Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 2/22/14: Undercover Cops

at 7:26 PM
Everyone needs to let off a little steam sometimes. We here at GNG find that it helps to beat up as many people as possible at a regular interval. Luckily the video game medium has provided us with a safe, harmless environment in which to release our overflowing rage. That's why Golem and I are taking on one classic arcade-style beat-'em-up a week and bringing you this... questionnaire.

Game: Undercover Cops
Year: 1992
Developer: Irem
Publisher: Irem
Platform: Arcade, SNES (ported by Varie in 1995, Japan only)

Undercover Cops entered my queue a long time ago thanks to that name in the Developer slot: Irem. Irem are the unsung heroes of action gaming from the '80s and early '90s. Typically associated with just R-Type, they made countless (who's counting?) genre-spanning arcade and NES gems to rival the better remembered Konami and Treasure, from Metal Storm to Hammerin' Harry to Ninja Spirit. In fact, the particular team of designers and artists responsible for Undercover Cops left Irem around 1995 to develop Metal Slug for SNK (seriously, check out the credits for the two games - they're nearly identical). Cops tells the story of ??? post-apocalypse ??? just a cop! Golem and I played the Japanese arcade edition of the game, as the worldwide release has an oddly trimmed moveset and the Super Famicom version pretty much just blows. So is Undercover Cops the Metal Slug of the beat-em-up world? A true diamond in the rough? Read ahead and find out. 

How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Golem: Right off the bat, it has the gritty style you'd expect from Metal Slug's developers, sans the comic edge. Wherever you go, buildings are ruined and colors are desaturated. One level seems to take place in your stereotypical brawler street until you notice the collapsed skyscrapers in the background. There's also some pretty freaky stuff, like the mole monsters that blow up in a splurt of blood after one hit. It's all rendered in large, Final Fight-sized graphics, too.
Musically, I feel irresponsible for not knowing what to call the genre (does this count as hip-hop???), but it's up-tempo and heavy on both orchestra hits and voice samples.

Yourself: Yah pretty sure it was hip-hop. The sprites had great detail and a lot of character, no two enemies looked alike and they all even had different ways of moving around. The environments were pretty bleh, I wasn't too impressed by the choice of setting (more construction sites, beaches, high-tech hallways), but the characters were so unique and weird that they really felt inhabited.

How was the control and move variety?
Yourself: This was just a smidgen above your Final Fight standard. A button each for attack and jump, a jump-attack, a dash, dash-attack, and dash-jump-attack, and a health-costing double-button crowd-clearing special. The basic attack strung into a four- or five-hit combo with a knock-down finisher as you'd expect. The controls were pretty smooth, but a bit laggier than Final Fight or Streets of Rage - that took away from the visceral feedback of the combat but did lend it a touch more strategy. Of course the standard bump-into-an-enemy grapple was also on hand, not to mention some pretty extreme throws that sent foes screaming across the entire screen - those came in handy a couple times when there were insta-kill pits into which to toss the baddies.

I got good usage out of all of the moves, though the dash-jump-attack was hard to pull off (the dash was very short range). There was one oddity that I don't think either of us figured out - the standard attack combo for each character seemed to have two variations (for instance, Zan had one that ended with a jumping karate chop and one that ended with a backflip kick), but the input and payoff distinction was pretty subtle. It may have been a timing thing.

How was the player character variety?
Golem: Although Undercover Cops relies on the standard quick character-heavy character-normal character setup, there were some nuances that made exploring them satisfying. Specials were unique, as were throws, with one character even being able to hurl an enemy straight down from far above the grounds. And, to aid the slow character's speed, he was granted an unlimited run; the other two just had half-screen dashes.

Yourself: I enjoyed playing as all of the characters, which is rare in a beat-em-up. I usually only go for the medium guy. The quick girl made it noticeably easier to land combos and the heavy brought enemies down really quickly.

How was the pick-up variety?
Yourself: There were two basic kinds of weapon pick-up in Cops - giant pillar-clubs and single-toss projectiles. The clubs were half the length of the screen and used to bat away enemies in huge swarms, but they crumbled under use and quickly fell apart, consigning them to scripted areas where they spawned. Even with their huge area of effect, their slow swing-time made them satisfying to use. The projectiles (fish, cinder-blocks, torches) were out of the ordinary in that they penetrated through enemies - the best way to use them was to try to draw a group of foes into a line and knock 'em out with a single throw. That provided a bit more depth than your standard throwaway knife.

The tuna defense.
Golem: I just wish the swinging clubs had more range along the depth axis (that is, towards the background and foreground)--you can hit enemies straight in front of you, but it really looks like you should also hit some enemies to your sides, given the size of the club.

How was the stage variety?
Golem: Stages range in memorability. For instance, the underground stage is crawling with mole monsters, almost to the exclusion of other enemies, and the street stage has tons of bikers. Other stages were more moderately stocked, using a good variety of enemies and the occasional stage-unique feature, like a platform that crumbles behind you. I find the mix satisfying. The combat works well enough that plain old enemy swarms are enjoyable, but the occasional highlight--whether by a particularly distinct enemy or a unique stage element--gave a nice contrast.

Yourself: The first four (of five) stages basically served to introduce enemy types, so they were accordingly unique - see below. And the final level was a regular Metal Slug 3 - it was half of the entire game.

How was the enemy variety?
Yourself: Well-developed and very distinguished. The first four stages all came with their own unique enemy type with its own behaviors - the first level had grunts who hustled about taking occasional swings (some wielding torches to immediately light the player); the second introduced what I like to call flamingo-girls, who hopped around at a slower rate but had much stronger defenses, with the ability to dodge attacks and strike at a longer range; the third came with "moguralians", weird green-skinned mole-men (mogura is the Japanese word for mole!) with extreme speed, an invincible spinning counter, and a fondness for walking in patterns  - the tradeoff to their speed and numbers being that each could be dispatched with a single strike; and the fourth was populated with good ole-fashioned motorcycles speeding back and forth across the screen. There were a number of color enemies to keep things from getting monotonous - powerful baseball batmen with wide area attacks who countered immediate approaches, jetpack fliers who were just as annoying as fliers ever are in beat-em-ups, and even land mines. Needless to say, the last level saw the return of some former bosses as standard enemies.

How were enemy groups formed?
Golem: Enemies typically swarmed together with similar sorts, like the grunts in the first stage and the biker gang in stage four. This made it easier to handle crowd control, since members of a group typically followed the same line of thinking. It was important, then, when a big guy with a bat would enter the room already flooded with standard goons.

Yourself: The final stage mixed things up a bit by throwing in a lot of jetters and the first boss. There was also this weird gimmick where an enemy group would take stage, then a couple dudes carrying boxes would stumble on and spill grenades across the entire screen, killing everyone. 

