Equinox for the SNES is the sequel to 1990’s Solstice on the NES. You play as Glendaal son of Shadax, the wizard protagonist of the first game. Pops has been kidnapped and it’s up to young Glen (or Daal?) to rescue his Dad from some evil sorceress.
I mean, I say that because this entire story is in the Wikipedia page, but the game doesn’t tell you any of this. If you start a new game, it just throws you right into the mix with no context. So where does this lore come from — the manual?
No wait, if you don’t press any buttons, a demo will load up showing the gameplay. If you wait until that ends, the opening title displays AGAIN, then you’ll get another gameplay demo this time with some hard-to-read text overlaid on top of the action. If you wait an entire third cycle of titles and demos, and I only know this because I’m writing while the game is turned on, eventually ANOTHER demo will play and introduce you to the hero Glendaal. The whole introduction takes five full minutes to give you three paragraphs of information. I’ve never seen a game explain its story like this. Did they run out of RAM or something?
Anyway, like Solstice, Equinox is an exploration/puzzle platformer designed in 2.5D isometric perspective. Along with the ability to jump and use spells, Glendaal can also use a weapon, making this game much more of an action RPG than an “avoid and out maneuver the enemies” style platformer like it’s predecessor.
Instead of taking place entirely in one huge maze with connected areas, Equinox uses a world map with various locations you can enter. They look like little huts or the granaries from Civilization, but your character falls down some huge chasm when you touch them. I guess they’re more like covered wells or something? I don’t know. The world map is… kind of ugly. It looks like a SNES Mode 7 version of one of those Magic Eye pictures you’d see at the mall — disorienting, trippy, and kinda muddled.
You need to go to several of these hut spots in each section of the world map and they act as separate entrances to the same dungeons. Inside you’ll need to collect 12 orbs to summon a boss who, once defeated, will allow you to access the next island area of the overall map. I actually prefer this style of design to the endless labyrinth of Solstice. It can still be a bit confusing figuring out where to go and where you’ve been, but it’s nowhere near as confusing as the first game.
The biggest change in Equinox other than the colorful 16-bit SNES graphics is the aforementioned weapon. With this in hand, much more of the gameplay is built around attacking enemies than solving puzzles (although there are a fair amount of those as well). I’d say Equinox has more in common with the Quintet action RPG titles on the SNES like Illusion of Gaia, Soul Blazer and Act Raiser, especially in the way in which your actions in the main game affect the landscape of the world map.
So how does Equinox hold up against Solstice or the aforementioned Quintet SNES classics? Well…
First of all, let’s be honest and admit that isometric games are usually clunky at best. They look really unique and cool, but controlling your character in an environment that’s not truly 3D creates a ton of problems. As I mentioned in my Solstice review, these types of games are often easier if you hold the controller sideways so left is up and up is now right. And even though it’s easier, you’re still going to be moving in the wrong direction without effort from time to time.
There is a lot of confusion that comes with an isometric perspective. Often times you’ll take a turn thinking you have enough room to avoid an enemy and… you don’t. Oh boy, there’s a long jump you have to make but is that column in the distance blocking your way? Is the platform you’re trying to reach even on the same plane as your character? Do you need to press jump and then up + right and then adjust midair to land on the true “right”? It’s hard to tell and it’ll lead to a ton of trial and error and frustration.
Furthermore, the perspective makes hitting or avoiding enemies way harder than it should be because of the way they designed the hurtbox of Glendaal and the hitbox of the bad guys. In good games, it’s really clear how close you can get to an enemy without dying but in bad games you’ll find that you punch right through enemies without doing damage. This is a big problem in Equinox because it always looks like you have enough room to walk around a spike but then you’ll walk ten pixels away from it and get impaled. The empty space around you will kill Glendaal way more than any ghost or demon.
The last thing worth discussing here is the way your health works. Instead of a finite amount of lives, you lose energy, which you can restore by fighting a troll on the world map or by using the Restore magic. However, it still works like Solstice in that if you touch a trap or enemy, you die instantly, loose a little bit of that life bar, and the room starts over again. So you still have to completely clear a room and exit it before it stops respawning bad guys. It’s a cool idea and fits really well with the “each screen is a puzzle/obstacle” style of play.
The only downside of this mechanic is that Equinox now has boss fights where you have to battle a huge monster with many, many hit points. Instead of being able to take a few blows while fighting these bad boys, one single touch kills you and the entire ordeal starts over again. It makes completing the dungeons way tenser and rage inducing than they should be. It’d be like having to beat all the dungeon bosses of Zelda: Link to the Past without getting hit once. That’s bullshit. The game really should’ve switched to a standard lifebar for these sections.
Overall, Equinox is a visually compelling SNES game with great design, unique gameplay, decent music (they can’t all be the Solstice opener!), andddd… a ton of frustration. It takes a lot of time to get used to the controls, and while I’d say it’s worth it because of how well implemented the overall ideas of this game are, I absolutely can see how it’d turn away most people. However, if you enjoyed Solstice and other 2.5D controller throwers like Landstalker or Marble Madness, I’d say give it a shot.