Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Then I wrote a blog post about the motorcycle stage in Mega Man X7

at 6:00 AM
Yeah but you know what does have great hover bikes? Mega Man X7. It doesn't, but I'm glad to see they at least tried for a 3D version of the then-established variety stage. And the fact that the bike accelerates rather than blandly auto-scrolling almost inherently makes it the best iteration of the always weak gimmick. Unfortunately, there's something terribly wrong with the steering mechanics that I can't quite put my finger on - it might actually be what's been described to me re:Outrun, that X-velocity and Z-velocity are totally independent, combined with a 3D Sonic camera that doesn't stay behind the vehicle (e.g. a left turn will have the camera placed so the road snakes from the right edge of the screen to the left).

Whether or not the controls are something I could get used to, the design of the stage is especially trashy, just a narrow corridor littered with boxes, hostages, and the now-iconic Runnerbombs. (It's pretty amazing that "Runnerbomb" isn't a name that I made up, although maybe not as amazing as the fact that a Runnerbomb's modus operandi is to stand in place and throw bombs). Each of the obstacles/enemies spawns on-screen with a bright teleporting-in effect that saves the game from needing a draw distance - it's good for drawing attention visually and shows that the developers at least understood that you can't just have enemy pop-in (I really am just describing an Outrun remake, huh?). The downside is that Runnerbombs, which need to be avoided, and hostage reploids, which need to be collected, have near identical silhouettes that make every decision whether to dodge or collide a last-second one. That gives the already cluttered layout an extremely haphazard mouthfeel, and, since this is X7, the heroes have enough reserve HP to just plow through everything. Which is important, because all of this is operating on a time limit.

Yup, continuing on from the brilliant structural mix-up of the intro level's cyclops-walker arena-showdown, the bike stage deviates from standard traversal/survival gameplay towards an actual racing format. Not entirely racing, thankfully, but the objective is to grab (all) 20 time-bombs planted across the course loop before the countdown timer reaches Zero. The player can drive as fast or slow as they want, but can't turn around, so missing a bomb means needing to speed through another lap to come back to it. The mission ends instantly as soon as the 20th bomb is collected. Given this collection objective structure, you might call this the long lost final level of Sonic R.

Indeed, I should probably mention that the Maverick ruling over this high-speed terroristic attack is branded Ride Boarski. I'm going to go out on a limb and hypothesize the name is a reference to Polish sausage, you fill in the details.

Ultimately the whole experience is like the opposite of the PSX/Battletoads-era cycle rides where any minor deviation from the exactly plotted course is instant death. Since the layout requires constant last-minute course correction, the slippery mechanics make that especially difficult, and there's plenty of time for multiple laps, the most productive strategy seems to be starting off barreling forward as fast as possible, grabbing all the low-hanging fruit, then on later laps slamming on the brakes whenever a bomb is known to be coming up. Like other points of comparison with X5 and X6, X7 isn't really better, but it's at least more interesting.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Sonic Mania oughta take some lessons from Ed Wood (a review of ED WOOD with a clickbait title)

at 6:00 AM
ED WOOD is the greatest kind of emotional storytelling: it is a film that finds joy in despair, creativity in loss, roaring success in crushing failure. It takes the depressing and pathetic life of a perennial loser and transforms it into something to admire, to be proud of, and it doesn't do it by lying, or reforming, or quibbling about facts. It is a much bolder story, one that asserts not that Ed Wood was a great artist or genius despite his achievements, but by way of his spirit and vision; if the product doesn't fit with our expectation of great art, that's only only because we've defined it wrong. It dives so deep into the ocean of subjectivity as to forget the surface, yet uses this to expand the mind rather than to deceive it.

