Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Capcom Arcade Cabinet in brief, Pt. 1

at 5:26 PM
Capcom had a nice XBLA sale a few weeks ago (sorry, you missed it) and I managed to pick up the entirety of their Arcade Cabinet for $15 - a seemingly decent price for 17 games, and a far more convenient means of playing them than emulation or the similar Capcom Classics Collections for PS2. The collected games are mostly from Capcom's pre-console days, so while there might be a few familiar faces (Marvel vs. Capcom 2 players will know SonSon and we're all friends with Sir Arthur Lonely), most of these games probably rank as "obscure". So, have they been forgotten for good reason, or is this finally the reincarnation they've always deserved? Come on, I'm not gonna make that conclusion till the end! Don't you dare scroll down there! First you need to sit through 17 mini-reviews, which are less 'reviews' and more 'impressions', as I haven't finished almost any of them. Most of these games are pre-coin-feeding, meaning no continues - every "clear" is inherently a 1-credit-clear, because the game immediately resets if your allotted tries run out. 

Vulgus - Capcom's very first game! Vulgus is a looping vertical shooter (the first of many) that simply spawns semi-random patterns of enemies until you die. It's got a lot more going on (just in terms of sheer sprite-count) than its similar contemporary Xevious, but I prefer the structure introduced in Exed Exes and later games. It's hard to imagine going back to this, especially because of the woefully poorly chosen color scheme which makes discerning bullets a serious strain on the eyes. Still, it's no worse than today's most popular mobile/Facebook/Flash/Ouya games.

1942 - We've all played this one. It's a decent vertical shmup that incorporates land and air enemies of varying strengths and patterns into a scrolling environment with full vertical motion. It probably wasn't the first meeting of Xevious and Galaga, but it's one of the most memorable. Unlike the earlier Vulgus (and Xevious itself), the game has proper stages instead of looping infinitely. I perfer the NES version solely for nostalgia, but this one is very similar - just harder and faster. And with less sexual innuendo than I just inadvertently laid down. It's a familiar game, but worth mastering.

Black Tiger - If Ghosts n' Goblins had been the forefather of modern platforming instead of Super Mario Bros.Black Tiger would be an everyday platformer. It makes use of the same rigid jumping mechanics, surprise-spawning enemies, long range attacks, and slow pace of Goblins, so much so that it feels like a spinoff. Where Tiger differs is in adventure elements that feel pulled straight outta Wonder Boy in Monster Land - there are optional dungeons, prisoners to rescue, and items and equipment to buy with the currency thus obtained. It's certainly more rewarding and expansive than Goblins (easier too), but is always held back by its position as an arcade game. It doesn't really want you to explore - the extra areas are more intended as bonus challenges, as evidenced by the decision to restrict the player to one try to complete them. Something that's always niggled me about Tiger is the protagonist's dual weaponry, a chain combined with throwing knives. Not only do they look arbitrary and stupid when combined (how is he throwing two knives at a time when he's using both hands on the chain?), they also fire at different speeds, meaning you'll be tapping the attack button much faster than he swings his chain. It's just a weird and unnecessary disconnect - the game really doesn't feel designed around the knife weapons, they have to have been added later. This one makes for a fun playthrough, even if GnG fans may be turned off by the lack of difficulty.

Commando - One o' them primitive top-down eight-way shooters a la Ikari Warriors and Jackal, this is the first game in the series better known for Bionic Commando (though gameplay-wise it's unrelated). It's extremely tight playing area makes me once again (maybe for the first time in this post, but once again) lament the unnecessarily narrow ratio of Capcom's cabinet's screens (the ratio is like 1:2 or something, which looks horrendous on a 16:9 TV). Commando is a bit tedious to play single-player, as it lacks the aim-lock strafing feature of later eight-way shooters like Shock Troopers - you'll find yourself wandering in circles quite often. I dunno. This game is so short and basic that I find it hard to imagine it drawing anyone away from the next generation of military shooters, like Metal Slug.

1943: The Battle of Midway - A little more refined and varied than its precursor, this one sports a health/fuel bar and various weapon power-ups. The pick-up mechanics are the game's greatest strength - each time an enemy leaves behind a power-up, it'll alternate between fuel and ammo. Since both fuel (life) and ammo (power) deplete over time, you'll need a constant stream of both pick-up types to stay alive and strong. It's up to you to decide which is more valuable at any given point in time. Amid the glut of vertically scrolling shooters on this collection, 1943 is probably the best - it offers the speed necessary to catch the interest of latter-day shmuppers weaned on Gunbird 2 and Battle Garegga, even if it's perhaps not varied enough to keep their interest long.

That's enough for now - we've got 12 more games to go, including Avengers, Hyper Dyne Side Arms, and that other thing.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

LPGA Terranigma: The Phantom Menace

at 4:40 PM

The next half hour of Terranigma takes us through most of the remainder of Act 1, which I think means the fourth and fifth tower. I dunno, I'm not watching a half hour video. You should though, because you haven't played Terranigma or experienced such delightful [sic] commentary. Crank up the volume so you can make out the laughs and tears, the triumphs and failures, the dungeons and dragons. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Indie developers of America: Something to be ashamed of.

at 12:35 PM
edit, later in the day: I renamed this post because it doesn't seem appropriate to single out Fish - I only chose him because he's the one that spurred this reverie (with the Fez 2 news). As discussed in the post, everyone on that panel is equally culpable for their ignorance and inability to either name a modern Japanese game or acknowledge that they haven't played many.

So I haven't followed anything related to Phil Fish or his Fez sequel, as I've yet to get around to playing the first game, but I noticed that he's been stirring up quite a bit of drama over the past week. I was surprised and a bit curious, as all I knew of Fez was that it had been well-received and relatively successful. Soon I learned that Fish is not exactly popular, and found my way to the video below. It's hard to watch, but seriously, tough it out - you'll learn just how hard you can cringe.

Like it or not, you've gotta admit: Fish has a point.

Wait a minute, no he doesn't.

What bothers me isn't so much that Phil Fish, Fat McMillen, and Baldy McGoo think that Japanese games suck. They're entitled to their own dumbass opinions that they can feel free to shit all over Tweeter, the Internet, and their personal friends and family. It's not even that Fish (and the rest of the panel, bursting into laughter) were flat-out rude to a respectful stranger with a genuine question. It's that this panel is meant to be representative of indie developers (implicitly "of America"), and it should be an honor both to sit on it and to have young lads such as this questioner seek their opinion. Being placed on such a pedestal is inherently validating. To use such a platform to spout conceited ignorance paints the entire indie community as conceited and ignorant, making me personally feel ashamed to support or associate with it. These are the people that represent us?

