EVO: Search for Eden (SNES, 1993)

INFO: My “Retro Vault” reviews are not scored. Instead, I just talk about why I have fond memories of whichever game I’m writing about at the time. Generally, I won’t pick out any bad games for the Retro Vault feature, so scoring them is essentially useless anyway. Enjoy the read.

If there is one thing I did not like about the 1990s, it was that Enix-produced games on the Super Nintendo were always insanely difficult to track down in North America. Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen is a great example of this, but this little gem of a game is another… EVO: Search for Eden. In my opinion, this is one of the Super Nintendo’s absolute best games. This is a shame because it is vastly underrated and, shockingly, still a somewhat unknown game!

My first experience with EVO came around 1998 or 1999 when Super Nintendo emulators were the biggest deal on the internet for gamers. Remember all of those shady rom sites that would lead you to free porn (my, how times have changed) or infest your computer with trojans? A lot of them just had dead links. Ah yes, 1999 was certainly the golden age of Super Nintendo emulation. I had a blast playing through all of my favourite classics that my brother and I had owned on cartridges several years before. It was insanely fun to be playing Final Fantasy VI again. However, my main ambition was to try new games. I played quite a few obscure games at the time just to see what was out there. While skimming the rom list of a random website, I saw a name that seemed vaguely familiar. EVO: Seach for Eden. Very slowly, I had a flashback of reading about the game in an issue of Nintendo Power back in 1993 or 1994. I recall the magazine noting that it was a game by Enix (a developer you could always trust prior to their buyout of Squaresoft) and had a very strong emphasis on evolution. I looked at the few screenshots present in the magazine and I was pumped for the game. However, I never saw the game in any stores and it completely dropped off of my radar for several years until I saw the name appear again on that list of SNES roms. I promptly downloaded it, anxious to experience the game that I had been stoked to play as a little boy. The wait paid off and EVO was a bittersweet experience.

Like Nintendo Power said, EVO is all about evolution. You begin the game as a humble little fish with little means of defending yourself, but you will soon end up becoming quite a formidable predator of the sea thanks to the fantastic evolution system of the game which was, in my opinion, well ahead of its time. You see, you can evolve various parts of your body by spending evolution points. You will amass evolution points by killing enemies and eating the meat that they leave behind. You will be able to spend these points in several categories such as jaws, body size and type, tail, hands and feet, and more. It isn’t entirely impossible to end up with different looking creatures each time you play and, in a way, EVO is a lot like an early version of Spore… But different.

How and why does Spore compare to EVO? Well, as I said, you have freedom over what parts of your body you evolve and when. The whole point is to continue evolving to a point where you are strong and skilled enough to take down the local boss and progress to a new stage of evolution. The main difference is that, while Spore was a pretty bland sandbox simulation game, EVO happens to be a very linear platformer/RPG hybrid that focuses on action and character progression rather than… well, whatever the nonsensical focus of Spore was! As I said, EVO is like an early version of Spore, but it definitely hass less casual appeal. Those who are turned off by the idea of having to level up (via upgrading your body) may be turned off a little, though the steep difficulty in some areas will deter a lot of non-serious gamers.

EVO can be a very ruthless game, as boss fights are anything but cakewalks. I was playing EVO on my TV last night (via emulator, I hooked my laptop up to the TV) and handed the gamepad to my brother and roommate who seemed absolutely enthralled by the game, because he had never seen or heard of it before. I watched him play, and it was clear that he was really enjoying it. As a 28 year old someone who doesn’t play too many games anymore, it was really cool to watch him become briefly absorbed in a classic SNES title. It seems that folks in my age range (about 23-30) really dig playing old SNES games, and when they are presented on a television screen with a wireless gamepad? Even better! Anyway, he managed to reach the boss of the first area in the game. Up until that point, he was doing a really good job of evolving the fish creature that we were jointly playing as. He wasn’t having many difficulties playing through the underwater area, but that all changed one the shark boss made his grand appearance. The confrontation with the boss lasted a whole ten seconds, if even that! Our fish had forty five hit points, and the boss would hit for fifteen damage with every single bite. To make matters worse, he would sometimes get two consecutive hits in! We’re talking the first boss here folks. While EVO is a blast to play and might be a fun little game for casual players to get their feet wet with, they’ll definitely struggle against the tough as nails boss fights. They only get harder and harder as the game goes, and I distinctly remember getting stuck on the queen bee (?) boss many years ago and almost rage quitting!