Take for instance Bela Lugosi's final filmed appearance in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. On paper, this is a rather dark, disheartening history, surrounded by the stench of exploitation. Lugosi's film career had completely disintegrated by the time he met Wood; he lived in poverty, alone and crippled by drug addiction. Wood 'revived' his legacy for a few years by throwing him in embarrassing roles in Z-grade bombs, most famously using some extremely random footage and a lookalike within PLAN 9, as Lugosi passed away during filming. ED WOOD retells this tale in all its detail, but with the focus placed entirely on the loving friendship between the two men. Bela is confused by Ed's films and doesn't see half of them, but is so charmed by the man and happy to be acting again that he doesn't care. As he points out when swarmed by reporters in a rehab center, he doesn't care if he's being exploited. He's an old man - he just wants to stop and smell the roses one last time. Of course, this is literally the scene he directs for himself as his final performance, the one that would land in PLAN 9: a quiet moment with just Ed and the camera, as the director struggles to find any excuse to give his friend something to do. Nor to Ed is it exploitation - PLAN 9 is advertised as "Bela Lugosi's final film" not because it'll sell more tickets that way, but because it is fucking BELA LUGOSI's final film, and how awesome and important is that? Ed cares for the man so dearly that to him it would be the greater atrocity NOT to let Bela have a final starring role, and he's willing to get all his friends baptized if that's what it takes to get it made.

Likewise the PLAN 9 premiere, we don't see the crowd's reaction, only their applause at the names Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi, and the hushed silence at Bela's scene. Did they hate the film? Did they love it? By now it's clear that doesn't matter to Ed ("[the worst movie you ever saw?] Well, my next one'll be better!"), it doesn't matter to Bela, so it doesn't matter to the movie. We simply rush out from the theater, Ed on the high of his life, as he proposes to his girlfriend and drives off into the pouring rain and thunder, no sunset in sight. Cue the ending titles, with a card next to Ed's glowing expression reading that he would never go on to make a successful picture, dying at age 54 after a 20-year descent into alcoholism and nudie flicks; that two years after his death he was voted "Worst Director of All Time", bringing him a new level of worldwide renown. And this plays as an extremely happy and uplifting moment! That's how much work ED WOOD has done to reverse our idea of meaningful accomplishment.

Throughout the film are peppered matter-of-fact bystanders to remind us that this isn't all a fantasy, that no delusion is taking place. This sets up a beautiful irony where someone tries to correct Ed with a genuinely helpful suggestion, he is perplexed and frustrated, yet so determined to succeed that we side with him, because if you're going to be a moron, it's better not to compromise about it. (Aside: how many of Burton's films could accurately be described as "the unwitting adventures of complete morons"? PEE-WEE, that other EDWARD picture, even Jack Skellington mostly fits). The most amusing and transparent of these reality checks are the conservative Christian producers clomping around the PLAN 9 set; the stereotypical micromanaging money-men who just don't get art slowly choking the delicate genius. The fact that they're evangelicals just gives them that extra Hollywood-ignorant edge. Yet everything they point out is perfectly rational and probably would've made a "better" movie - isn't grave-robbing kinda sordid for a kids flick? shouldn't the exposition be given to someone who speaks intelligible English? don't you want to film a take where the actor doesn't kick over that gravestone prop? Of course, the secondary joke going on here is one for PLAN 9 cultists, as these are presumably all the elements that make that film so amusing (I'm actually grateful I haven't seen it - I think this stuff could've annoyed me as pandering if I had).

So the post title (I don't know if it counts as clickbait when your blog isn't advertised and has no visitors). This all goes back to a comment I made in my review of Sonic Mania, in particular comparing it to Sonic Generations, that Mania was boxed into a boring, conservative narrative that everyone already accepts, that the Genesis Sonic games are classics, and that therefore Mania would have no legacy, because it is entirely subservient to previous successes. I pointed out that Generations overcomes this obstacle by treating the trash material (Sonic '06, Heroes, etc.) with the same amount of care and affection as everything else. And that's exactly what ED WOOD is doing, creating something new by celebrating something that hasn't been celebrated, finding a fresh set of eyes (or glasses) for viewing the past, creating history where history got it wrong. Maybe a different way of putting it is that any adaptation has a choice between recreating the execution / the product / the fact, or re-implementing the concept / the inspiration / the soul. You can guess which work falls into which category.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

New 1-credit clears! Axelay, M.U.S.H.A., Cho Aniki, and Other Nonsense Words

at 6:00 AM
Spring is such a wonderful season for shoot-em-ups. God knows you can't play them all year round, but in the spring, you can. I'm a terrible player, but I've finally developed the method and Schedule I prescriptions necessary to clear extremely easy shooters in roughly five years apiece. Mostly that means sticking to old 16-bit stuff on Wii VC; I'm fonder of later arcade and XBLA games like Strania or Under Defeat, but I haven't improved to the point that I can clear them. Plus, fuck rank.

