February 24, 2014

Believing My Justice

I think Re:Birth II / Romancing SaGa Battle Arrange has found a permanent home in my portable music player. Long bus commutes are easily made shorter when Mr. Kenji Ito is on board, bringing his hard rock arrangements of battle themes from the SNES's Romancing SaGa series.

February 22, 2014

What is a Gamer?

PBS Game/Show's latest episode explores a topic that might seem trivial, but reflects a poignant undercurrent in the gaming world's online subculture.

February 20, 2014

Ninja Run Through Super Mario Bros. Results in Lowest Possible Score

YouTuber NotEntirelySure recently uploaded video of a run through Nintendo's classic Super Mario Bros., attaining the game's lowest possible score.

February 19, 2014

Judgment Day!

Final Fantasy XII Judges - Living Myth

Though I managed to resist slapping a number on my game reviews for a while, I've also been told that having a numerical score or grade of some kind can be helpful to readers.

February 16, 2014

Mass Destruction

I picked up Persona 3 Portable on sale for about $10 on PSN the other day -- and, call me obscenely late to the party for finally grabbing the third edition of a game originally released in 2006, but I have to say it is a nifty little game.

February 9, 2014

The Five Best Things About Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (Part 2)

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is by no means a perfect game, or even a good one, but it does have some redeeming features that secure its place in the history of the franchise. I outlined a couple of reasons why in Part 1 of this feature, and today I'll be finishing things off with a few more. But enough talk, have at you!

A sequel that isn't just more of the same

One of the things I love most about the early 8-bit era was its approach to sequels. It wasn't just assumed, right off the bat, that a successful game's follow-up should play just like the first. As early as Donkey Kong Junior, we start to see a distinct lack of cynical assumptions about replicating the gameplay of the originator too rigidly. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link dumped a successful, overhead-view format for a controversial side-view approach. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game adopted a much more enjoyable side-scrolling beat-'em-up format after the first game's alienating platforming and clumsy controls. Final Fantasy II, though it saw no North American release at the time, completely abandoned the concept of player-chosen character classes in favour of a wide-open and dynamic skill system. And of course, there's the infamous case of the English Super Mario Bros 2 -- which, while it was technically an adaptation of the unrelated Doki Doki Panic, was nonetheless how Nintendo chose to frame the next iteration of its flagship brand overseas.

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest takes to this attitude as well, playing not much like the first Castlevania title at all. It's still a side-scrolling adventure, but not the standard stage-by-stage progression of intricate platforming, punctuated with boss fights. In fact, there is a noticeable scarcity of platforming-heavy sections, and a precious few bosses in the entire game. While the first game is completely linear, challenging the player to complete as many levels in sequence as possible, Simon's Quest is a slow-cooked experience built on non-linear exploration. For the first time, there are clues to unravel, village folk to talk to, and shops to visit. Finding out the location of the mansion where the next piece of Dracula is kept is as much part of the experience as whipping a skeleton in the face or dodging a fish-man's fireball. You collect magical items that increase your power and unlock progress, in a way resembling The Battle of Olympus, Faxanadu, Zelda II, or any other basic action-RPG. Granted, Castlevania II is a particularly bad action-RPG dependent on broken mechanics, invisible gaps, and impossibly cruel pseudo-puzzles, but in those days the lines between good and bad game design were a little murkier. In today's age of quest logs, on-screen maps, story progress markers, and fast auto-travel, we expect to be spoon-fed every last detail regarding how to succeed in a game. If the player ever asks "What am I supposed to do?" it is considered a failure of game design. However, this wasn't always the case -- the onus used to be on the player to figure that out. Simon's Quest enforced that ideal far too zealously, guilty not of veering down the wrong road but of flooring the gas pedal after downing a six-pack.

I fully accept that Castlevania II is a fundamentally flawed experience beyond repair, but the raw ideas behind it were nothing if not daring. In this modern age, where we can have almost full knowledge of the nuts and bolts of a game before it's even released, and sequels are essentially expansion packs tacked onto their predecessors, it would be nice to have more surprises. In my mind, a good sequel is one that carries on the spirit and atmosphere of the original, but isn't content to merely copy its formula. Castlevania III returned to the straight-up, linear action game style, and it is a better game for it, but if we had three Castlevania games that all did the same old thing, each one would probably seem less special.

