Monday, April 30, 2007

Pokemon Diamon - Hearthome City

Okay, so I totally don't get contests. I mean, I don't quite get the underground either, but at least I have an idea of what I can do and get there and what are strategies for getting the things. The contests just baffle me. I mean, the dancing one is just a rhythm game, so that's easy. The beauty contest where you have to dress up your Pokemon, I just have no idea about. I know it has something to do with the Pokemon's innate attributes and eating Poffin, and what accesories you put on it, but I'm fairly clueless. As for the acting competition, I just can't seem to figure out any strategy for doing particularly well. Maybe I just have to look at the movesets more.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Pokemon Diamond - Explored Cave North of Oreburgh

My Pokemon gaming session last night was rather frustrating. Not only has no one taken me up on my offer to trade my Psyduck for a female Combee, but I also spent quite a lot of time wandering through a dark cave. I finally came upon some other trainers to fight and then a girl who I had to escort out back through the cave. Once I finally finish navigating the dark cave, what do I get? A word of thanks.

That's it. No super special item or Pokemon or anything tangible, just a digital character thanking me for getting her out of there. I'm all for philathropy in real life as a real person is getting a tangible benefit from it? In video games, it is all about me. She better appear later and give me something special.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Pokemon Diamond - Riding Around on the Bicycle

So this game has totally hooked me. At first, I couldn't really see what all the hype was about, but after a week in, it totally has me. A large part of the reason is its open endedness. I haven't been at all in a hurry to move on to the next city and get the next badge or item. Instead, I've just been leisurely taking my time. I'm enjoying catching Pokemon and trying to get all the Pokemon I've encountered. I enjoy attempting to get them to evolve and all the hoops required in that. I enjoy trading them around. I feel like my Animal Crossing comparison is more and more apt (though my friend Rob prefers a Grand Theft Auto III comparison).

One thing I have taken advantage of is the apparent Japanese desire for Pokemon with English names. I first read about this phenomenon here. In the Japanese version of the game, you can only name Pokemon using Japanese characters. Likewise, in the English version you can only use English characters. However, you can trade Pokemon across different language versions of the game and they keep their name in its original language. English names are apparently cool in Japan and so Japanese players are trading hard to get Pokemon for very common ones with English names. I have done my part in this phenomenon by trading two low-level Pokemon named "Coca-Cola" and "McDonalds" for the other starter Pokemon. I figured, what could be cooler English name than internationally recognized American corporate brands?

I am feeling pumped this morning because last night I participated in my first battle against another person and won it. I figured that there would be all sorts of new strategies and ideas needed when battling against real people (much like there is a world of difference between fighting the computer and fighting a person in a first person shooter). However, my knowledge of Pokemon strengths and weaknesses and anticipation of my opponents' moves served me well and I triumphed despite the average level of his Pokemon being higher than mine.

The sign that I am playing this game too much? Last night I had a dream that my dog was a psychic Pokemon.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Pokemon Diamond - Got the second badge

While this game still doesn't blow me away, I find myself becoming more and more attached to it. Yes, I think I have the fever that wants to catch all the possible Pokemon. This I will attempt to do. It is really kind of insidious how this game worms itself into you. I'm starting to memorize all the strengths and weaknesses and decide on which Pokemon are best to battle with.

I tried out the underground for the first time and it seems an interesting concept. It is almost a completely separate game from the normal Pokemon world. You search for treasure, avoid traps, and set up a secret base. You can also interact with other players through local Wi-Fi. So far, it seems kind of semi-formed. There is a good amount of stuff there, but there don't necessarily seem to be adequate rewards for doing it. I haven't tried everything yet, so I'll see.

I also played around with the global trade station for the first time. You basically put up your Pokemon for trade and anyone in the world that wants your Pokemon and has what you want can pull the trigger. It seems like a great idea. Right now, I am testing out the theory proposed that Japanese players will do anything for Pokemon with English names so I uploaded a relatively weak one asking for one of the starter Pokemon.

Needless to say, I will rarely run out of stuff to do in this game. Because, by the way, I advanced the story a bit by acquiring the second gym badge.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Pokemon Diamond - Got the first badge

Before yesterday, I had never played a Pokemon game in my life.

I had seen the cartoon a few times. I had read countless articles mentioning the games and several positive reviews. I had played a demo of a spinoff, Pokemon Snap, at a kiosk in some store. I had spent the good portion of a train ride between Providence and Philadelphia overhearing a kid playing on of the original games on his Game Boy. Still, for the more than 10 years that Pokemon games have been in existence, I have never touched on until yesterday.

I'm not sure why. Just about every mention of them talks about how, even though they are built for kids, the battle system in them has a significant amount of strategy. I have heard of plenty of people my age and older that have greatly enjoyed the game. I often get obsessed over collecting everything in a game or doing everything to 100% and when I remarked on this to a friend once, he expressed incredulosity that I had not yet played Pokemon. So yeah, every piece of available evidence I had told me that they were good games and that I would enjoy them. With their first release on the DS being imminent and with a message board I frequent hyping it up and getting me excited, I took the plunge and bought the new pokemon the day of release and played it for about five hours.

It's pretty good.

It doesn't blow me away. It is kind of simple, but I think that it revels in its simplicity. You just walk around, talk to people, and encounter random pokemon in the wild. The battles in the game rarely get much more complicated than rock/paper/scissors. I really think the enjoyment of this game comes in what you put into it. You can get really into customizing the best battle team ever. You can craft Pokemon into fighting machines by choosing their attacks appropriately and giving them items and then assemble a team of six of them to take on all comers. You can attempt to collect them all. You can stalk through areas, looking for elusive rarer pokemon. You can jump through all the hoops required to get the rarest ones. I think it is in these sorts of things where the game really comes into its own.