The most enjoyable aspect of the game? Reaching new periods of time and becoming a new creature. For instance, after you beat the shark boss you evolve into an amphibian and get to crawl onto land. After a short time passes, you then become a reptilian creature that you can even turn into a dinosaur! This is easily my favourite part of the game without a doubt. The dinosaur era of EVO is simply a joy to play, and I suspect that anyone who has played the game will agree with me on that point.

Sadly, I have never beaten EVO. I recall getting stuck years ago at a floating maze-like temple in the sky inhabited by bird people or something of the sort. I don’t know exactly how far in this was, but I certainly hope to surpass it on my new playthrough, especially since I am not experiencing EVO as it was meant to be played – on a television screen. I’m glad to have my wireless Logitech gamepad and a laptop that can conveniently be plugged into my 32 inch Dynex television. I am now experiencing EVO for the first time all over again, and I couldn’t be happier.

If you have never played EVO: Search for Eden, then you are certainly missing out.

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Cities XL 2011 (Review)

“The new SimCity is everything you’d expect it to be and mo… Hey, wait a second!”

A few years ago, SimCity Societies was released to end the drought of city building games. Fans of the SimCity franchise rejoiced as the game was released, but once it was in the hands of the public, everyone came to a horrible realization. This wasn’t SimCity anymore. Just as The Sims had been dumbed down and Spore failed to impress anyone beyond casual gamers, SimCity had now become a watered down version of it’s former self that lacked depth and soul. Gone were the days of epic city building experiences, replaced by a basic and shallow gameplay experience that literally let players make whatever kind of city they wished without any consequences.

As a SimCity fanatic, I was pretty let down when Societies was released. I still play it sometimes even to this day, but the thrill isn’t there and I never look forward to making vast cities in it. I figured that Societies probably drove a stake in the city building simulation genre, and it seemed like it did just that for a while. Things were eerily quiet for fans of city building sims for a while until a low profile developer known as Monte Cristo decided to take on the genre with Cities Unlimited, which later became Cities XL and, finally, Cities XL 2011. The version I am about to review is Cities XL 2011, which will be the final version of the product considering Monte Cristo is now bankrupt and defunct.

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First off, Cities XL 2011 is good. Really good. The game takes the city building formula popularized by SimCity and creates an experience that would be far more deserving of the SimCity title than Societies ever was. The core gameplay is nothing new at all. Build a powerplant to power the city, construct industries so that your people can work, make sure the roads are sufficient for increasing volumes of traffic, and so forth. As I said, it’s what we have all seen before and have done over and over in SimCity titles. Cities XL does give the player more freedom and control when placing things, however. For starters, players have complete control over roads. You can lay them in any direction or shape that you desire. The result is fantastic, allowing cities in the game to look far more natural and less grid-like than what we’re used to in the SimCity series. Building placement is pixel perfect, replacing the grid-style placement system from SimCity. You can be so precise with where you want to set your buildings in Cities XL that it really is fantastic. Having so much control over building and road placement really helps give the city an organic feel, which is just the thing that city building sims needed.

The core “RCI” gameplay is of course present and plays center stage. For those who do not know what RCI is, it stands for residential, commercial, and industrial. Residential is housing for your populace, commercial serves as retail outlets and lesiure locations, and industrial is obviously where your citizens go to work. Balancing the three is as pivotal as it was in SimCity, but Cities XL makes things a little more complicated by throwing several different social classes at players. Your population is divided into four parts: unskilled labourers, skilled labourers, executives, and elites. Each class requires different employment and housing needs, so you really have to keep your eye on all of them at once. Your executives may require more jobs, so you’ll want to set down some office buildings… But then the executives might be stealing jobs from the lesser educated skilled labourers, thus creating the need for more jobs. It’s not too difficult once you realize that each group of working class people require different industries to work in. While executives will typically fill management and office jobs, your unskilled labourer population will mostly have to find work in stingy factories and warehouses. It’s pretty easy to get the hang of once the ball gets rolling.