The dawn of the real-time day-and-night cycle

A dynamic passing of virtual hours, with environments transitioning from daylight to nighttime and back again, is still not overly common in games today. I think I see it most in RPGs, online or offline, but even then it's considered a cool novelty and not taken for granted. It can be an immersing device to make the world seem more alive -- literally, time is passing and things are happening, with or without your input. Usually, NPCs behave differently at certain times of day, shops might close for the evening, sneaking around is easier in the dark -- or, in the case of most MMORPGs, it could be just for show.

Castlevania II, as far as I'm aware, is one of the earliest examples of a real-time cycle of day and night in a video game. It wasn't a very complex system, but it was one of the game's more interesting features -- maybe even a good one! An unseen timer would tick away as you played, then suddenly a text box would pop up, alerting you that night time had arrived before fading to darkness.

At night, monsters out in the wild were stronger, and even the towns were overrun with ghouls, so townsfolk would stay indoors. The night also had its own music, spookier and more sinister than the daylight themes. One could never quite know exactly how close it was to nighttime, and being caught in the middle of nowhere when things grew dark really increased the tension and element of risk. There was nothing Simon could do but keep fighting, and hope that morning was soon coming. It was a simple gimmick, but a rare mechanic to see at the time -- especially in a side-scrolling, action-based title. There were even three different possible endings, dependent on how many in-game "days" it took you to finish!

There was, apparently, a sci-fi game on the ZX Spectrum in 1985 called Tau Ceti that implemented a day/night cycle. From what I gather, the position of the sun in the sky affected how shadows were displayed on buildings and ships, though it sounds like it had little impact on anything outside of visuals. Castlevania II still takes the prize for having a significant difference in game content between night and day.

A hazy glimpse into Castlevania's  future

After Simon's Quest, Castlevania games return to a more linear style for a long time. RPG-inspired boosts in character power are outright avoided, and although some iterations like Castlevania III and Rondo of Blood have optional routes through stages, hidden levels, and multiple ways to progress through the game, that progress is always in one direction: forward. It isn't until the wildly successful Symphony of the Night on the Playstation that things open up again, and a new trend overtakes Castlevania's format completely.

Guiding Dracula's son Alucard, players defeat enemies for experience and level up, collect weapons and armor, and gain skills and transformations that can uncover new areas at one's own pace. The entire game takes place within Dracula's immense, demon-haunted castle, necessitating the use of a helpful map that is very reminiscent of the one in Super Metroid on the SNES. Due to comparisons between the two series, people start to use the word "Metroidvania" to describe any non-linear platformer focusing on exploration-based gameplay. After SOTN, most Castlevania titles follow this non-linear, action-RPG style of design. However, as we know, this shift isn't a sudden tangent that comes out of the blue. Symphony of the Night and its successors take the bumbling experiments that Simon's Quest brought to the series, and finally makes them work. Grinding monster battles and building your character can happen, but it isn't forced. Progress milestones are hidden, but not so obtuse that one can't find them without a walkthrough. There are more direct nods to Simon's Quest, too, such as a creepy ferryman who takes you across a stretch of water to a new area, and even a late-game quest to retrieve the same divided pieces of Dracula's body that you searched for in Castlevania II.

Towns are gone, but each game hereafter has at least some manner of healing sanctuary room or method of finding/purchasing items. We don't see the night/day cycle return again, but Order of Ecclesia on Nintendo DS does include a central hub town full of villagers, and gets the hero out of the stuffy castle and treading various forests, plains, and the like. It feels the most like a spiritual successor to the ideas that Simon's Quest was trying to communicate, and at one point the heroine Shanoa makes a pretty amusing reference:

I'm not saying Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is solely responsible for the modern style of the series, but to deny it had any influence would be short-sighted. I would be very surprised if the team who put together Symphony of the Night didn't at least say something like "Hey, why don't we think about making a more open game, like Castlevania II was?" Even though the second game might be regarded as a failure, it's reasonable to consider the developers shelving the ideas they originally were shooting for until the series was ready for them and better tech was available.

