Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 3/23/14: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist

at 7:03 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: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyper Stone Heist
Year: 1992
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Platform: Sega Genesis

The TMNT games are undisputed classics among brawlers and much of Konami's claim to fame as one of the brawler kings. Probably the least known and most disputed among them is Hyperstone Heist, the Genesis port/amalgam of the two arcade games, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Turtles in Time. Genesis wasn't exactly know for having the best version of... well... anything - typically it lagged behind SNES in just about every capability except music (and that comes down to personal preference).

So is Hyperstone Heist nothing more than a watered down port, or does it find an identity all its own in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Chronicles? And what the fuck man, why was it the last in this fantastic beat-em-up line?

Pro-run: We beat the game on Normal in a single try and only spent one credit between us (I'll admit, it was me who spent the credit)

How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Golem: Surprisingly faithful to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time. While lacking the acting talent of Megan Fox and the special effects budget found in all top-tier Michael Bay films (watch for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles later this year),  Hyperstone Heist still offers a vibrant, colorful set of graphics. In fact, even though the Genesis couldn't put out as many colors at once as the SNES could, Hyperstone Heist stands with others like Sonic 3 & Knuckles as one of those games that gives SNES colors a run for their money. It doesn't go for the high-contrast approach of most Genesis titles, yet it definitely pulls off the softer color style of a SNES game.
The music also makes the leap well, especially due to high-quality orchestra hit sampling--an instrument that all but defined Turtles IV's OST. Both the graphics and the music bring a lot of energy, which fits the fast-paced brawling style of the turtles.
Yourself: In some cases I actually preferred the bright hard-outlined Genesis sprites to the flatter, smoother looking SNES visuals. On the other hand, the speedier, squealier rendition of the soundtrack blurred together and didn't sound particularly great to me.

Hyperstone Heist (Genesis)
Turtles in Time (SNES)
How was the control and move variety?
Yourself: Hyperstone Heist has a decent set of highly specialized moves that I found little practical use for. There's your bread-and-butter attack combo that occasionally (seemingly randomly) sequenced into a devastating area slam (somewhat reminiscent of Combatribes spin-an-enemy-by-the-ankles, except the Turtles are even more over-the-top - they grab a ninja by his ankle and slam him back and forth over their head into the ground!). There's a dash button which sets up two different dash attacks: an unspectacular shoulder bash and a sliding kick that can bowl over a whole column of Footies. The slide-kick was a sweet move and particularly useful for assisting a bro-in-need, but had a pretty convoluted input that took a while to pull off. The array of jump attacks determined by where in the jump the attack button was pressed were a nice touch, but I never really found use for any but the quick dragon kick, particularly because needing to wait for a certain point in the jump really made the attacks difficult to aim.
Golem: On normal, most of the game is easily handled by your standard three-hit standing combo. On hard in single player, though, enemies became more aggressive, and in later levels I found myself regularly breaking that rhythm with both running and jumping tactics.
The three-hit sequence will always kill a standard Foot soldier at the end (even on hard!). Since it was reliable, I always wanted to use that sequence; eventually, the game weaned me off of it in two ways. First, by experimenting with the dashing shoulder bash, I could speed up the pace of combat and rip through enemies quicker, since the bash easily goes right into your normal combo. Second, enemies would often crowd me, meaning I had to corral them from a safe distance; since the turtles are very mobile in the air and have quite a bit of air time, jumping and attacking from above at the right time let me sequence into a standard combo while creating a safe space to do so. Knowing whether I wanted the slow attack, the fast vertical attack, or the long horizontal attack when I came back down was an important--if rare--decision.
The area for pulling off a grab-and-slam grapple is indeed too vague. I found I had more success when I stood as much in the same location as the enemy as possible while the enemy was stunned, but even this was not a guarantee. A shame, because when I could pull it off, it offered valuable invincibility time during the grabbing animation (for instance, letting me dodge a barrage of projectiles in Tatsu's boss fight in stage 3 or the wrecking balls of stage 5).

How was the player character variety?
Golem: To be honest, Leonardo, Donatello, and Michelangelo all blended together. Raphael, however, scurries across the screen at a noticeably faster clip and has the shortest range. The game feels balanced for the former three, since attacking at the right range is often important; for instance, beating the first instance of Rocksteady means staying out of his kicking range. On the other hand, because Turtles combat is always pretty speedy, Raphael feels like an expert mode catered to squeezing the quickest pace out of the game: needing to keep enemies close and having the walking speed to do so.
Yourself: Wow I totally forgot that I was playing for the blog and needed to try out all the characters. Whoops. I'm a Leo man myself.


How was the pick-up variety?
Yourself: There are only two pick-ups in this game. One is a gracious health recovery item and the other is a bomb pizza. As we all know from real life, a pizza with a bomb on the box signifies that it's Pizza Time - a wild and crazy invincible spinning attack. Pizza Time is essentially a screen clear, but since you still have to steer your turtle around the screen and try to hit as many enemies as possible, it's a lot more fun to use than similar items from the likes of Golden Axe that simply play a cut-scene. 

How was the stage variety?
Golem: At five stages, Hyperstone Heist keeps itself short and sweet. The first three stages feature a standard sequence of developing enemies and endbosses, letting me really dig into the core mechanics of the game. Stage four is a boss rush, but given the ease and quality of boss fights, this is a good thing; it's an intense moment against four big bads before stage five, a gauntlet where all the stops are pulled out. Stage five boasts the greatest enemy variety alongside gimmicks such as freezer turrets that pop up from the floor and wall-mounted laser cannons.
There is too much enemy repetition for my taste--I got the idea after the first four rounds against white and red ninjas grouped together. But, given the well-rounded enemies and fun mechanics, I'd say the overall pacing of the game works well.
Yourself:  I don't totally agree that the stages are short. They actually almost all overstay their welcome as far as I'm concerned. There may be less total than there are in TMNTIV, but most reuse the same battle at least four or five times. I'm a "never repeat the same fight" kinda guy. Not to pick on him, but Golem once told me that he never noticed that the stages in Streets of Rage 3 are long (they're unbearable). 


Surf's up, McNeilson! I also have to add that there is indeed a famous TMNT surf-stage here. It's kinda weird to describe one of the surfing stages to someone who hasn't played them - they're just so heavily ingrained into my consciousness as "the surfing stages from TMNT" yet they don't play exactly like anything else from another game. They're autoscrolling like a shmup, with damaging traps like sea mines and spiked logs, yet you have your standard jumping and attack moves from the rest of the game. Anyway, a neat novelty in this particular sea-surfing stage are the the fan-like patterns of flying Mausers that have to be whittled away. They're a middle ground between the stationary floating traps and the surf ninjas who tend to simply follow you around - they require the player to attack specific stable areas of the screen.

