Review: Saints Row IV

Saints Row IVAt first, I was skeptical about Saints Row IV. It hasn’t been that long since the (excellent) third game, and I had heard that this iteration was just an expanded version of some DLC originally intended for the third. I assumed that SR4 was just an attempt to use whatever work had already been done in the Saints Row: The Third engine before moving on to the next generation of consoles. So yeah, I was skeptical. Boy, was I wrong.

Saints Row IV naturally assumes that after the events of the third game, The Boss and his Saints have moved from being media moguls to becoming the President of the United States and his cabinet. The game opens with The Boss, Shaundi, Pierce, and a new character hunting down the previous head of S.T.A.G. from SR3, who has been building nukes with terrorists. The opening scene culminates in The Boss hanging off a nuclear missile while Aerosmith plays in the background. It does a wonderful job of setting the precedent and tone for the rest of the game. Somewhere along the line, aliens attack and kidnap your pals, while leaving you to go crazy in an obviously Matrix-inspired virtual world. And so the stage is set: break out of the simulation, save your friends from their respective simulations, and murder the alien leader in the worst way possible.

Saints Row is the Fast and Furious of video game franchises. Both properties have cast off the silly notion of taking themselves seriously (and normal continuity) to instead take fun characters to Looney Tunes-level heights of outrageous exploits. I can’t express how refreshing it is to play Saints Row IV. It’s not serious, nor is it meant to be taken seriously. Yet somehow, in spite of that, it manages to present us with very interesting characters who are strikingly well-written and, believe it or not, you actually care about.

In that respect, it’s a lot like Mass Effect 2. Instead of assembling a team of specialists, you’re rescuing them, but the idea is the same. In fact, each member of the Saints you rescue even has a Mass Effect 2-style loyalty mission where you get to know the character a little better. A game like Saints Row IV really has no right having such good character interactions but, lo and behold, the loyalty missions have them in spades. But the Mass Effect references don’t end there. You even have your own Normandy of sorts where your crew gathers as the game progresses. Then again, it could also be considered a nod to the ship from The Matrix, since you’re hacking into an AI-controlled virtual world from it.

Saints Row IV

These aliens really have poor judgement when choosing who to invade.

During one of the early missions, where you first get your ship, you’re tasked with flying it out of the main alien ship. As you take control, The Boss tries to get a radio signal for some music even though they’re in outer space. Somehow, it actually works, and Haddaway’s “What Is Love” starts to play on the radio as you fly the ship. It’s an outrageous and wonderful moment, and at that point I suddenly felt like Saints Row IV was planned, designed, and developed specifically for me.

Just when you think the game can’t get any crazier, your hacking of the virtual world results in The Boss acquiring super powers. It completely overhauls the way you move around in an open-world game. What’s the point to driving cars around when you can run faster than the fastest car in the game? Add in the ability to jump hundreds of stories and glide across whole districts and the game’s sense of momentum causes it to become something that feels entirely new.

Adding in the combat super powers makes it even better. Why use a gun when I can throw fireballs? Make that double when my fireballs cause dudes to explode and ignite more enemies, creating a chain of explosions and death. That’s not to say the guns in Saints Row IV aren’t cool. It’s chock-full of great references to sci-fi weapons. I noticed the pulse rifle from Aliens, Harrison Ford’s pistol from Blade Runner, Captain Reynolds’ pistol from Firefly, the railgun from Eraser, and a few others.

Being in a virtual world, the developers were able to add in a ton of weird stuff to SR4 and at the same time ground it in the rules of the game. Portions of the virtual world will glitch out and cause pedestrians to twist into hilarious shapes, giving them elongated limbs or giant eyeballs. Every now and then the world will artifact and get fuzzy for a second in a way that’s so believable that at times I wondered if my video card was dying. Naturally, these effects stop when you exit the simulation to walk around your ship.

Saints Row IV

The on-purpose graphical glitches can be pretty awesome.

I don’t feel I can heap enough praise on Saints Row IV. It’s amazing where this series has gone since its humble roots of a San Andreas-esque open-world gang game. Even more surprising is how aware SR4 is of its past. There are dozens of references to the first two games in the series, which is surprising considering most people didn’t even pay the series much heed until Saints Row: The Third. But if you’ve played those first two games, there’s a ton of content in here that will surprise you. Remember how Shaundi used to act? Yeah, that’s addressed. Remember how Keith David voiced Julius, the founder of the Saints? Well, now Keith David himself is a character and is your vice president, and the fact that he voiced Julius is acknowledged in-game.