How did combat work one-on-one?
Yourself: The one-on-one combat here was all about timing. Enemies were quick and aggressive and throwing any attack came with a decent recovery time, so a miss was almost always punished. Most of the enemies were pretty capable of countering an ill-timed attack and immediately knocking down the player, so you had to attack quickly while you had an opening and then get out. 

How did combat work against crowds?
Golem: The more gratifying parts of Undercover Cops, such as the throws and giant club items, were built to dispatch crowds of enemies. Enemies stuck together nicely so as to collectively receive a hurled comrade or a club swing all at once. Aside from that, enemies usually gave me enough leeway to pull off a standard combo, but I never wanted to stick around one enemy longer than that.

How was the boss variety and how did boss fights generally work?
Yourself: These bosses may have looked like your Fighting Game+1 fare, but they actually showed a heavy influence from the strict, patterned big bads of shooters like Gradius and R-Type. Winning wasn't so much about being aggressive as it was about pacing yourself, knowing when to play offense and when to play defense, and learning those gaps and vulnerabilities.

Boss 2, Fransowors (or something), is a pretty good illustration of the balance between the shooter and the brawler mentality. She's got a standard walk-about pattern where you'll have to try to deal as much damage as possible, but you'll quickly find she can dish out heavy counters if you're not careful. Turns out she only strikes with these counters if she's standing still, so you have to avoid her advances while being quick to strike while she's still moving. This part plays kinda like your standard beat-em-up boss, but with a stricter rhythm to it. Her second pattern is when she slams her jackhammer into the ground and sends random junk careening from the ceiling across the entire arena while also slowing down your movement. This puts you into defense/survival mode regardless of your position, just concentrating on the projectiles coming at you - like a shooter.

The following boss, Moguralian Beta, uses similar alternation with small vulnerability periods. One particularly neat set-piece I have to mention is the first boss, whose mechanics I didn't learn at all. I didn't need to - there's a trap in the arena you can use to one-hit kill him!

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Golem: The first two stages build up a predictable set of enemies, which eased me into combat. From there, the game goes a little more oddball in stages 3 and 4, leaving its particularly distinct segments to when I had a good grasp of things. The concluding stage is your standard huge gauntlet with tons of enemies.
It's worth noting how sudden the bad ending came. On one screen near the end of the final mission, you've got a limited time to stop the villain from dropping a bomb on hapless citizens below. With little experience in the game, Yourself and I didn't clear this challenge, and the result was an ending screen showing a city in ruins. It's a reason to get better at Undercover Cops beyond just beating the final boss.

Yourself: The first run wasn't so hard as not to be fun, but I felt like we were missing a lot of nuance and getting punished for it. Which is the kind of balance I want in a game like this (as long as I'm not spending real quarters on it, of course) - there's stuff to learn, but not so much that I'm confused as to how to play. That is to say, the rules of the game are well established, the basic mechanics are clear, and the challenges are all based on learning how to adapt those mechanics to discrete, independent situations; just because I don't know how to fight one boss doesn't mean I can't rock at the rest of the game. Versus something like Bangai-O or Street Fighter IV where I lost non-stop for twenty hours and at no point felt like I was actually even using the correct skills.

Wow, it's like getting to play as that boss from Growl!
Play again or recommend?
Yourself: I will absolutely play this again and I highly recommend it to any action gamer. Smart enemy design, levels completely unique from each other, perfectly balanced playable characters, and awesome artwork make this a must-play for a beat-em-up OR shooter fan. It's no wonder this team went on to create Metal Slug just three years later.

Golem: Definite recommendation. The mechanics are solid, the enemy variety ranges from typical to unusual, and it's the right length to explore each enemy without dawdling too long on anything. I kinda just like seeing this game's insane throws.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Back in the CCCR: Asura's Wrath

at 6:00 PM

Back in the CCCR (Control Customization Reviews Revisited) takes a closer look at one of the most critical but least appreciated aspects of the modern gaming vehicle: the control customization options. Today we tackle Capcom's Crazy Cutscene Caper of 2012: Cassandra's Wrath.

Wow, it's already that time of year? Yes indeedy, it's been exactly one year and about two weeks since Back in the CCCR last wOsE fWoM yOuR gWaVe like a mummy with a chip on its shoulder to stalk the nights of the living and drink their blood. The nights' blood. Today we've got Asura's Wrath and we're going to learn an important lesson.

Don't use the options screen to trick the player.

Don't use the options screen to taunt the player.

I don't know. Maybe CyberConnect2 and Capcom were trying to make a point. Asura's Wrath is, on a basic level, a game about a hopping mad dude who can't help himself from getting angrier and angrier until his eyeballs literally explode out of his head and into the sun. I don't know that it ever earns the title of "parody" or "satire", but it's at least an absurd pastiche of angry antihero tropes. Maybe the control customization antics were the developers' little way of forcing me to empathize with Asura. Maybe CyberConnect said to themselves: "how can we make the player as rabidly furious as a man whose closest allies killed his wife and kidnapped his daughter before casting him into the underworld for 12,000 years? They'll be playing a video game - that'll probably make them pretty relaxed and happy. What can we take away from them? What is the ultimate betrayal of the player?"

The ultimate betrayal of the player is to offer an option called "Invert camera Y-axis" in a game that is 50% 3rd-person-shooter and have that option NOT AFFECT THE THIRD-PERSON SHOOTING SEGMENTS OF THE GAME. That's right. Not only is there no way to invert the cursor control during the rail-shooting and fine-aim gameplay, there actually is a camera inversion option in the menu to tempt you and remind you that the developers were totally aware that many players like to invert the Y-axis - but that they only thought it was important for the free camera in melee combat arenas. I was so incredulous at this that I actually went into the menu like three times to flip this switch and make sure it wasn't actually inverting the controls and that my brain wasn't playing tricks on me. No. They actually just decided that the arena camera was more important than goddamned aiming a gun.

Who fucking makes these calls? There are few people I can honestly say I would punch in the face without ever having met. The guy who says "we don't need aim inversion because I don't use it" is one of them. If I could meet this developer in person I wouldn't stop at a sucker punch, I'd be prepared with a nice pair of vice grips - one to affix his hand to a table, and the other to clamp onto his fingers one at a time so I could bend each back and upwards until it snapped off; you know, UP - the direction I want my cursor to move when I'm holding the analog stick DOWN, as the vice would be holding his hand. Hopefully this would convey my ire. If not, perhaps he has an infant child or cat that he could throw into the air for target practice so I could demonstrate to him that when you aim a .45 cal upwards, you actually pull back, just as I'm naturally inclined to pull back on an analog stick to aim skyward in a third-person-shooter such as Asura's Wrath

So, in short, this little control customization decision certainly has Asura's wrath flowing through me. 

