Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Killing Your Darlings - Nintendo Entertainment System - Fire Emblem Gaiden

Genre: Strategy RPG

                With the bridge being shortened more and more between Japan and America gaming-wise, a lot of long running series have been finding ways to become exposed to American audiences.  The translation communities that have been popping up from all corners of the Internet have helped with these efforts.  One such series that has been making ripples (and one recent larger splash) is Fire Emblem.  Fun fact: of the thirteen entries in the series, only six have received official translation treatments.  Nearly all of the other entries have received attention from the efforts of various groups to bring these well regarded tactical RPGs into a new light.  Plenty of people know about the original Fire Emblem thanks to Marth, the original hero of the series, showing up in various cameos over the past few years of Nintendo’s offerings.  Fire Emblem Gaiden, the lesser known sequel to the original game, has not received quite as much attention as it’s siblings- and that may be an unfortunate oversight.
                The story of the game takes place at the same time as the original Fire Emblem (“Gaiden” meaning “side story”, for sake of reference).  On the continent of Valentia, there are dark forces gathering.  In the small village of Ram, a young man named Alm is approached by a member of the Liberation working against the oppression of Dozeh, a general of the nation of Zofia.  Meanwhile, in the nation of Novis, a priestess by the name of Celica begins a journey under her mentor’s tutelage to find the reason that the goddess, Mila, has disappeared with no trace.  As their intentions lead them across the nations of Zofia and Rigel, they will encounter many allies- including one another- and uncover more sinister forces behind the strange occurrences than they could have imagined facing.

                If you have played any of the other Fire Emblem games, you basically know how this game plays out.  Much like any other tactical RPG, you gather troops of various classes- fighter, mage, cavalry- and proceed through the story, leveling up your characters and fighting on a battlefield grid.  Unlike more recognizable stateside strategy games like Shining Force and Final Fantasy Tactics, when a character falls in battle, they are gone for good.  This adds a certain weight to the battles, as if you lose someone, you must make the decision to lose that soldier or go back and restart that particular battle.  It’s a tougher choice than you might think most of the time.
                As you level your characters up through battles, you will also be able to promote them to high classes.  Wizards become Sages, Cavaliers (Social Knights, in the early days) become Paladins; the list goes on.  This brings about a boost in stats and makes the already rough terrain of the game somewhat easier to traverse.

Fire Emblem Gaiden has a few differences between itself and many others in the series.  This game lets you travel across the world map from place to place, unlike others in the series that, for the most part, just plop you from battle to battle with preparations in between.  This was borrowed by The Sacred Stones and Awakening, two of the later entries, and adds a feeling of openness to the game, even if it truly is one linear path.
This was also before the time of ‘weapon endurance’.  In future entries, Fire Emblem allows you to use nearly every weapon a certain amount of time before it breaks and has to be replaced.  In this game, you can equip special weapons, but you will never find yourself without armaments.  Considering the difficulty of the game itself, this is a welcome breath of fresh air.

                The allure of the Fire Emblem games comes from two things: collecting all of the allies you can and the stories involving politics, back stabbings, and the storylines that tread the line between military drama and dealing with gods and monsters beyond imagination.  Story wise, this is where the game shows it has aged poorly.  The story starts off interesting, coming from the very different viewpoints and tones of Alm fighting through the soldiers under Dozeh to free his nation and Celica fighting through the dark unnatural beings arising due to the lack of the Goddess’ influence, it feels as through the game drags on with very few pertinent plot points being revealed often enough to keep feeling like there is some driving force to continue.  It’s a shame considering that the plot points that are revealed are, if not cliché now, interesting enough in the Fire Emblem mythos.
                On the plus side, the characters and their ‘side stories’, while not fleshed out, are interesting enough as they come up.  They wrap up nicely in the ending and, depending on who is alive or isn’t, character endings change to reflect their losses or victories.  Defending characters, rescuing them, or just meeting them on a dock to convince them to join your slowly growing army keeps things dynamic.  While only a few characters from the first game bridge into this game (four in total, if memory serves correctly), it does not feel as though they were shoehorned in for the sake of popularity or looking for sales.  The characters are given a role in the story and can become vital members of your army, if given the chance.
                Music in strategy games is rarely anything more than ‘getting the job done’ in older games, and this game doesn’t stray far from that.  Driving 8-bit revelries accompany your battles and some of them are put together well enough.  Much like the story, however, the music never feels fresh enough to incite the player needing to turn the sound up any higher than necessary.  The one track most people know, if they know any from Gaiden, is ‘With Mila’s Divine Protection’, which was remixed into Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii.  Even that track, in its synthesized glory, isn’t incredibly memorable.
                Graphically, the game is about as interesting as its predecessor.  You’ll see a lot of the same colors across the maps, broken up by the occasional blue water or gray fortress, but embellishment is not the name of the game on most of these maps.  On top of that, a lot of the maps are large enough for them to feel noticeably barren.  The character icons and figures are about on par with only a few being interesting enough for a second glance.

