Sunday, July 6, 2008

Punch-Out!! - Why is it so gol-dang great?

I have never linked the gamespite article that I am most proud of writing. This needs to be rectified:


The game is so good and stands up so well. Why is this? Read my article to find out.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Retro Game Master - A Review

Retro Game Master is the English title of Game Master CX, a Japanese reality show featuring a man who challenges himself to play and finish old video games. On June 28 and 29, the New York Asian Film Festival screened two episodes of the localized version of the show. You can read the festival's description here.

Retro Game Master stars Shinya Arino as "the Kacho". The first show I watched implied that Kacho meant salaryman, but further research reveals that "middle manager" is probably a more accurate translation. The idea is that Arino is not an amazing video game player, but a guy like you or me with nostalgia for the video games of his youth. Each episode centers around one video game. The two that played at the film festival were Mystery of Atlantis (a game never released in the United States) and Ghosts 'n Goblins. The episodes chronicled the hours-long process of Arino receiving the game, beginning to play it, getting stuck somewhere, consulting the instruction booklet for help, trying again and not progressing much further, getting some help from his assistant, and then, finally, making it to the end.

The shows were preceded by a trailer that explained its premise and popularity in Japan. It had the vibe of a late night product commercial that prompts you to call its 1-800 number "in the next ten minutes!". Still, for those unfamiliar with the show it provided a good sense of context. The best part of the trailer was the end where you get to know who Shinya Arino is. He explains that he does this for all the video game loving children and all the middle-aged people who remember playing these games.

Following the trailer was an introduction by Arino himself. It was one of the most hilarious things I have ever seen. Arino speaks in a very heavily accented English, obviously reading the words phonetically off of cue cards. He boisterously and enthusiastically proclaims that he is the Retro Game Master and that everyone in Japan loves him. Although it could have come off as making fun of Arino, it was obvious that he was totally into the act and just hamming it up for the crowd and that made it even better.

The shows themselves succeed in triggering any latent nostalgia you have for old video games. If you remember going over to a friend's house when they got a new Nintendo game and taking turns playing it to see how far you could get, then the show will strike a chord with you. During the Mystery of Atlantis episode, I was specifically reminded of when I got Ninja Gaiden for my birthday and my friends and I took turns playing level 3, trying to get past the birds. The shows are also successful in their humor. Arino plays out his frustrations and bewilderment perfectly. He always has an appropriate quip about whatever ridiculously obtuse or aggravating situation the game has put him in. This also serves to endear him to the viewer. You really feel for him and want him to succeed. In both screenings, the audience held their breath as he faced a difficult encounter and barely escaped by the skin of his teeth. In the Mystery of Atlantis screening, people actually clapped when he finished the game.

Of the two episodes I saw, Mystery of Atlantis was the superior one. I think this is because Mystery of Atlantis has more variety as a game and is also incredibly inscrutable. Mystery of Atlantis features 99 levels, power-ups with unexplained properties, warps to different levels, warps hidden in bizarre ways like deaths or bottomless pits, and utterly ridiculous puzzles. This melange of characteristics provided significant humor and could maintain the viewer's interest. The Ghosts 'n Goblins episode was significantly different because Ghosts 'n Goblins is merely an incredibly difficult game. The episode showed Arino progressing a little bit, getting stuck for hours at one enemy, and then finally getting past it. This process repeated for the entire episode. With little surprises or variety, the episode had to focus on it just being a really hard game and that wasn't as successful in keeping my attention for thirty minutes. The drama was further lessened because people who hadn't following the show wouldn't realize what a landmark it was that this was the first game that it took two sessions to complete. I still enjoyed it and, despite knowing what was coming, shared in Arino's bewilderment and disappointment when he found out what happens at the end of Ghosts 'n Goblins.

My previous exposure to the show was watching it on youtube. I greatly enjoyed those clips despite them being wholly in Japanese because Arino's trials and frustrations were obvious and relatable no matter what language they were in. Still, the show is even better when you know what is going on. Everyone who appears live on the show is subtitled in these episodes and the significant amount of titles and voice overs are all redone in English. Understanding what is going on means that, in addition to empathizing with Arino as he struggles through a game, you also get his jokes and can comprehend the new strategies he employs to get through the games.

While the translation is appreciated, some of the localization choices seem a bit odd. Arino is always called "The Kacho" in the show. While this may be typical for Japanese tv shows, it was weird for me to get used to the constant use of his title. Similarly, his assistants are never called by their names, but rather the title "Assistant" and the first letter of their last name (so I saw Assistant T and Assistant S). The general style of the show seemed like it couldn't decide between being a more staid American reality show and a more out there Japanese reality show. This was in full evidence with the performance of the voice over announcer. The voice over, provided by Patrick Harlan, an American-born comedian in Japan, sometimes follows the American style and delivers a tension-building narrative before a commercial break and a quick recap of what is going on after one. But the announcer sometimes becomes very excited, sounding like the fate of the world depends on what the Kacho does or that the events in the video game are actually happening. It seems like he may have been trying to ape the Iron Chef style, but given the different content of this show didn't pull it off very well. For all I know, he was trying to be as true as possible to the original Japanese announcer, but to my ears it was a little off-putting.

Finally, as enjoyable as the shows were, there was also a noticeable lack of polish. I got the feeling these localized episodes were put together as concept trailers to use to sell the show to an American distributor. Talking to a representative from Stylejam (the company that distributes the DVDs in Japan) confirmed they were in talks with American studios to try and get Retro Game Master released in the US. In addition to these screenings lacking opening or closing sequences for the shows, there were also some misspellings in the titles. In the Mystery of Atlantis episode, one of the titles talked about the "climatic" moment of the game which was especially noticeable because Arino and his assistant had just been talking about the game's climax.