The verdict? Asura's Wrath gets retitled Back in the CCCR's Wrath and sent to Hell for 12,000 years.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sister Sonic??? I barely even know her Sonic! (A revisitation)

at 7:57 PM
Sister Sonic??? I barely even know her Sonic! originally ran on October 4th, 2012.

Got a good laugh earlier when I stumbled across the 1993 history of the would-be action-RPG Sister Sonic, based on, yes, the notion of Sonic having a long-lost sister: Popful Mail!

Makes a good exclamation, doesn't it? - that's what I just demonstrated for you using a technique I call "learning through reading". If American public schools could just discover this blog and this methodology, they'd be a lot better at making our youths today legible. Legetable. Literate. Whatever. Popful Mail! In fact, Popful Mail! (emphasis mine - this ain't no Tomba!) is a somewhat unknown Sega CD adventure-RPG-platfomer - you know, in the vein of Tomba!. I'm insisting on appending RPG to that genre description because the game was developed by Nihon Falcom*, so I have to assume it'll be at least slightly more RPG than Wonder Boy. In the sense of having worse/less platforming and more dialogue. Never played it myself. Popful Mail! It kinda puts a spring in your step. I'm really trying to say it without the exclamation mark here but I can't.

Uh oh losing you - you're here to hear about Sonic's long-lost sister and perhaps see a comedy MSpaint mock-up. I know what you're up to, guy. The idea was, since Popful Mail (!) had such a moronic title and featured such forgettable RPG stock-a-block characters (to my knowledge "Popful Mail" is the name of the main character), Sega would localize it in the west as a Sonic spinball-off with a few sprite swaps and dialogue edits. You'll recognize the technique from a little game known in the West as Super Mario Bros. 2, which began its life as Doki Doki Panic (hm does that one get an exclam.?) until Nintendo jammed Mario and Co. down its throat. The logic being that Americans needed to be gradually introduced to Shy Guys, even if they came quite naturally to the Japanese. The tradition is still alive and well - 2010's Kirby's Yarny Yarn could've come into being as a simple Yarnic Tragedy, but Nintendo wanted to hedge their bets by throwing in their most popular genocidal maniac. That's why the game plays so little like traditional Kirby - just like SMB2 is vastly different from SMB and Sister Sonic would've been from Brother Sonic.
This one came out really poorly; but also, really well?

Sister Sonic: the modern, empowered woman.
No Sonic post is complete without fanart (mine doesn't count because
I'm not a fan). In case you didn't get it the third time, this is SONIA.
After some delays, the deal fell through and Falcom was left to release Popful Mail into obscurity on the Sega CD. Not that a Sega-mascotted game would've done much better on that most misguided of platforms. Christ Sega's history is hilarious. But that's a tale for another day, and one Golem can tell better than I. The rumor goes that the Sister Sonic project was abandoned because of "a massive letter-writing campaign from fans of the original game". I am EXTREMELY skeptical of this - beyond the difficulty I have believing that there was an organized, non-trivial community of Western gamers who knew of Popful Mail (and cared enough to want its original characters), it just doesn't make any logistical sense. You're telling me that a handful of these supposed letters convinced Sega that the existing US Popful Mail audience was a bigger market than the existing US Sonic audience? At the end of the day, there's zero evidence to prove or even suggest a shred of truth to this rumor - the closest mention I could find was this interview with the game's actual localizer, Working Designs, who makes no mention of fan involvement. 

So that's about it for Sister Sonic. It's an idea that never got off the drawing board, and we lamentably had to wait until 2009 to get a glimpse of a hedgehog wielding a sword, and then until 2008 to get a Sonic RPG.
I made this image years ago and HA just noticed that I changed it from Seven Stars to Rings
*I'll tell you the story of Nihon Falcom in the near future

[revisitation note: I never did tell you the story of Nihon Falcom in the near future, but they were the developers of Ys: The Oath in Felghana. Remember, my GOTY 2013?]

Monday, February 24, 2014

What is "depth" in combat, and how does it relate to combos? Part 1 of 2

at 6:00 PM
There's this idea that a combat system isn't "deep" unless it involves artificial input complexity. I see this a lot in reading up on beat-em-ups - the first acknowledgement is usually that "this game isn't particularly deep, as there are only two buttons: one for attack and one for jump, and only one combo string - attack, attack, attack". It's rarely (and by rarely I mean I've never seen it) acknowledged that this is a gigantic logical leap unless depth is explicitly defined as "the presence of multitudinous input facilities", which just doesn't sit right with me. That logic would lead to the conclusion that Bit.Trip Runner has deeper gameplay than Super Mario Bros. because it uses more buttons. I get where people are going with the "lots of stuff to do = more choices = more variations = depth" logic, but I think it's a little too quickly become second nature. What about when all of those buttons do the same thing? What about when the player can't tell the difference between the combos? What about when variations are provided through means other than direct input? For example, strategic variations? I'm pretty sure chess can be played with one button. What is the relationship between input complexity in combat and gameplay depth?

Sources tell me this is what chess will look like in the future.
First of all, what precisely do we mean by "depth"? Depth as I understand it is a measurement of the number of means available to the player to create a unique challenge from a presented scenario. So a game that only provides a single means to overcome each situation - say, Pitfall, in which there is an exact jump you have to make to cross each pit - ranks at the minimum possible gameplay depth, as there is only one unique challenge present: hit "jump" at the right moment. A game that provides near infinite means to overcome approach each situation - say, Ogre Battle 64, in which your battalion is made up of dozens of uniquely evolving members whose growth is affected by every decision you make, thus influencing the available factors to fight the next battle - has an incredible amount of depth. The challenge of a mission is dependent on what units you have available to you, and those units will be unique on every playthrough.

Much of the depth of a game may be non-obvious - "deep" games are often associated with "hard to learn", as the gameplay variations usually must be explored and uncovered by a careful player. For instance, a new player approaching Alien Soldier will get some instantaneous depth from the weapon choice. When they reach that first purple centipede boss, they may be firing away with Buster, Sword, or one of the other six Forces, and this alone creates a wealth of strategic choices (without even getting into ammo management and whatnot). The battle will play slightly differently depending on the weapon choice (using Ranger the player can stay on the run but the fight will take a long time, using Lancer they need to wait for openings to peg just a few powerful shots), but is still made to be won with any of them. A more skilled player will learn an even more direct approach to the boss - play the preceding level carefully enough to maintain full health (or use counters on the boss's projectiles to grab life-ups) and then nail a single Phoenix Dash while the boss is relatively still - this is a one-hit kill. This strategy is tougher to pull off and quicker if done correctly, but it doesn't supplant the gun-based strategy of a novice. It's a totally unique challenge, no longer about dodging and aiming but instead about conserving health and then aligning a single dash attack. This is how learning can translate into depth.

