Saturday, June 25, 2016

Unearthed Treasures: Solomon's Club (Game Boy)

The more I reflect upon my personal history with video games, the more I shake my head with disappointment over how incognizant I allowed myself to be. "How is it that I was able to remain so ignorant about the full scale of it all?" I often wonder. For someone whose childhood was so steeped in video games--someone whose access to the medium spread across the amazingly diverse field of arcades, consoles, computers and portables--mine was a troubling lack of curiosity.

Take Solomon's Key, for example: I'll always remember how I was hopelessly entranced by its quirky style of puzzle-platforming and wonderfully bizarre setting, yet it'll continue to escape me why I never thought to seek out information about the game's origin or consider its broader legacy. As I did in the case of Renegade, I assumed it to be a wholly original NES creation born specifically from the console's unique technical specifications and its unmistakable 8-bit aesthetics. I had no idea that it was a port of an arcade game nor did I recall ever seeing it in an actual arcade. Also, considering that my gaming interests were so narrowly focused that I'd apathetically skim over large portions of Nintendo Power's monthly coverage, it makes perfect sense that I failed to realize that the aesthetically dissimilar Fire 'n Ice was somehow related to it.

And then there was Solomon's Club, toward which I remember directing nothing more than a cursory glance. I felt no need to read any of the accompanying text or find confirmation as to how, if at all, it was related to Solomon's Key. After allI was only holding to my usual vacuous system of reasoning: Solomon's Club may have shared commonality with one of my favorite NES games, yes, but I couldn't allow that to matter; it had the misfortune of appearing on the Game Boy, which was enough for me to instantly dismiss it as an inferior product and deny it any of my further attention. For the next 25 years, Solomon's Club would remain buried in my consciousness as only a series of vaguely remembered mental images from the distant past; in that span, I'd see of it not a screenshot, a video, or even a base textual description.

In truth, I'd largely forgotten about its existence until fairly recently, my fuzzy memories of Solomon's Club suddenly triggered by a random GameFAQ search. I've been meaning to play it ever since, though it's been difficult to find the motivation to do so. Part of the reason is that a series of unfortunate events occurred during the start of the year (including a nasty case of burnout afflicted upon me as a result of my foolish attempt to speed through my Memory Bank to-do list) and sapped away all of my passion; the resulting fallout forced me into a long hiatus wherein I felt absolutely no desire to play video games or write about them. As things have stabilized recently, I've been looking for the best means of starting fresh--getting back to my roots and rediscovering the joy of digging up old games, spending time with them bereft of self-imposed deadlines, and sharing these experiences with you, my fellow enthusiasts.

Why, it seems like the perfect time for my very first play-through of Solomon's Club!

I'm going into this completely blind, mind you, so I haven't the slightest idea of what the game entails. Is it merely a Game-Boyified version of one of my beloved NES favorites, or does it seek to eschew convention and offer up something genuinely new?

Let's find out!

Strangely, the title screen hits me with a jazzy, upbeat theme that establishes an entirely different mood than what I'd expect from a game related to Solomon's Key, whose silent opening and curiously mystical title imagery always did so well to tickle my imagination. The plain, standard brick-wall backdrop doesn't inspire the same sense of wonder as Solomon's Key's depiction, whose mountainous temple entrance and stony pillars invited me to create a mental rendering of the game's world. It screams "typical lighthearted Game Boy puzzler," which makes me fear that the game, itself, will be somehow tonally distant.

The presence of a "Password" option confirms the existence of a highly desirable feature that was sorely missing from Solomon's Key (unless you knew the secret continue code, whose input I was apt to screw up).

I have to say that I'm a bit put off by how the brick tiling surrounding the logo doesn't line up with the preexisting background; it looks sloppy--like the wall is buckling under the weight of the word Club--and I hope that this isn't an indication that the game suffers from unfocused design choices.

