affair would come off as just too darn "happy," but the areas are so visually appealing that it's practically impossible not to enjoy them, from Stage 4's snow land and Stage 5's orange skies to Stage 6's cloud castles and Stage 7's grand fortress.

So the superficials are great, but what really makes SS2 not only an extraordinary platformer but also an elite PCE game is its exploration element. Some of the levels are absolutely enormous and offer many different roads for you to travel down. And lethargic sightseeing is unacceptable here, as you'll constantly be leaping, falling, dashing, climbing, and peeking around for secrets (of which there are loads). Those might sound like the genre's traditional actions, but the impeccable stage design propels this experience to an entirely different level. You'll continually need to contemplate your next step or leap. Determine which corridors or niches to approach first to make the going a little easier and more cost efficient, and make wise use of shops and the various spells and items they offer. The way in which you manage your inventory can lead to success or failure here. You must be especially careful when deciding whether or not to swing away with your limited-use block-smashing glove: sometimes it's beneficial to unearth a hidden bonus; other times it's best to save that swipe for a different spot, where it can reveal an even more-precious reward. You'll also have to familiarize yourself with the locations where you can replenish the all-important glove's uses. You can totally see what the designers were thinking with item, shop, and enemy placement; this is one remarkably well-constructed adventure game.

It's a good thing that thorough level investigation is so enjoyable here, as it's absolutely essential. "Exploration" in many mascot-type run-and-jumpers means strolling around as you find your eighty-second extra life or forty-seventh bonus round, but Son Son II rewards you with necessities, such as keys to new areas, significant upgrades for your weapon, and trinkets that can be traded for valuable pieces of equipment. Many of these important objects are cleverly hidden, so you'll have to be extremely attentive as you poke around. The game keeps you constantly active and constantly thinking. Memorization isn't a chore at all here; it comes naturally as you have a blast with the action and secret uncovering. You're awarded extra cash at the end of a board if you complete it quickly, so there's additional incentive to really know the ins and outs of every expansive stage. Conversely, if you spend too much time blundering about a single level, a rather mean enemy will show up to annihilate you.

Actually, the enemy cast on the whole is a rather tough lot. You'll face all sorts of bad guys, including bouncy blobs, reptilian ogres, odd Octorok-like things, sneaky flytraps, Castlevania-type bone throwers, and drifting ghosts who can shove you off platforms or knock you around endlessly. You must learn when each breed is coming and figure out which countermeasures work best in each situation. Perhaps you'll know that three blobs are about to bound towards you at once, so you'll need to position yourself for an optimal initial strike and then have the wherewithal to change your position and finish them off. Thankfully, you have cool spear-like weapons and a bit of magical power with which to combat your strong, skilled adversaries. You'll probably need to resort to sorcery to defeat a brutal fan-wielder who loves to slam you into walls. Elsewhere, you might find yourself hopping atop a cloud, gaining the ability to soar about the playfield in the process, as you deal with a giant axeman.

And at the end of it all, you'll feel awfully good, as this is a very tough game. It's also one of the greatest HuCards ever made.

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