How do we apply the concept of depth to melee action combat? Every game develops its own notion of depth through the means it presents the player choices and situations. If the primary goal of the game boils down on a moment-to-moment basis as landing hits without taking too many consecutive hits in return, the choices will probably revolve around "ways to safely land hits". Take Streets of Rage for instance: the player can safely land a hit by punching (only when the enemy is not attacking) or by grabbing (from the side) or by jump-kicking (which has long range but is easy to miss). There is no clear "right" way to land a hit in any situation, so the player can arbitrarily select from these choices - all of them will always work if timed correctly.

So on the surface they seem superficial - isn't the challenge always just to land the next hit? The difference - and thus the guidance for the decision - is what happens after each attack, the way the attack translates the current situation into the next. After a punch, the player is in exactly the same situation as before, but can quickly throw another punch or switch to another attack. A jump kick will instantly knock down its target but leave the player vulnerable for a lengthy period of time. A grab presents A SECOND choice: the player can continue to pummel the grabbed enemy for heavy damage while remaining totally vulnerable or throw them over the shoulder to clear out neighboring foes and create an open space in the direction of the throw. The choice of attack is not arbitrary - it can create a widely different subsequent combat scenario. Using throws spaces enemies out, while using jump attacks keeps them on the ground. Concentrating on punches can help kill off targeted foes fastest. Fighting spaced enemies requires different strategy than fighting a close crowd and killing off certain individuals first can change the way the crowd functions. Thus, the player's attack choices have dynamic enough effects to be directly responsible for the flow of battle, which is that key aspect of the "depth" definition: creating unique challenges.

Perhaps in that case we should expect depth in a combat action game to be associated with a one-to-one relationship between inputs and outputs - that is to say, the game plays differently depending on how the player plays, where "plays differently" means "presents a unique set of challenges". If each choice leads to a new challenge, a multitude of choices would provide a wealth of challenges, and hence, depth of gameplay. It's clear from the definition and the above examples that there's more to depth than just lots of buttons and combos, but we can also see how lots of buttons and combos could easily provide lots of options and hence depth. Let's take a closer look at one particular action game (a beat-em-up, naturally) to see how complex input choices starring combos don't necessarily translate to unique challenges (and hence depth). That game'll be Sengoku 3 - tomorrow. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 2/15/14: Growl

at 5:00 PM
Everyone needs to let off a little steam sometimes. We here at GNG find that it helps to beat up as many people as possible at a regular interval. Luckily the video game medium has provided us with a safe, harmless environment in which to release our overflowing rage. That's why Golem and I are taking on one classic arcade-style beat-'em-up a week and bringing you this... questionnaire. 

Game: Growl

Year: 1990
Developer: Taito 
Publisher: Taito
Platform: Arcade, Genesis

Growl tells the story of two rockin' dudes (Golem and Yourself) who get a phone call from the president of Africa who says "listen up, guys - all our animals keep gettin' stolen! Can you fix this?" Naturally the guys say "sure thing", grab their twin brothers, and jump on the first bus to Africa. Murder ensues.

It's notable that Growl was developed in the weird intermediate period after Final Fight hit stardom and was THE game to beat, but before beat-em-up developers were totally sold on the "if you can't beat 'em (up), join 'em" mentality of churning out games that played with identical dynamics. Same period as Golden Axe. So, while Growl clearly fits the beat-me-up mold, it seems to be trying harder to distinguish itself as unique than to perfect a formula. How well did Taito succeed in making a fun and memorable game? Well, let's have a closer look.

How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Yourself: I thought the game had a great look. The dusty brown visuals and 1940s period costumes/technology called back to Raiders of the Lost Ark which itself was a callback to classic serial stories. There were even visual sound effects (what the fuck do you call those) like "SHTOOOOOM" and "BLAAAAM" when stuff exploded, adding to the pulp fiction feel. There wasn't much variety in the environments, but they were injected with some memorable visuals - the rickety wooden boxcar train, the gigantic WWII era tank with battle damage and all, the rope bridge over a waterfall canyon. What it really came down to personality-wise is the animals - the game really came to life on those few occasions when it brought out the swarms of NPC wildlife like lions, gazelles, and elephants. The music was way too soothing for a game about fighting an army of poachers.

Golem: The blending of Indiana Jones' style and arcade graphics is really catchy.

How was the control and move variety?
Golem: Your default moveset is painfully limited, with just a punch and an aerial kick available. If you're caught without a weapon, your only option is to mash away at the punch button. Actually, if you're caught with a weapon, that's still your only option. I just read that there is also a headbutt move.

Yourself: What was particularly frustrating about the punch wasn't just that there was only the one attack button, it was that it didn't even sequence into a combo. For instance, in Double Dragon, when the player presses the punch button four times in a row, the fourth punch is a more powerful uppercut that knocks the enemy back and "finishes" the combo. This gives the combat rhythm. In Growl, no matter how many times the player presses the punch button, they get the same punch with the same effect. This makes the combat feel very flat and monotone.

How was the player character variety?
Yourself: Yeah, how was it? There were four characters, Indiana Jones and Bandana Bohannson (the other two characters were palette swaps of those two). They had three stats for Attack, Jump (which may have also affected speed?) and Life, but otherwise played identically. Because the stats varied so minimally from character to character and the combat was more about quantity than one-on-one fights, it was nearly impossible to distinguish the four. I noticed one of them was very slow, so I stayed away from him. As far as I'm concerned there may as well not have been a character select.

How was the pick-up variety?
Golem: The game boasts a slightly above average weapon selection for its time, featuring cool stuff like whips and even bazookas. Unfortunately, these weapons just increase the range of your attacks without offering any unique strategies. Focusing on weapons is a fun idea, but the execution here is half-baked.

It's worth noting that if you run out of bazooka ammunition, you can club enemies with it. It makes the weapon more tactile, since you can count the shots you have left, and your bazooka can be handled even when it can't shoot. Plus, it lends a sense of dynamism, since the bazooka's function changes after use.

Yourself: The weapons with their wide swaths of effect feed into the crowd-control sensibility of the game and provide just about the only moments when you'll feel you can handle the mindless hordes. In fact, the game is really fun when you're switching between machine guns and rocket launchers and pipes and whips. There's a decent variety to their effects, even if the enemies don't defend against them intelligently. The weapons may have had an "on-rails" feel in that you pretty much went from one to the next and were not swapping strategically, but I don't agree with Golem that the execution is half-baked - see below in the "learning curve" section.

How was the stage variety?
Yourself: Growl worked in its animal gimmick through the use of scripted events, lending the individual stages some memorable moments. Freeing a flock of hawks so they could peck out your enemies' eyes or partnering with an elephant who saves the day by ramming a tank were fun and satisfying moments. They were few and far between considering the game didn't offer much else to remember.