The game is so full of references that it would not be possible to list them all, nor would I want to spoil them. Despite heavy influences from The Matrix and They Live, Mass Effect is probably the biggest reference in the game. Not only do you have a ship and a team but you can romance your team. It doesn’t matter who they are; all you have to do is walk up and press the dedicated “romance” button. It’s pretty funny.

Saints Row IV is one of the last big games to come out before the launch of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, and it’s full of references and jokes to one of the most beloved series this generation. Mass Effect references aside, the prospect of where the Saints Row games can go from here is even more exciting than SR4 itself. The revelation of who the game’s narrator is and what the game’s ending could lead to is insane.

I could keep writing all day about how amazing Saints Row IV is, but at the end of the day you just need to experience it for yourself. If you’ve been with the series all along, SR4 is like a hug and a high five from your best bud. If you’re new to Saints Row or started with the third game, it’s still a highly entertaining and endlessly funny piece of entertainment. If you’ve felt bogged down by the self-seriousness of games during this generation, Saints Row is here to let you know that everything is all right. Don’t be surprised if, like me, you find something that feels made just for you while playing it.

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Thoughts: Final Fantasy XIV – A Realm Reborn

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm RebornFinal Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a strange beast. I can acknowledge that the original iteration of FF14 was some sort of horrific mess, both completely baffling and completely unfun. I can also acknowledge that A Realm Reborn is likely a huge improvement over that first version, in so much as it’s pretty much a completely different game. However, my problem is that I didn’t have that context going in to A Realm Reborn. Going in blind and judging it on its own merits, I found the game to be mostly just plain boring.

A Realm Reborn does have a few things going for it. It’s astoundingly pretty, for one. I feel like it’s not quite the accomplishment in artistic design as Guild Wars 2, but it’s definitely easy on the eyes. It plays well, too. ARR doesn’t have that “swimmy” feeling to the movement and controls that I notice in a lot of less-polished MMOs. I found the UI to be clean and simple enough, even though I found a lot of the systems contained in that UI to be weird and confusing.

Honestly, my favorite thing about the game is a really beautiful orchestrated rendition of the classic Final Fantasy harp theme that plays over the game’s main menu. Give me a way to rip that out of the game and listen to while I go about my day and this will have all been worth it.

So yes, there are certainly admirable qualities to A Realm Reborn. I even had fun, here and there. My time with the game was split between two characters, a gladiator and a pugilist. The pugilist was a sort of anime kung-fu man with some sweet animations, the ugliest gear/clothes ever designed, and 2+ hour waits to get into group dungeons. I didn’t get too far with him. I did actually enjoy a lot of my time with the gladiator, though. He’s your standard sword-and-board tank class. The dungeon waits were minutes instead of hours and it was fun to manage all the enemies with his ability-chaining system. Also, he wore standard plate armor, so it wasn’t painful to look at him.

It feels like the new designer behind A Realm Reborn has a lot of experience and respect for the MMO genre. There are good ideas clipped out of other  games all over the place, and they’re mostly used to good effect. From modern WoW, there are outfit systems that let you set different groups of gear to wear, as well as a half-decent dungeon finder tool. There’s the FATEs, which are basically just public quest events from Guild Wars 2. There’s a proper main story with fancy cutscenes, ala The Old Republic. These are all good things, but what about A Realm Reborn is new? Catgirl butts? I could honestly pass on that feature.

What is it, exactly, that drags ARR down (besides catgirl butts)? I could talk forever about how load screens between zones break up the pace of the world and negate that “massive” descriptor, or how having two different bags for different kinds of loot is weird and unnecessary, but let’s get back to the main topic: how ARR is so boring. This game is full of nearly endless text. Almost every quest giver, in the first several levels particularly, wants to tell you their life story before giving you their task. It’s not even interesting or fascinating text, considering most of it is just context for a task like “take x item to y location” or “bring me 7 bear asses.” When I first started, I tried to read all the text that was presented to me and it was minutes before my eyes started to cross.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

The game is certainly pretty, but that doesn’t make it less boring.