                While the game is mediocre in the grand scheme of games and possible one of the weaker entries in the Fire Emblem series, it holds a special place in my heart.  It presented advancements that I, as a player, really connected with and enjoyed.  Already having an established love for the series helped to bear through some of the more tedious parts of the game, but if you are looking to start an interest in the Fire Emblem games, you’d be well advised to look elsewhere and return here once you develop a taste for the games.  The translation is fantastic with credit to Artemis251 and, by extension, Shimizu Hitomi for the hard work put into the game.  It may not offer as much as the next games in the series would, but what it does offer can be intriguing if you can make your way through the game to find it.

Monday, March 10, 2014

By Any Other Name - Game Boy - The Final Fantasy Legend

Nintendo Game Boy
Genre: Role-Playing

                The Final Fantasy has had its hands in plenty of pots throughout the ages.  The Final Fantasy Adventure was actually the beginning of the …of Mana/Seiken Densetsu series, a little known fact until Sword of Mana, the game’s remake appeared on the Game Boy Advance.  In a similar vein, the SaGa series- Romancing SaGa, SaGa Frontier, etc.- started as The Final Fantasy Legend.  While spawning two sequels and a few remakes throughout the years, this game was quite the ambitious undertaking in the days of the Game Boy.

                In the game world, there is a tower that is rumored to reach to Paradise.  The tower has been sealed for ages, but with monsters ravaging the land, the promise of Paradise- not to mention promise of a single wish granted for whoever reaches the top- proves to invoke the hero to recruit like-minded warriors to scale the tower to put an end to the evils of the world and see Paradise.
                In scaling the tower, the heroes come across multiple ‘other worlds’ that differ from the world of Continent (yes, really) that they live in.  The world of Ocean, Sky, and Ruins await the heroes, all plagued with their own monsters and full of their own inhabitants who need help.  What are these other worlds, though, and what finally awaits the heroes beyond at the door to Paradise?

                The game plays differently from many standard turn-based role-playing games.  Much like Final Fantasy II or the other games in the SaGa series, your characters level up in different ways and depending on their actions in battle.  There are three races/classes you can choose from.  Humans can equip more armor and items, but they only level up by buying them items to raise their strength, agility, or hit points.  Mutants (interestingly called ‘Espers’ in the Japanese version) level up depending on their actions.  If you cast more magic, their Mana grows, whereas with more attacks comes more Strength.  They also develop random abilities throughout their traveling, which can make them somewhat unreliable, as they can even change between battles without your knowledge.  The last race is the Monster, who cannot equip anything but can eat the meat of fallen monsters to transform and gain more abilities to become stronger.  While you choose a main character from these races, the rest of your characters can be hired through a Guild at any point in your adventure.

                If you’ve never played a SaGa game before, you must know that this game is much like the rest of the series in that you have to grind to gain stats.  Excuse me.  You have to GRIND.  Admittedly, after a good bout of grinding, I seemed to be decimating the bosses left and right, but especially in growing Humans, you have to be careful and watchful, as they can quickly fall behind.  There’s a balancing act that isn’t at play in many other games.

                One issue I had was with the limited amount of inventory you have.  This stemmed more from the fact that plot important items do not disappear once they are used.  Only toward the end of the game did I start to throw some of these items away with fear that I would corner myself and have to start the entire game over again.  As a helpful hint, however, that did not happen.  Still, it was a stressful decision to make, worrying about jeopardizing the game to acquire a fantastic and rare weapon.