The one big change-up to the level design came toward the end when there was, dun dun, a platforming stage. Not only is this a trick straight out of Double Dragon, the platforming elements were straight out of Double Dragon as well - falling stalactites, boulders gushing randomly out of lava pits, and horizontally moving platforms. The platforming was pretty bad; both Golem and I remorselessly quarter-fed our way through this. 

Golem: The tall stages left room for plenty of enemies to flood in without quarters getting too cramped. Sometimes Yourself and I would be in our own corners of the room, each of us fending off our own little space of enemies.

How was the enemy variety?
Golem: Some standards returned, like Upskirt Girl, but there are plenty of distinct ones, like the guy in the newsboy cap. Only a few enemies had distinct AI, like the big guys in suits that would jump around; otherwise, enemies would often swarm and act pretty similarly. Between my sparse moveset and the sparse moveset of my enemies, I wasn't sure what part of the combat should have been interesting.

Yourself: Yeah. This was not a game about having interesting enemies. 

How were enemy groups formed?
Yourself: They were GIGANTIC. This was definitely the most remarkable aspect of Growl's combat - it was goddamn Dynasty Warriors-level crowd-fighting. I would say there could be up to twenty enemies on screen at a time? That's absurd for a beat-em-up. It was pretty impressive to see in such an old game. As for the composition of the groups, well, as the enemies were totally monotone, there wasn't much composition to speak of. There would usually be a few baddies with weapons thrown in to up the ante a little. 

How did combat work one-on-one?
Golem: There are some neat aspects, like getting to knee a guy up close, but there wasn't enough on the player's side or the enemy's side to make one-on-one combat interesting.

Yourself: There was really no sense of one-on-one combat at all.

How did combat work against crowds?
Yourself: Well, if I was lucky enough to have a weapon, I could just mash away until the crowd was cleared. If not, I'd target the enemies who did have weapons, both because they were the most dangerous and so that I could borrow their firepower. If there were grenade gals in the mix (and there usually were), I'd dance around and try not to stand on an explosive for too long. Really this was just incredibly shallow stuff. The challenge was entirely in making sure not to get surrounded.

GolemI got a kick out of the large crowds, and it seemed like some of the weapons were catered to handling them (the whip and even the bazooka's large club radius). Perhaps the standard non-weapon moveset could've capitalized on the big groups as well.

How was the boss variety?
Golem: Although there weren't many bosses, they distinguished themselves well. The first guy hurls a truck, a trick that's only reproduced by the second-to-final boss throwing around a tank--a memorable reprise. Aside from that, you've got a team of large enemies, which can be handled like normal enemies, and a weirdo snake thing, which follows a tight script and demands patience. I wouldn't say any of the bosses were good, but they did employ distinct tactics.

How did the boss fights generally work?
Yourself: Oh boy. Let me describe a few. The first boss lifts up a truck presumably to throw at the players, but you can punch him while he holds it over his head and he gets stuck there just holding it and absorbing punches until he runs out of health. The second boss is six fat shriners, they're just slower normal enemies with extra health. The grand finale is a two-parter that I won't spoil, but let me say that, while I appreciate beat-em-up bosses that abdicate the style of super-powered regular enemies, it's possible to go too far with scripted, patterned big bosses. "Too far" happens around the time when the boss has only one attack and one vulnerability window and takes approximately ten minutes and one thousand hits to kill.

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Golem: Bosses gave the game a sense of progression using a small but effective variety of encounters. As Yourself said, the first boss looks impressive but can be dispatched easily, while the final boss drones on and on. The platforming stage towards the end of the game was a nice gesture in terms of progression, slowing down the action just before the home stretch. Unfortunately, there wasn't much to the combat to be learned.

Yourself:  I got the distinct feeling that Growl was meant to be played entirely with the weapons, and that that lends to how stupid and inadequate the standard moveset felt. Managing ammo and playing defensively was a challenge (as we can clearly attest, having spent most of the game bare-knuckled), though I don't know that that challenge evolved in any way. I feel a skilled playthrough of Growl (check one out below) is really supposed to be about hanging onto the weapons, and all of the complaining we do here is unfairly comparing it to punch-em-ups that it's not aspiring to be. It's almost akin to complaining that DOOM isn't fun with just the chainsaw (although DOOM IS fun with just the chainsaw!). A player constricted to a fixed number of lives would've felt a distinct spike in difficulty and tension after losing a weapon - something we missed out on by quarter-feeding our way through. Then again, my attitude about learning curve is that a game needs to be fun even when you don't know how to play it, otherwise, why would you ever learn how? So that's the test Growl fails - maybe an all-weapons playthrough would be fun, but an all-punching (i.e. novice) playthrough is not. There's not a diversity of strategy on offer, no depth, just a right and wrong way to play.

Play again or recommend?
Yourself: There are goofy elements to Growl that make it a memorable game and the more I think about it, the more I'd like to go back and try to make it through hanging onto the weapons. It's short enough that I don't think it'd hurt to give it a shot, and I could just be proven wrong - it may end up as bland and monotonous as it was the first time. I wouldn't recommend it to a serious beat-em-up fan, but for someone looking for a way to kill time with friends... well, it at least ranks above Burning Fight

Golem: I'm having a hard time thinking of anything redeeming or worthwhile about Growl.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Game game game of the Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaar Awards!!!!!!!!!!!! Part 2

at 8:39 PM
Continued from yesterday. You can see the rules in that post - remember, the top three are picks of games I played for the first time in 2013, not games that were released in 2013.

Game game game of the Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaar Awards!!!!!!!!!!!! 2013 Ed.

Special Baby Retard Category: Best Game released in 2013
You folks asked for it, so here it is: my vote for best game that was released in 2013. The reason I would never bother orienting a peer-to-teen choice awards contest around this idea alone is that I don't actually play enough games that come out in any given year to choose anything even remotely representative of "best of that year". I played maybe 20 of the, I dunno, 500+ (mainstream) releases of 2013. I'm not gonna judge a game I haven't played, no matter how much I've read about it. That's why... well, I'm not going to criticize the big boys. I'm sure they know what they're doing and they have their integrity and we all respect that. Anyway, the second runner-up to Best Game Released in 2013 WOULD HAVE TO BE:

#3: Killer Is Dead, Xbox 360, Grasshopper Manufacture, 2013
It's action. Reaction. Random interaction. Now who's afraid of a little abstraction?
Not I. And neither should be you. I like a nice formal narrative. Okay, does it really count as formalism versus bland David Lynch symbolism when a guy's secret twin brother appears in his dream and slices his breakfast of a single fried egg perfectly in two? No, but that's exactly what makes it funny! There's a fine line Suda walks here between depth and mockery, and that's what makes for great satire. Killer works as a compelling mystery of its own, carefully exploring the facets of Mondo Zappa's buried psyche, and also takes every opportunity to send up the video game industry's self-seriousness about sexuality while being incredibly sexist (see the Gigolo segments), existentialism while being incredibly preposterous (see the Alice-meets-lobster boss), and even bromance while being incredibly... bromantic (see the hilarious Gears of War mission). I must admit I wasn't left wanting for more of Killer Is Dead's combat, but it was fun while it lasted and tough enough that there was mastery on offer. [I also have to comment that my combat fatigue is probably more a testament to having played too many of this type of action game in the past year or two... Killer Is Dead is more unique than Platinum fare, but doesn't transcend the crowd like Arkham Asylum or No More Heroes 2] Considering that the game is nice and short (praise short!), looks like a impressionist painting, and has a soundtrack ranging from thrash to hip-hop to classical remixes (by Akira Yamaoka of course), it certainly justifies further plays to investigate the themes.