In fact the game seems to pride itself on having a ton to do. While the ostensible goal is to get your Pokemon to beat up all the other major trainers' Pokemon, you can do things like enter fashion contests, explore the underworld, and really just make what you want of it. In a lot of ways, this series is almost aspiring to be Animal Crossing.

Also, in this version, you can finally use the internet to battle with your friends and trade with anyone.

So I'm enjoying this game, but it isn't blowing me away. It is totally hitting the obsessive part of me, and I can see myself attempting to "Catch 'em all".

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Marathon - Sunbathing

Another first (or at least one of the first) for Marthon was dual-wielding. And baby, let me tell you that it is fun.

I generally don't go in for first person shooters. It isn't that I dislike the genre totally, it is just that they all feel the same to me after awhile, so I don't want to play too many. Granted, I haven't played many (any?) of the top-tier such as Half-Life, System Shock, or Deus Ex. Still, I enjoy tooling around in well-built first person shooters and can definitely lose myself in them. It is just that the experience can become - unfulfilling. I think it may be something about never seeing my character.

Anyway, I definitely like that Marathon has a sense of exploration and cleverness to it. Doom is great mindless fun, but the level designs are nothing to write home about the and the key/switch puzzles feel perfunctory. Marathon has some great level design. You end up going up and down on various levels and crossing over where you were and looping back on yourself. The automap isn't strictly necessary, but can help a lot. Fortunately, the different areas in a level are noticably different and logically make some sort of sense for the level you are in. Really, I wonder where all this great level design skill went when Bungie made Halo.

The feeling of cleverness (or perhaps more accurately cerebralness) comes from two factors. One is that there are some decent puzzles in the game. Most have to do with switches, but the switches are so much more than door openers. They can activate elevators and other moving platforms and often have to be used in tandem or in the right order to reach the next area. The other aspect comes from the attack and fall back tactics that the game uses. There are no health packs to restore your health. Instead, health is restored at terminals placed on the wall (I guess it recharges the shield energy of your cyber-suit). Because of this, you often find yourself moving forward, defeating a group of enemies, then retreating back to the health terminal. Saving your game is also done at terminals and also encourages that type of gameplay.

I must say, I felt really bad when I got the "bad" ending to The Rose level because too many civilians had died. If I had been more judicious with my saves, I would have attempted it over again. Sadly, my first save from the level was already after a good number had died. Sorry, Bob.

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! - Review

The movie Rocky is a timeless American classic. It is the story of a little guy - a nobody - who has nothing but a big heart and the desire to succeed. Against all odds, he trains, gets fit, gets a fight with the champ, and goes the full fifteen rounds with him. I want to say that Punch-Out was based on that story as the scrawny Little Mac faces boxer after boxer on his way to the dream fight. I won't say it, because it might be incorrect.

Nintendo released an arcade game named Punch-Out!! (no, I don't know why they used two excalamation points either) in the arcade in 1984, and followed it up with a sequel the next year called Super Punch-Out!! In both games, you played the role of a green boxer whose body was wireframe so you could see through him to the boxer you were fighting. These were among Nintendo's last dedicated arcade machines and were fairly popular so it naturally fell that a conversation for their new Nintendo Entertainment System was in order. The problem was the Nintendo didn't have the hardware to make a wireframe character or do any sort of transparency. Heck, they had to include a new chip in the game just to animate the large sprites of the opponents. So what to do? Shrink the main character and call him Little Mac. Now that he was a midget half the size of most opponents, his opponents could be easily seen. He may have had to jump to hit any of his opponent's in the face, but his small stature added to the game's charm.

Indeed, the game has a ton of charm. It distills boxing down to its essence. There is no maneuvering for position, just jabs, body blows, blocking, ducking, and dodging. No need to have the character move around the ring when the fun is in the punches. Indeed, the game was almost rhythmic in its fighting. Your opponent would wind up or show some other tell and that would be your cue to dodge and counter-punch (or even hit them before they got their combo off). This was the age when everyone liked sports games because they had more of an arcade feel and really concentrated on the meat of the gameplay. Tecmo Bowl is fondly remembered and even still popular among people despite, or perhaps because it doesn't have all the realism of the latest Madden.

The characters are also part of the charm for this game. Each is well-developed both in graphics and in character. Each is also an incredible ethnic stereotype: Glass Joe is an effete cowardly Frenchman, Great Tiger is a mystic Indian, Super Macho Man is a narcissistic well-tanned body-building Californian, and Soda Popinski the Russian? Let's just say in the arcade he was known as Vodka Drunkenski. In between rounds, they taunt you or complain about you. Piston Honda's panders to the camera ("Where's the NHK TV camera? Hello, Tokyo!"), Mr. Sandman makes puns on his name ("I think you're gonna have a nightmare tonight!") and Soda Popinski references his original alcoholism ("I drink to prepare for a fight. Tonight I am very prepared!") The characters are huge and cartoony, with many different facial expressions and moves that make them all feel unique. As mentioned before, Nintendo R&D3 team that developed this game created a special memory chip just to be able to animate the large boxers. It was only used in this game, but it paid off by making each of the boxers so memorable.

Finally, even though not explicitly spelled out, the underdog story in this game endears it with people and seems like an obvious nod to Rocky. Little Mac is literally a little guy - his opponent's gloves are twice or even three times as big as his head. Despite this, he manages to overcome odds and be a good boxer - one of the greatest depending on the player's skill. Through it all, his trainer, Doc Louis helps him out by keeping Little Mac jogging in a pink sweatsuit, and offering helpful advice like "Listen Mac! Dodge his punch then counter punch!" and "Join the Nintendo Fun Club today!"