It takes it to the next level that they addressed this opinion about Japanese games to a Japanese game developer. It's nice to know that the indie devs of America feel comfortable lumping all Japanese games into one category - I'm sure they wouldn't mind if I likewise told them their games suck because they're all boring assembly line military shooters and open-world minigame-fests? In failing to contextualize their absolute stereotypes, they as near as explicitly said: "your game sucks, because you are Japanese, and all Japanese games suck" - which tells me that not only are these dipshits ignorant, they're radically elitist. You can't be one of them, because you are held back by invisible hands to which they are not subject

One would imagine an indie developer would have at least the courtesy to acknowledge the difference between mainstream and indie Japanese games, yet these guys come out swinging with Skyward Sword as their only example. Sorry - can we stop the conversation right there? You've just evidenced your ignorance - why not be honest and admit that your perspective on Japanese gaming is severely limited? The way-too-late catch-all "don't blog about this, there are exceptions" doesn't count - mentioning Street Fighter IV doesn't exactly give me confidence in the breadth of your knowledge. I'm not saying everyone needs to know about Japanese games, or even that these guys should - one man can only play so many games, and I couldn't care less which he chooses. The line into retard-ignorance is crossed when they start passing judgment on a culture of which they've chosen to be ignorant. Listening to Baldy condescendingly hand out a lesson about tutorials makes me feel like I'm listening to Christian missionaries in the 17th century trying to educate "savages"; "we don't know about your ways, so they are Wrong".

I'm not even going to get into how arbitrary these guys' accusations of Japanese games are (whining about interfaces? aren't indie developers supposed to be actualizing the artistic aspect of the medium, not the menu aspect?), but I can't end the conversation without pointing out that Fish's Fez is aesthetically a 100% clone of Cave Story, a Japanese indie game eight years older than his own. That he so shamelessly plagiarized his work doesn't terribly surprise me (sorry, it's rampant in the industry), but that he then had the audacity to indict the culture from which he stole as "behind the times" is shocking beyond the point of comedy. 

I was going to check out Fez at some point, just out of my general personal obligation to support indie games, but at this point I'd burn in hell sooner than put a dime into Fish's purse. Someone with so little respect for the medium and his position in it doesn't deserve to be sustained by it. While I certainly don't think a creator's mantra should have any effect on the perception of their work, it very well has an effect on my willingness to pay them for it (that is to say, Fez isn't necessarily a bad game because Fish is a tard, but it is now a game I won't pay to play).

There's a bit of a happy ending to the story: Fish canceled Fez 2 and quit the industry because of the Internet Bitchslap handed to him over this and some other "vitriolic" (i.e. "idiotic") comments he's made in the last few weeks. And no, the industry doesn't "need" people like Fish who "speak their minds", as many shitbrains like Cliff Gearzinski have declared in his defense in the wake of the Fez 2 meltdown. The industry needs people who play games (you'd be surprised how few developers do) and are willing to admit that they don't know everything. The entire reason the mainstream industry (both in the US and Japan) is so backwards is that it's led by imbeciles like Cliffy B, Blow, and Fish - morons with their heads jammed so far up their own assholes that they don't realize anyone else is out there making games. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Not the Gradius you thought it was

at 4:57 PM
It's nowhere near a big deal, but even I'm getting confused by our mixture of multi-regional names for Gradius/Nemesis games. Reading the intro of Greg L's Spaceman Beau post, I couldn't figure out what specifically he meant by the "Gradius knockoff", Nemesis, as Nemesis is Gradius. There were MSX-only sequels named Nemesis 2 and Nemesis 3, but were those originally intended as a series, or only linked by name? We're about to learn.
Nemesis (GB) is pretty by early Game Boy standards, even featuring some parallax scrolling
So here comes a reference guide to all early (pre-1991) Gradius/Nemesis games with their regional/platform-specific titles, listed chronologically. Obviously Japan got all of the games in all of their forms, Europe mostly saw arcade and MSX titles, and North America got arcade and Nintendo-console entries. The only platforms I'm listing exhaustively are those that had an original entry: Arcade, NES, MSX, SNES, PC-Engine (Turbo-Grafx), and Game Boy. There are other ports out there (for Windows, Amiga, ZX Spectrum, so forth), but they all follow in line with major releases according to region. Note that the Game Boy Nemesis games are not ports of the MSX titles, hence their separate listing. After 1991, all regions got the same games under the same titles (all tagged with "Gradius"), so there's no sense in listing them here.

Japanese TitleEuropean TitleNorth American Title
Gradius (Arc/NES); Nemesis (MSX)Nemesis (MSX/Arc)Nemesis (Arc), Gradius (NES)
Salamander (Arc/MSX/NES)Salamander (Arc/MSX/NES)Life Force (Arc/NES)
Gradius 2 (MSX)*Nemesis 2 (MSX)--
Gradius II (Arc/NES/PCE)Vulcan Venture (Arc)--
Gofer no Yabo Episode II (MSX)Nemesis 3 (MSX)--
Gradius III (Arc/SNES)--Gradius III (Arc/SNES)
Nemesis (GB)Nemesis (GB)Nemesis (GB)
Nemesis II (GB)Nemesis II (GB)Gradius: Interstellar Assault

*released as Nemesis '90 Kai on Sharp X8600

By looking at Japan's list, we can see the clear lineage of the pre-'91 series: four major arcade games, two MSX spinoffs, and two independent Game Boy releases. Japan was the only audience to get all three pure Gradiuses (I, II, and III). We can also observe from this column that the only games originally designated "Nemesis" are those on Game Boy.

The second column makes it clear that Europe would certainly know this as the Nemesis series, not Gradius. Oddly, their main line was repurposed and renamed from a hodgepodge of unrelated spinoffs. Aside from the ostensibly unrelated arcade release Vulcan Venture, Europe never got a proper follow-up to the original Gradius/Nemesis.
The MSX had some bright colors, but its rendition of Vic Viper is as primitive as they come

North America got the fewest games of any region, though that's really just due to the absence of MSX releases. With the exception of Gradius II, the main arcade entries and their Nintendo ports all made it over here. As such, the American perspective at the time would probably hold that Nemesis was nothing more than a standalone Gradius-like handheld game. 

What we've learned here is that there really is no such thing as a Nemesis game, except on Game Boy. Everything else was originally designed and designated as an MSX incarnation of Gradius, only to be retitled in Europe.

Sorry, I realize this post was little more than a synthesis of data culled entirely from Wikipedia and MobyGames. That's life in the big city. Have a happy weekend!

also what is this blog like gradius jr. these days? we really need new subject matter

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sunfish Gets Shmupped, is Mistranslated

at 2:13 PM
You know what space shooters need? Smooth scrolling and twitch gameplay. Coincidentally, do you know what computers couldn't provide in the 80s?