                The plot is almost paper thin throughout the worlds, though interesting spots appear here and there.  One of the most annoying interesting spots involves the end boss of one of the worlds actively attacking you over and over unless you are traveling in underground paths to get around.  The ending of the game is probably the most interesting part of the whole game, and while it’s not the most original ending now, it sneaks up on you in a very fun way.  As a fun note to make, the final boss is actually still fairly well regarded by RPG enthusiasts.  In the original Japanese, he was called ‘God’.  Obviously, this was changed for the US, as were nearly all religious references, but it definitely smacks of bravado and speaks on the Square that used to be.
                Uematsu supplies all sixteen tracks of the music for the game, and it shows through the limitations of the Game Boy’s usual audio.  Many familiar melodies play through, even into the ending theme of the game.  The graphics are your standard fare, though there are a lot of reused sprites.  A sign of the times, but despite the effort to make the enemies different on the limited palette of the system, it’s very noticeable.  Each of the worlds has a separate tone and visual feel, but outside of that, the visuals are somewhat sparse.

                The game is a fun blast from the past, and if you like SaGa games, hunting this one down to play might be a worthwhile endeavor if you’re a SaGa fan, and a game to tentatively play if you’re curious about a new role playing experience otherwise.  Apparently, the game also has a few spiritual links to Final Fantasy XIII, so maybe the thought of this game is still alive and well in the Square studios.  Doing some research, I found that this game is apparently only in the US in two versions- the original release and a re-release a few years later- so it could be tough to come across.  If you know what you’re getting into, though, it may be well worth it.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Your Future Looks Promising - SNES - Arcana


HAL Laboratory
Genre: Dungeon Crawler RPG

                As it may have been mentioned before, the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis days were the heyday of role playing games.  Plenty of milestones have come along since, but so many games from the 16-bit era had quality, immersion, and charm that it’s hard to debate how great and influential those games really were.  Between the well-known series that were dominating attention at the time like Final Fantasy, there were other games eking their way into their shadows, falling into a obscure nostalgia years later.  For me, Arcana has always been one of those games.  It was one of the first role-playing games I ever played, and I decided that going back to see what the game was like beyond the first dungeon would be a fun endeavor.
                In the world of Elemen, the people were living under the tyranny of Empress Rimsala.  However, a group of wizards called Card Masters used their power to seal her away and bring the world peace.  After some time, though, strife begins to come around thanks to Galneon, the former court magician for the king of Lexford, one of Elemen’s kingdoms.  He manages to have all of the Card Masters killed and brings terror to the world to revive Empress Rimsala.
The story picks up ten years later, where you take up the role of Rooks, the last surviving Card Master and son of the hero Falas, who fought against Galneon and was killed.  His best friend, Ariel, comes to the village to tell him that Galneon has been taking action to revive Rimsala, and Rooks takes up arms to stop the resurrection, as his role of Card Master dictates.

                The game plays out in five chapters, each containing a unique dungeon or series of dungeons to travel through on Rooks’ quest.  Your party will consist of four characters, including Rooks, at the most.  One of these is an Elemental Spirit in contract with Rooks.  While this party slot is constant, you gain access to four Elemental Spirits (Fire, Water, Earth, and Wind, classically) who will fight alongside you, cast spells of their attribute, and impair the enemy’s abilities or bolster your parties.  Unlike your other party members, they also regain HP and MP as you walk, making them somewhat of a strategic renewable resource for battle.
                The other two slots can be filled by one of four characters you run into throughout your adventure, including Teefa, Ariel’s apprentice, Salah, one of two missing daughters of the King of Lexford, Axs, her bodyguard and former Lexford Knight, and Darwin, a mysterious elf in search of something.  They weave in and out of your party as the story necessitates, but they are never under leveled or a hindrance as a result.  The characters tend not to fall outside of their roles in the narrative so far as personality is concerned, but they still have some characters thanks to great sprite work with their portraits and throughout the game.