February 8, 2014

The Five Best Things About Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (Part 1)

Castlevania is one of gaming's great classic series, originally debuting in 1986 and still going strong today. You don't get to hang around that long without having some ups and downs, some accolades and some embarrassments. In this case, one of those embarrassments -- and a favourite whipping boy of modern gamers -- was the second NES installment, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. You don't have to look far on the internet to find scathing, detailed indictments of everything that is wrong with this game. It's full of typos and translation errors. Townspeople habitually lie to you or provide cryptic "hints" that defy even the most generous of interpretations. Combat and enemy behaviour is full of easily exploitable holes. Progress is artificially slowed by the need to farm enough hearts to buy special items. The list goes on and on.

Even so, I admit to being a Castlevania II apologist. Oh, don't get me wrong, the game is terrible -- but I can't help but have a soft spot for it. At times, it does do something right, or at least tries to. I respect Simon's Quest for its aspirations, if not its accomplishments. After all, there are plenty of bad games out there that fly well below the retro rage radar. Surely, the game must possess some special qualities, to invite such a degree of widespread ire.

Dracula becomes more than a one-hit wonder

The original Castlevania pits whip-wielding warrior Simon Belmont against a mish-mash of horror movie monsters and mythological beings: skeletons, ghosts, werewolves, mummies, dragons, Medusa, and even Frankenstein's monster and Igor. The head honcho of all these spooky fiends, decidedly, is Count Dracula. Yes, Bram Stoker's vampire character. Relatively speaking, his presence in the first game is trivial -- no more or less important than any other video game boss. However, with Castlevania II, we learn that Dracula -- despite having been killed by Simon in the first game -- retains a portion of his power and infects the land with a lingering curse. Famously, the count has always been one to blur the lines between life and death, but even in the original source material he doesn't come back from being ultimately destroyed. Already, we see that the video game version "Dracula" is playing by a different set of rules, taking on an un-life of his own.

In order to lift the curse, Simon must track down various pieces of Dracula's remains that have been divided and hidden by the count's devoted followers so as to preserve some measure of his power. Only by reassembling Dracula's body and destroying him properly will Simon attain true peace.

Of course, this is not the last time we see ol' Drac. He withstands even this second death, and goes on to star as the villain in almost every Castlevania game henceforth. Interestingly, a continuous chronology of events start to take form, more members of the Belmont family are introduced, and we learn that their bloodline is irrevocably tied to the repeated struggle against Dracula over centuries. Once Koji Igarashi takes the reins of the series as a producer and scenario writer, a greater emphasis is made on weaving together a coherent history that links the events of each game together. We're given snippets and hints of Dracula's past, and eventually an origin story depicting his human life, born Mathias Cronqvist. The narrative lifts completely out of the subject matter of Bram Stoker's novel, sharing little with the original book save a name and some vague imagery. The Castlevania Dracula has essentially become something else entirely. Criticisms of some hokey writing aside, a two decades long build of plot continuity across various installments isn't something one witnesses very often. Just imagine, if Castlevania II never introduced the notion of resurrecting Dracula to begin with, and instead opted to feature some alternate villain! Where would the series be, without him? It's almost impossible to even imagine it.

Bloody Tears makes its first appearance

Just about every Castlevania fan knows and loves Bloody Tears, even if they hate Simon's Quest. This music is original to the second game, playing when Simon is venturing in outdoor or forest areas during the daytime. I remember working out how to hen-peck that opening riff on the piano as a kid. That beat is really energizing, too, practically pushing Simon forward at all times. This may be a pretty short, simple track, but it's definitely one of my favourite pieces in the series. And that's saying something, because I really love Castlevania music in general.

Of course, half the fun of Bloody Tears is the huge collection of remixes and reinterpretations we've seen over the years. The games themselves have revisited the theme many times: I'm rather partial to the version in the third Gameboy title, Castlevania Legends, as well as the version in that awful Wii fighting game Castlevania: Judgment.

There are also tons of great fan tributes to be found. Here are some of my favourites:

Heavy metal version from the album Perfect Selection: Dracula Battle

Rey Tang's arrangement for piano

Electronic metal version by S.S.H. (Saitama Saisyu Heiki)

An a capella arrangement by Smooth McGroove

Edit: I just found out about Lara de Wit, who does a pretty great piano version as well!

As if this weren't enough to warrant Castlevania II some recognition as an influential part of the series, I have three more points to make next time. Check out Part 2 now!