But, for reasons I haven't looked up on Wikipedia yet, Konami loved the MSX (itself an 80s gaming computer). Two of their classics, Metal Gear and Snatcher, debuted and each received a sequel on the machine. And heck, Nemesis (Konami's knockoff of their own Gradius series) showed up on MSX, so they weren't unfamiliar with putting space shooters on the machine.

So, it's not entirely bad news that Konami developed Space Manbow for MSX and decided to never remake it ever. It runs remarkably well, competing with the NES; it runs at a speed the NES could've handled, but with less flicker and only slightly less fluidity.

The game's name is explained in a comic provided with the manual, which you can read in English here. Er, here. The enemy's mother ship is a giant sunfish-shaped ship. Basically, Konami wanted "mambo", but ended up with "manbow." Incidentally, Mambo from the Parodius series is a throwback to this very game.

Powerups mark the most noteworthy element of Space Manbow, straddling the line between Gradius and something normal. On one hand, Gradius' red capsule system grants stability. You'll never miss a laser upgrade or an option because you missed a particular enemy; there's only one kind of pickup, and it predictably moves your powerup selector forward on a clearly defined list. Also, you'll never accidentally pick up a powerup you don't want, since you'll only gain a powerup once you hit the A button. If you don't want the tail shot, it's as simple as not hitting A when your powerup selector is on the tail shot.

On the other hand, Gradius loses convenience. Upon starting a new game, half of your attention is devoted to making sure you collect enough red capsules to earn the laser you want. In other shooters, getting a powerup is as simple as crashing into the appropriate icon.

In Space Manbow, powerups appear in a predetermined sequence. First comes the weapon upgrade, then the speed up, then the option, so on and so forth. Each time you spawn a pickup, it will be the next in the line. If you miss the chance to spawn a pickup, no big deal; the sequence of pickups won't advance until you get one to appear. Unlike Gradius, though, you won't have to save up a whole bunch to get what you want. The option is always going to be the third one in the line, no matter what.


This video also demonstrates that Space Manbow is open to squirrely gameplay.

I die over and over, and yet the challenge is never unsurmountable. Ric Viper never tarries too long on a single continue point, almost always making decent headway before slamming nose-first into something or other. I've only cleared the first four stages of eight, but from what I've played, a little thought and a good thumb go a long way.  Throw in infinite continues, and you can feel free to ram your head against an obstacle all day with the confidence that you will eventually get somewhere.

But it probably won't take you all day. You can see in the video that my deaths are pretty dumb. There's no need for planning anything in this level. It's obvious what enemies are going to do, and so long as you stay in the middle of the screen, you'll have the time you need to react to anything. Come to think of it, it's even generally safe to hug the back of the screen.

Take, for instance, the elevator portion at 2:21. This looks like a good time for some memorization, but the sequence has enough predictability to avoid that need. Platforms move down at a constant rate, and openings appear on the sides at a regular interval.

Another notable instance of predictability comes in the digging level. Background objects appear and show you where dirt will shortly spawn. The cue gives you plenty of time to put your ship right where you want it.

Anyway, the elevator sequence also avoids the need for any particular equipment. You might think that space is so tight that you'd need options planted backwards to handle bogeys behind you. However, if you corral the enemies properly, you'll have plenty of space to maneuver without shooting a one down. I haven't yet seen a portion of Space Manbow that will always destroy you if you come in with nothing but the shirt on your back.

On that note, Space Manbow is one of the few old school shooters I've played where stages have distinct character but don't require analysis. Enemies aren't mindblowing--there's the guy that spawns cronies, the guy that shoots three ways, and so on--but levels are paced slow enough and designed to emphasize one or two enemies over the rest, granting each its own feel. Stage 2 is the level for guys that shoot three ways but stick to the floor or ceiling. It doesn't hurt that levels generally have a unique asset like level 2's elevators or level 1's docked fighter planes.

Space Manbow may have a bloated reputation, but it's definitely a cool guy. It makes the MSX (MSX2 to be precise) look better than it is, and more than that, it finds a unique place among old school shooters for its powerup system and stage design. While nothing innovative, Space Manbow shows what can be done with smart use of familiar elements.
Wait I didn't notice this was animated when I linked to it
In conclusion, I really like Space Manbow, but there's kind of several different reasons why, so this writeup doesn't have a ton of focus, but I want the Wii Virtual Console version to come out here (although it's doubtful, being four years old as of this writing).

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Traveling through the uncanny valley to Super Mario Land

at 6:10 PM
WOW Super Mario Land is weird. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, the least legitimate-feeling legitimate Mario title I've ever played. Mario Paint and Mario's Time Machine feel more in league with the rest of the franchise. I've played (I... think?) every other Mario platformer ever made (haven't picked up 3D Land or New SMB Wii U yet, but will); Land just happened to be the last classic I got around to. So turns out it goes a little like this:

What the hell is this? Do I even need to add a comment? Thing is, I've played Super Mario Land 2, and it is NOT this. Land 2 has got its own idiosyncrasies, but was clearly shaped from the mold of Super Mario World. Now I know why it's the only Game Boy Mario anyone mentions. Really, Super Mario Land 2 is not a sequel to Super Mario Land. Silly me for making that assumption. I realize Land was released in 1989 when the series was still pretty hot of the presses, but it's still post-Super Mario Bros. 3 - you can't say the series conventions hadn't been set in stone. 

Set in stone like those ramblin' Moai men chasin' down a grayscale rendition of the original SMB Mario sprite. Am I witnessing Mario vacationing in Gradius? That might help to explain the bombshell that is the UFO parked at the beginning of 2-1 - has Mario always been traveling by UFO? I don't remember that from the other games; then again, nothing precluded it. Except, you know, this whole thing called sanity. And don't come at me with "you could see the UFO in the background of various earlier stages, so obviously Mario stole it / was abducted", because that doesn't exactly ground the scenario. Ohhhh, Mario stole the UFO and flew it to Gradius. K. Still, this is just general silliness acceptable in a series as inherently fantastical as Mario, even if it does feel a little more Super Show than Super Mario Bros. Even the submarine and airplane scrolling shooter levels feel acceptably experimental, if a bit hackneyed (throwing shmup levels into a platformer was about as unique at the time as throwing a turret segment into an FPS today).

Anyway, Mario has been transplanted into foreign settings before - Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA) was based on a completely different game! But - and I don't think this can be ascribed to the fact that I first played 2 when I was 5 - Shy Guys and Beezos and Crowfoots don't feel all that different from Goombas, Koopers, and Bazingos. It can't be the foreign elements of Super Mario Land that make it so strange; no, in fact, it's the familiar elements. Everything in the game is almost recognizable, but rendered with some unnecessary twist that makes it outright bizarre. It's a classic song played in the wrong key. And on recorder. 