The text ties into the fact that A Realm Reborn has the most boring starting quests of any MMO. The first thing I did in WoW, over five years ago, was fight some boars. Not particularly exciting, but at least I was fighting something. The first thing I did in Guild Wars 2 was battle a giant earth elemental that was the size of a building while Troy Baker shouted at me. That was awesome! The first thing I did in A Realm Reborn was…oh…it was talking to some lady. Then she sent me to talk to some dude. Who then sent me around the capital city talking to various people and delivering items around. I think I was like level three or four before I left the city and fought some bugs. It shouldn’t be like that! First impressions matter in video games just as much as in real life!

Even one of the most interesting features of A Realm Reborn has boredom-inducing issues. You can basically change your class to anything based on what weapon you have equipped. If you want to take a wizard (or whatever dumb name they have for it) as a secondary class, just equip that classes’ main weapon and you’re suddenly a level one wizard! It’s cool, but that level one part is a problem. Every class you play other than your main class starts at level one, and this includes crafting professions like miner or tailor. Say you maxed out gladiator and now you want to do a secondary class in whatever the healing magic-user is called. You’re level one in that class, so you need to level up all the way to max all over again on that same character. Because you’ve already done all the quests in the game as a gladiator, there won’t be any quests available for you either. Better get started grinding, it’s a long way to go.

Speaking of quests and grinding, when you get to about the last third of the level climb, the quests pretty much run out. When you reach that point, the best way to gain experience points is to basically grind on the FATES that I mentioned earlier. There are roving bands of upper-level characters who just move from FATE to FATE, hoping to grind out that last little bit of experience they need. This was about where I got to when I decided that I’d seen everything I needed to.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that A Realm Reborn is terrible, or that you’re terrible for liking it. It does have some serious polish and, like I said, I did eventually get some genuine fun out of my gladiator later on. But let’s face it, the MMO genre is changing and needs to continue to change. Things like monthly subscriptions, grinding, and the awful “trinity” of class roles need to be phased out in favor of a more robust and less manufactured experience. Guild Wars 2 polished public quests, diluted the class role problem, removed subscriptions, and added variation to the ways of progressing your character. It certainly didn’t “fix” the genre, but it was a step in the right direction. A Realm Reborn is more of a step backwards; if this had been the FF14 everyone bought in 2010, it would’ve been more progressive.

If you’re one of those people who drift from MMO to MMO and chew through all the content super fast, you’ll probably find value in A Realm Reborn. There’s certainly value to be found in it. But if you only play one every now and then, and like to really sink your teeth into it, just keep waiting. There’s bound to be something on the horizon that blows us all away.

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A Return to Final Fantasy V

Final Fantasy VIn a half-hearted attempt to re-experience what made the old Final Fantasy games so great, I’ve been playing Final Fantasy V off and on for the past couple weeks. I picked FF5 because it’s sort of the odd man out of the older games in the series, at least to me. I have fond memories of playing FF2 and FF3 cartridges on friends SNES consoles, but it was much later that I had any encounter with FF5. Having never been released in the States, I first played it in middle school when fans on the Internet translated a ROM of the game. Not exactly a legitimate way to play, but all things considered, there wasn’t really any other way for a kid to get his hands on a game available only in Japan. I still remember finding the fan translation of the main character’s name (Butz) to be hilarious.

I never beat FF5, or even got remotely close to beating it. Something with the job system never really clicked with me and I often found myself picking a job for each character and then sticking with it indefinitely, denying myself the flexibility that the system encourages. Thinking back, I wouldn’t be surprised if I gave up on the game because it got too hard, considering the way I remember playing it.

Today, I understand how the FF5 job system works (a little) better, so I’ve managed to be more successful in my recent sessions with the game than I used to be. In fact, my sadly newfound understanding of how the game works has led me to spend more time than I should just grinding, instead of progressing the story. If you’re unfamiliar with it, FF5 lets you assign a job to each character in your part. Knights are basically the precursors to MMO tanks. Mages of various colors cast the appropriate spells. Monks punch things. Summoners summon things. You get the idea. Where it really starts getting crazy is when you realize there are way more jobs than characters. Your party is made up of four people, but the jobs number in the dozens by the end of it all.