The gameplay itself is largely all about reflexes and pattern memorization. When you see an opponent's tell that he is about to punch, you need to dodge and then punch back. Later opponents have special attacks that must be appropriately countered and responded to like Bald Bull's bull charge and Great Tiger's tiger punch. Some opponents can only be taken down by doing certain things like Bald Bull's second fight, King Hippo, and Mr. Sandman. The opponents get progressively harder as you move up the ranks, so the game has a really good learning curve. The final fight with Mike Tyson (or Mr. Dream is you have the version put out after Tyson's contract with Nintendo was up) is an order of magnitude more difficult than any of the other fights taking him down is a true test of gamer skill.

There really is little bad to say about Punch-Out!! It maybe could use a few more opponents, and there is really no challenge once you know how a boxer operates, but those are minor quibbles. The gameplay is fun, entertaining, and a definite test of skill. But my recurring theme through writing this is charm. This game exudes charm in its characters, gameplay, and stories. The fact that the original version stars a guy who went on to become an ear-biting rapist even adds to the charm. This game is a must for any NES collection.

Rating: 10 / 10

Marathon - Couch Fishing

My father was an early adopter of the Macintosh. He got one in 1985 or so as a gift for some work he had done. Thanks to him, we became a Macintosh household. This meant that the computer games I played when growing up were generally a bit different from a lot of the other kids. The Mac had some fun games, but there were nowhere near as many as on the PC, and several gems from the PC just never made it onto the Mac. This was particularly true for first-person shooters. Wolfenstein 3D eventually made it over, but the computer required to run it was much more than the equivalent PC, so it wasn't an option for me. Doom was not ported over until after Doom II was (which was again quite some time after its PC release). What was a Mac user who wanted to play this new, burgeoning genre to do?

Enter Bungie Software.

You may recognize their name as being the developers of that Halo game, but that came later. In the 90s, they were crazy about the Mac and developed games for it. They also saw this new-fangled first person shooter thing and decided the Mac needed one. Their first creation was Pathways Into Darkness. That game was a first person shooter, but also included many adventure and exploration aspects. Inventory management and using the proper items at the proper time and conversations (with dead people) were all very important to advancing through the game. Jealous of my friend Max with Wolfenstein 3D, I begged my parents for that game and received it. It is a pretty good game and I definitely enjoyed it, but I also found it quite difficult.

Their next game, another first person shooter, this one clearly made to compete with Doom, was Marathon. Marathon was either first or one of the first games to do many things including operate on the Y-axis (you must aim your gun vertically as well as horizontally), mouse look (introduced in the sequel, but later retrofitted into the original), objective-based levels and levels with different physics or other game-changing characteristics, friendly non-player characters, and networked multiplayer. It is also known for its intricate story that is revealed through a series of computer terminals the player interacts with throughout the game.

Sadly, I had never played Marathon, despite being a Mac user. I'm not sure why. Maybe because I wasn't as bowled over with Pathways Into Darkness as I thought I might be. Maybe because I realized that first person shooters weren't my favorite genre, or maybe I thought Pathways Into Darkness ran a tad slowly on my LC III and couldn't imagine Marathon would run acceptably. Whatever the reason, I passed up this gem and had always intended to get around to playing it. Bungie had released the source code and eventually all the games in the trilogy for free online distribution. I actually toyed around with it two years ago, but I was on vacation, so having to play on my laptop without full-sized keyboard and mouse was a bit restrictive.

Last week's retronauts's podcast was about Marathon and really got me jonesing to give the game a go. I'm glad they did because I'm having a blast.

The game is very atmospheric, taking place in a space ship (the U.E.S.C. Marathon) boarded by aliens. Systems are damaged and power is not at full so many corridors are dark and lights are flickering. Your cybernetic suit is equipped with a motion detector so you can see when enemies are moving near (similarly, the aliens have motion detectors and will attempt to come toward you if you are moving near them). It borrows liberally from the Alien movies for its feel and it just totally works.

I'm also very much enjoying seeing the plot gradually unfold. Besides the aliens that have boarded the ship, one of the Marathon's artificial intelligence programs has "gone rampant". This means that it has become self aware basically and is affecting other systems because it has reached the anger portion of rampancy. I know that this AI, Durandal, plays a key role in the story (and sequels) and look forward to seeing it.

The levels also have "colorful" names, hence the level I am currently on is named "Couch Fishing".

Also, though originally released on the Macintosh and though I am playing it on a Macintosh, I am actually playing the Aleph One (Marathon open source) remake of the original Marathon, which is available for Windows and Linux as well. As long as I'm not just playing a game in an emulator, I'll put the actual platform I'm playing it on and not the original one.

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! - One Credit Challenge, 1:55 Round 2

As a kid, I was convinced that I had read or heard from somewhere authoritative that it was impossible to knock out Mike Tyson in this game. You couldn't KO or TKO him, because hey, it was his game and why would he let you do that? He was supposed to be the ultimate boxer, so you couldn't take him down and the only way you could beat him was to win by decision after three rounds. About five years ago, I discovered I was wrong. Today I proved it.

Yesterday, I went through all of the boxers on my way to the top. I think for the Minor and Major circuits, I managed to finish all fights in the first round, or at least without being knocked down. Once in the world circuit, I was finally knocked down once or twice, but made it to Super Macho Man. He was finally able to defeat me, but after being ranked down to number three and then fighting up again, I beat him the next time. Mike Tyson then proceeded to wipe the floor with me. He did so several more times. He is just that much harder than all the other wrestlers (and Mr. Sandman and Super Macho Man are no pushovers).