#2 DmC: Devil may Cry, Xbox 360, Ninja Theory, 2013
Certainly this is one of the combat action games of the generation. This is combat that derives its depth from clever reactivity, the ability of the player to quickly analyze a split-second situation and be prepared with which tools can be deployed to handle it. Those tools are what make DmC particularly rewarding - like the original Devil May Cry, this isn't a game where you'll be stressing to remember which combo string does what and spending hours mastering the input timing to pull it off (a la Bayonetta or BlazBlue) - DmC is based around simple inputs with wildly varying results. If you want to play a game where you fight demons with swords and guns, it is hard to pick one that will make you feel more powerful and graceful than this. The chains (uh, physical chains that is, not combo chains) that pull Dante or enemies across the battlefield add such speed, dynamism, and - yes - chaos to the battles that you'll never feel you're repeating the same conflicts, and the bit of platforming they provide between fights strings the adventure along all the more fluidly. I may not have been a huge fan of the story, but few players will have time to worry about that amidst the endless combat variations. In fact, this is kinda the opposite of Killer Is Dead - where there the story inspires replays that the gameplay is just good enough to support, here the story is successfully kept out of the way enough not to ruin a first play-through which is sure to inspire more gameplay-based reruns. The stages are loaded with unique enemy combinations and scenarios that'll draw you back for score- (and collection-) based runs.

#1: Bit.Trip Runner 2: The Legend Runs On, XBLA, Gaijin Games, 2013
It's actually called Bit.Trip Presents... Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien. For those worried about copyright infringement. If that's how that works.
I actually like my name better than the real one. Can we do anything about that? Tim? Name change? Tim's giving me a no. Runner 2 is the type of sequel that does exactly what the Bit.Trip series wasn't all about. Bit.Trip told a succinct and fluid story through gameplay, music, imagery, and a tiny handful of abstract cutscenes. Gaijin didn't have time for a typical video game sequel that reiterated gameplay concepts with better graphics, more songs, multiple playable characters, a world map, and dancing. They had an artistic vision to uphold. But people loved Bit.Trip Runner and they didn't give a shit about Artistic Vision: The Game, so Runner 2 is exactly that typical sequel I described. Thing is, as far below the genius of the original saga as it is, it's still an absolute blast. It is everything an arcade-style rhythm platformer could hope to be, overflowing with charm, style, gorgeous visuals, toe-tappin' tunes, a great sense of humor (if you like pickles), and one HELL of an addictive structure. I couldn't stop playing for days, and the game is cleverly crafted arcade greatness that always allows room for improvement while still providing multiple levels of satisfaction for skilled runs.

This is the epitome of a fun video game - one that is memorable and delightful even for unskilled players, and a sensory treat that demands mastery.


Yes ladies and gentlemen, the moment has arrived. It is time to unveil my three very favorite games I played in the last year that every single one of you should go out and play right this very instant. The second runner-up, bronze-medalist, almost as good as the other ones Game of the Year 2013 IS:

#3: Mark of the Ninja, XBLA, Klei, 2012
Playing to terrify guards is one of the most challenging and satisfying strategies
Mark of the Ninja is a game that knows what it wants to be. It's a ninja game and it's a stealth game and it's a platformer. It's not a stealth-platformer starring a ninja. It's a ninja game and it's a stealth game and it's a platformer. To clarify the seemingly arbitrary semantic distinction I'm making here: over the course of the game, Klei cranks up all of its design elements independently and allows the player to choose how to approach each situation using distinctive gameplay methods. Your "tools" aren't just a set of interchangeable maguffins like night-vision goggles and lazer trip wires, they're gameplay styles like "slow and strategic, using items" or "fast as possible using precisely timed jumps". This gives the game an almost Sonic-the-Hedgehog-high-path-low-path feel, where knowledge, skill mastery, and choices can be applied to result in a totally different gameplay payoff. It's amazing how naturally Klei pulled this off without ever making the game feel like a series of discrete choices. Partly that owes to the stealth framework, wherein a mistake gives the player a chance to adapt (as in Sonic when a player falls to a lower path) rather than immediately sending them back to an earlier checkpoint. There's so much variable gameplay here, especially once the extra playable characters (costumes) are thrown into the mix. This game demonstrates that there are still new ways to do the classic platformer (without just throwing in puzzles, fuck you "indie" gaming). [it wasn't my #1 platformer just cuz I wanted to make it clear it was one of my absolute favorite games of the year, transcending genre, and that everyone should play it].

#2: Retro Game Challenge, Nintendo DS, indieszero, 2009/2007(JP)
This is such a great total experience that was completely undersold by everyone who pitched it as an anthology of faux-classics or a nostalgia trip. Retro Game Challenge is the story of two Japanese kids (one of whom happens to be a young Shinya Arino) growing up in the late '80s indulging in video game culture. The beauty of the game doesn't come from the neo-retro "8-bit" games (which are a dime a dozen these days anyway), it comes from the fictionalized experience of anticipating a new game, finally getting your hands on it, sitting down and going nuts trying to master it, reading magazines with fan letters and hints, and going through the entire cycle again with the next game. It's meta as hell, but it's a game about the experience of being a gamer, set in an idealized time we imagine as more optimistic and which many of us associate with our youth. Still, I think this experience would resonate with anyone who's ever been excited about games. The fact that you actually get to dig into eight cool original titles (that are just as fun as those they're based upon) is really just a bonus. 

#1: Ys: The Oath in Felghana, PC/Steam, Falcom 2012/2005(JP)
Oath is actually a remake of the SNES/Genesis/Turbo16 Ys III
This game made me so happy. I don't know how else to put it. I just felt extreme, unadulterated happiness every time I sat down to play it. Okay, that made it sound a little creepy. But there's a child-like sweetness to Oath in Felghana, a romantic simplicity to the classic story of innocence lost that pairs wonderfully with the gung-ho "cool" metal and hardcore action that characterizes the game's underworld. I think I can best explain it using the soundtrack. The game goes from the track on the left when you first arrive in town to the track on the right when you're in a dungeon. That's the span.