What young me was unable to understand was that the game encourages you to not cement yourself in certain jobs. As you level up a job on a character, you learn extra abilities for that character. A Black Mage might learn to cast black magic of certain types while a Monk might learn to fight better while unarmed. While playing as a Black Mage or a Monk, these abilities seem standard and expected. But because your characters have permanently learned them, you can switch to a different job and choose one of your previously learned abilities to use while you do so. The result (in its simplest form) is a Knight who can also cast healing white magic or a Red Mage who can fight bare-fisted in the manner of a Monk. You can change these abilities out at any time you see fit. Though FF5 preceded most modern RPGs where the concept of hybrid classes is a standard, I feel it implemented the idea better and still provides a flexibility that most games don’t.

Final Fantasy V

There are a ton of jobs to master.

That’s actually why I’ve become so drawn to grinding instead of continuing the story. I am compelled to master each job with each character before I continue the story and unlock even more jobs. At some point I’ll have to stop myself from thinking this way because mastering even a single job with a single character isn’t a quick process. You only get one to two job points (or whatever they’re called) per battle, so mastering jobs with all of your characters can take hundreds of battles. That said, grinding is kind of relaxing. It gives you a chance to really appreciate the sprite art and wonderful soundtrack that FF5 has to offer. While not quite as visually or musically impressive as FF3 (or FF6, to you purists), it’s still very impressive and a great showing of talent on Square’s part.

Today, the story is a bit hard to get into. It features old men with amnesia, orphaned princesses, reluctant heroes with a destiny, and just about every other JRPG cliché you can think of. However, in 1992, it was probably pretty novel. It’s just easy to notice stuff like that and get annoyed by it these days. It won’t stop me from playing, anyway. The unlocking of new jobs and abilities comes through the advancement of the story, so even if I couldn’t find charm in the story I’d still be encouraged to progress it to advance my characters.

FF5 is still far from my favorite Final Fantasy. I practically have FF2/4 memorized and can pretty much thank it for expanding my view of video games (as well as my interest in them) when I was younger. FF3/6 still has some of the coolest and most atmospheric art design in an RPG, and music that’s no slouch either. But in this return to FF5, I’ve certainly gained an extra appreciate for the series’ roots. Not only that but I feel that it’s helped me to approve of hybrid class mechanics more than I used to, by showing me how they can be done in a successful and compelling way. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that an SNES-era Final Fantasy game innovated in some way, but it’s been a pleasant surprise. If you’re looking for something to kill time with until November, give Final Fantasy V a try. Even if you just mess with it for one afternoon, you’ll probably find something fascinating at work in it. Just be sure to name the main character Butz.

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Thoughts: Space Hulk

Space HulkSpace Hulk was originally a board game set in the Warhammer 40k universe. The game featured a focus on stressful situations where your soldiers were constantly outnumbered by an alien menace. Then came a PC version of the board game, released in 1993. This summer, a new Space Hulk has been released on Steam (rather quietly). This newest iteration feels like a decent enough digital version of the board game, though it has a few minor issues.

In Space Hulk, you control squads of Terminators (basically super soldiers in powerful but cumbersome suits of armor) trapped in the confines of wrecked space ships. Stalking you in the narrow hallways are Genestealers, who are both faster and more numerous than the Terminators. As you play from mission to mission, you’ll have to manage your six or so Terminators as well, as the endless onslaught of Genestealers, while you try to complete specific objectives.

Being a franchise notorious for its unforgiving difficulty, this version of Space Hulk holds nothing back in stacking the odds against you. Each Terminator in your squad has four action points to use during each turn, and every little action will use up a point. For example, if you want to walk forward three spaces and turn 90 degrees, that would use up all four of your action points. It’s typically worth saving two action points per turn so that you can put your Terminator in “overwatch,” which basically means he’ll automatically shoot at any Genestealers he sees. As you can imagine, saving two points for overwatch means that you’ll only have 2 free points for movement, turning, etc. As such, it’s to your benefit to move very slowly and carefully through each mission.

Genestealers aren’t so restricted. They have more action points per turn than Terminators, and if they get right up next to you the odds of your Terminator surviving in melee are slim to none (even with special melee weapons equipped). So, the aforementioned overwatch mechanic is an absolute necessity. However, every time a Terminator fires his gun, there’s a chance that it’ll jam. If a gun jams, you better not have used all your command points (a universal resource that all of your Terminators can use) during your turn because they’re also used to clear jams in the heat of the enemy turn.

It all sounds very complex, but it’s not so bad. There are only a handful of mechanics at work in the game and they’re explained fairly well. A lot of the time, the difficulty will stem from pure luck. I’ve had missions where I gunned down dozens of Genestealers and never suffered a single jam. In other missions, I’ve seen jams occur every time a Terminator takes a shot.