This week I finished a somewhat controversial 1CC of Axelay, one probably not destined for the record books at Win Galaxies. So whenever I pick up the game I play out the remaining credits of my last suspend state for practice; I was busy all weekend, but when I picked up last week's suspend I ended up clearing the game. Some key notes:
  • The game lets you map Shot and Missile to different buttons or to the same (like later Gradii). Naturally, most people will put them on the same button - but they'll be displeased when they reach the final boss's mirror phase, where he fires shots when the player does and missiles when the player does. And if the player fires shots and missiles at the same time, so will he, and that'll create an undodgeable attack pattern. So ten hours in I had to relearn to play the game with two buttons (harder than it sounds, because there's a lot of trigger fluttering).
  • I like the weapon select, but it's oddly balanced. Once you get a new weapon in each category, you'll never use the previous ones - they're not objectively worse, but they don't complement each other correctly. And one weapon, Spinneroo, I couldn't comprehend in the slightest.
  • The rotating vulcan weapon that starts firing backward and angles forward as you hold the button is enough to base a game around. It puts timers and technique into an independent aiming mechanism, like a cross between dual stick (because it's independent of ship movement) and reverse options (because it has its own traversal time).
  • The vert stages would be better if they weren't multiple screens wide. The breadth is meant to offer different paths through the stages, but it ends up being like Life Force's split routes, where you just choose one early on and always take it. Ultimately it just adds confusion and ambiguity to an already difficult-to-read style of presentation. 
Overall I liked it a lot. Naturally it's reminiscent of Gradius and Life Force, but the weapon-swapping and management (where getting hit costs the currently equipped weapon, like M.U.S.H.A.) also adds an element of Contra III. I definitely prefer a shooter without any powering up or recovery phases; saves all the frustration and jerky pacing without dismembering the difficulty. The rules are simple, the design is lean (not a hint of popcorn), the weapons are self-consciously weird, the visuals are terrific (the artwork, not the Mode 7), and the difficulty lives in that perfect spot where screwing up hurts but doesn't undercut the momentum.

Cho Annunaki is interesting to look at too, with an aesthetic somewhere in the neighborhood of 15th century European painting crashing a train into 20th century manga. Even the buff dudes at this point feel more Classical Antiquity than Homoerotic Gaydiquity. Notes:
  • It's tempting to call the game pure popcorn, with enemies and even bosses rarely hanging onto life for more than a few seconds, giving it a really soft, smooth flow. 
  • Each stage has a unique enemy set that tends to conform to the same balanced triumvirate: one enemy creates barriers (the lenses in Stage 2, the alarms in Stage 3, the nautiluses in Stage 4, the helms in Stage 5), one pumps bullets onto the screen (the chess knights in Stage 2, the jerkoffers in Stage 3, etc.), and one that dive-bombs toward the player (the birds, the bees, the planes). It's a conservative style, but it does highlight the subtleties in each incarnation, like the way the lenses can be pushed back and the nautiluses fire when passed.
  • This is the most tautly suspended power-up system I've ever seen. Basically the player has ten power-up levels to scale and five for each of two options, only each level takes more and more pick-ups to achieve (1 for the first, 3 for the second, 7 for the third, 17 for the fourth, 28 for the fifth, so on - the game doesn't display any of this, and only the first, third, and ninth (I think?) level-ups even result in a visual distinction). On a good run, I reach full power by the final boss of stage four (of five), and any single death shaves a good chunk off that (maybe half?). So if I've died twice, no way I have full power on the final boss. And since it takes so long to power up, I ended up essentially competing with my options, as splitting things three ways drastically slows down the leveling up, and isn't worth it in distributed firepower. 
  • No extends! No hidden 1UPs either. This is true of all Masaya games I know (Gley Lancer, Cybernator, Gynoug). Extends shouldn't be underrated as a mechanism to draw the player into the scoring system and reward them for perfecting early parts of the game.
  • Was there a lot of subtly sexual language in what I just wrote?
Then we've got M.U.S.H.A., my first victory over Compile (unless - is Recca considered crypto-Compile? It at least came from the same Carnival that generated Spriggan). Anyway:
  • On the subject of extends, I didn't really notice them here, but the option supply is kinda accomplishing the same thing. It's really quite odd that the player can build up a huge stock of options to deploy later, never affected unless they use a continue, and it can definitely be put to use. Personally I stuck with 3-Way, Back, or Reverse for the early levels, then once I had 30+ in stock and things got bitchy, I switched to Lock. These little fellas eat bullets, too, and they're graciously fixed in place for reliable dead zones.
  • Splitting the weapon power level such that picking up a secondary weapon provides an extra hit point (and getting hit costs the secondary weapon) alleviates recovery as I discussed favorably wrt Axelay, but M.U.S.H.A. goes a bit too far and strays into easy mode. With a pretty sizable invincibility frame and frequent weapon drops, the max challenge is really just to go ten or fifteen seconds at a time without getting hit. Of course, if the main power drops enough and your option supply runs out, you're pretty much fucked. So it's a very low difficulty hurdle with a steep dropoff. 
  • Black hole bomb* is a crazy and awesome weapon concept (pulling enemies! in a shmup!), but it generates so much chaos on screen I ended up not using it much. At the same time, white-green laser loved covering up bullets approaching from the front, so it needed to be paired with Reverse option to last. 
  • The graphics are too big.
So yeah. All three decent, fun games that I'd recommend, but I liked them in the order listed here. 