How was the enemy variety?
Yourself: There were quite a number of multicolored Klansmen who show up as soon as the first level, just about on par with the other Turtles games. Each colored Footie has a unique special attack, from the cross-screen leaps of the Blue Man Group to the wide range jumping dagger-chucks of the Honey Mustard Men. The primary behavior of these Foot soldiers was identical - dart around the screen and occasionally throw a punch - then they would each launch into their trademark special every few seconds left undisturbed. What that meant is that if you pursued one aggressively, it was easy to repress the special attacks and essentially force any Foot Ninja to fight the same. Maybe this wouldn't have been the case had the game used large groups of the same types of enemies, but... see below. There were also a handful of mixup enemies like Pizza Monsters, Mausers, and Those Lazer Whip Robots who provided the best variety, springing into stealth or swarm attacks. 
Golem: I found that on hard, red and blue enemies were more aggressive about watching my back and grabbing me when they could, setting up a double-team. If the other colors could grab me, I never came across it.


How were enemy groups formed?
Golem: Most of the game's groups took a squad of red ninjas and threw in a squad of some other color. If the enemies were not ninjas, they would all be of the same variety, whether that meant a group of three stone soldiers or a gaggle of (like five) mousers.
Yourself: There was some utilization of environmental traps to break up the repetition of enemy gangs, from the rushing cars of Stage 1 to the spiked ceilings of Stage 3 to the freeze-turrets of Stage 5. They didn't show up often, but the most memorable battles were those fought around these malingering threats - they put new rules on the space which played well into the approach-nature of the combat. 

How did combat work one-on-one?
Yourself: Once you get in close with an enemy there's not much going on - these guys really had no counter for even your basic combo. However, the Footies were quick on their feet, making that approach less trivial than it sounds. Though the game is so easy that tactics were hardly ever necessary (and admittedly I'm projecting a bit from my TMNTIV experience), most of the challenge was in landing that first hit. This is where the Turtles' jumping and dashing attacks really came into play - hitting an enemy without taking damage yourself came down to quickly lining up a jump kick or shoulder-bash. It's hard not to feel like a ninja making these precise distance strikes, even if the setup does tend to favor a frantically jump-kicking player.
Golem: Non-ninja enemies would deviate on this. Mousers jumped around, requiring precise timing to get that first hit, but those died in one hit anyway. On the other hand, stone soldiers took two full combos to fell, but their slow and lumbering movements made it easier to catch them with a hit.

How did combat work against crowds?
Golem: As I mentioned, most of the game's crowds combined a group of red ninjas and some other color of ninja. For instance, a yellow ninja might stand on the far left while three red ninjas approach from the right. I could reliably catch all three red guys in a combo and take them out pretty easily, but in the meantime, the yellow guy would've jumped and pegged me with a kunai. I could pretty easily take out the yellow one, but then I'd be surrounded by three red ninjas. So, combat became a matter of prioritization, speed and spacing. The multicolored ninjas were pretty shallow on their own, so networking like this played off of each ninja's unique skill for a cohesive challenge.
I also want to mention the second variety of white ninjas, those that blocked hits. Their block could be broken in a number of ways, the most obvious of which were A) the concluding hit of a three-hit combo and B) a shoulder bash. If red ninjas were onscreen, engaging them in a three-hit combo was the best course of action; I could deal damage to the red ninjas and occupy the white ones, even if their guard wouldn't break until the last hit in the string. On the other hand, if I had already cleared out the red ninjas, I couldn't waste time building up to that final hit, since another white ninja was likely to sneak around and attack me from behind while I was getting to it. In these cases, I had to land shoulder bashes quickly.

How was the boss variety and how did boss fights generally work?
Golem: The first three stages built bosses that would stand on one edge of the screen, receive one combo's worth of hits, and then cross over to the other side of the screen. Each one explored nuances within this structure; Leatherhead was a timing game, where I couldn't linger too long after the last hit in my combo, and Rocksteady was a spacing game, where I couldn't stand too close while hitting him or else he'd knock me back with a kick. Additionally, you can reflect Tatsu's kunai back at him for some good damage--cool stuff.



The latter bosses, Stockman and Krang, introduced a couple different strategies. For instance, I could attack Stockman from the ground and land the occasional hit while regularly clearing out his deadly mousers, or I could attack from the air to hit Stockman reliably but risk getting overrun by mousers. It felt a little odd, then, that Shredder himself was a pretty easy, clearly-telegraphed waiting game.
Krang was the only boss in the game who sometimes hit me without warning. Aside from that, bosses always revved up their attacks, giving me plenty of time to plan.

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Golem: Pretty natural, aside from the repetition involved. New enemy types developed new skills in me, and the finer the skill was to execute, the later it came. For example, the guarding ninja is the last ninja to be introduced. It's also really satisfying to gradually wear down the bosses of stage 4 and make it to the downhill thrill ride of stage 5.
Yourself: Though I think the game was pretty slow on the front end (but for a surfing segment, Stages 1 and 2 are nearly identical) it was certainly exciting to see the bosses show up for a concerted premature retest. Re-using earlier bosses is a design pattern typical of beat-em-ups, but here you get some variation in that they're actually harder versions of the bosses and it's boss fight after boss fight after boss fight, significantly throwing the pace. It certainly helps that it comes right at the point in the game where boredom is likely to be setting in. 

Play again or recommend?
Yourself: Hyperstone Heist is a fun co-op game, but I'm not sure I would play it again. The boss fights were above standard brawler fare, but I can't say the stages left any impression - especially when there is a better version of the exact same gameplay in the other TMNT games. Recommended only to players looking for perspective on TMNTII, III, and IV. Or I guess those stuck with only a Genesis looking to get their Turtle fix!
Golem: I love the Turtle games, but boy can they be long. Hyperstone Heist might be my favorite so far, with the caveat that--as Yourself says--it's embarrassingly boring on normal. Do hard, even if you don't think you can beat it.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 3/16/14: Combatribes

at 6:44 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: The Combatribes
Year: 1990
Developer: Technos Japan
Publisher: American Technos
Platform: Arcade, SNES (we played both)

When flamboyant gangs have plunged the city into a panic, the Double Dragon are down and out, and Kunio-kun is nowhere to be found, who you gonna call?

