Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What I'm Playing, July's end '13

at 5:38 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

Thank god July is finally over. Ever notice what a bizarre, unpredictable month it is? Every year it's like, "nothing in July is gonna surprise me this year", and every year it gets weird. Sometimes it's good stuff and sometimes it's bad. Sometimes you discover Devo, sometimes a city blows up. Sometimes you lose your virginity, sometimes you lose your best friend. Sometimes you have a fun barbecue and sometimes you get addicted to drugs. It's July. Heightened reality. Frankly I say it's the heat what makes everyone act so crazy.

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Super Mario Land (Game Boy / 3DS VC)

Well yeah, this game is short as shit and easy too. People always point to New Super Mario Bros. for starting that trend where lives are pointless because you finish the game with like 50, but I found that to be the case with Super Mario Land as well. I had twenty-some lives upon first completion. It just really loads you up with the coins.

That said, once you die, the dyin' don't stop. Because the game has such wonky physics (Mario goes from zero to sixty in less than a millisecond, gravity seems to be a constant instead of acceleration, and your sprite has a tiny hit box (which means a tiny landing area)), it's all about getting into the flow of things. As soon as you lose your grip, it's easy to die 5-10 times in just a few seconds. That was my experience, at least. The game only offers one continue, but since it's only about ten minutes long, even that seems unnecessary.

Games Started:

Capsized (XBLA)

Here we've got a nice little indie-that-made-it-to-the-big-times-after-many-years-and-then-didn't-really-get-the-attention-they-deserved type story. Capsized isn't all the way there, but it's at least the genesis of a great game. It's basically a linear weapons-heavy Super Metroid, not too different from the recent Bad Bots or Shadow Complex, though far heavier on the atmosphere. Capsized starts off on a real lazer-foot - for one thing, the foreign jungle planet teeming with life is a really nice, not particularly common setting. Okay, Avatar and that, but I can't really think of another game short of Turok that reminds me of this environment.

The problem is that Capsized feels more like a playground than a finished product. The physics are great and the shooting is a blast (a blast!), but the levels don't hold together well. There are occasional half-baked puzzles and some decent structurally challenging fights, but too often things completely fall apart and you feel like you have to cheese or glitch your way through to the end - like no one actually bothered to take the time to make sure that the solutions worked. There were times I was kinda surprised I was playing a game on XBLA proper (a game for which I had spent money) and not the Indie Marketplace, because Bleed feels far better put together. The game looks and controls professionally, but the level design just isn't there. It's not even that it's bad or ill-conceived - it's just so raw and messy that it feels like a first draft - something unfinished or put together with a different game's level editor. I think it's extremely telling that the game has four different ways of high-jumping - a jetpack, a grapple beam, wall-jumps, and a force-push that can be aimed at the ground. Surely a bit more time spent in the levels would have demonstrated how redundant these are and led the developers to either prune a few or design specifically around them.

This is more of a nitpick, but the atmosphere is also undercut by the lack of progression in the narrative. The protagonist has crash-landed on this planet and is now on a rescue mission, recovering his crewmates. I'm now 3/4 through the game and that's literally all I know of the plot. There's been no detail of the original space mission, no history or investigation of the nameless planet I've crash-landed on, no scope or context whatsoever. I don't even know if I'm waiting for a rescue ship to pick us up or hoping to rebuild my escape pod. I think the developers/writers had all of this information in their heads, but didn't realize how tight-lipped they were being. It's just frustrating to watch a neat idea spoiled by the weak aping of age-old silent narratives.

Dragon Quest IX (DS)

Time for a little Dragon Quest, Nein? That was German for "Time for a little Dragon Quest, No?" In conclusion, I guess so. The DS of course had a million Dairy Queens to choose from and everyone's got their own little opinion on which is best, so I decided to go with Famitsu's 40/40 Game of the Year 4040, Dragon Quest IX. I like a little battle animation to go with my RPG, and besides, it got me into a conversation with a cute girl at Gamestop about JRPGs, and she actually wasn't a retard. Like, she knew who Yoko Shimomura was and Vanillaware. I know, that's some compelling story. Save it for the autobiography and all that.

Dragon's Quest IX both does the JRPG thing better than most JRPGs and does the WRPG thing worse than most WRPGs. By that I mean to say, you know how there are three basic levels on which town-crawling RPGs set up plots? You know them, so I'm not going to say. Okay, I'll say. At the highest level there is some kind of main story that usually heavily involves the main character, main villain, main maguffin, and dictates the main path through towns/dungeons/a forest. This exists in all RPGs and um, pretty much all games and stories for that matter. In Dragon Quest IX, this plot can be summarized as "God decides he doesn't like Earth and decides to blow it up, and one angel has to collect seven figs to stop him". Sound familiar? They usually do. DQIX pays very little attention to this overarching narrative and leaves it alone for hours at a time.