The first half of the game's familiarity comes from its, ahem, "real-world" settings. Mario starts at the pyramids and makes his way through Bonefish Grill, the above-depicted Easter Island, and, of course, Japan - cringe/laugh-inducingly introduced with the Asian Theme Song. It's not that Mario hasn't dropped by a pyramid before, but here they're littered with traditional Egyptian iconography and he fights sphinxes. It's clearly meant to be Egypt, not just a fantasy Mushroom/Turtle world based on nondescript imagery like castles and pipes. Completely distanced from reality, the sillier trappings of the Super Mario Bros.' Mushroom Kingdom whiz by without a hiccup like any children's cartoon. But when Mario is stomping a winged Moai into a pancake, then that pancake waits a second before flipping off the screen with an alien whir, I feel like I'm watching Superjail or something.

The more unsettling half-familiarity comes from the traditional Mario elements. Many note that this is the first Mario game not to have relied on Shigeru Miyamoto's input, being produced instead by the legendary Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi is grounded in the routine: as always, Mario spends Super Mario Land busting blocks, collecting 1UPs, shooting flower-powered projectiles, and bopping Koopas on the head. Yet these activities are each rendered with a bizarre twist: as never before or again, the blocks are half Mario's width, 1UPs are represented by hearts, fireballs bounce around at 45 degree angles like billiard balls, and stomping Koopas TRANSFORMS THEM INTO BOMBS! A more subtle but genuinely awkward change is the removal of the "powering up/down" gameplay freeze that occurs when Mario grabs a mushroom or takes damage in every other series entry.

Okay, so the first change I can understand. The developers wanted a large, identifiable Mario sprite, but they also didn't want to lose screen real-estate, so they scaled down everything but Mario. This mitigates the cramped feeling of other Game Boy transfers like Mega Man: Dr. Wily's Revenge and Metroid 2, but leaves Mario feeling like Gulliver on a visit to Lilliput. Even weirder is the choice to stick with the ultra-flat original Super Mario Bros. sprite, which, at twice the size and half the detail, doesn't mesh with his environment at all. Far more detailed (and humanoid) Mario sprites had already been introduced by Super Mario Bros. 2 & 3, so it's a bit of a mystery why they weren't chosen. The rest of the changes are just nonsense. They're Yokoi saying "let's make this game different" while changing the most trivial things possible. The Bomb-Koopas come across the weirdest, though I imagine they were driven by a reluctance or inability to reproduce the complex Shell Physics engine of the previous games.

The thing is, the game isn't bad by any means. None of this actually plays to its disadvantage beyond an initial culture shock, and in fact the game's only outright flaws are sloppy physics, poorly implemented checkpoints, and the extremely low difficulty and short length. So I can - and do - fully recommend it to any Mario fan, just to experience the weirdest trip Mario ever took. But get it for free like I did. No - I didn't emulate it, you asshole! I would never do that! YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE! How dare you?! I got it as a prize for being a Gold Member of Club Nintendo. Nerd.

Monday, July 22, 2013


at 5:40 PM
It feels awfully strange to say, but having such a weak blog week last week so week so weak so weakkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk

It feels awfully strange to say, but having a weak blog week kinda gets me down. Maybe I was just down all 'aroun' last week, due to whatever shit was keeping me so goddamned busy. But maybe, also, my heart needed to express itself using the poetry of video game theory. Whichever one. The two posts that I did manage to get up had been written the previous weekend, so it was a WHOLE MILLION DAYS of non-productivity. Interesting that this stupid site has become my personal metric for creative merit. It's not that bad though. I mean it's bad, but it's not like the worst thing ever. 'Cept when I title posts like I did today....

But don't worry - there's good news too! First, Sting's got a new album on the horizon, and these days appears to fancy himself a supervillain!

And that's just the tip of the wild and weird iceberg that is this week! Oh yes, you'll be taken on an emotional rollercoaster as I'm: dumbfounded by Super Mario Land, intrigued by Wily's Revenge's fuzzy block puzzles, challenged to develop some kind of franchise-review feature, and blown away by [to be determined]. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Music Haul of the Month, July '13

at 6:02 PM
I dunno if I'm necessarily gonna make this a feature (at this point I don't know why I claim anything's going to be a feature), but it's something that happens a lot in Life and is appropriate enough to describe. Every once in a while I take a Saturday afternoon to collate a bunch of new music to put on my iPod to check out. Here I'm going to describe the results. Remember, I never claimed to be a music critic. And by "never claimed to be a music critic", I do mean that I'm publishing my critical opinions of music online for anyone to read as if I were a music critic. But I never claimed to be one. That's the difference. Proclaimed "critics" constantly proclaim that's what they are (...). I am gonna sell this article to Pitchfork though, I imagine it'll be quite to their liking.

I've been in a real punky mood, but the thing about punk is that the albums are so short that unless you want to listen to the same band (Ramones) a million times in a row, you always need more. And luckily, since I like to take my time moving on to new bands, there are plenty of classics I'm still missing.

Adolescents: like a 50/50 mix between shouty early hardcore (a la Damaged or GI) and Fugazi/Bad Religion emo. It reminds me of Fugazi because of long Mega-Man-y instrumental segments that hit the same awesome-sounding guitar chord for like a minute. Actually I guess emo mixed with hardcore is Fugazi. So this is very much along those lines, if you were to crank up the percentage of time given to hardcore. Because it was like 1980. Sadly these guys only have one real album. They then disappeared for most of the decade and returned in some highly embarrassing ways (IIRC they became a hair metal band in the late '80s).

The Damned: Call me American, but I usually steer clear of bands where the singer dresses like a comedy vampire. I don't want Danzig to come beat me up, but come on gang. What is with the goth/horror/tuffgay rock culture? I usually try to draw the line at face-painting.
In his defense, at least Damned singer Dave Vanian's Bela Lugosi look is funnier than the later hooker threads sported by every goth and hir androgynous sister-brother.
Anyway, I also usually eventually give up my prejudices and give something a try. Lord knows the seal is already broken on goth rock now that I like Bauhaus. There's no coming back from that. The Damned didn't start as a goth thing anyway - turns out they started as a scuzzy '60s garage rock thing. When I put on Damned Damned Damned, I was all, "hey - it's almost like the Stooges finally recorded a second non-sucky album!" and/or "hey - it's almost like the Animals if they had even written a good song!"