February 4, 2014

Review: Mega Man Unlimited

It's funny, how much longevity traditional 8-bit Mega Man games still have. For all the love and loyalty the original series gets from fans, the uninitiated might easily assume there simply haven't been any new installments in the franchise post-NES. Although there have been a ton of new titles since those days -- some stellar and some less so -- it's the classic, simplified approach that remains the most captivating for die-hard enthusiasts. Distilling this pure essence has become an art form in itself, producing games that synthesize the lessons learned from modern game design with "retro" limitations. Crafting a true-to-form experience versus resisting tired cliché can be a precarious balancing act, but it's a beautiful thing to play a game that really nails it. Mega Man 9 nails it. Rokko Chan nails it. And, I'm happy to say: so does the latest fan effort, Mega Man Unlimited.

Unlimited is an unofficial fan tribute, masterminded by Philippe Poulin a.k.a. MegaPhilX. Unlike Street Fighter X Mega Man, this is strictly an underground and unsanctioned fan game, created entirely without input or support from Capcom. You'd never know it, though -- MMU sits proudly alongside the best in the series. It follows the same "beat-8-robot-masters-and-steal-their-powers" format as any Mega Man adventure, but it polishes the gameplay to a mirror finish with an exquisite degree of challenge and ingenious stage designs. Rush the robo-dog joins the team, with his springboard-like Coil and high-flying Jet forms. Screws can be collected and traded in at Dr. Light's shop for energy tanks, extra lives, and upgrades. The old password system has been swapped out for a handy multi-slot save function. The slide move can be set to its own dedicated button, rather than the unwieldy "down + jump" combo. Special weapons can be cycled through on the fly, without the need to enter a separate menu screen. And best of all, no fuss over charging up a noisy, game-breaking Mega Buster!

Predictably, the story is the typical background fluff one expects from this series, rendered through brief dialogue scenes and cute stills. Robots are running amuck throughout the city, but this time the usual culprit Dr. Wily insists that he's not behind it. Wily promptly gets kidnapped by a shadowy figure, and Dr. Light sends Mega Man out to investigate. While the story remains very lightweight and is never the central draw, a handful of scenes are peppered throughout the game that develop things, and the ending actually offers a neat twist that leads into the future Mega Man X games.

Right off the bat, it's clear that a lot of work went into making this game as complete and full of character as possible. Both the graphics and sound are in keeping with NES-era Capcom, yet original enough that it doesn't feel derivative. The soundtrack's high points may not quite reach the bar set by well-known series favourites, but I caught myself rocking out at least a couple times while playing.

Visually, MMU is excellent, boasting a wealth of detail and animation in both sprites and environment backgrounds. While there are a few intentional references to familiar enemy types, most foes are original creations that really reinforce each stage's signature theme. Jet Man's stage features aviation and airport-themed scenery, forklifts that toss heavy crates, and my personal favourite -- a hurried traveler called Mr. Shin'iri who drops his luggage in a panic, releasing a flock of tiny birds for some reason. Glue Man's stage has sticky floors which prevent walking or sliding, and round Bulletraps that will absorb your shots and fling them back at you. Rainbow Man's stage is all about light, with several rooms that force you to move and think quickly in order to avoid instant-kill beams reminiscent of Quick Man's in Mega Man 2. These beams, however, can often be redirected or refracted through prisms to clear the way. Oh, also there are gold-tossing leprechauns, because RAINBOWS, am I right!?

Each stage is jam-packed with tricks, traps and interesting gimmicks to figure out, with hardly any wasted space. You have to be clever and careful to navigate this game, which ends up making each stage feel quite long. Some stages have hidden paths to alternate routes, where you may find one of four hidden letters spelling YOKU. Securing these letters grants access to a hidden, incredibly challenging stage guarded by Yoku Man, a master of illusion who gives up an optional bonus weapon. Extra touches like this, and superb level layouts, are what elevate Unlimited to the top echelon of Mega Man titles -- and even now, Philippe Poulin is actively preparing a future update that will add another stage and boss -- as if there isn't enough content already!