Choosing "Start" ushers me to a level-select screen and thereafter, intriguingly, a room-selection menu; there are apparently five levels ("worlds") in total, each containing ten rooms, and the game's setup allows for me to tackle the levels and rooms in whichever order I so please. Pair this luxury with the ability to continue via passwords and it's likely that I'll be able to enjoy the full experience without having to resort to unscrupulous tactics--this in contrast to Solomon's Key, whose rapid spike in difficulty necessarily required that I use the continue cheat, which wasn't even a reliable safety net.

Since I'm a stickler for natural progression, I'm going to of course start with Level 1, Room 1.

And, well, it looks to be a miniaturized version of Solomon's Key. I'm slightly disappointed to learn this, but I'll withhold judgment until I've seen more of the game.

The level's musical theme, in keeping with the established tone, is uncharacteristically bouncy and cheerful, which works to minimize the sense of danger. It's quite a startling departure from Solomon's Key, whose general atmosphere I defined as "otherworldly" and subversively esoteric; this particularly jovial accompaniment lends the game more of an Adventures of Lolo vibe, which makes for such an odd contrast. I'm conflicted about this; there's a part of me that perceives the music's pervasive optimism as a betrayal of the original's darker themes, and then there's another that finds itself fascinated by this strange convergence of disparate aesthetics as derived from two games that I love for entirely different reasons!

The room-completion screen reveals the existence of a currency system. I'm being rewarded with a generous amount of cash, that is, but I'm not sure what I did to earn any of it. Does it have anything to do with how quickly I cleared the room? Is it item-related?

Furthermore, might the provision of cash suggest that Solomon's Club features a shop system of some kind? I guess I'll find out soon.

The gameplay is familiar in form and function, yes, but there's been a rather jarring change to the controls: Jumping is now mapped to the A button rather than up on the d-pad. This is really clashing with my long-ingrained Solomon's Key instincts, and I can already predict that my wires will frequently become crossed over the course of the adventure.

Interestingly, I'm able to interrupt the action in two separate ways: There's the standard pause screen ("Start"), from which I can shift over to the right to find an status/inventory screen (it seems that I can collect a number of vases, hammers, hourglasses, and a fourth item that looks like a gun); and a secondary text menu ("Select") that provides me the option to quit on a room (suicide to, I guess, give up on puzzle that has become unsalvageable).

Oh, that's definitely good news: Upon closer inspection, I see that the status screen has a "control" option that allows me to switch over to an alternate scheme that mimics Solomon's Key's! Thank goodness for that--it was nothing but a struggle up until that point. Though, I wonder: If I had to press A to jump, which button was supposed to handle weapons?

Also, it's comforting to the soul to hear that Dana's death music is also one in the same. Any infusion of those beloved Solomon's Key aesthetics is welcome.

So far the enemy cast is identical. I recognize all of the items, too, though there's still no in-game explanation as to their purpose, which means that I'm likely going to remain oblivious to what most of them actually do. (I'm trying to avoid looking up manual scans, since, for sentimental reasons, I want to replicate the conditions under which I first played the original.) I suspect that there's also a similarly opaque hidden-seal system behind which a "best ending" is locked (finding the hidden seals was my least-favorite aspect of Solomon's Key, so I'm hoping that the system doesn't reappear here).

Aha--I've discovered an "Inn" near the start of Level 1, Room 4! Taking up shop-keeping duties is a fairy who has for sale eight items, only three of which I can identify. My purchasing power is dependent on the money I've been able to accrue through room-completion, the amounts decided by, I assume, the rapidity of my navigation. Something about the presence of this shop makes me nervous; I get the sense that my status menu's inventory has been hinting to me that it's important to own at least one of each item, though I just don't know how I'd put them to use. I didn't want to have to do this, but I'm afraid I'm going to break my commitment to blindness and find out what these items are--to avoid possibly getting stuck. (There are no scans online for Solomon's Club, so I'm hitting up GameFAQ instead.)