Today, I just inputted the code to go straight to Tyson. After about a half dozen fights, I finally lasted through the third round and won by decision. After a half dozen more, I finally lived the dream of TKOing Mike Tyson. In Round 2 at 1:55.

I love this game. The cartoony characters are great. Great Tiger, King Hippo and Bald Bull were always my favorites, and Mr. Sandman just because he's from Philly. I'll definitely whip up a review of this in the next few days.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! - One Credit Challenge

This week's one credit challenge is one of my favorite NES games. Top 10 for sure.

It's such an ingenious concept. Fight against boxers with ridiculous tells that represent various ethnic stereotypes. You don't really move around the ring, but always face your opponent to dodge, dock, or block and then counter-punch. With the dodging and such in response to the opposing boxer's movements, it is almost a rhythm game. The game works because of the cartoony caricatures of opponents that all have their unique moves. It is just fun, the way that most old-school more arcadey sports games were.

Anyway, the challenge for this week is to knock out Mike Tyson (or Mr. Dream in the version of the game without the ear-biting rapist) in as little time as possible. Now, I did defeat him once in my younger years, but the only way I was able to do it was by decision (go all three rounds and then have 5000 points when it is over). I was never able to KO or TKO iron mike, so this will be difficult.

Trying it last night, I am definitely a bit out of practice. His super uppercuts that knock you down in one hit were destroying me and I never even managed to go three rounds. Oh well, I will persevere because this game is awesome.

Fire Emblem - Chapter 30

This chapter teases me so badly. Just when I think I've found the right way to progress through it, one of my characters gets killed. If only I didn't care about that.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Super Metroid - Review

The original Metroid was a grand experiment in making an open-ended, exploratory game. It had a huge world where you could go almost anywhere from the beginning. There was no direction given to you, you just wandered around, ocassionally discovering hidden passageways and different items. It felt wonderful - almost no game was quite like it. It was truly atmospheric.

It also had three major flaws. The first was that there was no automapping system and mapping by hand was an absolute pain. The corridors and passageways were of all different size, so typical graph paper wouldn't do. You had to figure out where rooms connected to each other, especially when there were secret passageways. Since so many of the corridors looked similar and it was hard to map (either on paper or in your head) it was easy to get lost and just wander around randomly in frustration. The second is that there was no way to save your progress. There was a password system which would have sufficed except for the fact that you only got one when you died. So when you started over, you had to not only start from the beginning, but also had to spend the time defeating enemies in order to refill your energy tanks (and possibly missile reserves). The third flaw was less prominent than the other two, but was just that some of the passages you needed to get to were a bit opaque - they were hard to get to or completely unobvious with no hint that there is even a passage there.

Metroid II: Return of Samus corrected some of these flaws, but made the way in which you progress defeating various Metroids and causing earthquakes that lowered lava/acid. So, pretty weird.

Super Metroid, though, gets it right. Absolutely.

Once again, you play Samus Aran, a bounty hunter on a strange planet - the same planet actually from the original game. You start off with just a blaster and limited energy. As the game goes on, you acquire new weapons and abilities. These weapons and abilities allow you to access new areas of the map. This is pretty much the way that all non-linear 2D platformers went and Super Metroid is the ultimate example of them. As you explore, you can see other areas, but you can't quite get to them because you don't have the right weapon or ability. You remember then and when you get a new ability you come back to see if you can now pass them. It really strikes the perfect balance in allowing free-form exploration around a large game world, but cordoning off certain areas that the player will have to return to.

The game world (which is fortunately and necessarily automapped for you) is massive and is divided into different areas. Even though you generally move fairly seamlessly from one area to another, each area has a distinctly different feel. Areas have enemies that are distinct to them. They also have a design aesthetic that is unique. One areas are lush with vegetation, another is cold and metallic, and a third is filled with lava and igneous rock. The finally have music that perfectly sets the mood for where you are. The music can be subtle - you often don't notice it, but it absolutely reflects where you are.

The new weapons and abilities you gain really add to the sense of who your character is. While the super missiles and super bombs are pretty much just upgrades on the regular ones, they also have their unique effects. Your weapon goes from just being a pea shooter to a charged up, wavy beam that splits into three, freezes enemies, and can go through enemies and walls. Most abilities from the original game, like morph ball, bombs, high jump, and varia suit are kept. The space jump and sping ball are brought over from Metroid II. Two new abilities absolutely shine, though. The speed boost allows you to reach hyper speed while running. With this, you can plow through enemies, certain walls, and store up the hyper energy in order to make amazing jumps. The grappling hook gives you all the fun of Bionic Commando, swinging from block to block and sometimes enemy to enemy.

Speaking of enemies, they feel as much a part of the environment and the blocks and platforms. This game is much more about exploration than shooting things and many enemies can just be ignored. They most just seem to be the natural denizens that inhabits the caverns and corridors you go through. Some do come after you, but rarely are the natural enemies you encounter very tough. The game wants to encourage you to explore and swarming you with enemies that kill you would inhibit that. This can sometimes make the boss encounters a little jarring as these guys will often kill you. Boss encounters are also generally long affairs with a kind of attack, counter-attack mentality between you and the big bad you are fighting.

Super Metroid makes me nervous at times. This is a good thing. Many games, even ones that are supposedly open-ended, lead you by the hand and show you where you need to go next to progress. Super Metroid never does this and so you need to figure out where to go on your own. When you take one door instead of another, you wonder if you made the right decision. When you take the passageway you found through bombing rather than the door, you wonder if this is the way to go to find the next item. When you go back to one area after acquiring a new item, you wonder if this is where you see more of the game or if it is the other area you remember that requires use of that item. Sometimes the lack of direction can be a bit frustrating - you turn back because you don't see an obvious way to progress and go to some area that uses the new item you acquired. Even when this happens, you always end up blaming yourself. You second-guessed yourself into going somewhere else and that was the wrong move.

