Thursday, October 10, 2013

What I'm Playing, September '13

at 6:50 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

Fall at last. What a delightful treat. I've played a lot of Disney games this month for no particular reason besides that Castle of Illusion and DuckTales Remastered came out on XBLA. So, that's clearly the reason. But no other particular reason. Once I got going on the old Sega and Capcom games, it was hard to stop - they're almost universally excellent.

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse (Sega Genesis)

Here starts the legendary coupling of Sega development studios and the Disney license. I've had trouble uncovering much information on Emirin, Thomas Yuuda, and the rest of the team behind Castle, but this was certainly the start of a good thing. The art and sound design are top-notch, the platforming is spot-on, and the Disney magic is there.

The game just has great atmosphere. It communicates both Mickey's wonder at experiencing these fantastical worlds - and his fear. Many environments are bright, colorful, and lively, yet the fact that such monolithic cheeriness is lined with danger lends the world a false, creepy, mechanical feel. An illusory aspect. This is exemplified by the toy-soldier death squads in the playroom and the dessert world's bizarro carnival music and vertigo-inducing spinning backdrop. The mood varies between scenes; one of the best parts of the game is the quiet clifftop calm-before-the-storm level, hinting at malevolent powers brewing while also offering a reprieve between the saccharine toy and dessert-themed lands.

The gameplay works fine, but it's unambitious. Compared to Mario, Mickey moves lethargically and floats in the air for ages, but the levels are appropriately paced such that the gameplay as a whole never feels slow. Each level has some identifiable gimmick, but most aren't used to much effect - many are discarded as quickly as they're introduced. So the platforming, while solid, has a bit of a thin feel. It's a journey more than a challenge. But we'll come back to that when we talk about the remake....

World of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (Sega Genesis)

This is the sequel/crossover of Castle of Illusion and QuackShot, borrowing a few mechanics from each game but generally keeping the air of a straightforward adventure platformer. Most of the thematic elements and the structure of the adventure derive from Castle, but stuff like the run button, crawling, and stunning enemies are straight outta QuackShot.

While Castle of Illusion isn't tough, World is woefully easy - really the main thing I came away thinking was what a trivially easy game it is. That's particularly disappointing considering that it's short (about 40 minutes - and that was with a number of deaths) and it reuses two (of five) worlds from Castle. The silver lining here is some level variation depending on whether the player chooses Mickey, Donald, or both (2P).

The Magical Quest starring Mickey Mouse (SNES)

Of course, Sega weren't the only ones making good Disney games. Capcom had control of the license on Nintendo platforms and put out a litany of okay platformers and a few great ones too. People like to declare which is objectively better: Magical Quest or Castle of Illusion. I'm going to go with perhaps most basic answer: neither, really. They're both good games, but they're so different that they don't really bear comparison. What I will say is that Magical Quest feels much more like a generic shooter/platformer with Mickey inserted, while Castle of Illusion and the rest of Sega's games feel like they were built as Disney from the ground up.

But character isn't Magical Quest's strength, so who cares. What we get instead is something like Mega Man X meets Bionic Commando meets Super Mario World, in perhaps the safest way possible. Instead of blending these games' mechanics, the developers chose to give Mickey swappable outfits that grant him unique sets of powers, so the game plays like a level from MMX, followed by a level from Bionic Commando, so forth.

That's really not a problem since the individual ideas work so well, particularly the puzzle-shootery Fireman Mickey. FM gets to interact with the environment a lot, pushing blocks around and putting out fires. Little touches, like that flammable objects are relit when they touch other flames (rather than based on a timer) make this segment that much more engaging. I still don't love Climber Mickey, AKA Bionic Commando, but for the duration of one easy level, I can tolerate 'im.

Aside from the Best of Capcom feel, I really took a strong Demon's Crest impression away from Magical Quest. Everything from the music to the art-style to the level design to the boss fights (which are unfortunately a lot easier than Capcom's typical fair) reeks of Crest - the first boss battle is a frickin' Disney Red Devil. The power selection reminds me of Crest as well, as it transforms Mickey's movement abilities in addition to his weaponry.

Games Started:

QuackShot starring Donald Duck (Sega Genesis)

A very mildly adventure-dosed shooter/platformer. QSsDD probably has more in common with Mega Man 7 than Castlevania II, but that's okay. We teach ya. Sorry I'm too tired to write another one of these. It's good. The run-and-stunning is a welcome twist that manages to introduce speed to the scrolling shooter without making it incessantly hard. The challenge becomes to get past an enemy before he gets unstunned. The open-ended structure is pretty minor. As far as I can tell, the second halves of the levels (as each level has an entrance/exit halfway) are stuck to a linear order. It's cool though, it's still more engaging than a completely straight shot like Castle of Illusion.

DuckTales Remastered (XBLA)

This one is exactly what it claims to be. I talked pre-release about the mysterious nature of "remakes" in the contemporary gaming landscape, but there's thankfully no ambiguity to DuckTales Remastered. 3/4 of it is the exact same game as DuckTales. Same environments, enemies, layouts - even the same secrets. The new parts are explicit extensions, like the additional cut-scenes, the new opening stage, and some new mid-level sequences like the Gizmoduck rampage on the Moon. I barely remember playing DuckTales as a child, so this is really my first time with this game.