The second level of narrative is the town-level ("the JRPG thing"). It's composed of the individual stories that surround each place you visit on your journey, or each maguffin you collect. While these function structurally as acts, with their own setup, rising tension, and climax, I hesitate to universally assign that term, as the stories often find complete resolution and don't contribute to the overall rising tension, which would be unusual for a traditional act. An instance of a DQIX town-act is a story set in a port where the villagers have come to worship a sea-god summoned by an orphan girl. The god provides them fish, so they have stopped working and become lazy. The mayor of the town becomes even greedier and demands that the girl summon the god to bring him treasure from the ocean depths, then the true nature of the beast is revealed, the mayor repents, and the town lives happily ever after. These self-contained component tales of DQIX offer surprising emotional and symbolic depth and turn the game into what is essentially a very strong anthology of mini-RPGs.

The even more granular level is non-player-character (NPC) stories ("the WRPG thing"). These typically take the form of side-quests assigned by various scattered NPCs and are almost always entirely self-contained. DQIX has a fair share of these too (more than your average JRPG), but they're barely worth describing - a pretty representative example of what I've seen so far was an old man who told me "my grandson said I look like a slug. Go kill ten slugs for me!"

Injustice: God's Among Us (Xbox 360)

Ahh, Mortal Kombat. I mean Injust: Ice Gods Among Us. Netherrealm is definitely continuing their streak of extremely well-rounded high-production easily-accessibly fighting games. We'll talk about the propensity of the fighting genre for single-play later this week; otherwise my strongest initial impression of Ija-Gu-Gu is that it doesn't feel all that much like Mortal Kombat. It's at least as different from its Cuz as, say, Tekken is from SoulCalibur. You can tell they're running on the same engine and a lot of familiar building blocks are in place (sweeps, uppercuts, and bounces feel exactly the same), but there's way more flying around, laser-beamy flare, and time-bending speed to take the place of Mortal Kombat's delightful gore.
"A great superhero can be summed up in a single sentence" (I said that) - in the case of Injustice, that becomes "a single button". The "Character Power" button is a great way to quickly translate each of these superhumans' key advantages into battle instead of leaving players to fumble with special inputs. When I play as Green Arrow, what do I want to do? Shoot fancy arrows. The Character Power button instantly lets me shoot fire, ice, and electric arrows without needing to explore or memorize input combos. As Superman it grants super-strength, as the Flash it slows down time; Doomsday it makes invulnerable, and Deathstroke it allows perfect sniping accuracy. The button is only held back from its potential by the limited creativity in implementing certain characters' superpowers, or lack thereof. While it's fitting of the trickster king Joker to have a slippery dodge/counter, Batman's technological superiority is represented as... a couple of bat missiles. There are also too many characters who get boring super strength (Supes, Cyborg, Shazam...) or invulnerability (Doomsday, Luthor (sigh), Grundy...) and a few who pretty clearly have an arbitrarily assigned ability due to the lack of their real powers' fighting-game-practicality (Aquaman, for instance, has his famous... Water Shirk?). Still, it's a great idea that's mostly well done, and unless you're a fan of some really specific character that got the short shrift (there aren't many, and they're mostly lesser characters like Harley Quinn), I imagine you'll be pleased.

Gain Ground (Genesis / Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection)

I'd goofed off a bit with Gain Ground before, just to see what it was all about, but this is my first actual go at beating it. As an arcade port to the Sega Genesis, it's hardly friendly - the Collection's save states alleviate the otherwise quite damning save/password-free play length (at least 2 hours). Still, for the degree of punishment the game serves for using a continue (lose all of your characters), it's hard not to save scum. Anyway, I don't have a lot of steam left to write about Gain Ground right now, so check out this discussion of the game's dubious straddling of the line between shooting and strategy.

It's a great combination and certainly starts off as good fun, but from what I can tell, Ground struggles to keep the strategy elements going strong on the back nine. By that point the player is at or near maximum offensive capability and thirty screens deep, so there's not a ton to do to make things harder other than pile on the enemy waves. Which makes things play more like a generic arena shooter.

Capcom Arcade Cabinet (XBLA)

Not really an individual game, but I've been working through my impressions here already.  

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Wow this was a long post. Those were almost reviews. Could've at least split this up over two days - but you know me! I'm always contenting my fans! Plus I didn't post yesterday, so that.

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