Streets of Rage!

The Combatribes!

The Combatribes is something of a successor to the Double Dragon throne, picking up where Double Dragon II left off (III wasn't developed by Technos) and upgrading in the most obvious way possible: a third simultaneously playable character. Three-player co-op was certainly not unheard-of in arcade games at the time, but this was very early for a three-player beat-em-up (I won't say it was the first because I honestly don't know and the internet won't tell me, but I know of no other earlier ones). So, while we're not going to talk much about that in our review, and who cares about stuff like that nowadays, it's at least some kind of footnote in the grand question of "why does this game exist?" So, why does this game exist? Does it earn the legacy of Double Dragon, or has it largely been forgotten for good reason?

Pro-run: SNES version (7 credits) - died on fourth boss (come on guys, really?)

Arcade-batribes
How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Yourself:  BUTT FUCKING UGLY. While that's sorta what they were going for, it is almost impressive how ugly everything from the artwork to the sprites to the palette is. Everyone looks like freaky dwarves! Not that dwarves are ugly (racist), just that it's bizarre when that's clearly not the intention of the art.

I enjoyed most of the thumping metal soundtrack - the tracks were short but each rotated through three of four fast parts, from organ solos to chugging riffs to whomever.

Golem: The aesthetics really pulled me out of this one. I'm always a little embarrassed to acknowledge when aesthetics so heavily influence me, but I have to own up to it--I came into this game with low expectations.

The graphics are goofy in an unappealing way, especially on the Super Nintendo. In the arcade version, the art style came across as a bizarre evolution from Renegade and Double Dragon, but that slight lack of detail in the SNES version pushed it over the edge from bizarre into questionable.

As for the music, I kind of get what it was going for, too, but I thought it fell flat. Not bad, but I wasn't feeling it.

How was the control and move variety?
Golem: Speaking of aesthetics, all three playable characters look pretty big compared to the non-boss enemies--about a head or so taller, with wider shoulders to match. The move variety focused itself on this, putting me in the boots of just such a gentleman.

If an enemy catches you in a grapple, your character just looks down at the offending goon. From there, you can lodge your character's elbow in the enemy's back. Or, if an enemy is knocked down, you can either A) leap into the air and come crashing down on the enemy or B) take hold of the enemy's heels and whip them around in circles, usually clobbering swaths of foes all at once.

The moveset remains focused on flinging grunts around without getting bogged down in chains or fancy attacks. It'll usually only take a few punches or kicks to get enemies into a vulnerable state, letting you reach that state quickly and experiment from there.

How was the player character variety?
Yourself: Subtle but distinguished. Veterans of the Double Dragon games will know that William and James were perfect twins in all senses, but we've got some slight differentiation between the three Combatribes (yes - the three dudes are the Combatribes). Each Combatribe is rated in speed and power and reflects these characteristics both in raw statistics and special attack variation. Speed-demon Blitz throws the fastest punches and runs through combos quickly, so he won't stay locked up with enemies and vulnerable for as long as his bros. He also has a flying jump kick that can cross a lot of real estate - however, his crowd clearing moves are far briefer than Bullova or Berzerker's. Bullova, the resident strongman, gets the lengthiest spin-an-enemy-by-his-legs throw, giving him serious crowd-clearing power to go with his steamrolling dash-punch. 

SNES-batribes
How was the pick-up variety?
Golem: I think the only things you pick up in this game are enemies (nyuck). That worked fine, though, given how stages were formed--I never found myself wanting of weapons or health. Well, okay, I'm not good enough to clear the game without dying (...and I'm not good enough to clear the game at all on Super Nintendo), but stages are short enough that I don't think they need pickups for balancing. Plus, the enemy variety was consistent enough that I don't think stages needed pickups for variety of combat, either.

How was the stage variety?
Yourself: The stages in this game aren't quite your normal beat-em-up fare - in that they're simpler. They're really just two-screen-wide arenas, only slightly larger than those in precursor Renegade. The arcade version has some cinematic touches like a carnival tower at the end of Stage 2 which condenses the playing field to a single X-Y plane and puts enemies on stairs above and below the players. There's also possibly the most realistic length elevator stage of all time and a rarity for beat-em-ups: a boss rush. 
Golem: Some beat-em-ups really let their stages drag on [editor's note: Streets of Rage 3], and I appreciated the small, focused strips here. Stage variety was defined by that stage's unique enemy, whether it be a flood of skaters or demon clowns or what have you. Speaking of,

How was the enemy variety?
Golem: Just as the moveset was focused, the enemy set played off of it well. The demon clowns of stage 2 rebounded out of certain throws, meaning that I had to take care which moves I chose to use on them. And the skaters in stage 3 mindlessly race back and forth, blindly running into your waiting fists or throws. In short, enemies would either counter or play into my moves, letting me appreciate them. These rules were usually easy to figure out.
Yourself: The oddity about the enemy variety is that Combatribes is sorta a game about what you do with enemies once they're knocked down - as you mentioned, turning bodies into weapons. So the fact that enemies are all the same once you've got a hold of them sorta detracts from the variety - it's like there's a phase one and phase two of the battles, phase one being the knock-down portion, and phase two being the crowd-cleanup. And phase two always felt the same, regardless of who you were fighting.


How were enemy groups formed?
Yourself: Each stage had a defined enemy army formed of one or two unique unit types. In the arcade game these gangs were supplemented by reams of the bottom rung no-name goons who just took up screen space and acted like bowling pins. I actually preferred the SNES version's smaller crowds - they contained ONLY the stage-specific enemies, forcing the player to figure out the gimmick to get a foothold on the battle. This game pulled a kinda odd version of the boss w/ underlings shenanigan in that - since the entire level was set in a single arena - the boss would simply spawn before you had finished clearing the enemy gang. So it was like the levels faded into the boss fights.
Golem: The groups were usually big enough that all the enemies ran together; even if a particular foe had an interesting feature, there would be enemies at all different states of that feature.

How did combat work one-on-one?
Golem: Each type of enemy had one defining feature, and fighting that enemy meant keeping one rule in mind--for instance, not throwing the clowns in a certain way.
Yourself: The players punch range was equal to the enemies (the Technos rule) so going in for head to head combat was a guaranteed way to take damage. It's also the quickest and easiest way to kill a single opponent and grapple. If the player can't stand to take damage in return, there are the slower knock-down moves available (kicks, jump attacks) which take more setup and don't do much damage, but can quickly turn an enemy into a weapon (by way of the ankle-grab throw). 