                Like many dungeon crawlers of the time, the pace of the game is slow at first, and leveling early in the game helps ease the high difficulty throughout.  Grinding is definitely the name of the game, as leveling up and buying equipment is vital to continuing throughout the game.  As you go through the game, each chapter presents its own dungeons- and no way to travel back to previous dungeons.  This makes exploration important, which facilitates the experience building that you need.  Once you have reliable ways to retreat back to the town of the chapter and regroup, you will find yourself reliving a lot of your exploration, which is thankfully made easier due to the map that builds as you explore in one of your pause screens.  The game is actually much more accessible than many other games of its genre and time.
                The most fun and charming part of the whole game, though, is the story.  As it unravels, there are a lot of clichés and tropes that you may have seen in many games, and while they may have been done better in other titles, the game takes itself just seriously enough to give a good reflection of the era in gaming.  Some elements like the card theme in battle and cutscenes, and some of the almost nonsensical dialogue retain the feeling that games of that time had.

                Of course, much of the difficulty comes from some elements of the game that could have easily been rectified, though they are not altogether terrible.  For one, none of your human characters can be killed or it’s game over.  This is a deviation from a lot of games of the time, and not something incredibly expected when going back to play it now.  Your Elemental Spirits can be killed, resulting in a torn card in their place on your character screen, which is a neat effect, but you need to take care of the rest of your party intensively.  Also, nearly all of the bosses in the game appear at random intervals throughout your travels, having little to no warning before appearing to decimate your oft-times unprepared party.  All of this can be easily fixed by getting your characters strong and well-equipped, but it does become an exercise in patience after a time.  It doesn’t help, however, that some of these bosses are shoehorned plot devices that come from left field, as well.

                The music is good, rarely falling into the offensive or brilliant.  The sound quality of the whole game is well done, and HAL is not unfamiliar to pleasant sights and sounds, having been behind many other popular games like the Kirby series and Earthbound.  The sprite work is pretty great, too, from the character faces to the handling of characters and their actions.  Both of these are fairly limited, though, as there is not much in the way of music needed for the game, and most of the monster sprites throughout the dungeons tend to be the same five or six recycled palette swaps.   As is sometimes the case with other dungeon crawlers, as well, the environments you travel through tend to get somewhat monotonous but never ugly or dull.

                Arcana is a classic without really being one.  It is pure fantasy- elves, dwarves, magic, and all- and it has just enough plot to stay interesting.  The game doesn’t overstay its welcome, as even with grinding, it probably took a total of 25 or so hours to complete.  So far as retro RPGs, if you are looking for something off the beaten path, you could do a lot worse than Arcana.  It does a great job of making you feel like you’re progressing when sometimes, you’ve only reached the second floor.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Currents - Zombies, Zombies, and More Zombies

The Walking Dead: 400 Days
Telltale Games
Multiple Platforms
Genre: Point-and-Click Horror/Adventure

                I’ve been on a bit of a horror kick lately, and ‘The Walking Dead’ has done a great job of sating my horror and adventure thirsts.  While I haven’t written extensively about Telltale’s episodic The Walking Dead game, anyone I’ve had the chance to boast about the game to in any manner, I have.  It was well written, had a fantastic artistic style, and tugged on my heart strings as badly as any other video game has in the past.  Even having some lulls in the action at times, the five episodes involved in the game’s whole wove a great story, even better than the television show has.  Even better, the end of the game smacked of the idea that a sequel would be in development.

                While The Walking Dead: 400 Days is simply an additional episode added into the original game, most are expecting that the game is acting as a bridge between the first series and the upcoming series.  This isn’t too far off as the game seems to set up an entirely new tale to be told.  The game plays the same way as the rest of the series, though it takes steps to make the player feel more involved.  Aside from the point and click along with the general movement, there are some fun things like ducking into shadows to hide from pursuers and having to give a friend cover to get from one hiding place to another.  All in all, while I’m not one of those who felt that the control in the series was too passive, the problem some folks brought up seems to have been addressed.
                At the start of 400 Days, you are presented with a board full of missing person photos and notes.  When you focus on a group of five of them, this is where you get to begin.  Each of the five has a stint as your main character for a small amount of time (the full story lasts about an hour and a half, if that).  There is no specific order to play in, and depending on which ones you play, you will notice small pieces of other stories that pop up in some way or another in whichever story you are playing.  It warrants playing through the content a few times to see the entire crossover.
                There was a point raised elsewhere that with the breadth of characters, everyone will find someone to relate with or inherently feel for more than the others.  This is something that does not hold true for all games.  In fact, empathy for characters in video games is something that is becoming either horribly scarce or, on the rare occasion a character can be related with, very well written.  In this game, it is very much the latter.  I found myself enjoying certain stories much more than others- Bonnie’s story comes to mind- but there was not a story that I didn’t enjoy in some manner.  Everything I've read around seems to have people choosing different stories from reviewer to reviewer, so it's neat to see how and why other people think how they do in discussion.  Without delving too far into the story, I found it easy to empathize with Bonnie's situation, trying desperately to be positive and change, despite being branded by her past actions and having various assumptions thrown at her.  Also, I just generally had the most fun with her chapter.