Angry Samoans: The first of the two proper Samoans albums feels realllll teenagers-in-the-garage - it's fun and has a catchy chorus here and there, but the writing is so religiously "four chords == song" and the tone so monotonous that it doesn't convey a lot of musicianship. The follow-up, Back from Samoa, carries the same attitude and approach, but shows that the band has gotten out and encountered the musical world a little bit. Maybe heard another punk bank. They play faster (hardcore at this point), vary their dynamics all the way from screaming to balladry, and have an actual identifiable sound. Their evolution is pretty obvious just by listening to the two versions of "My Old Man's a Fatso", a track from the first album re-recorded for the second. Still, I don't know if these guys are striking me as indispensable punk classics. Maybe it hurts that I heard the Dwarves first (who were of course playing an entire decade later than the Samoans).

Buzzcocks: Sporting the squealingly high-pitchedest singer this side of Bad Brains' H.R., the Buzzcocks do threaten at first to get annoying, but their raw, fast guitar-playing is actually a heck of a lot tougher than first-wave punk contemporaries like the Ramones and the Clash. They've got an almost metallic edge reminiscent of (personal favorites) D.O.A. paired with a Fall-esque bounciness that keeps the songs poppy and memorable. Honestly after just two or three listens to Another Music in a Different Kitchen, I would've sworn I'd heard "Sixteen" and "I Don't Mind" somewhere before - they're just that catchy. There's something annoyingly British about the band that I can't quite put my finger on - completely subjective, but I just get an unpleasant sensation from listening to them for too long that reminds me of Public Image Limited or Wire or something. Otherwise I'm definitely digging 'em.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Konami ReBirth, followed swiftly by Konami ReDeath

at 4:59 PM
Around 2009, classic-style 2D gaming was at a height it hadn't reached for over a decade. Retro series were showing a second life with Street Fighter IV, Mega Man 9Pac-Man Championship Edition, and... um... Sonic 4. The time was ripe for Konami, action kings of the early '90s, to rise like a phoenix and show the world what hardcore gaming really meant. Few classics are as beloved as Contra, Gradius, and Castlevania, but the former two hadn't seen a commercially successful sequel in fifteen years, and the Castlevania property had completely abandoned its origins. Konami smartly chose this opportunity to capitalize on a "ReBirth" for all three series, combining retro stylings with brand new content. That was the only smart decision they made in the entire process, because...

What the hell are these games? If anything the three seem to form a contained "ReBirth" subseries rather than a systemic overhaul or continuation of their respective properties. I honestly can't tell if Konami intended to continue Contra, Gradius, and Castlevania so much as they wanted to launch a new "ReBirth" branding that would visit random classics with its trappings. The decision to use the same developer, same assets, and same art-style for all three games is beyond lame. Why are Contra and Castlevania suddenly only distinguished by palette? Think of how different Contra III and Super Castlevania IV look. It all reeks of trying to budget three games for the price of one. Could Konami possibly have conceived anything more throwaway and forgettable? Raise your hand if today, a mere four years later, you even remember the ReBirths.
The games look passable, but the unfaithful pixel art calls to mind "cell-phone game" more than "NES"
I cannot stress enough how mind-boggling short-sighted this approach was. All we have to look at is the ReBirth visual presentation to know that Konami fundamentally misunderstood what was making Capcom, Nintendo, and Sega so successful at rebooting old properties. My best shot at what was going through their minds is: "well it looks like people are willing to buy cheap old games with any graphics at all, so let's make some cheap games with old mechanics and crappy graphics". It's like it completely went over their heads that Mega Man 9 was cool for identically replicating NES graphics, or that A Boy and His Blob had intricate modern hand-drawn sprites, or that Sonic 4 brought Sonic into a lush HD revision of his classic 16-bit hangouts. There's a common denominator here - the games either go FULL retro, or they go FULL contemporary. Konami tried to forge some fanciful middle ground by opting for the sorta-retro look of recent indie games like Cave Story and Super Meat Boy: pixelated sprite art that doesn't match with any particular generation of hardware. This works for indie games attempting to evoke the general spirit of classic gaming rather than any particular era, but it has no place in fucking Castlevania. Clearly Konami didn't want to spend the cash to get a real development studio to produce Donkey Kong Country Returns-level graphics, but were also scared the public wouldn't accept throwback art. This in spite of plentiful examples that both approaches pay off.

If they were so fucking scared of retro graphics, why settle for such tired gameplay? These three games show no attempt at all at advancing or even slightly varying the mechanics of their predecessors. Gradius ReBirth kinda gets away with it, because Gradius never had any variety, but all of the classic Contra and Castlevania games played slightly differently. Instead of offering a new variation, ReBirth falls back on the most stripped-down set of mechanics. So these aren't really sequels at all. I'd accept this if we were doing a "pretend it's 1988" time-shift, but the visuals have already destroyed that illusion. If Konami was so sure they could improve on classic sprite-art, why be so conservative in the gameplay department? Pick a sandbox to play in! Again, there's a very simple explanation for this: they did the cheapest thing possible. It's like they were immensely reluctant to make these games, like they had already assumed they weren't going to make any money. I wonder if Koko does make any money these days?
Gradius ReBirth is the only one that even close to fits into its series - only because Gradius always took a step back for every step it took forward. Yes, I am referring to Edit Mode. Bring it fucking back you assholes.
I'm directing my ire at Konami higher-ups because it doesn't seem fair to come down hard on development studio M2. M2 should never have been chosen for all three of these games. They can obviously construct decent (if a bit unbalanced) action, and were these games not burdened with the responsibility of carrying on some of the greatest legacies in gaming history, they'd be fairly recommendable (and still are). But these guys had nowhere near the panache and versatility to turn out what needed to be three completely distinct entries of three completely distinct series under limited time and budget. Yes, I realize that the original Contra, Gradius, and Castlevania shared quite a bit of staff, but it must be noted that before ReBirth, M2 had only been responsible for collating and porting Sega and Konami classics to other platforms. These were the first three games they had ever developed (at least the first three they're ever credited for developing), and the early-90s Konami Dream Team they are not. Besides, I doubt they were getting much financial support. These weren't exactly headline releases - though of course they should've been.

What bothers me about the ReBirth games is less their immediate quality; rather it's what a terrible stepping stone they provide for their brands. Why rebirth your series if you can't/won't build off of that rebirth at all? There is simply nowhere to follow from ReBirth. They didn't invent any new series standards; they weakly perpetuated old conventions. What was Konami's plan for ReBirth Phase 2? More watered-down semi-remakes? Did they think that's what people wanted of the series going forward? Or were they planning a return to true classic-style Contra/Gradius/Castlevania games? In that case, why bother with the ReBirth detour at all? It was a cheap way to quickly grab and then immediately lose gamers' attention. If anything, it tarnished the name of all three properties and showed the gaming public that Konami just doesn't give a shit about its classic stable. Is it even remotely surprising that in the wake of ReBirth, Contra and Gradius once again dropped off the map and Castlevania moved directly into another reboot?
God I hate that they made Contra look like a Saturday-morning cartoon. Contra should be M-rated as fuck. At least they threw in an Escape from New York reference.
ReBirth is a cautionary example that tagging something as "retro" isn't enough to make it successful, even if it's paired with fan-favorite brands. Developers need to have actual vision that they can communicate to the player. Allow me a brief fantasy of what ReBirth could have been, had Konami assigned an actual brain to the project. Start with a wave of 8-bit Mega Man 9-style direct sequels, move up to 16-bit for a second wave, and so forth until landing on the most repeatable formula or making a jump to present-day visuals/gameplay. That is to say, it could have been an actual rebirth, leading into regrowth, leading into profit and good games all around. Thanx God this is what we got instead.