How did combat work against crowds?
Yourself: Interestingly, Renegade, Double Dragon, Shadow Force, and every other Technos game based around this same core fighting system only ever pits the player against one to three enemies at a time. The Combatribes is clearly Technos' attempt to take things to the big leagues and mold that system to the scale of Final Fight where the player can be surrounded and attacked from multiple dimensions. To that end, many of the moves are made specifically with crowd-clearing in mind. 
Golem: In beat-em-ups, it's typical for groups to back off for a few seconds when you're laying into an enemy. I got the sense that enemies in Combatribes didn't extend you that same polite gesture, which was fine with me--all the easier to wrap them up in a crowd-clearing enemy-hurling move.

How was the boss variety and how did boss fights generally work?
Golem: Bosses would enter extended attacks, and to the best that I could figure, you had to walk around while they were busy and hit them from behind. As you can imagine, this was much easier with two players, and Yourself and I spent a lot of time surrounding a boss and kicking him or her to death. Yeah, a pretty typical tactic for a beat-em-up, but it was much more effective on most of the bosses here than any other beat-em-up I've played before.

Bosses also sometimes had counters to the typical man-handling moves I'd use on smaller enemies. I recall one boss kicking me aside while I was in a body slam animation.

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Yourself: There were new enemies introduced with each stage and the unique bosses made up a substantial amount of the play-time, so there was definitely always new stuff to learn. Whether or not you needed to learn it is a different story - Golem and I found that the basic attack techniques worked pretty much the same regardless of what kind of enemies we were facing. The bosses were pretty resilient and really didn't let themselves take damage unless you knew what you were doing. Co-op play definitely cut down on the difficulty - tag-teaming worked a little TOO well on some of the bosses. One neat little trick to that end is that the final boss spawns as many clones as there are players.

I struggle to imagine how this box art could be any worse.
Play again or recommend?
Golem: I enjoy discussing the mechanics, and Combatribes makes a fun game to study. I don't have fun playing the game itself, though; it's weird how much the flow of combat is controlled by throwing enemies through mobs. It's a game I respect but don't enjoy. If you're down for some oddly paced combat or tossing enemies aside like yesterday's trash, I could see getting into this.
Yourself: I mean to play this more. The combat just has such a great chunky feel (full disclosure: I also love Double Dragon) that even techniques that feel overpowered are a blast to execute. I think the fact that we pointed out so many options in the combat yet sucked at it illustrates that there's more strategy to learn, and I'll stick with this one til I can beat the SNES game. I recommend it if you like Technos beat-em-ups, but try the better-paced Double Dragon games first if you're unsure.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Commune Podcast: Counterfeit Monkey Part 2

at 6:00 PM

Here's comes a treat: some more podcasting action courtesy of Golem's street-violence gang, The Commune. We're again talking about text-based adventure Counterfeit Monkey, this time taking a look at how puzzles are grouped and how the game engages our suspension of disbelief.


Enjoy the cadence of my voice there. Seriously, listen to that description of the restoration gel rifle puzzle and try not to cringe. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Unheard but not unspoken: The plight of an oppressed minority

at 6:30 PM
I don't often use this blog as a podium to make civil rights stands, but real life friends know me as something of a political activist. My motto is "there's no cause too small for action". That's why today I wanted to bring your attention to a form of oppression that has run unchecked in our society for decades because its victims are simply too ashamed to speak out. As one of those victims, someone personally affected by this cruelty on a daily basis, I've decided it's time to take a stand. It's time for us to come together as brothers and sisters and cry out as one:

"IT'S GREG, NOT CRAIG"


In these days of "unique" names and foreigners, the national news and blog articles are filled with pleas for sympathy for those whose names get mispronounced or misspelled often. Because of these higher profile, more glamorous afflictions like "bad name choice", we Gregs have long suffered in the shadows, tormented by those with bad hearing or poor vowel enunciation. As such a well-defined group, we don't draw much empathy - unless your name is Greg, you really have no idea what it feels like to be mistaken for a Craig. Let me take you through one of these soul-crushing experiences in hopes of finally bringing to light the torment we've so long been burying.

A HARROWING ENCOUNTER WITH IGNORANCE


The other night I was out at the bar with a couple friends. In fact we met up to celebrate Andrew M's girlfriend's 21st. It was a crowded Saturday night and I posted up to the bar to order a beer. Despite having been in this situation dozens of times before, I'm never psychologically prepared for the way a fun night can explode into prejudice-fueled self-loathing. Living with a burden like this for years, you still think of yourself as "normal". Finally grabbing the bartender's attention, I order myself a sour lambic and hand over my card to start a tab. "It's Greg!", I shout over the din.

"Was that Craig or Greg?" he calls back. Alright, no big deal. It's a loud room - Boston's "A Man I'll Never Be" is playing on the radio - he probably legitimately couldn't hear. Most people don't realize what an insensitive question that is, but that doesn't bother me - I'm more about education than reprisal. 

"Greg, actually!" I always enunciate the short 'e' the second time, almost saying it like "Greck".

"Got it." He takes my card and starts up the tab. Whew - crisis averted. Once it gets into a second round I can have a hard time keeping my blood pressure under control. We'll make it tonight. Or so I thought.

After a few more rounds, the gang decides it's time to get a move on. Andrew and I head back to the bar to cash out and I grab a different bartender to ask for my tab. That's when things get ugly. The bartender looks at his computer for a minute then back at me confusedly: "I don't have a Greg...". 

Not this. Please, not this again. I can't do it twice in one night. I glance over at Andrew who gives me an exasperated look and mouths "you want me to handle this?", subtly flexing his biceps. I shake my head. It's one thing to correct someone, but when it comes to, "Sigh... How about a Craig?" - that's just humiliating. Can you imagine what that feels like? Living your whole life KNOWING your name is Greg, knowing what a huge difference there is between "Greg" and "Craig", and having to sit there and let someone think you're a Craig? It's the worst feeling in the world. The lowest of the low. Being confronted with someone who doesn't know the difference, then having to identify as a Craig... you start to wonder who's really the crazy one. Under constant inquisition, how can you ever seal the lid on the doubt?

The bartender hands me the tab - there it is. Right above the name from my credit card, Gregory H G, the name the original barman typed in all caps: CRAIG. I write in a fifteen percent tip (I'm not going to punish the rest of the staff) and stumble off, the night in shambles. 