So let's see: The hammer can shatter "Mirrors of Camirror," which I assume are the rooms' bat-shaped adornments. The "water gun" can extinguish flames. The hat allows Dana to destroy blocks with a single head-bonk where it previously took two. The shoes increase his running speed. And the other items function as I remember (vases expel fireballs, hourglasses reset the timer to 5,000, bells summon fairies, etc.). None of it is mandatory, actually, yet I don't regret looking into what they do.

I want to buy the hammer so I can test it out, but I can't afford it, so I'll reluctantly leave the shop and hope that others like it are generously sprinkled about the rest of this level.

Wait--I've just discovered how money is earned. The level's natural structure funneled me back to the shop, but not before I collected a few of those star-emblazoned icons and their tinier variants, which it turns out are gold coins. That's all there was to it. Whatever--I'll just grab myself a hammer while I've got the chance.

A few of the rooms, though miniaturized, are structurally similar to those I've seen in Solomon's Key. Though, due mainly to the reduced number of onscreen enemies (which I recognize is a necessary concession considering how much the Game Boy struggles to process more than four moving objects on a single screen), they're not nearly as difficult to navigate. So far it's an equal split between old and new, but I'm still concerned; I hope that the designers weren't content to lean heavily on the Solomon's Key template and choose to craft, instead, unique rooms based around the Game Boy's less-spacious screen resolution.

After completing Level 1, Room 7, I'm suddenly taken to one of those "hidden" rooms to which I'd usually gain access after collecting a seal; in this case, I believe that my procuring of the feather icon in Room 7 granted me entry here (the GameFAQs file confirms this to be the case). This hidden room features a unique structure compared to what I remember from Solomon's Key, yes, but there's far less in the way of activity; there are no enemies, and less real-estate means that it's unlikely that I'll feel the stress of a time-crunch. Oh well--I guess compromises had to be made.

If anything, I'm thrilled to find that it recycles the familiar hidden-room theme from Solomon's Key! Even if the stakes are low, its bedevilingly harrowing tone, alone, provides a feeling of pressure and perhaps the sense that present somewhere in this tiny room is an unseen, looming danger. "Move hastily," it tells me.

So it looks like I'm here to corral an "S" icon that might the "Magical Seal" mentioned in the FAQ. Also, there's ample opportunity to grab some fairies, ten of which should grant me an extra life, though I don't think that doing so matters as much in Solomon's Club now that I've learned that you can continue as often as you'd like (your fairy-counter resets back to 0, which, honestly, is a minor inconvenience).

Level 1, Room 9 introduces a second new tune; it, too, aims to invoke feelings of delight, yet it's a bit more mellow in tone, its composition tempered with an underlying strain of melancholia. I'm hoping that the sound design continues to move in this direction--that the soundtrack inevitably becomes a melting pot for increasingly complex tunes whose emotional resonance can conjure up all of those nostalgic mental images that used to form whenever I'd play Solomon's Key.

I've noticed that my recently purchased speed-up boost are permanently active; this leads me to believe that the same is true for the block-busting hat, which also lacks a numerical overlay. I've got to buy one of those soon.

On the whole, Level 1 was a breeze. Solomon's Key started turning up the heat at around its sixth room--when the game required that I start skillfully redirecting pairs of ghosts and leaping over charging enemies--but here I am ten rooms deep into Solomon's Club, and I've yet to encounter anything so wicked. This might be a good sign; I'll be pleased if the angle of its difficulty curve works out to be 45 degrees--this in lieu of its predecessor's unscalable L-curve.

In my assessment, I find that Solomon's Club does well to reproduce its inspiration's mechanical elements though not its strong aesthetic values. The game has plenty of spirit, yes, but it hasn't been able to emotionally subvert me the way Solomon's Key did back in 1989. Though, I have to note that the Game Boy's intrinsically nostalgic aesthetics, as always, are heeding the call and working their magic on me, their distinctive hues permeating every inch of the game and generally picking up the slack; they're not an ideal substitute for Solomon's Key's beguiling brand of conveyance, but they do provide the game a personality that I can't help but find endearing.