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The only thing that really lets me down about the gameplay is that the game feels too easy. Perhaps it is because I’ve just played too many city building games, but I just don’t find Cities XL to be challenging once you realize what each class of people needs from you. You just have to balance industrial and residential so that all of your workplaces are full and that there is no unemployment while, at the same time, making sure that there are schools, police stations, and other vital buildings present where there is demand for them.

Still, the gameplay is very addicting and deeply satisfying. Watching your city grow is a very enjoyable experience and is sure to be one that lasts quite a while since the maps are extremely large in Cities XL 2011. Your population will be hitting six digits long before you have come close to even filling a tenth of the map. They are really large and vast, which is fantastic.

The graphics are pretty adequate overall. They are certainly not breathtaking or revolutionary, but they are a step up from the graphics in competitor games such as SimCity Societies. Buildings are all fully 3D and look like what they are labelled as, and your city really looks alive as pedestrians and traffic zip around your city sidewalks and streets in a believable fashion. Though the graphics aren’t going to wow you, they certainly are detailed and are pleasant to look at. The people in the game look a little weird when you zoom in on them, but it’s not too much of a bother if cartoony models don’t upset you.

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Cities XL 2011 has quite a nice, relaxing soundtrack to enjoy while you build your cities. Thankfully it never gets over the top or silly, as is the case with SimCity titles. Sound effects are also pretty decent. You won’t hear too much when you are zoomed out from your city and are building, but when you zoom right in to the street level, you’ll hear every vehicle driving by along with any sound effects created by buildings in your city. The game sounds pretty immersive at the maximum zoom level, but I’ve noticed that there is a strange glitch that occurs sometimes when you zoom back out. At times, even at distant zoom levels, you will still hear everything at street level for several seconds. Sometimes it can even go on for about a minute which is odd, but it doesn’t really hamper the overall experience much.

Overall, Cities XL 2011 feels more like a SimCity game than SimCity Societies does and, in many ways, is the true successor to Sim City 4. If you enjoy city building sims and want to play one that is truly worth your time, then Cities XL 2011 is the way to go.

Final Score

8.9/10

Spore (Review)

“How ironic that a game all about evolution turned out to be so limited.”

Spore. A few years ago, just dropping the name into any video game discussion conjured images of a soon to be released blockbuster game. Everyone knew about Spore, and everyone was excited. Will Wright promised a game with infinite possibilities and extremely rich and rewarding evolutionary gameplay. According to the older interviews and demonstrations, we were going to experience a unique, groundbreaking game in which no two games were ever the same in any stage of the game. Did Spore live up to this promise? The game was released a while ago now, and after wasting my money on it when it was released and playing it a fair bit, I am going to say no.

I was massively hyped for Spore, hooked by the whole “evolve your creature” aspect of the game that Will Wright was promoting. We were, according to Wright, able to develop our creature’s life and progress in many unimaginable ways. Well they certainly did turn out to be unimaginable, because they’re not even in the game. The amazing features which Will Wright promised us that made it into the game are, unfortunately, dumbed down compared to the grand features he promised originally.

Gameplay was supposed to be deep and engaging. From the beginning, I had my doubts in the cell stage of the game. It was cute and simplistic, but I believed that this was to be the case for the beginning of the game. Wait for the deep parts, I told myself. I waddled through the waters of the cell stage for a bit, enjoying the simplistic nature of what I was experiencing. The graphics were cute for the most part, with the fellow creatures looking like they were pulled out of weekday morning toddler cartoons. The water animated beautifully though, so that was a plus. Also worth noting is the cell stage music, as well as the sound effects. They’re enjoyable and certainly pleasurable.

I expected the cell stage to be a long battle to evolve into a land-based creature, but within ten minutes I was on the shore. All you need to do is consume enough food and such in the waters until you can evolve. The highlight of the game is undoubtedly that feature, being able to evolve your creature however you choose. There are many options to choose from, and throughout the next phase of the game, the creature stage, you will be able to make your creature into almost anything that you want. Unfortunately, the creature stage consists entirely of eating food, dancing for friends, and killing tribes of creatures that you simply do not like. How you do these is dictated by the parts that you stick onto your creature. It’s all stat based, meaning that in order to make the best creature you can with the body parts you find and obtain, you will probably have to make something ugly that you won’t even really care for or like due to the best stats belonging to pieces many people may not want. This limits the design of creature and actually discourages creativity, prompting you to make what is statistically the best creature available rather than your dream creature that you have always wanted to make.