As far as presentation goes, Space Hulk is passable. The overhead view of each mission gives you a good angle on the action and the UI is easy to follow, if a little barebones. Sometimes, when you kill a Genestealer, the camera will zoom into a close-up view of the action, but it really shouldn’t. The close-up view just brings out how unremarkable and stiff the game’s animations are. You can actually turn this feature off in the options, which I fully recommend. Also, it’ll save you the time of having to watch repetitive animations each time you get a kill. One thing that I do really like is the helmet cam view shown in the corner of the screen. It basically shows an Aliens-esque view of whatever the selected Terminator is looking at and helps provide a bit of atmosphere.

I haven’t had a chance to dive into the multiplayer yet, but the prospect of one player as Terminators and one as Genestealers seems promising (and probably super difficult for the Terminator player). The single player missions have been varied enough from what I’ve seen, tasking you with protecting certain characters, searching for fallen comrades, holding back the tides of aliens, and more. I will say that it looks like the single player campaign is a little on the short side, and the game seems to have no sort of random map generator (which would work really well in this case, I think).

Space Hulk is certainly a little rough around the edges. There are numerous spelling and punctuation errors in the UI text and subtitles. The animations are clunkier than you’d like, even for massive space soldiers in bulky suits of armor. At $30 it feels a little steep for the content you get, but I can’t say that for sure until I check out the multiplayer. But the core experience is fun, challenging, and stressful enough to pull you in. I suppose it wouldn’t be a Warhammer 40k product if it weren’t a little overpriced, but if you’re only after single player I’d grab it during a Steam sale.

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Thoughts: Runner 2 – Future Legend of Rhythm Alien

Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm AlienHaving never played the original Bit.Trip games, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first downloaded the recently-released Runner 2. What I was pleasantly surprised with was a well-rounded platformer with a lot of charm and some very focused mechanics. More than anything, Runner 2 reminds me of Super Meat Boy. But while Super Meat Boy was intentionally difficult and brutal, Runner 2 maintains a well-paced curve of difficulty and challenges while being easier on the blood pressure and state of mind.

At the heart of Runner 2 lives a series of very simple mechanics. While running, you can jump, slide, block, kick, and bounce on springs. Each ability is tied to a button on the controller and the game does an excellent job training you at when this ability should be used. Then it’s simply up to you to combine these abilities and get through the increasingly difficult levels. Jumping and sliding quickly become the most common solutions to obstacles like holes and floating enemies, but you always need to be ready to kick your way through a barricade, block objects, or bounce over a hazard. Oftentimes you’ll be performing all of these abilities in a matter of seconds, requiring pinpoint timing.

It’s a good thing, then, that the controls are so precise. Similar to Super Meat Boy, the controls feel tight and responsive enough that you never feel like a mistake or death was the game’s fault. Maybe you pressed the block button when you meant to kick (or vice versa), or maybe you didn’t jump up the series of quick steps at the right pace, but I never ran into a situation where I died and felt like I had input the correct commands faster than the game could process them. If anything is a sign that Runner 2 is an excellent platformer, it’s that.

Thankfully, you don’t have to learn the timing of the mechanics entirely on your own. The gameplay syncs up very smartly, and beautifully, with the music. Each item you collect, jump you make, enemy you avoid, and more triggers sound effects that play into the soundtrack in ways that are very natural and methodical. It’s a big part of Runner 2′s charm and also a big part of why the game, while often difficult, never quite boils your blood like Super Meat Boy did.

The melodious soundtrack also contributes to the almost whimsical atmosphere of the game. The music is very light and airy and fits well with the heavily pastel art style. It’s almost through these things that the game can be so challenging at times but keeps you in a pleasant mood as you attempt a tough spot over and over. Much of the art is downright goofy, especially the strange creatures in the backgrounds of the levels. In addition, a lot of the levels have very funny names which contribute to keeping spirits high. If Super Meat Boy was a simple-yet-difficult platformer with the intention to break you, Runner 2 is a simple-yet-difficult platformer with the intention to encourage you onwards.