I like the addition of the in-room shops. Their mere presence shines a greater spotlight on the items and in doing so informs me that actively seeking them out might be worth my time; the shops and the inventory screen make Solomon's Club seem so much more organized than Solomon's Key, whose scattershot means of item-doling always left me feeling overwhelmed and confused ("Why are items falling from everywhere, and why do the majority of them seem to serve no purpose?" I'd often wonder. I could go whole sessions without picking up anything besides vases and hourglasses).

Though Solomon's Club doesn't appear ready to carve its own path--to strive to provide a more unique take on the formula, as I expected it would--I'm not disappointed with it. I mean, it looks really nice, it plays well, and there's a clear polish to it (the sloppily tiled title screen was fibbing, it turns out). I suspect that it might not go to great lengths to deviate from the blueprint, no, but I'm still eager to find out where it's headed--to see if the formula perhaps evolves in other ways (if it adds features akin to the shop).

The hammers, as I guessed, indeed shatter mirrors, which has the ideal effect of preventing them from endlessly spawning those annoying spinning demons. Had this item appeared in Solomon's Key, it would have been amazingly useful.

And here we go--room 2-4 introduces another new element: Two moving blocks that move vertically along the room's either side. In this case, they're used mainly to provide me access to the room's upper region, but I suppose they could also double as troublesome obstacles if positioned mischievously (they can't crush me, I've learned, and instead redirect on contact). Looking at them immediately brings to mind Rocky, the bipedal block creature from The Adventures of Lolo; it's a loose connection, yeah, but it fills me with the sense that Solomon's Club is being shaped in some way by the the spiritual influence of HAL Lab's block-pushing puzzler.

And as if I needed more bias-confirmation, room 2-7 debuts a new-yet-familiar-looking enemy: A hopping shell creature that resembles the armadillo-like Almas from The Adventures of Lolo. They're particularly bubbly-looking in appearance, which renders them somewhat incompatible with the established cast, but I'm just happy to see something fresh. They function rather uniquely: When I move up to their level and make direct eye-contact with them, they suddenly turn into blocks--the type I can normally destroy; however, striking it when it's in block form causes it to retract into its shell and roll forward, the ball sweeping its way along the open pathways until it falls into an inescapable gap or fatally collides with another enemy.

I like where this is going. It's wild seeing two of my all-time favorite puzzle games coming together like this, if only in superficial terms.

A few minutes later, Level 2 is done. I've yet to notice a perceivable jump in difficulty, which has me a tad worried (a Solomon's Key derivative shouldn't be a pushover, after all), but the game distracts me from this fact with genuinely unique level design and some fun new ideas.

The early stages of Level 3 definitely see a bump in difficulty. Room 3 in particular is home to endlessly spawning fire-spitting demons, who were among Solomon's Key's most agitating. Dealing with hordes of them remains a hellish trial.

I've always been the type to conserve my items out of fear that I might need them in bulk in the presumably challenging end-game sequences, so you can understand why I'm reluctant to use my mirror-shattering hammers at this early point (typically I wind up never using the items at all). Though, I have been utilizing water guns as a means to avoid negotiating my way around those pesky flame pillars, whose hit-boxes are fairly imperceptible (I'm allowed to store only three of each non-wearable item, which works well to prevent me from abusing them).

I'd say that the final room of Level 3 is about on-par challenge-wise with, oh, Solomon's Key's Room 8 (more so in terms of how it positions enemies), which is where I started running into trouble as a kid. Still, I've managed to remain pretty steady on lives, which the game doles out generously. Really, I haven't needed them; the decades of experience with Solomon's Key have honed me that well.

