Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What I'm Playing, October '13

at 7:19 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

Alright gonna blast right through this because I forgot to fill it in at the end of October. Things got hectic with moving week and all.

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

NAM-1975 (NeoGeo)

NAM-1975 belongs to that very small subset of shooting galleries like Wild Guns and Cabal that utilize an onscreen character, aka arcade third-person shooters - a class of games that I love and wish hadn't died after Sin & Punishment. NAM is credited to SNK and strongly reminds me of Metal Slug, though, as Slug was developed six years later by ex-employees of Irem, I doubt the games shared much personnel. Still, they both nail that perfect level of difficulty between reflex and memorization that I've colloquially labeled "fun". It's hard to describe what exactly makes an action game satisfying without just listing what it's not; it's not pure reflex, it's not pure memorization. At the highest level, there's something about learning to recognize certain setups and how enemies will organically and spontaneously interact to create threat patterns, and through failed attempts and experimentation developing high-level strategies to combat those emergent challenges without needing to know exactly what's coming when. To become skilled at the game, you memorize setups and strategies then reflexively identify situations and match them to tactics, rather than memorizing a sequence of spots on the screen to occupy and targets to shoot, or individually processing every single bullet and relying on reflexes for every move.

For instance, in the first level of NAM-1975, there's this water part. I've learned that the highest priority enemies are boats (and if you shoot the boats the riders will die), the second highest are choppers, and the lowest are swimmers. I've learned to dodge roll, not to run, because the angled bullet fire comes in quick bursts. I've learned not to take the Balcan (machine gun) rather than the Flamethrower, because the flamer has too little ammo and leaves me unable to attack the choppers. None of this has anything to do with knowing where to stand on screen, where to aim, or any specific mechanical inputs. It's all strategic data that I've stored in my head that allows me to intelligently structure a reaction to "there's an enemy" and "here comes a bullet".

NAM's got a blazing pace and plenty of variety, but it does fall short when it comes to boss battles. That's really the only reason it'll never threaten Wild Guns and Sin & Punishment 2 for the position of arcade TPS top-dog - every level ends with the same tedious tuck-and-roll fest, as SNK couldn't come up with any cleverer way to crank up the difficulty than to give the bosses super-fast projectiles.

Games Started:

Pokemon Y (Nintendo 3DS)

And the pacing is officially 'off'. It has now been 16 hours, nearly 120 caught Pokemon, and TWO FUCKING GYMS (at approximately the 8th and 14th hour). Y is chugging along SO slowly. Maybe I shouldn't be stopping to smell and catch every last Roselia, but Christ almighty, every time I think we're ready to move to a town that'll have a gym and give me a real battling challenge, yet another filler dungeon is tossed in. Save it, guys! I'm going to be so burned out by the time I get to the Elite Four that you can call me, uh, Flareon.

I know, I know. "It doesn't mean anything that gyms are spaced out, that's a completely arbitrary structure that you're forcing on the game based on past experiences". That's true. What keeps the trainer journey interesting isn't strictly the idea of a Pokemon Gym every two hours, it's the iterative process of collecting new Pokemon, refining your battling squad, and taking on a concentrated challenge - a test - that allows you to pass through to the next stage of the journey. In the past, those challenges have been represented by gyms. Just because gyms are less frequent doesn't mean the challenge/tests have to be... unfortunately, in Pokemon Y, that's exactly what it means. Thus far the only even remotely structured challenges have been the gyms, and even they have been easy as shit. But outside of that the worst you'll ever see are Trainers with three Magikarps that might know Tackle.
If you're asking: "So, are the Pokemon themselves still getting stupider?", let me just point you to Hawlucha.
I dunno, it's too early to say (which is insane, considering it's been 16 hours), but right now this feels like a game that is strictly made for people who enjoy catching Pokemon, not people who enjoy raising and battling them. But I will give them that there are certainly a shitload to catch and some interesting new tricks to the process, like the ever-annoying Horde battles, more spawning subtleties, a way bigger world with (I think) more optional areas (I say "I think" because I've been going everywhere anyway), and other stuff that's frankly kinda boring to bring up. Not bad stuff, just really specific.

Ultima VII (PC)

I'm not gonna do another first impressions of Ultima VII because I've barely played it since I wrote my first first impressions. I actually hate playing PC games for totally arbitrary reasons: if I've never mentioned before, I don't like sitting at my desk and using a mouse and keyboard, since I do that all day at work. Games are my relaxation time, so I like to be able to sit in bed or on the couch - I've never found a great way for this to mesh with mouse/keyboard (and yes I've tried a lap-desk, and no I don't care for it). Moral of the story is that unless I'm REALLY into a PC game or I'm in some life-phase where I have a lot of spare desk-time (like college), I generally stall after a few hours. If you can't guess from my original article, Ultima VII is probably gonna be one of those cases. The game just fans out so fucking much after that concentrated intro, which isn't a bad thing, it's just an "I have other games to play that are better at keeping me involved" thing.

The Witcher (PC)

Kinda same thing applies here as I just said for Ultima. I actually tried lap-desking this one because I like it so much, but the words are too tiny to read on my TV. I will probably chip away tiny hour-long chunks once a month for the next year until I start forgetting to play it. It doesn't help that I'm having some weird performance issues that I can't even describe well enough to search for on Google - my machine runs the game just fine, but when in free camera mode (i.e. anytime outside of combat) the camera jerks upward every few seconds, really breaking my immersion and making it hard to enjoy looking at the world.