Game Center CX is an amazing show. Almost everyone who sees it, whether there is a language barrier or not, can identify with Arino and his struggle to finish a video game. I knew this going into the screenings. What I didn't expect is that the show could become so much better once I understood it. Despite some questions about the announcer they used and the localization style, I loved the show. After each episode, I wanted to watch another one. I hope Stylejam succeeds in finding a US distributor for the show so I can do just that.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter - Finished the game

I like games that do things differently and as I've mentioned before, Dragon Quarter is quite different from your standard Japanese RPG. I mentioned the similarities to survival horror that the game has, but I don't think I mentioned that there are no inns or ways to heal yourself for free. Let that sink in. It means that every time you make it to a shop, you first have to spend the money to buy healing items just to restore your health. This makes the game incredibly tense. You can never really relax because you've just beaten a big boss since healing yourself afterwards will not be cheap. Resource management is key to the game.

As it turns out, I was really good at the resource management. Despite the fact that the game expects you to do at least one SOL Restart through the course of playing it, I never had to do that. I did get a game over about a half dozen times while playing it, but two of those were right in the beginning before even getting the dragon powers and all the rest were boss fights where I just handled the strategy wrong and had no problem with it the next time. It seems I stocked my inventory well as I always had just enough healing items to make it from shop to shop. My D-Counter was only at about 35% when I reached the final gauntlet of boss fights and so I was able to D-Dive each of the last three bosses.

Even though I D-Dived those bosses, I got the feeling that I could have beaten them with shrewd tactics with just regular attacks. That was a much better feeling than the one time I D-Dived before where I felt it was absolutely impossible to win without doing that.

This game did some things really well. The character customization system with weapons that have slots you can fill with different skills was great. The combat system was generally excellent, with strategic movement and combination attacks. The music is also a strong point of the game.

There are some rough edges too. Though combat is generally great because you always need to use strategy against even regular enemies and can't just mash on attack, it can become very tedious to employ whatever specific strategy you need to defeat each enemy. Tedium is generally the problem, as navigating the interface (all the menus to equip items and skills and especially manage the fairy colony) can take awhile. Reaching the shop again requires a significant break in the game while you buy the items to heal your characters, identify all unknown stuff and then decided what to keep and what to sell.

Overall, though it was a very enjoyable game and I'm glad I experienced it.

I'm actually tempted to play through it again. Whenever you do an SOL Restart (which can also be done after finishing the game), you may lower your D-Ratio which will unlock additional cut scenes during the playthrough. The story in the game is very minimal and I think that's appropriate for the playthrough, but I like the idea of filling in background information on a subsequent playthrough. Of course, I know the reality is that I have so many good games I haven't played yet, I probably won't play through it again. But maybe I'll at least do the beginning part.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer - Completed a Rescue

Not only does this game challenge you to manage your resources and plan every move correctly, it also allows you to be a good samaritan.

Unlike most roguelikes, when you die in Shiren, your character and items are not necessarily lost for good. Three times per game, you can request a rescue attempt. You can generate a password or post a request on an online server. Then, another person with the game can make a trek down to the dungeon level you got to and revive your character.

A friend of mine recently got the game in a short period of time managed to make it to level 20... where he promptly died. So I undertook my first rescue attempt. It's, uh, significantly more difficult than a normal run. You can take stuff from the warehouse in the first village, but skip past all the other towns. This makes food management a lot more difficult (also because I'm used to starting with a riceball). Additionally, you never find any companions so it's a completely solo affair.

Shiren began his journey in a bad situation - a mini-monster house right where I started on the first level. Shiren fell twice before grabbing the Armor Ward +1 from the warehouse in order to start in a better situation. Good weapons were easy for Shiren to come by in the beginning - the problem, of course, was food. He lingered around the rice changers to get a couple of big riceballs. Everything seemed to be going fairly well for Shiren up through Table Mountain. He didn't have an incredibly powerful inventory, but probably had enough. However, he was nearly out of riceballs. Finding a shop, proved to be the difference. Along with the riceball in their, the pair of postpone staves picked up proved to be the key to handling the tough monsters inside table mountain.

On level 19, Shiren knew he had only one more level to go. He was also dangerously low on food. He had eaten his last rice ball and didn't even have any more herbs. He reached the stairs up to level 20 with a fullness of only 2. He began in a small room, but knew he would have to remove his Armor Ward. A few steps through the corridor, he reached the starving point. Each additional step would drain him of hit points. Four steps later, he reached the monster house containing the traveler in need o rescue. But what made his eyes really wide was that he was only two steps from an herb. Reading his scroll of confusion to give him some breathing room, he ran to and ate the herb. He pondered gathering some treasure in the monster house, but knew he would be pressing his luck and the monsters' confusion would not last forever. Instead, he ran up to the fallen comrade and delivered the revival, transporting him out of the dungeon.

Now he had the pride of both finding the golden condor and rescuing a fellow traveler.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Etrian Odyssey - Reached B5F

This is the second old school-inspired game I've started playing recently. While Shiren was based on Rogue, Etrian Odyssey is based on other original computer RPG - Wizardry.

Wizardry was another of the original computer role-playing games and described a formula that many other early role-playing games would use. It was basically a dungeon crawl - start in a town to procure supplies and equipment and then head down into the dungeon. Each floor of the dungeon has its own unique layout and the deeper you go, the tougher the monsters get. The dungeons are presented to you in a first-person view and you move on a grid - going forward or backward one square with 90 degree turns. This formula inspired many classics like Might and Magic, The Bard's Tale, and Ultima.

One of the key meta-activities these games required was drawing map. Since all the corridors pretty much looked the same in these games, you had to play them with a piece of graph paper next to you, drawing in the walls as you saw them as well as any special features.

Obviously, requiring players to make their own maps, especially with a portable game just wouldn't fly in this day and age. But instead of having the game automatically create the map, the creators of Etrian Odyssey decided to make map-making part of the game. Taking advantage of the DS' touch screen, the game gives you virtual graph paper on the bottom of the screen where you can draw walls, and make notes of stairs, items, and powerful enemies.