And onwards you will go because there is a substantial amount of content to burn through in Runner 2. Each of the several worlds features a distinct look and feel and is made up of a dozen or so levels. My favorite has to be the harbor-themed second world, mostly because it reminded me of the first world of Donkey Kong Country 3. Several of the levels have multiple paths, some easy and some hard, as well as multiple exits that can unlock extra levels. Additionally, many levels have treasure chests to collect that unlock additional costumes. Occasionally, you’ll find retro cartridges that unlock challenging bonus levels with old-school graphics (very similar to the warp zones in Super Meat Boy). Moreover, each world holds an unlockable character who plays a little differently. Each individual level has multiple stages of completion, depending on whether or not you collected every item, finished in a certain way, and hit a bulls-eye on the bonus game at the end of the level. Needless to say, getting 100% completion in this game will definitely take some effort.

I’ve been digging into Runner 2 for about a week now, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. It’s a great game to pick up and play casually for an hour or two each day or week, even if you’re like me and must compulsively get a perfect rating on every level. If you’re a PS+ subscriber, the game is currently free, so I’d say there’s no reason to not give it a try. But even if you’re not, it’s available on every platform you could think of, and it’s a charming, enjoyable experience well worth your time.

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Thoughts: Papers, Please

Papers, PleaseI’ve opted to greenlight very few games on Steam. First, there was Black Mesa. It was the first game to be approved through the program and yet it still isn’t available. Second, there was Cook, Serve, Delicious. Sadly, it never received enough votes and still sits idle. Third, there was Papers, Please. It was approved and now, a good six months or so later, it’s finally available on Steam.

Papers, Please is an interesting little game where you work in a border checkpoint of a fictional communist nation during the ‘80s. The goal is simple: follow the rules issued to you and approve or deny as many people for entry into the country as possible each day. It starts off as simple as checking to see if they have a passport that’s not expired, but eventually it gets so complex that you could be juggling as many as five documents that need to be checked.

There’s a story as well, woven smartly between the layers of bureaucracy. The number of people you process has a direct impact on your pay, which you must use to pay for housing, food, and heat for your family. Often, money is very tight. If a family member gets sick, you’ll need to pay for medicine as well. Sometimes, people passing through the checkpoint may attempt to bribe you or the security guards will bring you in on scams; these offers become very attractive when half your family is sick and you haven’t been able to afford heat for several days.

Each traveler trying to enter the country seems to have a small storyline of their own. Sometimes you’ll see the same person each day, trying and failing to abide by your strict policies. Sometimes wanted criminals will try to pass through and you’ll get a chance to apprehend them. A lot of times you have to make fairly difficult choices. Early on in the game, a man passes through the checkpoint with good documents and tells you to be kind to his wife, who is next in line. His wife, however, doesn’t have the required documents to enter. Do you stick to the rules and turn her away, separating the two of them and potentially dooming her to the country she is fleeing? Or do you let her in regardless, risking the ever-suspicious attention of your government overseers? It can get tough!

Eventually there are even long-term storylines you can stumble into, but I don’t want to give too much about the game away right here. It’s worth noting that the game has 20 endings and an endless mode, so there’s certainly enough content to keep you busy for a while.

In an attempt to “judge” Papers, Please, I found myself frustrated when I couldn’t find anything about the game that I had issues with. The game feels totally unique and I don’t know that I’ve ever played anything like it before. In addition, any time something happened that annoyed me in the game, it was my fault. I wasn’t paying close enough attention; it’s not the game’s fault that I forgot to check for matching birthdates or appropriate seals on documents repeatedly.

Papers, Please is only 10 bucks on Steam and it’s well worth the price. There’s plenty of content to make the game last a while. I’ve been playing it pretty much nonstop and have only unlocked three endings so far; I haven’t even started to get into endless mode. I guarantee you haven’t played anything quite like it before, and for that reason alone it’s worth checking out.

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How To: Replacing SNES Cartridge Batteries

As old as it makes me feel, SNES games are getting to be 20+ years old at this point. Because back in those days consoles didn’t have on board hard drives, SNES games (and others like them) save your progress using a small battery that’s soldered to the board inside the cartridge itself. Sadly, these batteries are starting to die and the ability to save progress on these old games fades once that happens.

But fear not, there is something you can do. It’s very easy, with a little practical know-how, to replace the original batteries on your carts and keep saving on these games alive for years to come. I should warn you that this process will cause you to lose all saves on the cartridge and have to start fresh, but that’s going to happen in a couple of years anyway (if it hasn’t already) and is a small price to pay for maintaining gaming history.