                Truly, I can’t help but wonder how these characters are going to play into the next chapter of Telltale’s saga, as each of them could stand as a main character.  It is hard to see them as supporting characters once they have been controlled by the player.  In the final chapter of the game, all of the stories meld into an overarching plot that will play out in the next games.  Enough questions are left to be answered, and the developers made it nearly impossible not to be excited for the next entry in the series.  This seems to have been the case of “it’s not broken- polish it up and keep going”.

                For those interested and not in the know, The Walking Dead: 400 Days is available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 (and Vita, I believe), PC, and Mac for the general cost of the previous episodes, which at this time is $4.99. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

When Film and Games Collide - PC - Phantasmagoria

Sierra Online
Genre: Point and Click Adventure/Horror

                Video game controversy is something I’ve been very intrigued by since- well, since the days of Lara Croft and her ever expanding polygons back on the Playstation.  As many of my gaming cohorts know, I’m also a huge fan of horror games.  Unsurprisingly, these two things go hand in hand more often than most people think, or at least they used to.  While most people know of the Night Trap controversy that contributed to the ESRB ratings we know of today, another game came out on the PC around the same time that had some heckles raised: Phantasmagoria.  Really, though, how does a controversial game from the mid-90s hold up on the controversy scale nowadays?
                As a bit of a warning, though I know the folks reading this will most likely be adults or already know about Phantasmagoria, I feel it would be irresponsible of me to not at least mention that this post will (albeit briefly) talk about somewhat uncomfortable topics in the final paragraph or two.  Such is the way when talking about certain controversies, but my being ever the worrier, I would rather raise the flag for people than have them trek through unwittingly.

                The story of Phantasmagoria follows Adrienne Delaney, a mystery novelist who has recently purchased a home in a small Massachusetts town with her photographer husband, Don.  With a curiosity only bestowed on those destined to live out a horror movie, Adrienne explores the grounds, finding a sealed up altar and a tome in a locked box.  When she opens it, however, she releases an evil that ends up infesting her husband, turning him from a loving husband to am irritable powder keg of a man.  Digging deeper, Adrienne uncovers the strange mysteries of the estate and the blood-drenched events that took place there.
                Like most point-and-click adventure games, the beauty of the game lies in its puzzles and small touches littered throughout the environments.  As you control Adrienne, you are not relegated to stay on the estate grounds.  Should you choose to, you can travel the island that the house is on, and you can even go into town to talk to the locals (who provide much more useful information that many other games do).  A fantastic touch is that the further you get into the game, the more things change.  You never feel like things are too static.
                Riding the wave of the FMV- Full Motion Video- revolution, the game is full of pre-filmed background with the actors roaming around against a green screen, super imposed into the backgrounds for the finished product.  This is the biggest sign of the time that the game came out, as it look much more photo-realistic than most games.  It adds a certain charm to the game, going back and playing it now.
                As an added note, Roberta Williams wrote the script for the game.  For those familiar with Sierra On-Line’s other works, or adventure games in general, she also penned the King’s Quest series and other more family friendly adventure games.  According to interviews, Phantasmagoria was a huge departure for her, but the one that is the most indicative of her career.  There are fun factoids abound from this game, and it doesn’t take much digging to find various websites illustrating its cult status.