This is all pretty awesome. Making the maps is completely easy to do and it feels really satisfying to be the cartographer.

There are two other aspects of this game that are causing me to enjoy it so far.

The first is that it has some great customization for your characters. You start with seven different classes with which to make up your party of five. Each class also has over a dozen skills and you have skill points with which to assign to these skills and configure your characters. These skill points are precious too, as you only get one additional skill point for each level that you gain. It's quite a deep system.

The second aspect is the sense of dread it gives you. In old school RPGs, you knew that if you stumbled into the wrong enemies, your game could be quickly over. You had to carefully preserve your health and resources and be sure to get back to town when injured. This game is a little easier with the standard enemies you can face, but it has special enemies called FOEs that are significantly more powerful than normal enemies you face. Most of the time, the first time you encounter an FOE it will completely own you. You need to serious strategy and strength in order to face an FOE. The thing that makes these super-enemies fair is that you can see them before encountering them and know when to avoid them. But the sense of dread when you know one is near and are low in resources and then it starts chasing you is great.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter - Defeated Modified Bosch

I had to D-Dive for the first time in this battle. D-Diving is basically turning into your dragon form where you are a super bad-ass. The downside, of course, is that doing this raises your D-Counter. Once that reaches 100, it's game over. You lose your humanity or become some evil dragon or something like that (the game isn't exactly clear on that issue) and you're done.

I find the tension of whether to use your super ability delicious. In some games, not using a limited resource has no real consequence. It may make the game a little harder or be a little more frustrating, but it doesn't seriously change the game. In Dragon Quarter, it's at the heart of the game. The requirement to use limited resources is also present in the fact that there is never any automatic healing. The only way to heal is to use healing items and aside from the few you can find in the course of your adventure, you'll have to buy them at shops. The creates another tension in whether to use your money to upgrade your weapons and armor or use it to stock up on healing items.

All that said, I was a little disappointed because it seemed I had to D-Dive in order to win this battle. The boss regenerated a massive amount of health each turn and the amount of damage I could do it wasn't consistently high enough each turn to lower his health beyond what he would regenerate. I do feel a bit cheated in that respect, but since this is my first playthrough of the game, I suspect that I'm underpowered from what I could be and that if this were a later playthrough I could actually beat him without becoming a dragon.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Final Fantasy III - Finished the game

At least I can say I've finished it, but the last couple of hours I put in were not very enjoyable.

It's tough to say why. I was enjoying the old school feeling and goodness in this game and then in the last section, the fun just kind of fell off a cliff. The game didn't change significantly, but I think the problem was, as I mentioned in my last entry, that there wasn't the promise of anything new to explore or any new gameplay mechanisms to unlock. I knew I would have to go through the final dungeon and beat the boss. Oh sure, I got a few new weapons and pieces of armor along the way, but it really felt like I had done all there was to do in this game and was now just going through the motions to get to its end.

One of the most interesting parts of playing this game was to examine it historically as it influenced later Final Fantasies. The job system is obviously the key innovation, but the little things like Chocobos, Summons, and Cid are there. But really, having played this, I can see how Final Fantasy IV is sort of a fan fiction of this game as all the characters in it have fixed jobs that pretty exactly map to the jobs of this game. And then Final Fantasy V came along and realized how lame it was to only be able to use on job's skills at a time and basically made the job system really fun.

Anyway, since the last portion of this game kind of ruined the interest I had in it, I'm mostly glad I finished now so I can say I've cleared one more game from my backlog. Now I can feel a little less guilty about starting new games.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Assorted Gamespite Articles

As a new article of mine is soon to be published, I realized that I've neglected to post here letting any regular readers here (do I actually have any?) know about them. So here goes.

I wrote a series of articles on the MacVenture games that were ported to the NES. These were a series of point and click adventures created for the Mac that, thanks to not needing a keyboard, could now be played on home video consoles. Shadowgate, Déjà Vu, and Uninvited were the three titles that made it to the NES (in that order), and I think Déjà Vu is the only one that really holds up well.

Also, I wrote a virtual console review of Kid Icarus, exploring why nostalgia is so key for this game - it was really innovative when it came out but very much doesn't stand up well today.

As mentioned, I have another article that will be published on gamespite in the next few weeks and I'm pretty proud of it. I think it's the best writing I've done in awhile.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter - Reached the Industrial Area

This game is difficult - at least when compared to modern RPGs. Generally, there's a bit of hand-holding and tutorial in the beginning to get you into them. In Dragon's Quarter, I just flat-out died in the first dungeon my first two times playing it.

My third time playing the game, I finally "got it". Everything about that combat system and how to correctly deal with monsters just clicked and I found myself really getting into this off-kilter RPG.

Breath of Fire has had four previous games in the series. I haven't looked into them, because they aren't supposed to be that different from their contemporary Japanese RPGs. Dragon Quarter is.

The main hook is that you aren't really expected to get through the game in one playthrough. It is certainly possible, but the game is designed in such a way that at a certain point you will realize that it isn't possible for you to get any further since you don't have any health restoring items and your character is about to die. At this point, the game gives you the option of doing a "Scenario Overlay" when you restart which basically means when you start over, you have all the skills your character previously had, along with any money you've put in the bank, progress you've made on the colony, and party xp (bonus experience you earn which can be given to the characters).

The other aspect that contributes to the need to restart is your D-Counter. Early on, you learn that your character can turn into a dragon - which is awesome! You become incredibly powerful and can quickly decimate foes. Each time you become a dragon and each time you use its abilities, your D-Counter number goes up. When it hits 100 you presumably lose control of yourself and lose your humanity - which is less awesome. That's another game over there. So, if you've had to use dragon abilities to get yourself out of some scrapes you may find it nearing 100% and have to restart.