Super Mario Kart

Our example for today’s project.

For my example today, I’m going to be using the above copy of Super Mario Kart. I’ve actually already replaced the battery in this game, but you’ll still get the idea of what I’m talking about. Some games don’t actually have batteries to replace, which is always nice. These mostly consist of arcade-style games like fighting games and, for example, the Super Star Wars series. Just so you can see, here’s my copy of Mortal Kombat II. Obviously, it has no battery to worry about replacing:

Mortal Kombat II

Mortal Kombat II has no save system, so no battery.

Super Mario Kart, however, does use battery backup for track and lap times, as well as unlocks. The first step is to open up the plastic cartridge itself. You’ll need a security bit tool to remove the small screws that hold it together. I managed to find a set that came with 3.8mm and 4.5mm security bits off eBay for less than five bucks. A set like this will allow you to open all kinds of carts: NES, SNES, Genesis, N64, etc. For the purposes of SNES, you’ll need the 3.8mm bit:

Super Mario Kart

Use your 3.8mm bit to remove these screws.

Simply remove the screws and set them aside. They’re pretty tiny, so be careful not to lose track of them!

Super Mario Kart

I had to circle them just because they’re so easy to lose.

Upon removing the top of the plastic cart, you’ll see the back of the board itself.

Super Mario Kart

What you’ll see upon opening the cart.

If you flip it over, you’ll see the front of the board and, more importantly, the battery itself. It’s typically in the upper left corner. To replace it, you’ll obviously need a new battery. There are lots of options out there for replacements, but I recommend getting this one. It has the same style of soldering tabs as the original batteries, already attached to it. Not only does this make it look original, but the tabs make the replacement process super easy.

Now’s where soldering comes into play. Once your soldering iron has heated up enough, flip the board to the back side and hold the iron against the 2 solder points here:

Super Mario Kart

De-solder these two spots to remove the old battery.

You may have to hold it there for a couple seconds, the old solder might not melt immediately. As the solder melts down, you just have to kind of wiggle the old battery off of the board by pulling gently on it. It definitely helps to have a friend providing a second set of hands to do this. When successful, the battery will be removed and you’ll see the two holes where the tabs went through the board.

Now is a good time to take note of where the tabs were inserted on the board. The tab that’s attached to the top of the battery is the positive, and the one attached to the bottom of the battery is the negative. Pay attention when you remove the old battery which tab was inserted into which slot, because you’ll need to put your new battery in the same way. In the case of Super Mario Kart, we can see that the positive tab is on the right:

Super Mario Kart

The tab on top is positive, so positive is on the right.

Keep in mind that every game is different. For example, here’s a copy of Donkey Kong Country that I recently replaced the battery in. The tabs on this one are located at the top and bottom instead of the left and right, and the positive tab is the one on the bottom:

Donkey Kong Country

The Donkey Kong Country battery attaches to the board with positive at the bottom.

Anyway, back to Mario Kart. Simply insert your new battery onto the board by sticking the tabs through the holes (obviously making sure the positive and negative are positioned the same as the original battery). It may take a little wiggling, but the battery will eventually snap into place. Note that it may not actually be flush against the board itself, which is fine.

Flip the cart back over and you’ll see the tabs stick up through the holes. All that’s left to do is a simple solder job! Solder around the tabs, essentially securing them to the board just as it was before you removed the original battery. It doesn’t have to be nice and pretty, but there should be a good connection.

Super Mario Kart

Solder here – the same place as the old battery.

The solder will cool and harden very quickly, so it won’t be long before you can set the board back in the cart. Remember that the board goes face down in the back of the cart, it won’t fit together any other way. Using your security bit, tighten the screws back into place and you’re done!

I typically test my batteries after the job is complete. This can be done with a voltometer, but where’s the fun in that? I like to stick the game in my SNES and play up to a save point (or in the case of our Mario Kart example, do a race to save a track time). Then I turn off the SNES and remove the cart from it. I then put the cart back into the console and turn it on to check and see if my save has successfully be preserved.

If you care about keeping your library of old games fully functional in the decades to come, this is a process you’d do well to practice and get good at. The nice thing is that once you do it for a game, you shouldn’t have to do it again for another 20 years! It’s worth noting that this can be done for all sorts of cartridge-based games, but you should do research first to see if different battery sizes, etc are needed. My only experience is with the SNES, after all. I hope you found this helpful!

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