The bosses themselves put up quite a fight, often using the whole screen area to perform unique, characteristic attacks. Jet Man streaks across the screen, firing missiles and dropping bombs from above. Yo-yo Man tosses spinning projectiles that roll along the boundaries of the room before returning, all while swinging to and fro from the ceiling. Comet Woman harasses the player with pesky floating orbs that revolve around Mega Man himself like satellites, timed to crash into him unless he dodges at the last moment. Even the official, main-series MM titles sometimes had trouble inventing legit ways to represent its bosses' contrived themes -- a bewildering preponderance of plant life and yarn-tossing cats for Top Man's stage in Mega Man 3 comes to mind -- so it's refreshing to never have to wonder "What is this doing here? Whose stage am I in, again?"

Sometimes the game clubs the player over the head with the themes a bit too much, but it drives home how silly it all is, and the ability to laugh at what's going on is integral to enjoying oneself between fits of cursing and controller-throwing. A word of warning: Mega Man Unlimited is soul-crushingly difficult. It demands patience, precision and perfection from the player, and the punishment for a mistake is often a swift death. There seems to be an overabundance of instant-kill spikes and pitfalls, coupled with utterly inhumane enemy placements that offer a million ways to die.

That's not to say the difficulty in MMU is ever cheap, or unfair -- simply unforgiving. It is ultimately your fault, when you die -- and like in any great game, all challenges can be overcome with practice and skill. In fact, more than most Mega Mans, Unlimited often feels oriented around environment-based puzzles that demand wits over sheer reflexes. Trinitro Man's stage is especially taxing: tons of instant-death traps, jumps that require nimble movements and delicate timing, and platforms that explode when touched or shot at. As maddening as the incessant Game Overs might become, one can't help but grow to appreciate the meticulous craftsmanship in these deadly chambers. The fact is, every dilemma has an elegant solution waiting to be discovered. Getting better and better at the game, and finding these "Eureka!" moments, is incredibly satisfying -- and it's the essence of what makes Mega Man tick.

Unfortunately, the final sequence of stages in Dr. Wily's fortress ramps up the difficulty to an overwhelming degree. While this is par for the course for a Mega Man title, MMU arguably takes it a bit too far. The average player simply isn't going to be able to complete this game, even with a full supply of energy tanks, weapon replenishment, and extra lives -- at least not on Normal difficulty. Again, it's not that anything the game throws at you can't be tackled, but the marathon of flawless performance necessary to finally succeed is unrealistic.

There is an Easy mode available which softens the damage taken from hits, although it also artificially injects safety blocks that close the gap on jumps and cover over some of the spike traps, making it feel more like cheating than a natural toning down of the real thing. Still, this game's Normal often feels like any other game's Hard -- so at the risk of sounding like a "filthy casual" I might have to recommend Easy mode for most people, especially newcomers.

Despair-inducing endgame aside, there really aren't any glaring flaws to Mega Man Unlimited. Overcoming the game's challenges is fulfilling, with the glory of victory and the agony of defeat always feeling justly earned. The special weapons are unique and useful, and finding ideal places to employ them can make a desperate situation more manageable. There's a healthy variety of enemies and set pieces, all organized smartly with nothing feeling superfluous or redundant. Unlimited is a celebration of all the greatest aspects of the Mega Man series, a testament to how far the classic formula has come over the years, and a perfect reason never to abandon 2D, retro-style gameplay mechanics. Any Mega Man fans who have yet to appreciate this gem should rectify that immediately.

February 1, 2014

Is This Zelda-Themed Top Trolling Gamers?

I just had to share this puzzling image posted to /r/gaming today:

This is just so bad, and I doubt I need to explain why. I mean, really, Game Over ? When you still have half of your life left? What is this even supposed to mean? I want to be snarky about how this top was obviously designed by and for people who have never played a video game in their lives, but honestly, I think even non-gamers would look at this and be legitimately confused by the flaw. The iconography here is just so blatantly illogical, on such a basic level!

And why would you want to wear a top that simply says "Game Over" anyhow? What is that supposed to mean? It's like they just wanted to paste in some random phrase that had something vaguely to do with video games, for the heck of it. Maybe next time they can do Mario stomping on a koopa and shouting "Level Up!" or put Halo's Master Chief under the Mass Effect logo saying "VIDEO GAMES, am I right!?"

It feels like this item of clothing was created solely to incite nerd rage. Is real-life trolling a thing now? Oh well, I did enjoy all the "Half Life 3 confirmed" comments in the reddit thread. At least we all had a good laugh about it.