In a strange coincidence, this game is pretty much a combination of the last two games I've been playing. The connection with Shiren is pretty obvious - they're both RPGs with turn-based tactical combat. They both expect you to die and restart, having learned something of the game from your previous run, but also allowing you to carry some things over from your previous run. Breath of Fire isn't nearly as unforgiving as Shiren since it does let you restore saved games as many times as you want. But... real save points are spaced far apart so a lot of your saving will be of the same "suspend" save variety that Shiren had - you can save your game anywhere, but when you come back to it, your save is immediately erased.

The saving aspect brings in one of the big connections the game has to Resident Evil - they are limited. If you want to save your game at one of the save points scattered throughout the game, you need a save token, much like Resident Evil required you to have ink ribbons to save at the typewriters. Save tokens are precious - you only find a few and can't buy more or store them so you have to be careful about using them up. The connection to survival horror becomes more apparent when you notice how little money and healing items the game gives you. The player must make the best use of their resources or they'll find themselves in an unwinnable situation and have to restart. I'm not the first to call this a Surival RPG, but I wholeheartedly support that appellation.

Having never played a Breath of Fire game before, I have no clue how innovative the combat in this one is, but I think it's incredibly well done. First of all, you can see enemies before battle and they take place right on the exploration screen, much like my favorite of games, Chrono Trigger. That you can see the enemies and know where you'll be fighting them is great. Additionally, the combat is very tactical. Characters have a certain number of action points, when it is their turn they can move and attack in almost any combination to use those. Maneuvering for position or to get just in range of an enemy is key - especially because several attacks can hit enemies in a line, rea, or cone. There is a wide variety of attacks for each character (and different weapons that you can specialize in different ways). Also, one character can place magical traps on the battle field and its a lot of fun to hold enemies off with these or coax them into them. The game also adds a bit of complexity in that there's a lot you can do pre-battle like set traps and hit the monster first to get a first strike turn, but I don't think those are as well implemented or interesting. Still, it's a pretty great system.

Finally, this game has the best cut scene system ever. Not only are they skippable (as it's a sin in this day and age to not have them be), but they are pauseable as well. Finally, I can go pee during some exposition and come back and not have missed it!

Monday, March 31, 2008

Resident Evil - Finished the game with Chris

After quite enoying my playthrough of the remake of the original Resident Evil, I thought to myself, "Self, let's play through it again as the second character to extend the experience and get a little more of the story."

It wasn't worth it.

I felt like I was just going through the motions. The whole horror movie vibe that I had enjoyed the first time through didn't do anything for me because I knew what was coming. Zombie in this corner, dog in that hallway, ape men will chase after me here. It lacked the spark and the creepiness and genuinely positive feeling of my first playthrough.

And the additional story? Nonexistent. Clearly the story was written to be played through as Jill. There was about one new thing I learned about the universe.

Oh well, at least now I know I can put this game away and concentrate on some of those games I've started but haven't seen to fruition.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer - Released the Golden Condor

Roguelike games lend themselves to stories. Sure, the games themselves have some sort of plot (retrieve the amulet of Yendor in Rogue, find the golden condor in this game), but since the levels, items, and enemies are randomly generated, each new game is a new story. Different things happen to your character each time you play and sometimes you have some narrow escapes and sometimes some spectacular failures. Nethack, one of the most famous of the genre, has created a trend of posting "ascension stories" of beating the game and YASD stories (Yet Another Stupid Death).

Last night, I finally made it through the main dungeon of the game and so, for those interested, here is my ascension story (my game save file is Gertrude, so I used that name for the story character):

Gertrude had made it to the Ravine of Illusions (level 26) on her last five journeys, twice getting beyond it only to die before reaching the Plains of the Sun. With two Big Riceballs in her pack, she began her new attempt. Things didn't look auspicious for her.

Right away, the fortune teller gave her a particularly grim fortune telling her that she would not get the help she needed. But who believed in those silly fortunes anyway, Gertrude thought. Ignoring the warning of Riva, the God of fate, she pressed on.

Despite finding all three companions, they all died prior to reaching the town of Cryptic Rock Valley. While feeling sad at their loss, she was sadder that her strategy would now be completely changed. She now wouldn't be able to send them off to take down enemies she didn't want to get near in the swamps. These enemies could confuse her, put her to sleep or rust her weapons. Especially because she had found precious few arrows up to this point, not having any companions would make things difficult.

She did manage to make it through the swamps relatively unscathed. All she lost was one item to a copter bird and a point of strength to a leech bug. She was lucky to always see purple slimes coming so she could unequip her stuff (pathetic as her Hide Shield +1 and Polearm +3 were) before taking them on.

Once in Table Mountain, without the help of any companions she took a lot of damage from the Great Hens and Chain Heads. She had found one Chiropractic Pot (which heals her) with 5 uses and it was quickly down to 2 after three dungeon levels. Due to her Hide Shield and plenty of rice balls found in her journey, she was able to use the tactic of hiding in a corridor and resting to restore hit points. Little did she know this would be her survival tactic from hereon out because she would never find another Chiropractic pot.

It took until floor 25 before she could upgrade her equipment. There she found a Master Sword +2 which she upgraded to +3 with an Air Bless Scroll. She now had that and (when she needed it) an Armor Ward +2 to help her out. Learning the lessons of previous adventures, she used a Power Up scroll immediately upon reaching the Ravine of Illusions and used a staff of postponement and eventually a dragon herb to take down the one Skull Wizard she saw. The Death Angels were slowed or shot at from afar to lessen their effect. The Armor Ward was now her default shield.

She progressed through floor 27, making judicious use of equipping the hide shield and waiting until her hit points were back over 100. Floor 28 was a huge monster house (is it always? it was the last time she made it there) She was relatively close to the exit so she decided running was the best option. A Death Angel would have gotten in her way, but she used a Switching Staff to switch places with it and made it to the next floor with 2/3 of her hit points.