One neat thing I was really enjoying was that the first chapter of the game shakes up the traditional hub structure by spreading the adventure field over the exact same area as the town, relegating night to Danger/Combat time and day to Talking time. The entire act is set in this broad village area with some fields and houses interspersed (there's definitely a term for this and if we were closer to my high school European history days I would know it. Virgate? Kenning?), and during the day, everyone is out and about, frolicking around, giving out quests and selling baubles. When night rolls in, the villagers shut their doors and the ghosts come out, and what was formerly the town area becomes the dungeon. It has almost a Zelda-y feel to it, like the way the towns would shut their doors and the spooks would come out when the sun set on Hyrule/Termina/Hyrule field.

Godzilla: Save the Earth (PS2)

Well, Save the Earth gets a lot of free points for being a fighting game that doesn't immediately feel like the three archetypes (Capcom, Mortal Kombat, and Tekken) we have today. I can't think of any fighting game since Tekken 6, and before that since Brawl, that had me up til 6AM just trying out every last character. But Save the Earth's widely varying roster (and that's just the eight characters I've unlocked) did just that. Aside from some rare camera wonkiness, hard-to-pick-up controls, and a far-too-long arcade mode (~1 hour *if* you win all the fights on first try), there's very little to stop the game from being completely enjoyable. That said, this is a model explicitly designed for disposable fun, so it doesn't exactly promise bottomless depth.

There's a very rock-paper-scissors feel to the fights, with each character mostly oriented around ranged, melee, or grappling attacks. Still, such basic core mechanics leave a lot of room for flashy, distinctive quirks to each character. That's kind of the calling card of the party fighter, and it's also exactly what you want in a tribute game.

As fan service, it's stellar. Even as a neophyte I'm impressed by how loyal the game is to the characters' filmic abilities and styles and how well that's worked into the gameplay. Anguirus uses his spiked back instead of blocking, Mecha King Ghidorah absorbs lazers, Mothra starts as a larva and metamorphoses mid-battle into an imago, Rodan flies instead of walking, SpaceGodzilla is totally oriented around telekinesis, etc. It's more strictly tied to what's been established in the movies than the contriving and occasionally straight-up arbitrary Marvel and DC fighters. Of course, kaiju translate really seamlessly into well-balanced one-on-one fights (I hear they made this famous RPG based on them...) so it's only natural that they all have well-defined and corresponding move-sets. Even in the movies, they pretty much each have a special beam attack, each have a special mode of transport, each have a special throw, etc. The only big disappointment for me is that Kiryu (here called Mechagodzilla III) from 2002's Godzilla x Mechagodzilla is completely lacking its signature Gundam-style detachable shoulder/wrist cannons and backpack. What's up with that? That's the whole point of Kiryu. Though it should be noted I haven't seen the movies featuring about a third of the kaiju, so I can't comment on how loyally presented they are.

Volgarr the Viking (Steam)

Actually started this in September but forgot to cover it. Volgarr is like Ghosts n' Goblins for a new era... in that it's a lot like Ghosts n' Goblins. I actually enjoy the core mechanics more than the GnG series (some have said they hearken back to Super Return of the Jedi) and the individual challenges feel more precise and fairly parsed. That is to say, after you've cleared one screen, you won't continue to be flooded from behind by respawning enemies from that territory.

I don't know if there's a lot else to say about it. It's fun - if you're a fan of Sir Arthur, definitely pick it up.

One note - it's a bit obnoxiously old school in a way that most reincarnations of old quarter-eaters aren't - there's no way to save your progress, neither through passwords or save states. Though the full game could probably be toppled in a half hour by a master, you're going to have to master it to that point to reach the end - though there are infinite continues on hand, unless you've got infinite time to pair with them, you'll have to start from the beginning every time you boot up the game. 

Games Finished:

Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse (XBLA)

A gorgeous finale to a gorgeous game. I love that they managed to make Mizrabel overflowingly cinematic while still retaining the punishing difficulty of the original game's final battle. I'm normally not a fan of talky bosses, as they tend to repeat themselves (The Witcher 2) or distract from the action (Anarchy Reigns), but Sega Australia managed to pace this fight perfectly such that Mizrabel's seamless [flamboyant?] incantation actually makes the rather straightforward platforming boss battle an engrossingly magical moment. I felt like I was playing Fantasia. The voice performance by Nika Futterman as Mizrabel and the crescendoing score by Grant Kirkhope really knock the scene out of the park.

Castle of Illusion immediately joins the ranks of games worth playing just to indulge in audio/visual beauty. I can't think of any game since Baten Kaitos which I have so delighted in witnessing unfold. It's a fun game to be sure, a loving remake to be sure, and even a rare capitalization on the full potential of 2.5D, but what will really stick with me from Castle of Illusion are those menacing saffron storm clouds, the gleaming licorice dragon bursting forth from his swirling river of creams, the orchestral attacks giving way to foreboding tinkling as Mickey was thrown to and fro through watery ruins, and all the other dazzling illusions the castle held. I cannot give a strong enough recommendation for Castle of Illusion, and if you're at all interested in 2D platform design, make sure you check out the original as a companion piece - it sheds a lot of light on just how clever the remake is. 

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