                The game itself is fun as a point-and-click adventure game.  Traveling around the grounds of the house and the town, you feel like you’re alone in the dilemma you’re in, even when you’re not.  As you move the cursor around the screen, it glows red when you find a ‘hot spot’, which makes exploration more fluid.  Unlike various other games of the same genre, you are never stuck hunting for the right pixel to get the next item you need.  If an item is small, it’s usually highlighted.  Quite a few of the frustrations from the adventure faire are eradicated, making for a friendly entry to the genre.
                The story isn’t awful, either.  It isn’t working to revolutionize the horror genre, but something that I read in another testimonial about the game certainly rings true.  Roberta Williams takes a premise that has been done plenty before- ‘The Shining’ and ‘The Amityville Horror’ come to mind- and puts her own spin and voice to it, which ends up making a game that is interesting, if not much else.  The more you find out about the estate and its history, the more you want to know.

                Exploration is the name of the game, though, as you can miss nearly all of the nuances of the story if you simply go from point A to point B.  Talking to the people in town, sometimes up to five times in a row, rewards the player with tons of information regarding Carno, the previous owner of the estate, and his murderous rampage.  While I wouldn’t count it against an adventure game for the ability to miss so many things- and believe me, they make the entire game worth playing- it’s not the same tack that gamers are used to playing with in this time.  You definitely have to put yourself into a different mindset to get the most out of Phantasmagoria.

                You also can’t look at this movie in any reviewing sense without thinking of it as a movie.  The acting is pretty much indicative of a B-horror movie made in the 90s, though the actress playing Adrienne (Victoria Morsell) pulls the weight she needs to as the protagonist of the story.  Considering how much work went into the game through its actors, it’s difficult to criticize too much.  As everyone pulls at least a passing performance for a horror flick, though, it doesn’t detract or add much to the impression of the game.  The script has enough corniness to it, as well, to add to that midnight drive-in feel.
                The graphics are great.  They were filmed, so it’s hard to say much that is negative regarding how the game looks.  The one problem is that as this was at the rise of the FMV adventure game movement, the actors chronically seem like they are too far removed from the backgrounds of the game.  The programmers did a great job of making sure everything else looked correct, however, such as objects and set pieces that the actors were ‘grabbing’, despite only really having a green screen and boxes to film against.
                Aurally, the game hits its major faltering step.  The background music is atmospheric, adding in Latin singing choirs and the requisite stringed instruments.  The real issue is that there is so much inconsistency regarding the voices of the actors.  I found that I was constantly having to raise and lower the volume of my speakers, as one scene, the actors would sound incredibly distant while in the next, they would be clear as a bell, therefore being too loud for what I had previously set my sound up for.  Seeing as this was somewhat of a problem with the cinema at the time, it is probably to be expected, but it became a bit of a pain as the game went on.

                Now, what of this ‘controversy’ that was mentioned, you might ask?  When the game was released, it quickly became known for two things: gruesome death scenes and a particular scene where an implied rape is depicted.  Of course, the second is more offensive than the first, though both warrant merit.  Sometimes, these things dull over time, as standards for controversy shift endlessly.  These things, at the time, led to the game being banned or given adult-only ratings in various countries.  Even today, people would turn away from the game knowing those things are in it.
                The most uncomfortable and controversial topic to be addressed is obviously not the gruesome deaths, and the scene surrounding the sexual portion of the game is brief.  It is not graphic, but it certainly is uncomfortable, and the game takes a turn for the dark and terrifying afterward.  The scene is not arbitrary, either, as it is defended by Williams as being a turning point for the heroine that she felt was necessary.  While I don’t want to go into much more detail regarding the topic, there has certainly been worse on screen, but in video games, I think voices would still be raised over the scene.
                Violence is also something that people are not unfamiliar with in games.  Plenty of games have people being sliced into bits, split in half, or meeting other bloody ends.  Even as a horror aficionado, however, I had a tough time watching a couple of the murder scenes in this game.  They’re fairly well executed special effects wise, and they can easily send a shiver up the spine, even by today’s standards.  After almost twenty years, I could see this game being banned, if not completely taken off the shelves by the public.
                With all of that said, however, the game does not take these things lightly or produce them as anything but what they are.  This is an adventure game for adults.  Do all adventure games for adults have to have these elements?  Not by any means.  This is the particular story that this games and its creators wanted to tell, however.  They carved out a piece of video game history, and to be fair, the game was one of the top selling games of that year for the PC.  If my research is right, Phantasmagoria was the top selling game to come out of Sierra Online, even up against their more popular games like King’s Quest, Quest for Glory, and Leisure Suit Larry.