MOVING FORWARD


I'm not sharing this story to garner sympathy or pity. I've made it this far in life without support, mocked by those in whom I've confided. I'm sharing it here for the other Gregs out there to let them know they're not alone, and for everyone else to listen carefully for and enunciate the difference between "G" and "C", and between a short 'e' and a long 'a'. If you've having trouble, remember this little mnemonic: Egg rhymes with Greg, don't make me beg; vague rhymes with Craig, he's just like the plague. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Why does Dracula ride the elevator?

at 7:00 PM
Because his bats were on the other side.

So I mentioned last week that in Lords of Shadow 2 we get to play as Dracula, one of the great villains of literature, cinema, video-gamey, and most famously, Castlevania 64. This Drac ain't no pretty-boy good guy vampire like Twilight Sparkle or Kid Dracula or Bill Frampton - he's a bona fide lord of the night whose power was ripped directly from the face of Satan and used to send armies of darkness (on DVD) across Europe, decimating kingdoms, raping babies, and crushing the saintly warriors who dared challenge him. The first scene post-prologue gives us a first person view as Dracula feasts on a wailing mother and father (and implicitly their baby). He's definitely got a bit of the-world-wasn't-fair-to-me-so-I'm-not-gonna-be-fair-to-it brooding going on, but that's buried deep down inside where any good Darth Vader keeps it. 

We play as textbook "anti-heroes" all the time in games (it's the easiest way to justify murder-based gameplay), but the potential for an outright villainous protagonist is tempting. A villain has limitless potential - he isn't bound to a journey of redemption or evolution, so his arc can proceed in all kinds of unexpected directions. We aren't required to sympathize with a villain, only pity him. The Legacy of Kain is perhaps my favorite example - the story of the wrongfully murdered Kain whose quest for revenge is twisted by his moral destitution into world domination which in turn tears apart the metaphysical fabric of right and wrong, reflecting his inner perversion on the lands he claims to rule. Playing as a villain gives us the chance to live out power fantasies and perceive the translation of an internal compensatory struggle into external violence. 

In Lords of Shadow 2, our main character and would-be main villain Dracula, the final boss of dozens of Castlevanias past and single-handed slaughterer of an entire crusader army (seen in the prologue), rides a lot of elevators. 
That's how he gets up and down multi-story skyscrapers (and of course how the game hides loading times in the background)
The first time I found my Dracula-self milling about in an elevator the same way I do every night on the way up to my apartment, I realized something was wrong. It's an infinitely mundane and passive activity. Boring, maybe a bit soothing; patient. It's not that I believe Dracula is a stairs man or needs to turn into a bat and smash through the window everywhere he goes (although that is kinda what I imagine), it's just that I don't need to see him taking the elevator. Were it left off-screen I could infer that it happens, but I never would, because why the fuck would I be thinking about that. It is eminently skippable. Watching it, being made to think about it, ponder what's going through Dracula's head and if he's staring at the buttons light up as I do, totally disengages me from the character, particularly any sense of menace he may wield. Another game I played recently that used elevators for loading was DmC - in that it was made into a joke about Dante's impatience and fit with a character who was being railroaded through events, only barely able to clutch at threads of his own destiny. If Dracula is supposed to be a godly being, the only monster capable of matching Satan himself, he'd probably ought to be beyond things I do in my daily routine. Do we need to see him taking a leak? Or brushing his teeth? With all those nasty mutants and demons he digs his teeth into, Dracul probably needs some pretty potent Crest. 

Movies are a lot pickier about what they show because of time limitations and technical freedoms. They can easily switch perspective or setting without disorienting the viewer because they're already cut together from bits and pieces. Video games are typically more straightforward narratives and while indeed they may take the filmic approach, as does Asura's Wrath, they tend to mine realism from continuous worlds. Could Shadow of the Colossus present its boss battle gameplay with a stage select and loading screens? Sure, but it would come at the cost of its grand scale, oppressive isolation, and haunting melancholy. Not all game worlds form such a cohesive picture, and we tend to make jokes of the little absurdities: why is Link breaking pots instead of saving Zelda? Why are we breeding racing chickens in Final Fantasy VII when the world is on the brink of apocalypse? These asides may threaten our suspension of disbelief, but they're driven by a gameplay-first mentality that only undermines the narrative for the sake of sustaining playability. If we're having fun we're more likely to keep engaged and distracted from mundanities, so this works as an exchange. 


Dracula's elevator rides certainly aren't an exchange of gameplay for realism, so do they maintain the continuity of the virtual world? Well, they fill it out in some sense. They answer the question that Yes, Dracula does ride the elevator. And that answer makes me feel a lot lamer to be taking the reigns of the classic villain. It's only a component in a larger story syndrome - Drac is once again taking orders from an ostensibly more knowledgeable and influential character, he's fighting his own minions (mind-controlled!) rather than holy warriors and vampire slayers (except for that tantalizing intro segment), and he plays almost identically to Gabriel Belmont from the previous game. In fact he isn't much of a character at all. It's nice to suck my foes' blood, but that's just not enough to make me feel like the Prince of Darkness. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 3/8/14: Denjin Makai II: Guardians

at 6:39 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.

WEEKLY BEAT-EM-UP BREAKING NEWS ANNOUNCEMENT:
So far Golem and I have been sitting down and playing these games from beginning to end in one sitting for the first time ever, just quarter-feeding our way through. I haven't been super-happy with the occasions on which this's led us to write "there might be more depth to the bosses, I didn't have enough time to learn in one playthrough". There have been aspects of certain games (particularly the entirety of Growl) I've felt we may not have "got" because we weren't trying hard enough to play well, or at least weren't being forced to. A game can seem unfairly hard before you learn how to play it. So what we're going to do henceforth (starting with Guardians) is play each game twice - once from beginning to end as a "demo" play (so that we can tell you about all the characters and stages and bosses) and a second time as a "pro-run" with a fixed number of credits to be determined by our performance on the demo play.

Game: Denjin Makai II: Guardians
Year: 1995
Developer: Winky Soft
Publisher: Banpresto
Platform: Arcade

Hey, guy - whaddyou know about Denjin Makai? (that was kinda like a little song). "Little to nothing" is the correct answer. It's some 1994 beat-em-up by no-names Winky Soft with an unusually large (I think six-character) roster and decent move sets. It got a Super Famicom port called Ghost Chaser Densei and as the name suggests never made it out of Japan. The sequel, Guardians, followed a year later, expanding the roster and move-set even further. Of course, 1995 is awful late for a beat-em-up and way too late for any arcade game to survive outside of Japan, hence the obscurity of Guardians.