It's just... a perfectly straightforward, honest video game. It's a fairy tale, not an epic, a stylized adventure that serves theme over story or character. If there is action, there are fucking wailing guitars. If there is sensitive stuff, there are sad violins. The dialogue and cut-scenes are just enough to carry a through-line, the rest is entirely mood.

The essentially-one-button action follows that fuck-it-just-get-to-the-point mentality. Just because it's button-mashing doesn't mean it's easy or mindless - your character is so fragile and everything moves so quickly that you'll need to learn enemy patterns and probably die (or at least restart dungeons - no healing items here) a lot of times to perfect your skills. Once you get it down you'll feel like a steamroller completely crushing everything in your path - until, of course, you hit the shmup-style bosses with their strict patterned mechanics. Will you have to match your magic charge attacks to a color-changing boss' periods of vulnerability while dodging his attacks specifically designed to capitalize on that element's weakness? Or perhaps you'll be up against a trio of spirits who adapt their aggression as you pick them off? There's even a side-perspective 2D fight that had me thinking of Castlevania. The boss fights are the game's absolute highlights, calling back to the style of classic Treasure and Konami action. 

Ys: The Oath in Felghana is my game of the year because it captures what is for me the absolute essence of a video game experience. It immediately puts all the cards on the table and develops challenges from established mechanics, putting me into a continuous state of adaptation. Each situation is a puzzle in and of itself, fun to learn because of the enjoyable core action and a different kind of fun once perfected because of the uniqueness of the setting. The fighting is contextualized with a concise, purposeful story about the consequences of action and responsibility and adorned with a sweeping, roaring soundtrack and minutely detailed graphics that bring the game's inhabitants to life. The action doesn't have to be the greatest ever conceived nor the tale the greatest ever told for the experience as a whole to be what every action/adventure should aspire to parallel. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Game game game of the Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaar Awards!!!!!!!!!!!! Part 1

at 6:54 PM
I totally forgot that I wrote 50% of this back in December then it got shelved during the hiatus. So it's time for...........

Game game game of the Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaar Awards!!!!!!!!!!!! 2013 Ed.

Alright. I know I'm excited. So in order to make this extra pointless, this year's GNG Game game games of the Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaar will be chosen from games new to me in 2013, not necessarily games that were published in 2013. Think of it more as a selected selection of selections, the cream of the crop of a creamy year of gaming, the choicest cut of many fine meats I've enjoyed playing. This isn't supposed to be an objective evaluation of these games or a means of rating them, it's just a way to recognize and point out to you the viewer some selections that you should ABSOLUTELY GO PLAY RIGHT NOW WITHOUT ANY HESITATION WHATSOEVER. Every game listed below comes with a 100% unmitigated endorsement, and I'll even be so kind as to tell you a little bit about why. 

Since this is more a recommendations ceremony than an awards ceremony, each game is only eligible for a single mention. Anyway, there's nothing more annoying than reading through an awards presentation and seeing "Mass Effect 3 is the best RPG of the year, Mass Effect 3 is the best story of the year, Mass Effect 3 is the best racing game of the year". I get it. You like Mass Effect. Seriously, 75% of the past five years' "of the year" awards around the web have been dedicated in some way to Mass Effect. You could say the series has had a............................................. SHIT EFFECT. Zinged ya!

Genre that is just okay: Best Platformer

Aw I'm just kiddin' ya guys. I love platformers! I guess? They are definitely a genre that is okay to play that reveals a lot of interesting ideas about stage design, something that carries over into just about ANY type of game, but they're primitive and thus my interest tends toward the scholarly rather than the funarly.

#2: Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, Xbox 360, Sega Australia Ltd., 2013
The game does a fantastic job of laying out 2D paths without making them look 2D
I've already gone on quite a bit about how much I love this game, but I do love this game. IT'S FUCKING MAGICAL, OKAY? I don't give a shit about the original or Mickey Mouse, I don't even particularly care for Fantasia. This was just a singularly atmospheric, gorgeous journey. It made me feel like I was actually exploring a land of colorful ghouls and giant globs of gelatin with detail after detail after detail. It sounds cliche, but everything in the game is just so overflowing with personality. It finally occurred to me what it reminds me of - those old I Spy books, with their photographed arrays of toys and trinkets arranged into surreal landscapes. The cotton-ball clouds, the cookie cookies, the playing card towers all pop with a realism that makes you feel as tiny as Mickey appears onscreen. The platforming itself is a litany of playful gimmicks that may not be Donkey Kong Country-precise, but work exceptionally well in further developing that sense of a real space without needing the crutches of hyper-realistic physics or octopus rifts.

#1: Sonic Generations, Xbox 360, Sonic Team, 2011
Got places to go, gotta follow my rainbow!
In a blaze of cat, Sonic returns to America for the first time in the 21st century for the best racing action platformer on feet that you never thought you've played before. Sonic Generations is a really satisfying game both to explore and to master, and you'll master it as you explore. It makes the trademark Sonic speed refreshing by varying its application from stage to stage without artificially varying gameplay mechanics - the level design gives clear focus to everything from "supersonic platforming" to "supersonic mazes" to "supersonic murder" without needing transformations or team mechanics or a gigantic lineup of eleven furballs. I don't begrudge the other games their gimmicks (well, some), but there's a certain elegance to Sonic Generations - that you can visit each era of Sonic's history and get a taste of the gameplay that characterized it while still playing as the same character with the same mechanics. Maybe it only works because 20 years of game design has been condensed into a 6 hour campaign, but hey, it works. And it only gets more gratifying as you learn the ins and outs of each level and push yourself to play faster and faster.

Kill 'em til they're dead: Best Shooter

Shooters are a genre that have really changed a whole bunch over the ages. Where once we had Gradius, now we have Fark Rye. Some people pretend those are different genres. For the point of this, it doesn't really matter, does it?

Honorable Mention: Kid Icarus: Uprising, Nintendo 3DS, Project Sora, 2012
Kid Uprising gets a mention for having some terrifically fun rail-shooting action, but I can't give it a wholehearted, unmitigated recommendation because of the weird 3rd-rate action stages that make up the bulk of the game. I'm not the first to say it, but the game just does not control like a third-person game should control - and when I say "should", all I'm suggesting is that I "should" feel in control of my perspective and my movement in relation to that perspective. But the auto-scrolling levels are solid (if easy) and I can't help but fawn over a game that does 3D rail-shooting. It's a genre that's existed for like twenty years and only seen like twenty games! The stereoscopic 3D looks great as well, it really gives the action a more dynamic feeling over games like Sin & Punishment, actively contributing to playability by allowing targets to be easier distinguished, grouped, and prioritized. Area-of-effect and melee attacks just feel more... distinguished when playing in 3D - you can literally better see the space they take up. IIRC (in IRC) whatsisname said they weren't making another one anytime soon, and I'm usually not a guy to demand sequels, but I really wish Sora or Nintendo or someone would take these on-rails levels and make them into a full-length game. I promise it's at least going on my to-do list for next week if no one else gets to it sooner.