                While it can be said that not every game is for everyone, obviously this game comes with that caveat two-fold.  The controversial elements in the game can still be seen as controversial, though there is a censored mode of the game that you can play through, at least helping with the violence (I played through uncensored, so I don’t have a report on how the censored version helps or hurts).  If those controversial bits don’t push you away from the game, however, it was a fun and fairly short game to trek through, clocking in at roughly sevens chapters that range between a half an hour to an hour each, depending on your digging for story bits.  With the game being sold by GOG.com for roughly $10, if not less at various times, it is easy enough to procure.  It may not terrify you, but it certainly gives a look into the games and view of the time.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Currents - Of Blood and Mario

     This month has been productive (in numerous ways), and I managed to squeeze in three more current games between streams and real life things going on!  Of course, a couple of them are a bit of a tone shift from one another, but I still had a good time with them all, in some respect or another.

     Also, to those of you who are at PAX East, I am super jealous and hopefully I'll catch some folks there next year!  I've seen nothing but great things popping up on my Twitter and Facebook, so I hope folks are enjoying what they're seeing as the weekend comes to a close!

Now, on to the mini-reviews!

Super Mario Sunshine (2002) - Nintendo Gamecube
     I enjoyed so many aspects of this game.  The atmosphere is fun, the music is the same memorable bright music that is expected from the Mario universe, and, much like Super Mario 64, the game has multiple challenges of varying difficulties, so it reaches out to gamers of all ages.  The one unfortunate part of the game is, like many other 3D games of this ilk, the camera unnecessarily adds to the challenge, making otherwise already challenging endeavors infuriating to progress through.  That doesn't mar the game's overall quality, and the game is easy enough to pick up for an hour or two and put back down while feeling incredibly accomplished.

Splatterhouse (2010) - XBox 360
     The weird middle man in this selection, Splatterhouse acts as a reboot to the old series that appeared on Nintendo and Sega Genesis back in the day. As Rick Taylor, you don a sentient Terror Mask to save your girlfriend.  The game is, as could be expected, mindless bloody fun, though definitely not for the squeamish.  It also finds silly ways to shove nudity and crudeness into its fabric, though it somewhat balances out with some interesting takes on Lovecraftian storytelling (the game takes place in Arkham, after all).  There are some neat nods to the old platformers, too, so it's worth a look, if you can handle the excess.

Super Paper Mario (2007) - Nintendo Wii
     Having not played the past Paper Mario games yet (I know, I know- late to the party), I wasn't sure what to expect going into this game.  I was pleasantly surprised, though, at the depth of the game and its mechanics.  Using Pixls- small sprite-like creatures that grant abilities to access new areas- you get to play as Mario, Peach, and Bowser through most of the game, each with different abilities. While the game pretty much just rewards you for being Mario, the game is a lot of fun, and the aesthetic is adorable.  There's a lot of extra content, too.  Of the three games in this post, this is the one I would highly recommend over the others.  I just can't get over the awesome style used in this game.

     All in all, it was a decent month of game that managed to get through in my backlog, and I'm already eyeing which games I'll start heading through soon.  I finished Chrono Trigger for the second time this past week, too, which was fun for me and the folks at the stream.  I forgot how enjoyable that game is, though it definitely feels shorter in the second run through.

     Well, that's all for today.  I hope everyone is enjoying their entry into Spring, and if you want to keep up with what games I've been playing, just look me up at http://www.backloggery.com/the3rdplayer.  I haven't been keeping up with what's actually in my backlog, but I do tend to update when I'm finishing a game or remember to update that I'm in progress!  Also, if anyone has any games that they are excited to share about or are looking forward to, let me know!  I'm definitely always up for chatting about games or learning about games I may not know about!

     Enjoy your day, everyone!

Monday, February 25, 2013

From Unlikely to Unlikable - Super Nintendo - Lester the Unlikely

© 1994
Genre: Platformer

            I have mentioned, once or twice, the idea of games having ‘heart’ and that it helps some of those games thrive where they may not otherwise.  The same can be said for the opposite side of that idea.  Some games either try too hard and demolish their ‘heart’ or they try to put up a façade of ‘heart’ for the sake of sales.  Looking at the surface of Lester the Unlikely, a Super Nintendo game with a cult following, one could see that this game falls into one of those columns.  Which one, however, may be surprising.

