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.