#2 Saints Row: The Third, Xbox 360, Volition, 2011
Liking this game doesn't exactly make me feel awesome about myself, as it's buried in perhaps the most moronically obnoxious presentation imaginable, but it's about as fun as a sandbox shooter can get. At first I pined for the full destructibility of Volition's earlier triumph, Red Faction: Guerilla, but as I played more I realized there was a certain satisfaction to be found in adapting havoc to Row's rigid city structure. Combined with the visceral and punishing third-person shooting, the world encourages players to get creative with their tactics. I guess using a pick-up truck as a battering ram to scatter a gang and ducking behind a building to lob grenades while waiting for the helicopter cavalry to show up just never got old for me. I appreciate a game that gives me the satisfaction of "realistic" weapons and physics (like baseball bats and grenade launchers) but throws them into utterly preposterous setups - like riding around in a tank on a helicarrier and shooting down jets. There's a great balance here between something totally over-the-top like Vanquish, which completely removes the player from reality for its absurd shenanigans, and something totally gritty and down to earth like Sleeping Dogs, which doesn't let the player indulge in the violence.

It's hard to express exactly what makes this game good. All the hype I read (before having played it) and even the above just comes across as "yeah, but isn't that every sandbox game? how is that different from GTA?". But every shooting/driving sandbox I've played before Saints Row (certainly every one made by Rockstar) is totally undone by a foundation of shit mechanics. Their hearts are in the right place but their heads are up their asses. Saints Row: The Third would be good even if it was a totally linear mission-oriented game (see Red Faction: Armageddon for essentially that) and that's what makes it work in an open world. You'll just have to take my word for it. Or fuck it, whatever.

#1 Capsized, XBLA, Alientrap, 2011
I was almost disappointed when I first saw the look of Capsized, only because I said "goddamnit, this was my idea for a game world!"
Yup, it's imperfect. Yup, it's raw. Yup, that works just damn fine. Capsized manages to combine the what-the-shit chaotic physics nonsense of a game like Red Faction: Guerilla or Worms with the strategic tension and ammo management of Resident Evil 4 with the atmosphere and methodical hunting of Metroid. How well do all those things mesh? Really weirdly! And that makes for a game that doesn't play quite like any other. It may seem to share gameplay with the brain-dead Bad Bots or be inferior to the carefully-wrought Bleed or lack the laborious architecture of Shadow Complex, but Capsized wields an awesome free-spirited naturalism that emancipates it from the oppressive digital nature that we typically treasure in "precise" games. Beyond the loosely mazey level design, the mechanics are imbued with a large factor of randomness. And that ratchets up the tension and makes the insane array of tools at the player's disposal feel a little more welcome. Capsized is a great game because it's not pure playground, it's not "Grand Theft Auto in spaceballs" - it forces the player to focus the absurdity of the action to an end. Lives and ammo are in short supply for each stage, so this isn't pure fucking around. The player needs to be able to gauge when to deploy method and when to deploy mayhem, and how to try to take control or at least recover once things inevitably get out of hand. That does a pretty good job making them feel like an astronaut lost in an alien jungle overflowing with way too much life.

I'm bored just talking about it: Best RPG

I had a huge resurgence in RPG popularity this past year. What I'm trying to say is that I have not liked RPGs for a long time and in 2013 all of a sudden I played like a thousand and was really lovin' 'em. It all goes back to Retro Game Challenge's Guadia Quest, a game that showed me that with a limited scope, I could actually still love a JRPG. I even took a slight detour into roguelikes and had a good time with Shiren the Wanderer before fully circumnavigating the globe back to that seminal WRPG classic, Ultima VII. But floating (or skyrocketing) to the top of that list we had....

#2 Crimson Shroud, Nintendo 3DS, Level 5, 2012
The game had a really fun script and made just the right amount of winking nods to its D&D origins
A short RPG?! Perish the thought! In fact, 2013 taught me that short RPGs are the way 2-B. I assume nearly every mechanic in Shroud is straight outta Dungeons and Dragons, but as I'm barely familiar with tabletop rules (I have one round to my name) I can only credit it all to the game. Shroud's got a neat terse tale to tell, following the old tradition of short/scary stories that are built entirely around one big reveal. There's no need for bullshit lore and an endless backstory to every character - it's all about moving the pieces forward to that big curtain-pull. That's just plain fun, and the handful of battles along the way are unique and challenging and follow the same mentality of stripping out the chaff. Only do anything once - and that'll make Shroud that much more fun a game to revisit. 

#1 Phantasy Star IV, Sega Genesis, Sega AM7, 1995/1993(JP)
So I have to admit that part of my love affair with Phantasy Star IV simply amounts to being swept off my feet. I wasn't ready to like a 16-bit JRPG. But Phantasy Star succeeded because it was fast and funny and kicked me in my emotional nuts before I was ready, and all the painfully cliche fantasy storytelling tropes were saved until the point where a character could react to an ancient apocalyptic prophecy with "Aw, man!" and I could feel exactly the same words echoing in my brain. The dialogue is dopey and innocent but heartfelt, genuine, and just witty enough to cut down any building fatigue. It helps that the biodome paradise scifi future has a truly unique look that escapes cliches of hyper-techno, post-apocalyptic, or utopian futurism, and that the gigantic battle sprites show off tons of memorable detail. Phantasy Star IV is, simply put, a one-of-a-kind adventure spanning beautifully developed worlds and starring a cast of unforgettable characters. That's all I want out of an epic, and as an epic this game shines.
The anime-style cutscenes add a great deal of personality and drama to the story, far more than is achieved in bland talking-headPGs like those made by Square
The battle system is solidly engaging with a nice large-scale challenge structure oriented around managing HP and TP (health and magic). There is a real satisfaction to surviving a dungeon with genuine risk/reward built into the exploration, thanks to the extremely sparse magic restoratives and revives. Definitely no grinding (early Final Fantasy) or training wheels (later Final Fantasy) here - success is driven by careful management of skills, not statistical advantage. It's not an absurdly hard game per se, but every victory feels earned. You've got to give it up for a game with such a neat way of handling random map battles (not gonna spoil it) that doesn't excise them entirely but somehow makes their triviality exciting. 

Come back tomorrow to see my top picks released in 2013 as well as my overall TOP 3 GAMES OF THE YEAR!!!!!!!!! Will GTAV make a sweep? Super Mario Bros.? Or will it be the underdog Flappy Bird in the top spot? You'll have to wait and see!