            We open on Lester, our hapless “hero”, looking for a quite place to read his new comic.  He manages to seat himself next to some cargo, falling asleep.  When he wakes up, he is on a ship under siege by pirates, so he grabs a lifejacket and swims for the nearest shore.  How can a nerd with no confidence who’s afraid of everything find his way back home?

            The game’s mechanics are basic.  You can walk, run, and jump.  You can pick up items, which you almost always need to use in the stage you find them in, and you can grab onto ledges to pull yourself upward or make long jumps viable.  There are a few unique mechanics.  The most prominent is that Lester seems to evolve.  The first time you approach most things- a high ledge, a spider, and even a turtle- Lester will run the other way in fear.  The next time you approach, he will approach slowly, still afraid but overcoming his fear.  Partway through the game, his posture even changes and he goes from slumped over and meek to busting out a strong and solid stride.  While this doesn’t directly affect game play, it does add a certain element to the game’s tone.
            The other mechanic that struck me as interesting was that not everything is combat related for progression.  With one boss, you have to avoid the creature and its attacks while you chip away at a rock with a boomerang to make your way through.  In another level, you jump from rooftop to rooftop, avoiding the enraged denizens of the village, but if you fall, you end up in a cage that you have to escape from through various means.  In an age where most games involve busting through everything and everyone, it’s nice to see a game emphasizing different tactics.

            For what it’s worth, the game plays in a standard way.  It is difficult, but never too difficult, and it calls to mind various similar games of the time.  The intentions with the game itself, mechanics included, seem ambitious.  The story is benign enough, the gameplay is fairly average, and nothing really stands out in the game beyond the mechanics I’ve already mentioned.  It isn’t a bad game, but it certainly has more discernible flaws than pros.

            First off, the game tries hard to capitalize on the ‘nerd-ism’ of Lester.  He’s smelly, he’s sleepy, he’s weak; everything is mentioned at some point or another.  The truth is that this premise has been done better in other forms (cinema mostly) and the character doesn’t come off as likeable, save for the fact that the player should empathize with him being an average guy.  In that, the lack of ‘heart’ in the game appears.  Every joke at Lester’s expense and mention of his nerdiness comes off as dry and nearly malicious, and while that may have flown well for the younger set when the game originally released, it feels forced and gets a good eye roll now.
            The other setback for the game is that the graphics make it feel stiffer than it really is.  Lester’s movements, on the whole, are well animated, but seem very limited space-wise.  His walk seems confined, and various other actions he takes seem rigid.  This made moving the character around a bit erroneous at times, as one false step could easily end your hero’s life.  Once you’re used to how the character moves, it is easy to overcome, but in the early levels, it does throw a wrench in the machine.

            The graphics of this game are pretty good, especially with Lester.  While the stiffness messes with the gameplay a bit, he moves fluidly.  Creatures look like they should, for the most part, though the backgrounds get somewhat repetitive throughout the game.  They tend to be colorful and detailed, though, and they are not altogether unenjoyable.
            The sounds and music veer into the obnoxious side as time passes.  There aren’t many background tracks to the action, so you’ll be listening to a lot of the same music over and over again, and a lot of the sound effects seem to be intentionally grating.  While that is fun once in a while, this was a rare occasion where I found myself muting the game as I played through (which really only took about an hour and a half, if that).

            It is easy to see where this game might have a cult following.  The game makes a lot of well calculated steps that are just off from where they need to be.  Character progression is neat, but wasted on a character you don’t want to empathize with.  The controls aren’t bad, but the graphics make you feel like they are rigid and unresponsive.  A few of the ideas in this game are ahead of their time, and some are lacking, even in the time they were produced.  Added to this is the fact that the ending all but promises another game, though Lester isn’t quite as ‘unlikely’ by the closing credits.  Like a few of the games in the blog, I recommend trying the game at least once.  If nothing else, it offers a window into the up and coming advancement of games at the time.  Taken as a piece of gaming history, the game has quite a bit of value.  Taken as a game on its own in the current, though, it shows every sign of age a game can.