Gameplay remains as simplistic in the creature stage as it was in the previous cell stage and, unfortunately, it is just as basic in the following stages. Each stage in the game plays like a watered down commercial game. The creature stage plays like a basic open world adventure game with absolutely no options or things to do other than eat, dance, and kill.

After the creature stage you will be treated to the tribal stage which plays like a standard RTS. You build on predetermined “blocks” and, with the units you have available, you either kill neighboring tribes or befriend them by playing music. Note that none of your fellow tribes will be creatures that you met in the creature phase, and the friends that you made in the stage of the game are gone forever, rendering the diplomatic options completely pointless in Spore.

After either befriending everyone with music or killing everyone, you move onto the city stage in which you build up your city. Will Wright likened this to Sim City when, in fact, it isn’t even as involving as Sim Town. You collect resources and build things in your little assigned city which is walled and very limited in terms of space. After you are happy with your city, you get to conquer the world through, you guessed it, forging friendships with every city or, naturally, wiping them off the face of the planet. In each stage of the game, these two options are really the only things that determine advancement, and the ways in which you do so have no impact at all on the following stages of the game. Disappointing to say the least.

After you conquer your planet, the creature in which you worked so hard on to forge an identity for is replaced by a spaceship, and you get to explore the galaxy. This is actually not very fun at all. The spaceship controls are terrible and combat at this stage is absolutely horrible. Again, progression is all about making friends (by doing jobs for them) or destroying any fellow space-faring civilizations that come across until you find out about a galaxy conquering antagonistic force that you’re up against. Unfortunately, you’re very unlikely to care about baddies at this point in the game after doing so many monotonous activities over and over.

A huge gripe I had with Spore is the game length. You can go from cell based organism to space faring galaxy conquerors in only three or four hours. You do not have to work hard for anything in this game as everything is laid right out for you, and everything falls quickly to the diplomacy/war options. The fact that each stage of the game, some lasting only ten to fifteen minutes, become completely irrelevant after moving to the next is also very upsetting.

In response to criticisms directed towards the simplistic gameplay that upset the gamers who were misled, Will Wright tried to explain that Spore was never supposed to be a deep and rewarding blockbuster hit, but was supposed to be more of an overglorified Sims game with lots of replayability for the casual audience. Unfortunately this was not even true, as Spore has so little to do in it that even the very first Sims game, ancient by today’s standards, trumps it easily. Compare Spore to The Sims 3 and it is any wonder how a game that focuses primarily on evolution and space exploration could fail so miserably in terms of replayability as opposed to a game that involves managing a household.

Spore does have very fun editors inside of it though, and it’s always fun to see your creations in motion in the game. However, since it is all stat based, this presents a few problems such as the one I mentioned previously, how you may feel limited in your creature designs due to the more aesthetically pleasing creature pieces not having satisfying stats. I will also commend Spore for it’s adorable “creature speak” which is just as fun to listen to as “Simglish” or whatever from the Sims games. Unfortunately, all other sound effects and music tracks are not as impressive and end up becoming nothing more than background noise. Some sound effects were just flat out bad, and I found them to be so annoying that I had to turn my volume down at times.

Unfortunately, Spore’s positive features are far outweighed by the negative ones. Gameplays suffers tremendously as even casual gamers will be hard pressed to want to play this game on a Sims-like level as there just simply is not enough to the skeleton game that Will Wright gave us, a saddening contrast to the meaty package that was promised. Graphics are never terribly interesting either, as most creatures you meet simply do not look interesting enough, and many environments are unforgivingly bland and dull despite decent texturing.

All in all, Spore may be worth playing once just to experience the very fun editors within. However, do not purchase this game without playing it beforehand if at all possible. Find a way to try the game itself first, and then make your decision. This game will not be for everybody.

Final Score

4.4/10