Not all Super NES sequels lived up to the standards set by their NES predecessors, but there are some exceptions that excelled above and beyond. Take, for one, Equinox - The much-improved sequel to the NES game, Solstice. Although Solstice was an intriguing concept, I felt it was executed poorly. However, Equinox proves that the same basic concept, when done correctly, can result in a rewarding game experience.
Equinox's graphics are quite stunning, to say the least! Presented in a 3D isometric view, similar to that of Super Mario RPG, the dungeon graphics are bold, brilliant, and very colorful! The characters, objects and enemies (especially the bosses) are all very large. The animation of your little Arabian Knight hero is flawlessly fluid (even though he doesn't have a neck.)
Of course, variety is just as important as quality, and in that regard, Equinox does not disappoint. Every dungeon of Equinox is very unique and each upholds the same level of detail and quality. Level 1 begins with a standard dungeon-like stronghold, but Level 2's dungeon sprawls through roughly-hewn caverns beneath a forest. Level 3 brings us to ruins based on Incan mythology with statue heads that look almost real. Dungeon 4 takes us to a deep, murky, sunken castle beneath the ocean, whose walls are dotted with seashells and kelpweed as water continually flows in front of the screen, thanks to a neat use of the SNES's color layering effect. Quagmire, the fifth dungeon and my personal favorite, is an abandoned laboratory that has become insanely overgrown with rough foliage. The level of detail in this place is so amazing, from the broken columns and windows that lay shattered on the floor, to the oversized flowers and moss-covered bricks, that it makes me hypothetically wonder about it: What was this building's purpose and what could have happened for it to become abandoned? The final destinations of Equinox include a gorgeous, silent Egyptian tomb, a Pirate Ghost Ship that rocks across the ocean waves, and a snowbound castle fortress.
The overworld that connects the different dungeon areas is a somewhat different story. Here, characters and objects are much smaller, and the world is presented in a Mode 7 view. It may not look as good as the dungeons, themselves, but if you spin the "camera", the way the Mode 7 rotates objects is a really cool effect that actually looks 3D. Equinox's artwork has a style all its own, and the only game I've seen that bears any similarity is Software Creation's SNES platform game, Plok. (Although in some ways, the graphics do remind me of the modern-day "cel-shading" style.)
Almost every review I've read of Equinox, be it in a magazine or on the internet, has said that the game has great music, and I have to admit, at first I was somewhat left wondering what the fuss is all about. But the more I played, the more I slowly began to appreciate this game's soundtrack.
Equinox eschews catchy theme songs in favor of very long, ambient compositions. Usually, when you first enter a dungeon, you'll hear an airy piece of music that plays for a bit then fades to silence. Eventually, the music will loop back to that piece, but there is a long section in-between where you'll hear ominous (and very realistic) sound effects, such as doors creaking, footsteps, bubbling water, and even snoring! This creates the feeling that the game world is alive and draws you into it. When I heard the ocean waves on the Ghost Ship played through stereo speakers, it had sort of a "surround sound" effect, and it took me a short while to even realize where that sound was coming from. I thought it was wind blowing through my apartment! The music doesn't get on my nerves after lengthy play, and some of it is haunting and quite beautiful. The overworld music is an airy remix of the Solstice theme.
In contrast, the boss and battle themes are quite different from the rest of the music. These are what I like to call "head-banger" pieces, with their thumping bass and primordial drums. It's exciting how sometimes the boss music speeds up as the battle wages on. The sound effects are all very well done, with one exception - the hero makes an obnoxious yell whenever he dies, which I've heard likened to both a crying baby and a Siamese cat.
The play control of Equinox is really not that bad, but like most isometric games, takes a lot of getting used to! First of all, you have to get used to walking and jumping at angles, which takes much practice. Much like Solstice, it is often difficult to tell exactly where objects are on the screen, due to the lack of shadows. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if things are above you, below you, in front of you, or behind you, and just how far away they are (although the issue doesn't seem as bad in this game as it was in Solstice.) This makes it difficult to perform some jumps. You'll leap to an object, and even if it looks like you should land on it, you might miss. I cannot say that I view this as a flaw, since much of the game is based around the idea of making tough jumps (some of which must be pixel-perfect), and without giving you obstacles that take multiple tries to overcome, Equinox would lose its very soul. Hit detection in this game can also be a little unclear at times. Sometimes, you'll die if you just get too close to an enemy or spike, even if you aren't exactly touching it. The dungeon layout is grid-based, so the philosophy behind this is that you simply cannot walk onto the same grid square as a spike or enemy. However, this can be overcome once you realize just how far away you need to be. Because of the grid system, you sometimes have to line yourself up perfectly with a hidden door in order to walk through it.
Despite all of this, with practice, I found that the controls began to feel more natural, and in the end, I probably wouldn't have them any other way. I especially liked the ability to change the direction of a jump in mid-air and also slightly alter the character's position in mid-air by tapping the controller. Equinox's controls are a great improvement over the basic idea that began in Solstice.
Unfortunately, I've often seen Equinox get categorized as an "RPG" on the internet, which it really isn't at all. It has just an average video game plot. There isn't any dialogue in the game, except at the beginning, the end, and some "boss" dialogue. In Solstice, you played as a wizard named Shadax. In Equinox, you play as Shadax's son, Glendaal, as he tries to save his father from an evil sorceress, while exploring 8 dungeon strongholds. (Why the son of Shadax, an English-style wizard, is an Arabian-style genie/elf knight with chartreuse hair, I'll never know.) While Equinox is low on plot elements, it's high on atmosphere. The different dungeons and landscapes really convey the feeling of being in a strange and faraway world. However, this game is not an RPG, and has less story than the average Zelda-like adventure game, so play it for the fun and challenge, not for the plot.