Level 4 offers no such increase in difficulty, its rooms light on the reactive action element and instead heavy on brain-bending puzzles (with a lot of flame pillars). They're the kinds of puzzles that will be incomprehensible to those who don't possess advanced knowledge of the game's mechanics--like how you can temporarily calm flame pillars and intrude upon the edges of their horizontal space; or how Dana's cane is actually long enough to generate a block two spaces over. Even then, some of these flame-based puzzles are at first so opaque that I'm almost convinced that I need water guns.

Sadly, the level doesn't introduce any new enemies or novel gameplay additions. I was hoping that a trend was forming.

Well, Level 5 is done, and it seems that I've already reached the end; this is disappointing, since I could swear that one of the FAQ files mentioned something about there being "100-plus levels." Maybe fifty more unlock after I reload my file? I mean, I did collect all of the hidden seals!

Or maybe their procurement is what's granting me access to this final challenge--"Level Solomon" as named by a static image's enemy ensemble. Is it just one final room, or maybe a series of them? I don't know. Let's find out.

Most pleasingly, the room's musical theme is a faithful recreation of that unforgettably enchanting composition from Room 1 of Solomon's Key! Better late than never, I guess.

It's like coming full-circle after 25 years! 

And oh boy--it's a series of rooms all about working my way around flame pillars, and the puzzles therein are by far the trickiest I've seen. All these years later, I still have trouble trying to ascertain which parts of the flames, exactly, I can move through; they cause me to burn through many continues.

But that's it, really--the final challenge entailed only five nasty puzzle rooms and a sixth room whose clearing was a simple matter of striking a pentagram-labeled book with Dana's cane. Completing the game earns me no great fanfare and only another static group portrait--this one with Dana standing front and center. There are no unlockable levels (which research confirms), and my adventure is over all too quickly.

Solomon's Club was much shorter than I anticipated (it has around the same number of rooms as Solomon's Key, yet it felt somehow abbreviated), which leaves me feeling a little sad. I was having a good time with it and didn't want to stop playing. Maybe it was too tightly structured for its own good?

It grew challenging toward the end there, yes, but at no point did it come close to matching the difficulty-level found during even Solomon's Key's mid-game (its 26th room the best example of when the game started to grow overwhelming). It's not that I'm broken up about this fact; it's just that I'm surprised by how Solomon's Club deviated in that regard. I figured that a brutal difficulty-level was a necessary building block of the series' DNA.

My biggest disappointment, though, is that the game ceased throwing new ideas at me following Level 3 and at that point settled into pure formula. Introducing a few more unique enemies or even an innovative puzzle-solving mechanism might have gone a long way toward further establishing Solomon's Club as a distinct product. 

Oh well.

Its curbed ambition aside, Solomon's Club is a solidly designed, sincerely crafted portable game. It isn't the bold, heedlessly venturesome follow-up I was hoping to play, no, but it succeeds in spite of its contentment. I enjoyed it from beginning to end.

We know that developers were always taking a risk when they'd scale down an NES game and hope to maintain the original work's spirit, and Solomon's Club is one of the few to pull it off; it fits nicely into that highly regarded class of miniaturized Game Boy specials, Solomon's Club joining the likes of Super Mario Land, Mega Man: Dr. Wily's Revenge, and The Adventures of Lolo.

I don't see myself returning to Solomon's Club more than two or three times--it being my preference to stick with the superior Solomon's Key, arcane nature and all--but I won't forget it. And if anyone asks, I'll tell them that playing Solomon's Club is a fine way for an old-school enthusiast to spend a few hours on an otherwise boring Sunday afternoon. Fans of Solomon's Key might also want to give it a look for the curiosity factor alone; those interested will find that the plucky Solomon's Club does a great job of honoring its NES predecessor, its slightly different flavoring worth at least a taste. 

For me, Solomon's Club gave me the perfect excuse to revisit the wonderful world of Dana and friends, if only for a day. This time around, I wasn't going to miss the opportunity.

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