All of the above is the heart of Super Metroid. The free-form exploration with new areas begging to be explored after acquiring something new. The world feels truly organic with everything adding to the level you are in. Many games that I enjoy have additional modes or different ways of beating the game after doing it once and I say to myself that I should do that. With this game I actually did. The Super Nintendo has a great library and I've played several games for it. I would probably even still put Chrono Trigger ahead of Super Metroid on my personal top SNES games list. But while I would hesitate before I recommended Chrono Trigger to anyone with a Super Nintendo, I would feel no such hesitation about recommending Super Metroid.

Rating: 10 / 10

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 - Metropolis Zone, Act 3

I think I've decided that I don't like Sonic the Hedgehog that much. Oh, I think the concept is really neat and speeding through levels through loops and twirling platforms is great fun. The issue is lack of control. In a platformer, I like to be able to control where I go and what I do. Because of the speed, Sonic gives you much less of this and it can just get you in trouble.

I have long believed that I enjoyed the first Sonic more than this one, and I think that still holds true. The original Sonic the Hedgehog may not have had as many innovative level features as this one, and certainly none of the levels in it lived up to what was shown in the Green Hill Zone level, but similarly you seemed to be less likely to be punished for speeding ahead, which is pretty much Sonic's raison d'etre. Far too many times in Sonic 2, I zoom along only to hit an enemy or maybe some spikes or occasionally fall into a pit. Getting hit by an enemy can largely be avoided by crouching into a ball, but then you have even less control of Sonic. It just gets frustrating at times.

Speaking of frustrating, I get really annoyed at the bonus stages in Sonic 2. The pseudo-3D effect is nice, but the way it is laid out you have very little warning when rings of mines appear. Tails is nearly useless because, though he can pick up stray rings and such, he also runs into mines just as frequently. If he stayed a little closer to Sonic, or maybe just to the right or left of him, he wouldn't have this problem, but as it stands you pretty much have to rely on getting to the ring total yourself and not counting on him having any rings for you. With enough practice, I'm sure I could probably beat all of the bonus stages (I can generally beat the first four), but it just seems that would require mind-numbing practice.

Shadow of the Colossus - Finished the game

I must say, I'm a bit disappointed with Shadow of the Colossus after finishing it, but that may be just because I didn't want it to end.

The final colossus battle was epic. A huge tower that shot bolts of electricity at you, forcing you to duck and run from cover to cover until you finally got near it. Then the climb up this huge creation took place. Once you finally reached some unprotected body parts, you had to stab and swing and jump, making the creature move in various ways so you could continue your climb up to the top of it.

The ending was also well done. It showed the sacrifice you had made in order to attempt to bring your female companion back to life. It also let you control your character during parts of it, making it feel like you were truly a part of the scene. Finally, it also connected this game to Ico to the delight of people who had played through both games.

That said, the experience didn't get me in the same way that Ico did. Ico was a truly immersive experience. I could almost forget that I was playing a video game and really imagine myself as a boy attempting to navigate through a vast castle. That said, the gameplay experience of Ico had something missing that I can't quite put my finger on. I mean, I enjoyed it, but while I loved the experience of Ico, I can point out many better games that I've played.

Shadow of the Colossus was the opposite. The gameplay was great. Forgoing any sort of random foes to kill in lieu of making the colossus battles the experience was absolutely the right decision. Figuring out each colossus worked very well and I loved the fights. Still, I didn't get as involved with this game as I did with Ico. Partly, the minimalist story in Shadow of the Colossus wasn't as well done as the minimalist story in Ico. Ico had two protagonists and thus could do much better at creating a subtle relationship between them. While I could see what Wander (the protagonist of Shadow of the Colossus) was going through and feel somewhat melancholy at having to slay the magnificent beasts, it didn't work as well. The experience also wasn't nearly as immersive. Riding around to discover new areas where the colossi were generally worked quite well. The biggest problem is that this game required much more fighting with the camera in order to get the view you needed. And sometimes the colossus behavior was just frustrating and you felt that only by luck did you manage to get where you need to go.

I had always assumed that I would give this game a very high score. And I think I would probably still recommend it to anyone with a PlayStation 2. But... I don't know. I'll have to ruminate on my feelings for a bit.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Shadow of the Colossus - Defeated the fifteenth colossus

I actually managed this feat on Tuesday night, but was tired and have been too busy to blog about it.

This is one of those games that gives you so much enjoyment that you can totally overlook its few flaws. I encountered one of them while fighting the fifteenth (and so second-to-last) colossus. I figured out how to defeat him long before I could actually pull it off.

Defeating each colossus, when properly done, is like a combination of action and puzzle solving. You have to figure out what you need to do to get to its week spot (or to even get it to reveal its weak spot). Once you have that figured out, you have to perform the correct actions needed to do this. Usually, it is not that difficult to perform to actions. It requires skill and reflex, but if you mess up, you can usually get it the next time. Some collosi are more action-oriented, but that has generally worked well; the sandworm colossus was largely about getting the timing of shooting him right while running away fast enough and that worked extremely well.

The fifteenth colossus had a decent puzzle solving aspect of figuring out how to get high enough so that you could jump onto him and be able to hold on. And it had a nice twist of having a second weak spot you had to find and hit to finish him. The problem is that getting to that second weak spot was so tedious. You needed to seemingly jump and move at the right time, but it wasn't at all obvious what the right time was. And then once you finally made it close enough, being able to grab on to stab the weak spot was frustrating because you could just jump and grab on. If you made any mistake while doing this, you feel to the ground and had to climb all the way up to the top of the building again.