Friday, July 12, 2013

What I'm Playing, Junely '13

at 6:23 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

It's pronounced "june-LYE". Because once again we're stuck between months, because I forgot when something ended and then a whole week passed and then it was like oh no my life is flashing before my eyes. It's summer, so new games aren't coming out, especially because a new console generation is on the horizon, but it's not like new games ever stopped me before.

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Mega Man: Dr. Wily's Revenge (Game Boy / 3DS VC)

Despite Capcom having released up to as many as like I dunno I think six Mega Men on 3DS Virtual Console, only ONE of those is from the Game Boy Mega Man series (which itself contained five unique games). Because this is Capcom we're talking about, so they need to milk stuff they've already released - you know, those NES Mega Man games that were already re-released as a collection on GCN and PS2, then re-re-released on Wii Virtual Console? Where the hell are the fucking Game Boy Mega Mans?! Don't you worry, because I wrote on my Wily's Revenge post-play survey at Club Nintendo that if Nintendo doesn't get on Capcom to release these games, something bad is going to happen. Yes I fill out those surveys. You get 10 coins for it! That's like 1/10th of a free game!

Anyway. Wily's Revenge. Considering that the original NES series teetered on the brink of tolerability, often slipping into shit (MM1 and MM3 in particular), you'd worry that a Game Boy entry would certainly fall on the crap side. I know I did. Surprisingly, though it may be a bit tame, Wily's Revenge is awfully competent and occasionally even surpasses its console brothers with smart design twists. In particular it displays my favorite use of fuzzy blocks to date (to be elucidated in a later article) and one of the cooler boss weapons up to this point in the series, Enker's Reflecto-Shield. The game is short and the levels largely in the class of easy forgettability recognizable from MM1's Bomb and Cut Man stages, but it's a fun taste of Mega Man worthy of a look from fans.

Games Started:

Bad Bots (PC/Steam)

More like Bad Game! Eh, that was a cheap shot. Plus it's not a bad game. So double cheapshot. Basically I'm an asshole. Bad Bots was a relatively minor indie release on Steam that probably isn't benefiting from the hovering Metacritic average of fucking 40-something. It's not exactly innovative, but something this competently made by such a small (single-man) team at a low price-point hardly deserves that kind of derision. It's fun, it's unique to look at, it offers enough linear progression to distinguish itself from the litany of free Flash/mobile games out there, and it's fucking fun. Sorry if side-scrolling twin-stick shooters aren't en vogue anymore - anyone who likes them is sure to like Bad Bots. As is anyone who likes heavily saturated pulp-style scifi artwork. It's definitely not a must-buy, but the demo is worth a try, and if developers like Point 5 saw the same kind of cash flow as garbage-brains like Twisted Pixel and Team Meat, we'd have a much more colorful indie marketplace. Normally I'd complain that the writing is embarrassingly terrible, but it'd be kinda hard for the sole writer - who isn't a native English speaker - to be too embarrassed by his script.

Minecraft: Xbox Edition (what platform do you think?)

Never before has a game pioneered so quickly going from so addictively fun to so forgettably boring. Come on spell-check, your suggested corrections for "forgettably" are "forgettable" and "unforgettably"? How can those both be in the dictionary but "forgettably" isn't? What a mad, mad world we live in. This is like the time I killed that kid.

I'm exaggerating of course. He survived with fourth degree burns covering most of his body. But Minecraft certainly has the fun dynamic of like... those Flash games I played in the student center to kill free periods in high school. Kinda tedious at first, then it gets exciting, then it's just plain awesome, then around the three hour mark it's completely peaked and I move on. What was that one? Defend Your Castle or something? Minecarp is Defend Your Castle for a new generation. A generation where that is by far the most profitable business model in gaming. Could it at least have fucking quests or something? Why not just play with Legos?

See, I'm like a steelworker: I kill what I eat. See, I'm like a hunter gatherer: I kill what I eat. See, I'm like a bricklayer: I kill what I eat. See, see, I'm like a murderer: I kill what I eat. That's my description of Minecraft, and/or the lyrics to "Steelworker". Your call.

Mysterious Dungeon 2: Shiren the Wanderer (SNES)

Broooooooooooooo! Or is he???
If there's one thing I sometimes do, it's follow through on my promises here on this blog. So I played a bit'o roguelike in Chunsoft's original Shiren the Wanderer. Surprisingly, the game is damn fun - there's a gratifying responsiveness to the turn-based real-time action, the randomized floors are just the right size to feel unique but not labyrinthine, and the action comes fast and furious. Tying it all together of course is that one-death-ends-it-all tension that makes every rare reward feel even rarer. Unfortunately, I've now died so many times that I have a hard time reveling in any particular treasure, knowing that just around the corner some random-ass trap is probably gonna take it away from me.

Gradius II: Gofer's Ambition (Turbo-Grafx 16)

Konami riffing on Alien? I refuse to believe it!
The history of Gradius II is a bit odd - I'd actually like to do a feature comparing the NES and Arcade iterations of the game, as they're so completely different that they're essentially different games. What Japan got on the Turbo-Grafx (the US didn't get the game at all) is supposedly a pretty direct arcade port, one that will feel suspiciously familiar to any veteran of Gradius III. While II may lack III's coolest upgrade over the original (and the rest of the series), the customizable weapon sets, it otherwise parallels its graphics, music, and gameplay mechanics. Where the two differ is that Gradius II is really fucking hard. Maybe I'm speaking too soon, but after a few weeks with the game and dozens of runs, I can barely get through level 3. By comparison, I could beat the first five stages of Gradius III basically just by looking at them. II is almost like the Lost Levels of this series. 

Games Finished:

Saints Row The Third (Xbox 360)

Play through all two alternate endings! Experience morality choices like you could never dreamed was true! Man the ending of this game was dumb as hell. I was just excited that they finally gave me the chance to let a member of my "crew" die. Of course the game tried to make that feel super morally ambiguous or something and was all like "AH HOPE IT WAS WERT IT, DAWG", and I was like, hell yeah it was. That bitch was a stupid bitch. She did nothing but bitch and moan the entire game. She extremely deserved to die.