* The idea that angular momentum and energy may be transferred from a rotating black hole to a particle being scattered by it was proposed by Roger Penrose in 1971. The first discussion of a runaway effect, the black hole bomb, was explored by W. H. Press and S. A. Teukolsky in 1972. If such an effect were to spontaneously occur, it may point to new physics beyond the Standard Model, and showing that black holes have "hair", as pointed out by a paper from 2017, by William E. East and Frans Pretorius.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Blogging like it's 1997

at 6:58 PM
I like how Dunkey's new Rockstar video, another step on the path to being W.O.K.E., starts with "the second time I played Red Dead, GTA, etc, I noticed how 90% of the game is time wasting. You don't really pick up on this the first time...". Yeah, you don't pick up on it the first time if you're not paying any attention to the game you're playing, and are therefore forming superficial and useless opinions.

It's funny, years ago he pointed out something I hadn't noticed in Arkham Asylum, that it takes Batman like an 8-second cutscene to open vents, an action you do about 150 times over the course of the game. He called it something like "artificial game lengtheners". Now, in that particular case, I think it's a hidden load buffer, like the "buggy" doors in Metroid Prime, but there were other examples that couldn't be, and I've noticed it as a thing ever since. For instance, in God of War 1-3, you have to hold R2 for like 5 seconds to open a chest. I think on paper the reason it's there is to make it feel more tactile, like you're 'doing' the animation of Kratos ripping open a chest. But when there are three next to each other, it's suddenly the dumbest thing ever, and again, it probably adds something like 20 minutes to the total playtime, plus all the other kinds of non-combat QTEs adding 5 minutes here and 10 minutes there.

Man, I haven't played Metroid Prime 3 in a million years. I should really find time for that.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Deathsmiles part 2: The tweaks and twixes of Mega Black Label

at 6:00 AM
K got the slightly-non-scrub clear of Deathsmiles (all stages Rank 2+, beat the penultimate boss for real and beat more of the final boss than I expected (only used 3 bombs I think)). Ultimately it's definitely not a game I'd call bullet hell (**danmakuu** \'>_<'/ kawaii densetsu gaiden, senpai!! *\^o^/*) - the multiple aiming directions and handful of bullet-clearing techniques make it much more about planning how to keep bullets from piling up than about herding or tap dodging or reading geometry. In fact, sans the final two bosses, if there are ever enough bullets on screen that I'd have to go into weave mode, I just bomb. That's how rarely it happens (if you're playing decent at least). Nearly all of my character movement is with the goal of orienting my option or lining up a shot - in the final playthrough I made good use of Sakura with her reverse option, alternating locking it into place as Double or Tail. This time I was playing Mega Black Label, a mode that tweaks the scoring and adds some content but not much else (I'll be referring to the base game as "vanilla").