Oh well, two (or maybe three) negative experiences out of fifteen so far isn't a bad ratio. Next time: The final colossus and the end of the game.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Fire Emblem - Chapter 29: Sands of Time

After finishing Super Metroid, I was pretty sure that the next game I moved onto would be Final Fantasy Tactics. It was being discussed on a message board that I read and everyone was saying how much better it was than Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. While I thought that game had its flaws, I still considered it a good game, so I was curious to try the original.

The day I was to start playing Final Fantasy Tactics, I was talking to my friend at lunch. He has an Xbox, and mostly is into Madden, FIFA, and Street Fighter II, but every so often he gets the hankering to play a good single player game and solicits me for advice. Anyway, I mentioned to him that I was going to start playing a new game and he asked me if it was Shadow of the Colossus. He had recently seen the movie Reign Over Me which features the game. I rememberd how I loved Ico, how many good things I had heard about Shadow of the Colossus, and though "How can I dissapoint him?"

I still had an itch for a Strategy RPG and realized that I'm still in the middle of Fire Emblem. Which I still find awesome. I peeked at a walkthrough and realized that I am almost finished with the game so I will definitely be completing this before even touching Final Fantasy Tactics. Heck, maybe I should just wait for the PSP remake and play that. The localization should be vastly improved. Of course, that would require getting a PSP...

Elevator Action - One Credit Challenge, Fourth building

Elevator Action is a good arcade game. Elevator action is not a good NES game.

I don't mean that the graphics suffered horribly in the transition (I actually think they improved a bit) or that the play control is off or even that the game is fundamentally different in any way. From what I can tell, it is a very accurate port.

What I mean is that the game works much better as one that you walk up to in the arcade, put a quarter into, and play until your three lives are gone. Maybe later you come back and try to beat your high score. Perhaps you get really good at it and show off to your friends your skills. The game does a good job of showing that you are a spy, sneaking into a building and stealing documents while avoiding opposition by shooting them or jump-kicking them. As you clear each building, the difficulty gets greater and greater and eventually it is so hard that you just die. This is a well done arcade game.

By the time the NES came along, people wanted something more.

They wanted games that they could progress in. They wanted games that had a beginning, middle, and end. Super Mario Bros. was the definitive NES game because as you played it and got better at it, you progressed further and got to new levels. At the end, you finally rescued the real princess. This was the type of game that gamers expected of the NES.

So, even though Elevator Action's move from arcade to NES was near-seamless, it lost something just for being on a different platform. It went from being a good arcade game to a mediocre NES game. So, I still enjoy it and find it fun to play, but there are many more game I wish my parents had spent their $50 on.

In the 1988 holiday season, I received three games from my parents for my NES (none of which I asked for): Pinball, Hogan's Alley, and Elevator Action. I could have gotten Castlevania, I could have gotten Mega Man, or I could have gotten Metroid. Instead I got those three games. I realize that Pinball and Hogan's Alley were probably discounted, but Elevator Action had just come out. It is probably the best game of the three (though Hogan's Alley is a competent light gun game), but none of them are games that you can just keep playing. After awhile, you just have to put them down. Maybe my parents knew this and this was their plan to make sure I still went outside. But probably not. The memory of those three games still haunts me to this day.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Shadow of the Colossus - Defeated the twelfth colossus

One thing I have yet to mention about this game is the music. It is wonderful orchestral stuff that plays appropriately depending on what is going on. Ambient nature sounds play as you explore. Subtle exploratory music plays as you near the colossus. Fast, action music plays as you encounter the colossus. Urgent music plays when you are on the colossus, furiously hanging on by a thread as it attempts to shake you off. It is very well done and very appropriate. Occasionally, it is a bit unsettling as the music suddenly shifts from one theme to another when it doesn't expect to, say, get off the colossus.

I think the bull colossus (the eleventh) was the weakest one I had fought so far in terms of interest in the battle. There was little sense of urgency because he did very little damage when he hit me. Running into various corners to avoid him played hell with the camera - at times I was fighting more with the camera than the colossus. The conceit of getting the flaming torch and then scaring off the colossus with it just didn't make much sense to me. Especially because I could never actually leap onto its back right after it fell. Instead, I leaped onto it after it was chasing me around in the nature area, making the whole process seem totally unnecessary.

The twelfth colossus (beast with a turret on its head in the water) took me the longest time to figure out what the hell I was supposed to do. It was the first time I got the second hint from the omniscient voice - I didn't even know there was a second hint before this fight. I had actually figured out that you had to fight the colossus from a different place, but I kept trying to reach the bridge overhead. Once I knew what to do, it didn't take long at all.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Shadow of the Colossus - Defeated the ninth Colossus

As I moved into the later colossi, the challenge level is ratcheting up. For the first time, while fighting the eighth colossus, I died. But I knew what to do so I tried again and was successful. The ninth colossus though, just kicked my butt many times. From projectiles that were near impossible to totally dodge to ground shaking footsteps that damaged me, I required many tries to overcome it. Heck, even once I'd figure out what I had to do in order to even get on the damn thing, doing so proved difficult. Getting to its weak point even more so. I wonder if I can expect taking multiple tries to defeat colossi from now on.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Shadow of the Colossus - Defeated the fifth Colossus

I think I already mentioned that the battles in this game are epic. It bears repeating. While the first colossus is a bit bigger than you and the second is more of the same with a slightly different strategy, by the third colossus, you truly feel miniscule in relation to them - heck, you run up its club after it swings at you so you can even get near its arm. The fifth colossus battle was truly amazing. It is a bird and you must leap on its back and hold on tight as it soars through the air. The designer's did a great job of making you feel like you were on a flying beast as it dips and turns and the air rushes past you.