The climactic battle against the main villain is immensely unfun and ill-conceived. See, he's a luchadore, so the only way to defeat him is quick-time events. That's what I said. It's not like it was hard, but I was pretty pissed when the game glitched out and left me wandering around the ring for ten minutes mashing the attack button and thinking I was making progress, only to learn (after giving up and going online) that a QTE had failed to trigger and I had to reload my last save file. Weirdly (or thankfully), this battle isn't the end of the game, being followed by two 'cooldown' missions determined by the aforementioned moral choice. The better of the two sees the player take to Mars for one final confrontation with the villain (hmm... wonder if Volition reused their Mars assets from the Red Faction series...).

My final takeaway from this game: about halfway through, there was a zombie mission, and I thought to myself: for all the mayhem this game touts, how come there's no chainsaw melee weapon? Then at the end of the game, you do get a chainsaw. So good on 'em for including the chainsaw, but a little too late, no?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Let's Listen: Sound Samples

at 1:42 PM
On olden game consoles, sometimes synths alone didn't do the trick. In that case, you'd load up a real live sound, compress it to fit on the cartridge, and slap it on in a song.

Snake's Revenge - Metal Gear

When I mention Konami NES samples, you might think of Double Dribble's opening voice clip. However, Konami had some great snare samples that they used in their shmups, brawlers, and, well, this game. Snake's Revenge is the sequel that never should've been to the Metal Gear port that also never should've been. While its soundtrack is rough around the edges (for Konami fare), it's still enjoyable.

This track in particular must understand that all you want to hear is the snare, because at 0:29, it just piles on as much as possible. Aside from that, the track is one of those quick and shallow tunes that keeps your blood pumping with a few really tight bars.

I know I said that it's rough around the edges, but that's not a knock against the soundtrack's production value; that aspect is just as top notch as your standard Konami NES OST, and you can really hear it in this song.

Sonic the Hedgehog 3 - Mid-Stage Boss

Who doesn't like getting to join in music? Maybe you whistle to the Mario Kart Wii tracks that have whistling in them. Or, maybe you listen to the Sonic 3 midboss music and join its voice samples, the Michael Jackson yelps and "come on"s. I've always preferred the funk edge of Sonic 3's soundtrack to Sonic & Knuckles' flavor, and it was a shame that Sonic 3 & Knuckles ditched this track in particular. Anyway, don't let anyone hear you enjoying this song.

Gimmick! - Happy Birthday

Sunsoft has some killer bass samples that create a sense of badassery in Blaster Master and gravity in Journey to Silius. (Also check out Sunsoft's Batman games on NES.) However, I recently realized that they used the same bass in Ufouria, a relatively cheerful game, so I wanted to see how happy Sunsoft got with their bass.

It's harder to get happier than a birthday--in fact, "happy" is in the track name. The bass here doesn't sound bad, since it's well composed and plays a decent role in the song. However, it still feels out of place to have such a deep, gritty bass in an otherwise upbeat, happy-go-lucky song. Maybe I've spent too much time playing Journey to Silius.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Monday, July 8, 2013

Dragon Quest IX on failing to set an appropriate tone

at 4:13 PM

Dragon Quest IX must have the worst title screen music of any RPG I've ever played. Almost of any game I've ever played, except that Cotton 100% just had "Ode to Joy". I mean, come the fuck on. This sounds like a song that would play during a tutorial for a cooking minigame in Harvest Moon, not over the start screen of the biggest entry of the most popular Japanese RPG series of all time. It doesn't get me excited or in an epic mood; rather it starts me off annoyed and slightly embarrassed. Compare that to Skies of Arcadia, Phantasy Star IV, or Xenoblade Chronicles, where almost every single time I boot up the game I sit at the title screen for at least a minute to listen to the music, both to indulge and to get in the heightened state of mind best to engage in the adventure. I only complain because this is fucking Dragon Quest. How can they fail to get even the very first piece even remotely correct? What does that say about where the developers' heads are at? Is their opinion honestly "who gives a shit about the title theme", or is "shallow farce" the tone they were hoping to effect? Whether the game is intended as silly fun or not, I still don't want to believe either answer. Just because Super Mario RPG and Earthbound are silly fun doesn't mean that they trivialize themselves.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Gaining ground on Gain Ground: a Duologue

at 4:02 PM
Duologue. Diatribe. Dissension. Declamation. Double Talk. Double Talk. It's alllll talk. So is this feature, captured from some of the secret email archives of co-bloggers Greg (Yourself) and Greg (Golem).

Yourself: If you would care to make a case for Gain Ground being a strategy game, I think it might make a good duologue. Sorry the Mario/Wario one didn't go anywhere, you kinda took it in a different direction than I intended (I wanted to talk about the characters - the series as a whole compared is a gigantic subject). Not to mention I got real sour on Wario Land II.

Golem: The easy way is to put Gain Ground next to a strategy game and eyeball it. 
Well, eyeball away
It reminds me of strategy RPGs/Shining Force in particular. You directly control one character at a time. The space you can attack is important; can you attack directly in front of you, or can you only hit things at a range? Can you attack to the sides, or can you only shoot straight on? Even the choice between two weapons reminds me of swapping primary weapons on the fly in Shining Force (equipping a throwing dagger for a turn where you can't quite get close enough to hit an enemy by sword). Finally, there's the satisfaction of building a complementary party, and just like Shining Force (or most SRPGs, really), losing a single character is a big deal.

The hard, although more satisfying, method would first find a definition for strategy game by the goals and opposition method. I think you could say there are two possible goals, either A) felling everyone in the opposing force or B) taking out a lynchpin (a boss). Or is that too specific? As for opposition, you'd at least start by saying your army faces another army. The other army also takes advantage of space against you, with strategies like flanking. Actually, maybe your goal at any given point in a strategy game is to occupy the advantageous ground.

Yourself: "Strategy" is hard to define, because it can be both a type of gameplay OR a characteristic. Often it falls into the same category as "action", being a modifier rather than a mode unto itself. Like I was saying last night, you can have a strategy FPS. This seems to be the sense most applicable to Gain Ground, which I'd call a strategy shmup. Strategic gameplay is characterized by improvised rules, non-obvious methods and goals, and recursive strategy (yes, strategy is built from smaller strategies).

As an actual mode of interactivity, "strategy" probably refers to the chess-derived army-puppeteering that we see in, well, strategy games, as diverse as Pikmin, Shining Force, and StarCraft. I wish we had a different word for it - "tactics" perhaps - to make a distinction from the adjectival mode, but I think we both agree that nothing fits better in either case than "strategy". I don't feel like defining it in terms of goals/opposition right now because I think it's tangential to this conversation.