Equinox is a long game that will challenge even the most experienced game players. Many of the challenges require you to solve puzzles by making tricky jumps, finding keys, avoiding or defeating enemies, and/or pushing blocks around. The goal of every dungeon is to find all 12 "Tokens" (small, blue crystal balls) and take them to the boss room to summon the boss and defeat it. If you touch an enemy or spike in the room before leaving, your hero will "die", lose one block off of his life meter, and the room will reset, so if you collect a Token or Key and then die, you'll have to collect it, again. Dungeons must be beaten in their designated order, since the boss of each dungeon has a spirit that blocks the bridge leading to the next dungeon.
The first few dungeons are like a training course. They become progressively more difficult until you hit dungeon 5, where the dungeons become longer, but not necessarily harder than dungeon 4, save for a few thumb-numbing rooms. In fact, many gamers I've talked to who have played this game claimed to have gotten stuck on Dungeon 4 (Atlena), and even I got stuck there when I first played it. However, don't think that the whole rest of the game will be that hard and only increase in difficulty from there on out, because it isn't like that. Part of the reason for this drop-off is the fact that there's only so much you can do with this premise: There's only so many types of jumps that can be made, only so many ways to push a block, only so many ways to defeat enemies. So, by the time you get to the 5th dungeon, you'll have pretty much done almost everything, and then it's just a matter of finding your way through. However, the game does occasionally throw a new gimmick at you, such as invisible blocks that only appear when you step on them, blocks that disappear shortly after stepping on them, and blocks that fall unless you continually leap up and down on them.
The bosses can be a real challenge, especially since you absolutely have to beat them without taking a hit, but once you learn their patterns and where the safe spots in the room are, they become much easier. The boss fights are really exciting and Equinox culminates in one of the tougest final boss fights I've ever faced. I can still feel my hands trembling from the excitement of seeing the final boss turn the final shade of red, which means it was close to being defeated.
One thing that should be noted is that Equinox is huge, and unless you have an extremely good memory, the dungeons will require extensive map-making (something I actually enjoy doing, myself). You can also save your game whenever you leave a dungeon (or use the "save" spell once you get it), so you don't have to do the whole game in one sitting.
Equinox is an extremely intense game that's one part action, one part puzzle, one part adventure, and many parts frustration. It is what I like to call a "No-Safe-Harbor" type of game. In most RPGs and Adventure games, you can usually retreat to the safety of a town, but Equinox always has you in the midst of danger, be it in a dungeon or on the overworld teeming with Trolls and Werebats. However, Equinox has a very fun and addictive quality.
In order to collect the 12 Tokens of each dungeon, you must perform a variety of actions that include defeating all enemies in a room (Zelda-style), making tricky jumps (sometimes over spikes or around corners), and pushing blocks. Many rooms require you to either arrange blocks so that you can use them to reach higher ledges, or cause chain reactions. More often than not, this is easier said than done. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that some of the most difficult (and memorable) rooms took me over 50 tries to complete!
A room in Atlena where you must leap across blocks that immediately push you off, and the only way to hold your ground is to press the control pad in the opposite direction of which you're sliding.
A room in Afralona where you must precariously leap across giant floating orbs that become invisible when you step on them over a pit of spikes.
A room in Death Island Dungeon where you have to leap up a "staircase" of ice blocks and make a pixel-perfect jump off the top one to reach a key on a block that's near the ceiling.
The boss fights are also one of my favorite things about Equinox. Each boss has a "pattern" and defeating it is usually a matter of learning and memorizing that pattern, and getting yourself into the "safe spots" of the room when the boss executes its various attacks. The creativity of the bosses is another factor that adds to the fun and challenge of Equinox. Take, for instance, a golem-like boss that dives under the ground, then comes back up to throw rocks at you. Or how about a boss that resembles a huge totem pole that loses its pieces the more you shoot it, and when it's down to one piece, sprouts spikes and starts spinning wildly around the room? Or a huge slime that bounds around the room, crossing its eyeballs and spitting out smaller blobs of slime? And, one of my personal favorites, a huge spinning pyramid with an eyeball at the top (no joke!)?
Equinox is addicting because no matter how difficult something may be, I knew that I could eventually overcome it. I just have to know what lies beyond the next door, dammit! As mentioned earlier, the game is huge, (the final dungeon has 100 rooms), but there were always just enough new innovations and challenges for me to keep playing.
Unforunately, as much as I loved Equinox, I fear it's a game that's not for everyone. It had a low profile upon release, and the release itself was delayed, due to glitches that popped up and had to be fixed. Its high difficulty has probably contributed to its unpopularity, and of course, there's that lame "it's not a true RPG" excuse, which is a shame, really, because it is so unique and interesting. (Not to mention a great improvement over its more-mentioned predecessor, Solstice.) But gamers who are looking for a fun game with loads of challenge, puzzle-solving, exploration, and action should give Equinox a try. Just one word of caution if you do: Make sure you get everything you need from the first 5 dungeons before taking the warp to Afralona - I've found that the warp from Afralona back to Galadonia sometimes glitches up and sends me to a spot in the middle of the ocean from which there is no return, and resetting is the only way out.
SCORE (Not an Average): 8.5/10
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