Before we start discussing the updates, you might want to check out my full run-down of Deathsmiles' score items and Power-Up mode. There's one detail of the base game that I left out, which is that the Overall Counter maxes out at a value of 10,000, after which all item drops will be crowns (which can still break apart into tiaras and skulls when hitting the ground). I've seen this state called "Frenzy mode", but nothing in the game or manual uses that terminology. I didn't mention that because I forgot to, but it also has no bearing on gameplay incentives - Power-Up scoring is two orders of magnitude greater than Normal even without it, and raising the Overall Counter as quickly as possible is inherently beneficial.

Mega Black Label's two biggest changes are meant to send scores into the tropoplosphere: first, Power-Up can be deployed at any Item Counter value above 500, and second, the Overall Counter is never reset. The scoring is so inflated that the second extend now sits at 300 million, far above my top All-Clear score for vanilla. Better still, the Overall Counter is now displayed directly below the Item Counter (just like I suggested in my previous post!). There's also a new playable character, a new optional Chapter 4 stage, and Rank 999, a fourth selectable difficulty alternative for each stage.  I'm not going to go into the new content, but I ought to note that playing stages on the highest available rank is necessary to maximize score, because higher rank means more enemies, and more enemies means more items. Since I'm interested only in scoring within the confines of a 1CC, I pick stage rank based on what I think I can (learn to) survive, and work on score only after.

Into the weeds on the first point first: the lower threshold for Power-Up. Transparently, this opens up a lot more flexibility in planning where to deploy the transformation, and it likewise makes doing so less costly. It's quicker to charge and it's quicker to recharge. This has obvious survival utility (Power-Up still boosts attack and clears bullets when transitioning), but also allows burning off some Item Counter value before a big item flow is known to be coming up to provide a refill (for instance, I know the ogres in Chapter 5 are going to spill gallons of items, so I make sure I'm always coming up to them on empty). At the same time, there are new costs to consider. Fever mode, which you'll recall lasts as long as the Item Counter is kept at 1000, remains unchanged - from Item Counter values of 500 to 999, the player character remains in Normal mode, despite Power-Up now being available. And if the transformation is triggered in this range, the Item Counter will immediately drop to 500 and count down from there, meaning any progress toward Fever is lost and the transformation duration is artificially shortened. Because of that counterbalance, it's still worthwhile to think ahead to get the most out of the Item Counter.

This wouldn't be as meaningful if the Overall Counter was resetting to 0 at each of these refills, as it was previously established that OC is the driver of exponential scoring. A shortened Power-Up would mean lesser Overall Counter values and probably wouldn't be very consequential. Likely with that in mind, Mega Black Label drops the Overall Counter reset (that in vanilla Deathsmiles occurs at the end of Power-Up) and also drops the cap value of 10,000. Now the Overall Counter is free to grow and grow throughout the entire run of a game, ramping up the suspension of a scoring run while also sacrificing most of its atomic nature. Although it's value is preserved throughout, it's still only active (i.e. applied to item pick-ups and able to grow) during Fever or Power-Up modes. If the player loses a life, the Overall Counter takes a big hit (maybe 30%? hard to track precisely during gameplay). More significantly, for the entire duration of boss battles the value quickly drains. Bosses need to be killed as quickly as possible or milked for items (which is only possible in Power-Up) to keep the counter up. This also seems to discourage the all-Fever style of play I briefly mentioned in the previous write-up.

These changes are interesting, but as my descriptions probably convey, I haven't fully wrapped my head around the best ways to use them. More flexible planning is ultimately more complex planning, and the full playthrough suspension of the Overall Counter throws massive flux into potential scores. I remarked about the vanilla game that you can completely blow a stage and still get consistent results in the next - that's no longer the case in Mega Black Label. There's more happening in parallel, more choices available at every point and more potential for tradeoffs, all making it harder to identify where one strategy is outperforming another. At some level of play I could see myself enjoying this granularity, but at the moment I find it more satisfying experimenting with routes and timing my Power-Ups in vanilla, getting that more straightforward feedback.