On floor 29, she started in a room with five monsters and so used her last scroll of confusion. This allowed her to take down the monsters one by one. Every time she faced more than one enemy at once, she had to use an item like a Dragon Herb, a Staff of Postpone, or Bufu's Staff to even the adds. After every battle she needed to hide in a corridor and wait while she healed. She had a very close call when she was fighting a dragon and an Armor Knight came along and knocked off her sword and shield. She used two blasts of a Staff of Postponement to deal with the two of them.

Despite her lacking of healing items, she made it up the stairs to the plains of the sun! Where was the gold that was supposed to cover the city? Where was the Golden Condor that would grant wishes? She found markers left by the former inhabitants, explaining how a terrible evil had come and eaten the gold and trapped the condor. Exploring and heading into the final floor, she double-checked that she was ready. She took down the first two tigers she encountered with Dragon Herbs. Suddenly, she heard a clicking sound behind her and turned to find what must have taken down the Plains of the Sun - the tainted insect! When it got near her, she wasn't taking any chances and threw the Running Egg meat at it that she had picked up in Stream Village, turning it into a harmless egg with legs. Without that to worry about, she picked off the rest of the tigers before finishing the egg and ending the curse on the Golden condor.

Checking the back of the hall, she cleared the webs away and encountered the Golden Condor. On its back, she returned to Canyon Hamlet, looking down at the caves, woods, and villages she had passed along the way.

Now I'm really curious to change my Wi-Fi encryption so I can use my DS on it and see where I rank (I'd imagine not too high - I got about 1.5million points on that run)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Resident Evil - Finished the game with Jill

I've always wanted to see what all the fuss was about. When Resident Evil was originally released in 1996, it was extremely popular, was hailed by critics, and basically defined the "Survival Horror" genre. It was also known for its tropes of extremely limited ammunition, limiting the amount of times you could save, possessing ridiculous puzzles, and having clumsy controls that make it much harder than it should be to shoot at or run away from the enemies. But the remake of the original game for the Gamecube was supposed to be well done and now that I have a Wii and can play Gamecube games, I might as well check it out.

The game is quite enjoyable.

I guess maybe I wasn't expecting that. I think I assumed that this game had a lot of fan nostalgia going for it, but that it wasn't actually that great. I think this was because I had played one of the many copycat series, Fear Effect, and found it decidedly mediocre. But I guess Resident Evil is such a popular franchise for a reason. This game gets it pretty much right.

What I found most interesting is that it wasn't exactly the gameplay that sold me on this game. As it has been since the original, you still control your character like a vehicle. And while being able to quickly turn around means this isn't so bad, the control scheme is by no means intuitive and can still be frustrating. The puzzles are fine. It takes you a bit out of element that a mansion would have such bizarre and convoluted locks and traps, but at least the puzzles themselves make sense and are all done "in-game".

What makes this game work is the atmosphere. It absolutely conveys the mood of being in a creepy mansion with zombies running amok. The fact that your character isn't a badass means that you do indeed feel very mortal. The ammunition is limited enough to make you worried that you'll run out and won't be able to defend yourself, but not so limited as to be frustrating. The sound, graphic, and gameplay design come together to make you feel like your in a horror movie.

Not just any horror movie either. I played Silent Hill for the first time two or three years ago and it was genuinely scary as well. But Silent Hill felt much more like a psychological horror movie with the monsters and the world playing on the characters' psyche and inner demons. Resident Evil falls more in line with the slasher tropes of monsters popping out of nowhere, sounds that mislead a character as to where the danger is, and "quick cuts". The thing is, it does all of those things really well creating a very satisfying mood.

I had originally thought I would just give this game a shot then go on the even more universally loved Resident Evil 4. Now, however, I'm thinking I might go through the entire main series on my way there. At the very least, I think I'll try playing through it as Chris.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer - Made it to level 20

Rogue is one of the most venerable of computer games. Created back when computers (mainframes) didn't have any graphical capabilities, it relied entirely on the ascii character set to display its dungeon-crawling adventure. But the use of pure ascii text isn't necessarily what defines Rogue as a game. No, what is more important are the three main characteristics of the dungeons it generates: 1) They are randomly created every time. Their layout is never the same twice, nor are the monsters or items that populate them though you can generally count on the fact that tougher monsters and better items occur in lower dungeons. 2) Items found in the dungeons are not immediately identified. Weapons and armor are obvious in their application, but any curses or blessings they may have are not known. Wands and potions give less information - all you have from them is a descriptor such as brass or murky and their function can only be determined by magically identifying them or taking a risk and trying them out. 3) When you are dead, you are dead. You can save your game, but once you resume it your save is gone so you cannot go back to an old save. Once you die, you must begin again at the top floor of the dungeon at level one and with no items.

As brutal as this sounds, Rogue has spawned many imitators over the years (called roguelikes, naturally). Quite a few have been released for consoles and Shiren the Wanderer for the Japanese Super Famicon (SNES) is generally considered the best. It was recently re-released for the Nintendo DS and I snapped it up quickly.

I am totally digging this game. It is hard for me to describe it better than Jeremy Parish did in his review and blog post follow-up.

I've played several roguelikes in my time (mostly Nethack) and so far this is my favorite. The big problem I have with Nethack is one of its selling points - there is so much going on. Too much for me to wrap my head around and remember all the item interactions and resistances and monster traits, etc. Shiren, still has all the trappings of a roguelike, but it seems tractable to me. There are only eight different types of items and they each only have about eight different types within them so it all seems managable. Unlike in Nethack, I feel like I am actually making progress and learning what to do as I go.