Guardians tells the story of, I really don't fucking know. The setting is futuristic but it is all over the place with weird robots and mutants and dinosaur-monsters and all kinds of shit. Golem and I weren't about to turn down a game with an eight-character line-up that was supposedly "all about special moves", so it's time to find out: does Guardians deliver? Can it live up to the standards of depth set by that other guardian-themed beat-em-up, Guardian Heroes?

Pro-run: 10 credits (shared), died on final boss

How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Golem: The music was the weakest aspect of the game, featuring alright-but-forgettable rock tunes loaded with cheesy midi bass. The graphics, though, were bright, soft and colorful (more SNES than Genesis in its color choice, if that makes any sense), featuring lots of big, goofy sprites. One enemy was some kind of crocodile with a comically oversized head, followed later by human grunts wearing comically oversized crocodile head masks.
Yourself: Probably my biggest complaint about Guardians altogether would be the palette - every single sprite in this game is a goddamn rainbow. That might look great on the drawing board or in a screen cap, but in practice the action is unnecessarily difficult to follow. There aren't many beat-em-ups where I lose my character as often as I did in Guardians - it doesn't help that some enemies (and even one or two player characters!) are half the screen tall and a quarter of it wide, blocking a ton of real estate from view. 

How was the control and move variety?
Yourself: This is where Guardians "is the cake" so to speak. The move variety here is on par with '90s fighting games like Street Fighter II or Fatal Fury - each character has a unique set of specials (down-up+attack, left-right+attack, jump-jump+attack, etc.), a unique projectile (mapped to its own button), a handful of combo variations (performed by holding the joystick in any of the four cardinal directions while mashing attack), multiple throws (directional or jumping), and a block. Really the only sense in which these AREN'T fighting game controls is that there is only one attack button rather than the three to six seen in arcade fighters of the time. 
Golem: While there are character-specific inputs, I found enough variety just using the inputs shared by each character (those specified by Yourself). You also perform most special moves by inputting directions while blocking, which made control nice and simple.

How was the player character variety?
Golem: The difference in speed and power can really be felt between characters, but everybody had such a great variety of moves that I have a hard time figuring how distinct they are. One character's back-forward special move is a lunge forward with a sword, and another's is a lunge forward with her elbow, but is there a meaningful difference? In general there are a lot of fine details that Denjin Makai II has to explore, but it's so easy that I have a hard time valuing any of them.
Yourself: I don't think anyone had a lunge forward with a sword so that is just outright misinformation. One of the things I really appreciated about the variety were the characters' distinctive projectile attacks. If you're going to dedicate an entire button to the projectile, it's nice to see that it's better than just a Hadoken. One character had a freeze-beam that didn't do any damage but could lock a cadre of enemies in place for a big setup or a team attack. Another had a slower ground-following eye-lazer that could hit a whole line of enemies, while another had a free-aim machine gun and another had homing missiles.


I feel like we'd be doing the game a disservice not to mention it has the weirdest fucking character names ever: Girulian, Kurokishi, Tulks, P. Belva, Zeldia, Rou, Jinrei, and of course my favorite, Skullbyule.

How was the pick-up variety?
Yourself: Uh, heh. There were two weapon pick-ups and one more that was sort of hinted. I'll get to the latter in a second. The two actual weapons were a sword which varied in appearance, range, and speed from character to character (it's a rapier for Girulion, a bayonet for P. Belva, a broadsword for Tulks) and a grenade which is thrown instantly upon pick-up. Both showed up extremely infrequently and the move variety was so gigantic already that I had no desire to use the sword and only ever picked it up by accident. It kinda always just seemed to slow you down. The third hinted weapon was a bar... there was a weapon pick-up for a bar, but when you grabbed it, it just gave you points. I don't know if maybe only a specific character could use it or what. Was really confusing - there were other point items of course, but they didn't look like the weapon pick-ups. 
Golem: Given the large selection of characters and moves, I think it's only prudent to limit the pickup variety. That's not where the interesting gameplay is, after all.

How was the stage variety?
Golem: Denji Makai II offers a stage select (think Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom or Guardian Heroes), and it's pretty neat how distinct your stage selection can be. For example, in stage 2, you can ride a train where the boss of stage 1 harasses you, or you can stroll down a highway with no distinguishing features that I can name. That said, few individual stages left an impression on me. Enemy variety did progress throughout the game, though--for instance, the big guys introduced mid-game and the ED-209s introduced late-game.
Yourself: Oddly enough there was a single shooting-gallery bonus stage (think Wild Guns) - it's so brief that it hardly counts as "variety", but it's the kind of detail that makes a game feel really complete. Is anyone playing Guardians for the shooting stage? Nope, but Winky Soft threw it in anyway - cuz they wanted to make a fun game.


How was the enemy variety?
Yourself: Pretty decent. I can't think of any enemies that really stood out as totally unique to this game, but they covered a lot of good ground - stationary gunmen who liked to line-up and create a wall of bullet-hail, giant alligator monsters who breathed wide swaths of fire and grabbed the player (requiring hit-and-run tactics), and robot-men who did bombing run fly-bys that needed to be swatted out of the air. I was definitely most reminded of games like TMNTIV and X-Men that use a lot of projectile and knock-down enemies. 
Golem: While the enemies weren't strong enough that I had to make use of my entire moveset, there was enough of a variety that I found useful general approaches. This enemy works well with a special attack, this enemy group can be frozen together, that kind of thing.


How were enemy groups formed?
Golem: Often a combination of two enemy types, with maybe one new, distinct enemy and an older, more familiar sort. Actually, it would be neat to go back and take a closer look at how types got paired up, since it didn't feel as haphazard as some of the beat-em-ups from past weeks. On a few occasions, enough enemies would spawn in to make the action confusing, given the big sprites, but usually it was fine.
Yourself: These were structured waves - each enemy had enough personality that you couldn't throw more than three or four types together without the entire game breaking down. A typical conflict would ambush the player with a weapon-based foe (the fire-breathing alligators, the riflemen, the grenade-rappellers), then before they could clear the screen, bring in some brawlers to pound on them (anything from the standard goons to the speedy cockroach-men), then hit with another wave of ranged/splash damaging foes. This kept the player from ever gaining a solid footing in combat, making them constantly react to the introduction of new opponents.