I'm wondering when more of the story will come into the game. After the expository opening, that you brought the girl here to revive her and that the strange voices in the temple tell you that with your special sword, you can bring her soul back by defeating all sixteen colossi, I've gotten nothing. Don't get me wrong, I like the subtlety of the spirits of the dead colossi that surround you after you defeat one and that after the fourth one was killed, your horse went up to the girl and sniffed at her. I also get the emotional weight that goes with felling these beasts. They seem not evil, but more like forces of nature and you are destroying them. It is more like felling an ancient tree than beating a bad guy. But I've read a bit more of the story and I wonder when I'll find out the circumstances of why the girl was killed.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Shadow of the Colossus - Defeated the first Colossus

When the debate over whether games are art comes up, this game, along with its predecessor Ico are always tossed around as examples on the "pro" side. I have played Ico. It was extremely well put together. Everything in its world was crafted to make sense that it was there. It was immersive. It completely drew you in and made you feel like you were a little boy attempting to navigate through the castle and bring the girl with you. It was beautfiul. All that said, it was only above average as a game. As enthralled as I was by the world, I only had a decent time playing through it. The bottom line is that I think it was extremely important that the game was made because it challenged many perceptions of what a game is or should be.

Shadow of the Colossus is the game the lead designer and director Fumito Ueda made after Ico. And it feels more like a game. So far, more of the story seems to be told in cut scenes than in Ico. There is more of a heads up display (for your health, grip, and current weapon). I'm only a sixteenth through the game, but so far it seems less immersive than Ico.

That isn't to say that I'm not enjoying it. The game is a little more lonely, since it is you and your horse instead of you and a mute girl. It is still painstakingly designed, with all the scenery seeming absolutely appropriate. And the battles with the Collosi are, appropriately epic. These things are huge - at least five times as tall as your character. The lumber around and attempt to swat your character like the fly that he is to them. You need to climb him and find his weak point, all why he is attempting to shake you off.

It is interesting that, as far as I know, the Colossi are the only enemies in the game. It is rare that a game consists of nothing but boss battles, but I think that can work very well. I know Treasure made a game based on the concept of nothing but boss battles, but it never made it here to the US. Certainly the fact that there aren't random faceless enemies that you slay on your way to these things contributes to the world building.

I had already played the demo of the game previously, so I had actually already defeated this colossus. I'm looking forward to seeing what the next ones hold.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Castlevania III - Review

Castlevania II attempted to expand the original Castlevania into a free-roaming non-linear game with RPG elements. It failed.

Not because the ideas themselves were bad, but because they were so poorly implemented. Regardless, after seeing the suck of the previous game, the Castlevania designers went back to the beginning and added tweaks there. Castlevania III is the first Castlevania with multiple characters, multiple possible paths through the game, and bigger and better levels and enemies.

And yet, I didn't love it especially more than the first game. The first game was pure and simple. You were in a castle fighting all sorts of horror movie villains. It didn't take itself too seriously, even offerring humorous film reel credits when you beat the game. By the second game, Konami had decided they had a series on their hands and made it all serious and... it kind of lost something. The third Castlevania also has this seriousness and since the gameplay mechanics are fairly similar, it isn't quite as cool.

Castlevania III takes place hundreds of years before the first game. You play as Simon Belmont's ancestor Trevor. Apparently people mistrust and shun the Belmont family because of their great strength. Dracula and his minions have been terrorizing the land and Trevor decides that he will use his powers to take him down. Along the way, he can encounter Grant DaNasty - a pirate whose family was killed by Dracula, Sypha Belnades - a vampire hunter who had been cursed by a mummy and turned to stone, or Alucard - the disaffected son of Dracula.

Trevor plays just like Simon did in the original game. The new characters are what is meant to add life to this game. Grant wields a dagger as his standard weapon. Its range is miniscule, but he can swing it much faster than any of the other characters can use their weapons. It is also equal in power to the leather whip. He can also acquire the dagger or axe as subweapons. His main special ability is the ability to break Castlevania. He jumps slightly higher than the other characters and most amazingly can change his trajectory and direction in mid-jump. He can also grab onto walls and ceiling and crawl along them to reach otherwise inaccessible places. He is weaker than Trevor and takes an additional bar of damage for each enemy that hits him. Sypha is weak as well and also takes additional damage like Grant. She wields a staff which seems about as long as Grant's dagger and does as much damage, but hits in an arc so it can hit more enemies around her. Sypha doesn't acquire traditional subweapons, but instead magic spells that are unique for her. These spells can be really powerful and make some sections of enemies and bosses much easier. Alucard has the weakest regular weapon of any of the characters. He shoots out a ball that moves horizontally forward about the length of the longest whip. Like Simon, his main weapon can be upgraded. The first upgrade adds a ball that shoots out diagonally upward and the second one that shoots out diagonally downward, but all these balls are weak in the strength. Alucard gets no subweapons, but has the ability to turn into a bat and fly around the screen, using hearts while he does so.

These new characters are nice and fun, but... ultimately don't add a lot because the game is designed to be played with Trevor. Most of the time you want to play as him because it is easier to kill enemies and if you get hit you take less damage. The other characters have their uses. Grant is great for platforming sections, especially those where you may need to quickly kill weak enemies (though the fact that he jumps higher than Trevor can get you in trouble). Sypha can be useful against tough gauntlets of enemies and can absolutely annihilate some bosses. Alucard will literally save your life when you turn him into a bat while about to fall to your death. Still, you only do these things occasionally. Having the extra characters is more like giving Trevor more powers rather than actually introducing new ways to play the game.