That's really the key with roguelikes. The more you play them, the more you learn and master the mechanics. Parish made the analogy to Super Mario Bros. in that you refine your basic gameplay skills each time you play and each time you get a little further. Of course, here you can't memorize the level layout, but that's okay. You learn how to deal with each type of enemy, and when to use the right pots, wands, and herbs.

I also love the innovations this game adds to the roguelike genre. While your character starts anew each time he dies, the world is affected by his actions. You can cause new shops and rooms to open and new items to appear in the game by undertaking different actions. You can even help others and have them join you as companions.

I don't know if it is the cute graphics, the beautiful music, the deep but not overwhelming variety of objects and monsters, or a combination of all of them but this game has had me hooked since I picked it up a week and a half ago. I keep wanting to play thinking that next time I can finally make it to the golden condor at the top of Table Mountain.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Dark Castle - Beat the game on Beginner and Intermediate

The Mac was never a gaming platform. It never had a large userbase and Apple was uniformly awful at courting game developers (and sometimes the developers themselves are a little unreasonable). But, despite having far fewer games than its early Commodore 64 and Apple ][ brethren and later the industry juggernaut PC, it did have some gems.

One of those gems was released early in the Mac's life in 1986 and was called Dark Castle. This game, like many early Mac games was fairly revolutionary for its time.

First, the animation was incredibly smooth and life-like. It was a pleasure to watch the protagonist, Duncan, run, jump, and fall. This was three years before Prince of Persia with its rotoscoped animation (but after Karateka which had similar animation principles). Duncan's walking, running and jumping animations were quite realistic, but the game also had a good sense of humor by adding cartoon-like "hovering over a pit, then looking down and falling" and "banging your head and getting dizzy and
spinning around" animations.

The second major innovation to this game was its control scheme. The game is a platformer and the character is moved around using the keyboard (with WASD as the default keys). The character's main attack is throwing rocks and this is accomplished by aiming with the mouse. Yes, that's right - moving with the keyboard and aiming with the mouse, the same control scheme used by all PC-based first-person shooters today was pioneered by this game back in 1986, almost ten years before the system was first used in a first person shooter (Marathon, which probably not coincidentally was also for the Mac).

So, the announcement that the third Dark Castle game, Return to Dark Castle is finally coming out (it has spent 7-8 years in development) inspired me to go back and replay this game.

It is still a lot of fun, but like many games of my youth, it is a lot harder than I remembered it. I seem to recall being very good at this game and having no problem beating it, but I must have only been playing it on Beginner difficulty. I jumped right back into this game on Advanced difficulty and got my ass-kicked hard. Humbled, I started back at Beginner and relearned the game. I was able to beat Beginner and then Intermediate modes without much difficulty. Advanced is still insane. It took me luck, using all of my ammunition and about 16 tries to finally get the shield. I then died while attempting to get the fireball.

Still, this game brings back great memories. The sound effects are ingrained in my brain - Duncan's grunt as he jumps, his "Whoa, whoa, whoa, wrmmmbrblblblblblb" when he smacks his head, the mutant's taunting, the raven's caw, and the wizard's mumble. Despite not having many games, the early Mac had some good and unique ones.

Monday, February 4, 2008

No More Heroes - Finished the game

This game was an incredible experience. Someone said it best that this game is sort of like Blaster Master or Ninja Gaiden for the NES - games that weren't perfect but that were incredibly fun to play and everyone had to have. The difference is that both of them games had really compelling gameplay (okay, so Ninja Gaiden also sold itself on its story) to go with them. Here, the visceral feel of the gameplay is great, even if it isn't necessarily deep. But the story and game execution and details are what sells it.

I mentioned previously that the city of Santa Destroy feels lifeless. More than that, I share the opinion of other that is one of the worst level-select screens ever. While there are some neat details scattered around Santa Destroy (references to other games and punk music), having to drive in your bike from one location to the next is just tedious. Especially when you just want to earn some money at the side missions.

It is also probably a good think that the game doesn't try to pad itself out too much. The combat feels great. The graphics show your character performing all sorts of neat combos. The kills slice guys in twain and send blood splattering everywhere! You can mow down entire groups of enemies! You can send them to their doom with professional wrestling moves! Despite all that, the combat isn't very deep. There's high and low attacks and dodging and occasionally throws, but there isn't much meat there. You start feeling this a bit on the later bosses that have a ton of health where you just have to do the same thing over and over in order to defeat them.

All that said, I really enjoyed this game. Any adult who has a Wii and is more of a core gamer should check this out. The game is fully of crazy action and over-the-top entertainment. It is a send up of action movies and video games and just absolutely feels right. This is like one of those movies you start talking about immediately afterwards with your friends and say, "Did you see that? It was amazing!"

I usually don't hesitate to post spoilers because it is assumed here that I will be talking about my progress in a game which can include anything I have seen. But since so much of the enjoyment of No More Heroes is discovering the story and references in it, I feel I must put in this intermediate paragraph.

That said, there were so many great moments I experience in playing through this game and encountering all the bosses:

Destroyman was hilarious. A postal worker that thinks he's a superhero, complete with nipple guns and crotch rockets? And the way he makes Travis fall for his obvious tricks is a delight.

The death scene where Holly puts the grenade in her mouth and her head explodes is a classic 'oh my fucking god I can't believe that' moment.

The hilarious brain machine contraption in the next fight was just classic and sort of reminded me of Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I knew that this fight would end before it started, but I figured Travis (or the machine itself) would be the one to do it.

Rank 4 might have been my favorite fight. Half the level is a dream sequence where your character is the space ship in a shoot 'em up sequence. And the boss fight was probably my favorite in the game (only Destroyman comes close). It is just staged so well. From the set up as a date at the theater between Travis and Sylvia to the boss performing an on-stage magical act and you acting like an actual member of the audience to the fight itself which involves the magician turning the screen upside down and includes an interlude where you are put into and escape from a magical trick box, to the cinema after defeating him. As I said, it is staged incredibly well.