How did combat work one-on-one?
Yourself: This is one game where I can truly say I never got a feel for the one-on-one combat. In a lot of beat-em-ups that stands as a sign of weakness (say Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, where the player dominates every head-to-head conflict), but Guardians kept things moving so quickly with enemies weaving in and out and relying on each other for combo attacks that I was never really exchanging blows with the same foe consecutively. 

How did combat work against crowds?
Golem: I often felt overpowered when taking on crowds, since it was possible to clear out swaths of foes all at once. That said, enemies were aggressive enough that I needed all my ducks in a row to pull off a combo. If I was going to dedicate myself to a lengthy move, I either needed every enemy in my range or everyone outside of my range to be far enough away that they couldn't get to me. The one woman's freezing move especially came in handy in this regard; I could freeze one group of enemies, then turn around to handle the others.
Yourself: Maybe it's because I never mastered the block move, but Guardians wasn't a game where I was ever able to hold my ground - crowd-fights were pretty typically run by using a special and then staying on the move until your meter recharged. Though perhaps the specials sometimes felt overpowered, the meter management did give the combat a nice rhythm. 

How was the boss variety and how did boss fights generally work?
Yourself: There was nothing all too impressive on the boss front - these guys were in fact on the easy side. I appreciated that I could use all of my moves on (almost all of) them - it's always satisfying to piledrive a towering monster of meat. One of the best parts about the boss-fights was the opportunity they offered for tag-team play - for instance, against the first boss (a standard grappler type), I could land a dashing special to free Golem from an attack and then he could follow it up by juggling the boss.
Golem: I had a hard time getting the hang of blocking during enemy squads, but boss fights gave me some time to practice with a single enemy. Having a large moveset to try out lends boss fights in Guardians more depth, or at least it kept me more interested than usual. It's also worth noting that the final boss, even with his multiple forms, was on the easy side.

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Golem: At first, button mashing worked pretty well, so when I learned, it came more out of my interest to explore the character I had chosen. Granted, that learning definitely helped in the latter stages. I think Guardians could've benefitted from a steeper difficulty curve, since I always had the feeling that there was no wrong move--maybe a less effective one, but nothing that made me feel like I was ever doing anything wrong.
Yourself: The game could've had harder bosses at least - the only time I felt really pressured was when completely swarmed with enemies, and I only had one or two go-to moves in those scenarios. The best chances to use the variable move-set were against strong enemies, so the lack of truly tough big guys left the game with more of a sandbox feeling.


Play again or recommend?
Yourself: Guardians was a blast, I'd play it again in a heartbeat. Just learning all eight characters would be worth the time. It's a great game for beat-em-up newcomers and veterans alike, instantly gratifying with plenty of variety on offer. Seriously. Grab a friend and go play it. 
Golem: I'd like to get better at Guardians and make good use of its moveset. It's easy enough that I can see myself improving my performance, and there's plenty of avenues to explore, as well. Recommended to everyone forever.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Moons over my hammy: Move over Killer, Asura's Wrath did it too

at 9:15 PM
Remember how it was all awesome when Killer Is Dead had a boss fight set on the Moon to the fourth movement of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E Minor? Hey I was playing Asura's Wrath the other night and THAT SAME BOSS FIGHT HAPPENED!


So before anyone cries foul (and let's please not even take a look at the Youtube comments), we should learn an important fact. This choice of soundtrack is not much of a coincidence. In fact, that particular Dvorak piece is something of the Moon's theme song, having been brought along by the one and only Neil Armstrong on the Apollo 11 mission. And the symphony's fourth movement is certainly the boss-musicyiest.

The final battle starts at 6:49:

Did one game copy the other? Killer Is Dead of course came out over a year after Asura's Wrath, but it's entirely about the Moon. Having a final boss fight there isn't particularly conspicuous, especially in video game world (I believe a certain Duck Tale is set on the Moon as well, no?), and we just got a pretty good explanation for the choice of music. Could the choice have been inspired by Asura? Sure. It still works on its own. You be the judge. Also, who cares. I'm only writing about this because I didn't have time for a real post this week.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Preamble to Lords of Shadow 2: How I feel about Lords of Shadow

at 7:00 PM
Been playing Lords of Shadow 2 of course. I was a big fan of the first game, thought it was one of the better action games of last generation with its simple no-combo heal/powerup mechanics that emphasized reactive opportunistic combat through two magic modifiers - that is, take advantage of a pattern opening early on in a fight and you could use it for a huge punish that allowed skipping through mundane grinding or break-waiting. It was also nicely paced coming off something like Bayonetta that is just fight-fight-fight - not that I object to that, just that Lords of Shadow found its own niche making for a relaxing play exploring mini-labyrinth environments peppered with a pretty steady stream of new enemy and boss types. It had its cinematic moments but it wasn't drilled to the cutscene/variety-fest that is God of War where the combat is really just thin filler/icing on top of a core of event gameplay like kicking a box up a hallway or flying a pelican across the Mediterranean.

The weird enemy design was largely worthy of the Castlevania name
And even the most generic Tomb Raider environments were loaded with detail
Lords of Shadow was a confident game that felt like Castlevania - you walk around some and appreciate noxious swamps and desolate cliffs and dank dungeons where unholy abominations crawl out of the woodwork to challenge your progress. It found its own identity within the series - it wasn't a Platformervania like the early games; it's light press-in-a-direction-to-get-there climbforming was more in line with later games like Symphony of the Night or Dawn of Sorrow, yet like those games it also had a Clock Tower and a few later areas (those cliff areas whose name I can't remember atm) that brought challenging platforming to the forefront and happily threw the player to their death repeatedly, reminding us of the series origin. Without a continuous world it wasn't a Metroidvania either, but it still contained traces of that design pattern, from multi-pathing in the large stages to dozens of collectibles that could be reached only by backtracking after obtaining abilities during the story's progression. Chunky enemies with tight patterns that challenged the player to weave through a flurry of attacks to land a single whiplash have been an integral part of the series since Simon met his first Axe Armor - mid-period games like Rondo of Blood and Circle of the Moon were loaded with these tough enemies like Minotaurs and Arch Demons. It's this combat that Lords of Shadow brings to the forefront - instead of using battles to drain life and hinder progress through a larger obstacle course, they are the only obstacles, and the player has to string together perfect hits and dodges to survive each one. It's Combatvania for sure, but there's no reason that's not a valid paradigm. Fighting enemies was probably my favorite part of the other games and I enjoy comparing the principles on play there with those in Lords of Shadow