It's a stretch to put Gain Ground into this strategy genre, simply because it's more obviously a shooter. Its gameplay is comprised of shooting things. Calling it a strategy game is the equivalent of calling Super Mario Bros. an action game - yes, it bears the appropriate traits, but is further distinguished. That said, it certainly does fall under the strategy umbrella. It's a strategy shooter, no doubt. It presents the player with a static challenge and allows them to develop, test, and refine their own methods of approach, providing a variety of tools to allow for individualization and improvisation. Simply watching how differently the two of us approached each level evidences the non-linearity of the challenge.

Yourself (7 hours later): Well, I take that back a little bit. Gain Ground could be viewed as a true strategy game. The fact that you only control one unit (or at least that only one unit exists at a time) doesn't preclude it from that style, even if it simplifies it significantly. And of course, when multiple players are introduced (up to three in the arcade version), the player squad starts to resemble an SRPG battalion.

I was originally approaching Shining Force from a strategic combat paradigm, thinking of the entire game as one drawn-out fight. If we instead understand it as a marriage of combat and tactics, separating the unit face-offs (combat) from the overarching army / battlefield management (tactics), it becomes clear how it relates to Gain Ground. Swap in shooting for automatic turn-based battles and hit the real-time clock on the tactics (a la Ogre Battle), and you're pretty close. Keeping in mind that, again, the tactics are relatively simple because of the limited number of independent units.

Golem: The comparison between Ogre Battle and Shining Force bugs me because in Ogre Battle, attacks don't take up space, units do. Ogre Battle is a more macro experience, while Shining Force happens on a per-soldier basis. But then, I don't know how meaningful that difference really is.
Ogre Battle: A More Macro Experience. Wait a minute, there was never a Queen song by that name!
Actually, I like that distinction. If I had my way, strategy would refer to more macro games while tactical would refer to more micro games. Like Wario Ware.

Also, even though you only control one character at a time in Gain Ground, you still face off against an army. Is all-Ike mode in Fire Emblem: The Gamecube One not a strategy RPG? This is what prevents Mega Man from being a tactical platformer, too, since you don't face off against armies. Or, if you do fight armies, like in Contra, you're not interested in occupying any single space.

Yourself: "in Ogre Battle, attacks don't take up space, units do" doesn't mean anything to me. Are you referring to the fact that units in OB must make contact to engage, while Shining Force units are often able to attack from two spaces away or use area-of-effect spells? If so, that's just being nitpicky between individual games. We picked OB to be the example of tactical action because it's the most SRPG-like RTS, and we picked Shining Force to represent the other side because apparently that's the only tactics game you've ever played, but it'd be easy to pick two that sync up better and hold just as true for the rest of the comparison. Units have range ("attacks take up space"?) in RTSs like Starcraft and Command & Conquer, and in some turn-based strategies like Romance of the Three Kingdoms units have zero range ("attacks don't take up space"?). So... what's your point? Both mechanics clearly exist across the real-time/turn-based barrier. It is not news that Ogre Battle and Shining Force are not perfectly identical in every way.

I think spatial control is certainly key to what we're calling the tactics (chess) gameplay mode. As I said (or at least thought) before, one of the things that keys us off to Gain Ground's tactics predilection is that it takes place in static, one-screen environments. Contra is pretty immediately thrown out as a parallel, because - as you said - there's no urge to maintain space. The environment is in a constant state of change. A more revealing comparison is with Smash TV or Robotron 64, which similarly keep the setting to one screen. Here the primary contrast with Gain Ground is the mobility of enemies - they render the idea of controlling space a near impossibility.

Golem: I'm trying to think if there's anything more to be said on Gain Ground, but nothing's coming to mind. I don't think anything is left for issues of range and space. I'll have to look back and see if there are any lingering threads.

I also tried to think about a version of Gain Ground where you control multiple units, and I got Syndicate. Can't say the gameplay is all that similar. Definitely a game I don't know what to do with, but I think we've discussed it before.

You just got Syndicated
Yourself: On the subject of armies and where the line is drawn between the opposition in Mega Man/Contra and Gain Ground/Fire Emblem, I think the barrier is largely perceptive. When I mentioned that strategy gameplay is composed of controlling armies, I meant specifically that - there are two (or more) singular forces which each control a span of dumb subordinates. While I realize that the processor doing computations for Mike Mettaur and Phil Screwdriver is indeed a singular force, they act autonomously without communication - simply put, they're independent AIs. Whatever "teamwork" might happen between them is incidental. Even if they are programmed to act as a team (or, say, controlled by two separate players), they're still behaving with selfish interests and internal motivation. And if they do start to form large scale strategies, and strictly adhere to those strategies, and alternate them in turn, well then, um, yeah, it does become a strategy game.

On the player side, an army/force is defined by division of control, be it synchronously or asynchronously. Gain Ground does possess that with its multi-character squad, but I'm not sure it's a necessary element of strategy anyway. Probably a lot of this conversation could have been alleviated by properly defining strategy early on, but whoops, too late now.

Golem: Well, I can't say it was a bad conversation to have. This is vague territory--as you said, some barriers are largely perceptive--so it's good to have something more to go on.

While I don't know that two players make up an army, it did help during Gain Ground when we had complementary abilities. If one person can throw high and the other can throw far, you can assign unique paths to each player. In particular, I think there were times when one of us stayed back as the other person cleared a path. In most games, coop works just fine playing as identical units.

Yourself: As for Syndicate - is that Gain Ground with multiple units? At least, any more so than any other RTS we've already mentioned? I thought it used cursor control. What makes you call it out - do you have to aim and dodge bullets and stuff? Or just that it has little dudes instead of tanks?

As we discussed IRL (sadly not captured in this duologue - until I explain it now!), the main difference between traditional real-time strategy and Gain Ground (besides the number of player units) is that a real-time strategy uses AI routines to determine character behavior, while Gain Ground uses direct input. This parallels the difference between Fire Emblem and Shining Force - in the former, the player controls a cursor while a path-finding algorithm determines units' routes. In Shining Force, the player directly controls each unit during its turn and can freely walk within set bounds (similar to - lol - Quest 64). Of course, in these turn-based games, the difference is completely superficial - nothing can happen until the turn is executed, so all that matters is the characters' final resting place. In real-time games like Syndicate and Gain Ground, the difference between cursor control and direct input is so dramatic that it would lead most to classify one game as strategy and the other as action, despite the fact that they are both hybrids.

Golem: Oh, Syndicate gives you direct control over the little dudes, and you can decide if you want to control all four of them at once or just one at a time. (I say this based on the SNES one.) Control all four at once and hit down on the D-pad, and they all go down. That said, I just meant it as an offhanded remark, since I can't claim to understand anything more about that game. I'll double check that when I have access to it.


And that he did. Happily ever after.