My favorite answering machine message from the video store is the one where they say that instead of returning the porno you rented, you instead returned a copy that cuts off two minutes into it.

If I had my suspicions that the boss fights in this game were a send-up of Metal Gear Solid, the final boss fight confirmed it. First, the games finishes demolishing the fourth wall by having Jeane comment on how if she told you her story, it would increase the game's rating which could delay it... and then they might have to call the game No More Heroes Forever (a classic video game in joke). Then Travis says to just fast forward through it. So you literally get a fast forwarded scene through tons of expository dialogue where Jeane reveals a life of abuse, incest, whoring herself out, training to be a killer, and getting her revenge. It was great.

Then in the "real ending" after defeating Henry, Travis argues that he can't reveal new plot now since the game is over and they have a great conversation about how the game should end to some totally kick ass music.

As you can tell, I found No More Heroes to be a great experience.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Zelda vs Metroid vs Contra

A friend of mine asked me very politely to do a post on my blog. His first two topics were things that I'm just not inspired to write about and similarly am not really inspired to play their games (except maybe a brief rant on how can New York suck so much in Double Dribble). But the third is definitely deserving of a topic:

What is your favorite between Metroid, Zelda and Contra? And why.

This is a great question. Especially because the answer changes depending on exactly how you look at the question.

All three of the original games are great and all made my list of Top 50 NES games when I made it way back when. That list would change now. Contra might move ahead of Zelda or it might not. You see, if the question were which of these games (NES originals) has the best memories for me, the answer is hands down, Zelda. I received Zelda with my NES for Hanukah of 1987 and that game was my world for many months and filled me with such joy and excitement. I played Contra at a friend's house and enjoyed it, but didn't actually own it for myself and play it through until 1997. Metroid I played a few times at friends houses, but didn't actually own that cartridge until 2002. So of the three original games, Zelda has my favorite memories.

If, though, the question is which of the original games is my favorite to play, then the answer is easily Contra (I'm talking about the NES games here as the Contra arcade game wasn't as good). Contra is the game of the three that has aged the best and is still a lot of fun to play today.

Metroid and Zelda were both revolutionary when they were released. Indeed, they both pioneered open-ended exploration and tantalizing glimpses of areas inaccessible without possession of the proper equipment. But they both have what, by today's standards, would be considered horrible design flaws. Metroid has a huge, open world that is easy to get lost in. Games back then did have automaps so this is somewhat forgivable. But unlike Zelda which also didn't automap the overworld (and did automap the dungeons and come with a mostly complete map in the box), the rooms and corridors weren't on an exact grid so mapping the game with graph paper or the like was and is extremely tedious. Of course, today you can just get a map off the internet, but that takes away from the exploration aspect of the game. Another flaw both the original Metroid and Zelda share is that they have no easy way to end the game and save your progress without dying (Zelda did have an undocumented way to do this, but it was roughly equivalent to dying except it didn't increase your death count). Unfortunately, when you died in Metroid you started back at the beginning with very low health and low missiles. Since there was no easy way to recharge these, you had to waste a lot of time not only backtracking, but also getting your health and items back to their correct status. In Zelda, this problem was mitigated by only having to restart at the beginning of dungeons when you died and by having less total health and enemies more generously dropping it. Zelda did suffer more from one problem than Metroid did: having to bomb random areas. Bombs were a limited resource in Zelda and many vital resources were located behind rocks that needed bombing. There were no clues as to where these bombable areas were so a player would have to randomly bomb places and then restock their bombs and then try again. Burnable areas were almost as bad if all a player had was the blue candle.

Contra, being in some regards a simpler game than either of the above, doesn't possess such flaws. It wasn't really revolutionary. There were certainly other platformers were you ran, jumped, and shot at things. But none were quite as polished as Contra (including its sequel). It is difficult, but features few cheap deaths and can be beaten without memorization. It is amazing that few run and guns even through to today have matched its balance. The fact that two players can play simultaneously makes it even better.

Okay, so question answered right? Well, the wording is kind of vague so maybe he means which is my favorite series of Zelda, Metroid, or Contra?

Well, Metroid is the series that has my favorite game to play of all the games in those three series: Super Metroid. Despite coming out on the SNES in 1993, the game holds up today as being nearly perfect. And that's not hyperbole as I only played it for the first time last year. Super Metroid gets free form exploration with new areas begging to be explored when you acquire a new item absolutely correct. It takes place in a world that seems natural and organic. It gives you a map and save points, but doesn't hold you by the hand instead gently nudging you in the right direction with level design. It's an amazing game and I would recommend it to everyone.

The other series have had great games. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening is my favorite in the series and there is a lot to recommend in Link to the Past as well. And I haven't even played any of the 3D Zeldas and I know many hold up Ocarina of Time to be one of the best games ever (of course they also tend to be at least five years younger than me). I'll get around to trying Ocarina at some point, but I highly doubt it can usurp Super Metroid. As to the Contra series, the first three games were all very good, but the original is probably still the best (granted, I haven't tried the recently released Contra 4) and I know it doesn't reach Super Metroid's level.

Finally, the question could be asking which series overall is my favorite?

There my answer once again goes to Zelda. With the exception of the CD-i games, every Zelda game has been good - at least at the time of its release. The first two Zeldas may not hold up, but every 2D Zelda since then has and Zelda made the transition to 3D very well. The series has always oozed quality and has what is probably the most quality and the most average quality of any series.

Metroid comes close to the Zelda series as all of its games are good except Metroid II which I think is only above average (though some think much less of it). Super Metroid is probably one of the best games of all time, but the original Metroid doesn't hold up, Metroid II barely does, and Fusion is fun, but flawed. Zero Mission is a great remake of the original game that is worth playing, but is also "merely" good. I have no experience with the 3D Metroids. All of them are supposed to be good, but not amazing and so while the Zelda series probably averages out to very good, the Metroid series only averages out to good.