Oh, the other new level innovation is the ability to choose which levels to do. After completing certain levels, you get a choice of which path the take. The different paths lead to different levels and at the end of certain levels you meet up with the secondary characters. The addition of some non-linearity is nice and gives the game more replay value, but the levels don't feel so different or amazing that it really stands out.

The game is hard. The original Castlevania was also difficult, but this one is difficult in a slightly different way. I can't quite put my finger on what, though. There seems to be a bit more emphasis on platforming in this game. There are things like moving gears and conveyer belts, flipping platforms, moving spikes and all sorts of other new platform elements to worry about. There, in general, is much more reliance on jumping and moving around, but the platforms and such are well placed so you rarely feel cheated because you miss a jump. The enemy design is also significantly upgraded in this game. This game introduced the gargoyles the fly up and down the screen, the ghosts that require multiple hits, the red skeletons, and others that became mainstays in the series. The bosses in general are a mixed bag. Though there are quite a few re-treads from the original game, many do more interesting things. Frankenstein's Monster now throws blocks. The Grim Reaper now has sickles appear around the screen and come toward you. The early bosses aren't really very interesting, but the ones in the later stages of the game are very well done. Some bosses feel very cheap and you feel you only beat them because you got lucky. Others work much better because you feel more in control of whether you get hit or not.

The music, as is normal for the Castlevania, is awesome. It took me awhile to warm up to it, but I am now fully on board. There are some great tunes in this soundtrack and it even starts the tradition of reusing or doing remixes of tracks from earlier Castlevanias. The graphics are about on par with Castlevania II. There is much more use of color than the original game, and many of the levels feel a bit more organic. They are good quality, especially the large bosses.

This game is good, but it took me awhile to come around to that. For whatever reason, this game didn't do it for me in the same way that other games have. It was only when I reached the final level that it all came together and I could appreciate the style of this game. On subsequent replays, I could appreciate the music and gameplay more. I think the difficulty was a big sticking point with me. I don't mind difficult games where it feel like I can get better with practice, but sometimes during my first playthrough I didn't have this feeling. This game is good and features quite a few innovations beyond the original Castlevania, but I can't really say I liked it any better.

Rating: 8 / 10

Super Metroid - Beat the game in under 3 hours

How awesome is this game? So awesome that I wanted to replay it and finish it in under three hours to get the "best" ending. The ending totally wasn't worth it. You just get to see Samus Aran out of her armor and for less than five seconds. The real enjoyable part in doing this was seeing how I could exploit thing like wall jumps and morph jumps to get to areas I probably wasn't supposed to get to until later in the game. That is another (probably unintended) aspect that makes this game stellar. I also failed to get 100% items despite using a walkthrough. Odd.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Technodrome Level

In honor of this game being released on the Wii's virtual console (which was released in honor of the recent movie), I decided to give it a play again. I still enjoy it.

I am aware that it is not a good game. At least not in the traditional sense. The play control isn't very good. Jumps are hard to control and getting from platform to platform can be a chore. You don't quite move fast enough, especially in the air to avoid enemies. You can switch between the different turtles and they each have their different weapons, but generally you would always want to use Donatello. His weapon may be the slowest, but it is the strongest and has the longest reach. Leonardo is next best and then comes Rafael. You pretty much never want to use Michaelangelo to fight with. The game is also extremely difficult. There are pits and spikes that are hard to avoid (and occasionally instant-kill lava). The enemies can be extremely tough to avoid and they often take multiple hits to kill so it is tough to kill them without taking any damage.

Despite all these negatives, I really like this game. Part of this is nostalgia. I had it when younger and spent a ton of time with it. It also has some things to recommend it. The game's soundtrack is stellar. The game's graphics are good. Exploring the city and airfields are fun. There is also a big sense of satisfaction when you get past certain parts.

That last reason is probably the biggest for me. The game is difficult, but masterable. It doesn't feel "cheap" - that is you generally feel you could have avoided something if you'd done a little better. For whatever reason, I just really dig tough games like these. Hell, the Ninja Gaiden games are pretty much my favorite on the NES because they are the perfect combination of excellent play control and incredible challenge.

I have been thinking about it, but I can't decide what I would do when the review this game. Obviously, I will point out all the flaws and shortcomings. The issue is the ridiculous number at the end. Is it completely based on what I think or what an average person would think? This is a whole issue with reviews in general and how "objective" they are supposed to be. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Right now, I am so out of practice I couldn't even make it to Shredder. The final level is absolute hell with enemies that take four hits from Donatello (meaning like eight from Michaelangelo) to kill. I used to be able to get through it, but not last night.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Super Metroid - Beat the game

After the vast expanse that was Maridia, tackling Ridley in Norfair was a piece of cake. It was all relatively linear (though I did end up inadvertently going back to the beginning of the level and having to do it again) and I went through, killed Ridley, then had my final confrontation with Mother Brain.

I'm very satisfied after beating the game. It gave me the chance to go where I want and choose what to do next. I attempted to explore everywhere and still finished the game with only 96% of the items. I also came in just over the ten hour mark (Was it really that short? It seems like so much longer) and am sorely tempted to try again with a speedy run to come in under three hours. The game is truly that good.

Yes, it is that good. As I was playing through it, I kept looking for little flaws. I found them, but after finishing the game, I realize just how inconsequential they were. Super Mario Bros. 3 wasn't perfect, but it was still the epitome of 2D platforming on the NES. Similarly, Super Metroid stands out as the 2D exploratory platformer.