The most striking thing about the design is how collection-oriented it is - in fact, it's something of a precursor to Donkey Kong Country. There is something hidden on almost every screen, giving the stage design a (sorta literal) second layer. Unlike DKC, DuckTales Remastered is ostensibly quite easy to complete - blowing through the stages while just grabbing the necessities is almost a trivial task, especially once you've picked up one or two life extensions. The majority of the gameplay quickly becomes collection, which is perfectly appropriate for an adventure of avaricious treasure-hunter Scrooge McDuck. Great concept/gameplay synergy.

What's unique about the collection is that most of the game's treasure is hidden in plain sight, but invisible. Thus the challenge isn't to solve puzzles or keep an eagle eye out for secret paths, but to traverse every inch of every screen. The challenge is in finding ways to reach all the boundaries, planning the use of destructible platforms, and navigating around traps and enemies.

It's a neat game that I definitely like (I even eventually warmed up to Remastered's jarring blend of 2D and 3D), but the levels feel long as fuck and kinda not all that varied. If I was allowed to play them in 10-minute sessions instead of 40 minutes at a time, they'd probably be less draining. As is, the five mega-levels feel bloated.

Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse (XBLA)

Wow am I loving this game. As someone who'd barely played the original there wasn't much nostalgic connection for me here (I remember Magical Quest and World of Illusion much more fondly), but it was definitely a wise move to run through the original before getting into the remake. While Castle '13 works excellently as a standalone game, one of its most impressive feats is revising and improving upon the original while still remaining faithful both to its gameplay and intentions.

The original game's level gimmicks had a tendency to fall flat and be completely under-utilized. This remake turns that train around so hard that someone's brain exploded. In fact, each individual mechanic is typically so fun and cleverly utilized that the biggest disappointment is that, like in the original, they never get a second pass or any ongoing development.

For instance, the both games have this gelatin shit that shows up in Toyland. In the original there are a few floors made of the sticky substance that work basically like a clingier quicksand. Mickey sinks slowly into the jello and can barely jump to get out. That's the extent of it - it lasts about thirty seconds and counts less as a mechanic than a thing that just happens. In Castle '13, the red goo again makes a forgettable cameo in Toyland, but it's brought back a second time in Just Desserts. This time, there are blocks of jello positioned throughout the environment and Mickey switches into a kind of swim when he jumps into one, suspended inside of it. They are mixed up with enemies, placed over pits, and used for scaling large vertical shafts. This stage also introduces green gelatin blocks with inverted properties. Instead of sinking into these, Mickey springs off like bouncing on a trampoline. The only way to get through them is to slowly tiptoe in. The multicolored blocks are mixed up for sections where Mickey is thrown around by the bouncy green blocks and caught by the sticky red ones.

It's a great expansion of what was a throwaway idea from the classic game, allowing it to feel like Castle of Illusion while developing completely new platforming ideas. The core concept is the same, it's just that more interesting things are done with it. And that's Castle of Illusion '13 in a nutshell.

Games Finished:

Killer Is Dead (Xbox 360)

Don't know if I have anything new to say about this at the moment, plus how do you expect me to remember something I beat at the beginning of last month. The ending was interesting - it had a nice unpredictable but inevitable twist that shed considerable light on the story and will make a second playthrough even more entertaining.

I have to be honest - as the difficulty of the game peaked, I found myself tiring with the gameplay. By endgame, the No More Heroes games were so dead-set on throwing curve-balls and skipping straight to boss-fights that it was impossible to get tired. By comparison, Killer (and likewise Lollipop Chainsaw) is happy to let the formula run all the way to the credits, essentially feeling like a game with no final act. It has a very "that's it?" ending. It's in keeping with overall sobering of the Suda style that Killer exemplifies, but this is one of the places where being more like popular/critical favorites is a shortcoming rather than an improvement.

Wild Guns (SNES)

Player: I am Clint the invincible!

Final Boss: I can't believe being defeated by you!

Amazing game. One of the best on the SNES, probably one of my favorite action games of all-time. Play it.

Mario Golf (Game Boy Color / 3DS VC)

Mario Golf is interesting in that, although it's the first (to my knowledge) Mario sports game, it has little in common with later spinoffs. In particular, where the later games (particularly in the Gamecube era) became wacky over-the-top arcade-style "sports" games, akin to NFL Blitz, Mega Man Soccer, and Base Wars, the original Mario Golf is for an intents and purposes a serious golf sim. While it features no real locations or golfers, it otherwise aspires to teach the fundamentals of golf and provide a reasonable and realistic (for Game Boy) simulation experience.

That is, until the first set of credits roll. Returning to the game after conquering all four courses, the player will find a final challenge: face off against Mario in the Mushroom Kingdom Club Tournament. The MKCT, or M...T for short, doesn't change the gameplay from golf bread-and-butter, but it certainly makes the holes as wacky as possible without breaking the laws of reality. Star bunkers, microscopic greens, and fairways shaped like Shy Guys - Camelot had fun with it and put together a goofy bonus round that pays homage to the Nintendo great and makes a neat reward - and challenge - for players who put the time in to make it through the main circuit.

Undoubtedly the strangest moment in the campaign comes when the player returns to his home clubhouse after vanquishing the Mush...ament. The powers that be, or whoever, sit down for a somber, sobering debate about whether the world is ready to learn that Mario has been defeated (in golf). The conclave concludes that the news should be leaked slowly, for to reveal that Mario has lost would be to destroy every golfer's goal to conquer the unconquerable. In the immortal words of Tom Never-Talks-At-Any-Other-Part-Of-The-Game, "Golf without a dream is no golf at all". I got the weird feeling that they were telling me not to tell my friends I had beaten the game.

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