The Contra series had three good to very good games and then unfortunately the PlayStation Contras came along which were awful. The PS2 Contras were good, though Shattered Soldier was ridiculously difficult and Neo Contra didn't feel like a Contra game. Contra 4 is by all accounts very good, but that still puts Contra at a notch below the other series.

So there you go, a very long-winded explanation of which among Zelda, Contra, and Metroid is my favorite and why.

No More Heroes - Ranked 7th

Why did I get this game? Well the premise is that you play as an American anime nerd named Travis Touchdown who wins a real life light saber on eBay and decides to use it to become the world's best assassin. How can one not want to play that game? Additionally, the game play is supposed to be a mish-mash of Devil May Cry and Grand Theft Auto. All of this is presented in a neat cel-shaded aesthetic.

My overall impression of the game so far is that it's awesome despite having some flaws.

Some of the gameplay works very well. The swordplay mechanics are great. I love slashing at foes, attempting to kill one while avoiding others, and putting together combos of slashes and wrestling moves. The motion controls of the wii remote are very well used in this game. It probably would have been too error prone to attempt to determine whether the player was making a horizontal or vertical strike, so instead the A button slashes and whether it is horizontal or vertical depends on the position of the remote. Additionally, motion controls are used for winning battles of strength, wrestling moves, and finishing blows and they work perfectly for those.

Battles tend to be frenetic and intense - especially when you are taking on multiple thugs at once. You have to strike a balance between finishing off the foe you are attacking and dealing with the other foes surrounding you. After taking down one foe, you often need to immediately dodge out of the way to avoid the blow coming from the guy that ran up next to you while you were fighting. All this slashing, dodging, and waving the controllers around is amplified during boss fights. The boss fights are very well done with each boss having unique attacks and moves that you have to learn in order to defeat them.

Unfortunately, the gameplay mechanics aren't all roses. The camera in this game is pretty bad. You often have to move it as much as you move your character which is nearly always a bad sign. The fact that the camera doesn't move well with you character can absolutely wreck you when fighting a lot of enemies and especially in boss fights.

The game takes place in a fictional California town of Santa Destroy. While the game was compared to Grand Theft Auto in terms of freely roaming the city, this description isn't really apt as there is precious little to do in the city. While there is other traffic and pedestrians you see and can hit while walking around or riding your motorcycle, they never react to you, making the city feel pretty lifeless. Really, I think it is best to think of the city as more of a hub than the open cities of the GTA games. In the city you can go to various shops or take on side missions to make money before going to the fuller levels where you will fight the next ranked assassin.

For a game with such a bizarre premise, it is actually more subtly wacky than I would have thought. The game has a kind of internal logical consistency even if it wouldn't make any sense in the real world. The characters you meet all have bizarre philosophies about life, how to get ahead, and what to do, but they involve things like cleanliness, collecting balls, and using the force while avoiding the garden of madness. The dialogue is similarly just subtly bizarre. Kind of like a cross between David Lynch and Hideo Kojima. Seriously, the conversations you have with the bosses before and after you fight them have a very Metal Gear Solid feel to them. Characters wax philosophical when they should be killing each other and it doesn't really make sense. All this does make the plot a little opaque and hard to pick up. The background for the story was done in two lines and the fight with the 8th ranked assassin contained one or several plot points that made no sense to me.

Besides the poor camera and lifeless city, my other big complaint is how the side missions work. You need to go to one location to get them, then drive to wherever the mission is located, and then if you fail it, go all the way to where you got the job and then back on to the starting locating to try it again. Other minor complaints include odd graphical issues (textures and pop-in) and characters and especially your bike getting stuck on terrain and other obstacles.

Still, the game gets so many details right, that it is easy to overlook the big things it does wrong. Details include:

Travis' apartment being decked out with anime stuff. Posters on the walls, a giant gundam in one corner, toys on the shelves, anime woman pillows, his cat occasionally grabbing onto the fish hanging on his fan, and a tissue box by the tv chair.

The fact that to recharge your light-saber, you make a masturbating motion (and Travis acts like he is doing just that)

Wrestling references (predominantly Mexican wrestling references) peppered throughout the game including trading cards of wrestlers, and a mysterious acquaintance who leaves you notes and helps you remember moves.

Moai statues scattered throughout the city.

The fact that, during the loading scenes you can make the spinning "wait" star bounce and send it flying around.

After you kill each assassin there is a message on your answering machine from the video store about some adult video you ordered or that is overdue.

8-bit style victory screen after you kill an assassin and take their rank.

Customizable outfit of sunglasses, leather jacket, jeans, belt, and t-shirt (all of which can be bought, or for t-shirts, found in dumpsters).

Receiving cell phone calls where the Wii remote vibrates and then the person's voice comes out of the remote.

Dialogue such as "If challenge were a taste, you'd be quite delicious!"

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bitstream of Consciousness is back (hopefully)

So moving across the country, starting a new job, dealing with New York hours - all of these things have conspired to prevent me from chronicling the video games that I'm playing. And I certainly have been playing games, including Planet Puzzle League, Final Fantasy Legend, Wii Sports, Excite Truck, Final Fantasy III, X-Com, and Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s.

Also, shortly before leaving Utah, I had an amazing party at my place: A night of old-school sports games. The ground rules were simple: 2-player games, winner stays, new challenger picks the game. We stuck to NES, and Genesis as our systems and it was awesome. For several hours we played games like Tecmo Super Bowl, Blades of Steel, NHL '94, Madden '96, NBA Jam, Double Dribble, and Super Dodge Ball. It was truly awesome. I hope to amass a good number of friends here in New York to repeat the performance.

Anyway, I hereby pledge more regular updates - at least when I'm playing games.