This computer chess match probably brings back nightmares for players who got this far, but I liked the occasional stumper - it's not like you couldn't go back to other levels while you were stuck to hone your combat or find collectibles, and you never had to play the puzzles again thanks to the stage format
The presence of climb-able bosses was lambasted as a Shadow of the Colossus ripoff, though it fit quite well as a translation of the sky-high screens-tall bosses of 2D Castlevanias
So why am I wasting all this time talking about Lords of Shadow when I actually just want to post about Lords of Shadow 2? Because I'm about to levy some complaints at the sequel - something that it's been taking a lot of. Actually I'm mostly having a great time (the excellent combat and boss fights are still in tact, the climbforming seems to be at late-game levels from the beginning, and the castle environments in particular might be more gorgeous than ever), I just needed you to know I'm not one of those people that has hated this entire reboot series and that I do not in any way shape or form conform to the prevailing current opinion that this is a bad game. I have no objection about it being a "real" Castlevania. I have no problem with elements supposedly "stolen" from God of War or Shadow of the Colossus. I even loved the twist that the hero of Lords of Shadow, the first Belmont, ends up becoming Dracula, and felt it fit perfectly with the story of that game and the tone of the series. I couldn't wait to see where they were going with things. 

Admittedly I kinda thought the sequel should be played AS Simon vs. this new Dracula (what's the point of turning your protagonist into a villain if he's going to stay the protagonist?), but Konami did give us that story in the form of Mirror of Fate. Unfortunately that was a handheld spinoff that I didn't really want to play - why put a crucial plot chapter there? Regardless, the Simon/Trevor/Alucard chapter DID happen in whatever form, so it's expected that we're back in the shoes of Dracula. He's now had his fall and his time as a villain, so it's time for the redemption chapter. How do I feel about these vampiric slippers? Well I should have a moment to talk about that tomorrow....

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 3/1/14: Cadillacs & Dinosaurs

at 6:30 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: Cadillacs and Dinosaurs
Year: 1992
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Arcade

It was about time we hit a Capcom game. Though Capcom is probably the most famous beat-em-up developer thanks to Final Fight, no other among their games has ever reached the status of standout classic. Perhaps it's because they're all nearly identical, or perhaps it's because so many were based on comic-only (at the time) properties like The Punisher, Aliens vs. Predator, and Xenozoic Tales: the futuristic prehistoric comic that provided source material for Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. Regardless, these games remain well-liked to this day thanks to the solid core mechanics that made Final Fight such a hit. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs caught our eye because of the sweet thematic material, the wide range of weaponry on offer, and its overall strong web reputation. Jack and his gang of environmental sweethearts are out to stop future dinosaurs from being exploited from future poachers who are basically up to the same shenanigans as modern poachers with modern animals - you know, the plot of Growl. Also, technology hasn't changed in 500 years except people now attach guns to their cars. So in this time of beat-em-ups-aplenty, how does the Capcom Standard fare? Will Cadillacs and Dinosaurs put the imitators to shame or will it quickly fade back into prehistory?

Special accolade: Cadillacs and Dinosaurs has perhaps the most unenticing title splash screen I've ever seen. This image virtually defines "a dearth of imagination".

How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Yourself: Cadillacs and Dinosaurs is very colorful with a generally pastel palette. The dinosaurs themselves are gigantic and who doesn't like dinosaurs, though their jerky animations left a bit to be desired. I felt a bit more like I was on a Jurassic Park theme-ride than in the year 2514 when dinosaurs have been reborn to rule the earth again, or whatever. The Cadillacs... well let's get this out of the way right now: there is only one Cadillac in this game! False advertising anyone? I had to hold Golem back from smashing his controller when we learned of this shortcoming. The player characters had that lanky, muscley Final Fight look that I guess is iconic or something. Again, the animation is pretty jerky. It's just not my favorite aesthetic, though I realize I'm probably in the minority here. The music however is stellar. Fast-drummed riff-laden rockin' synth-tunes that'll remind you of Mega Man X or Street Fighter II. The soundtrack alone allllllmost makes this game worth it.

How was the control and move variety?
Golem: There's a full set of grappling/throwing and dashing moves, along with your standard mash-the-punch-button combo. I found that the standard combo was often the most effective; there was rarely space to make good use of dashing, and throwing enemies just prolonged the fights without offering any tactical advantage. Sure, throws would clear enemies away from me--but I never found a need for it.

There was also a special performed by a quick up-down-punch input that could land serious hits on an enemy or boss, but I never got the hang of the input well enough to make good use of it. I could get a few off on earlier bosses, but later bosses got away or knocked me over before I could pull it out.

Yourself: It's the rare beat-em-up that manages to get its worth out of dashing, and C&D is not that game. You need a lot of screen space and reason to want to cross the screen to have a use for a dash attack. We're talking about a genre where enemies pretty much always come to you. Capcom games, with their big sprites and fast-pacing, don't seem to justify the function.

How was the player character variety?
Yourself: Honestly I thought it was a bit worse than Final Fight. Four characters is a number which always makes me uneasy - four is that area where either there's some mystical stat beyond power/speed that I'm not going to be able to care about, one of the characters is going to be pointless, or the characters are all going to be far too balanced. Like, instead of being Good/Average/Bad in each stat, characters will waver into Moderately Good and Moderately Bad, mild distinctions that don't make for distinguishable gameplay. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs' four-man lineup amazingly hits all three of those balance flaws. There is a hidden "items" stat that meant absolutely nothing to me. There is a character whose specialty is "Item-Skilled" who was absolutely useless. And the characters were far too balanced and played very, very similarly. Despite some miniscule move distinctions, like that the speed character had an extra jump-kick and the heavy had a wider range down-up special, there was no way to form your play-style around character choice. 

How was the pick-up variety?
Golem: The weapon set was engaging because it offered a variety of tactics. Sometimes I'd pick a handgun off the ground, sometimes I'd steal a giant knife from a butcher, and other times I'd hurl an item-laden barrel at an enemy. For instance, the knife would do great damage but was hard to time, since its swing came with a delay. Or the barrel would surrender goods when it broke on an enemy, and I'd have to go pick those up before they blinked out. A good bit of care was put into the weapon set here.

Also, after using a credit, you'll respawn with a bazooka. Need a hand?

Yourself: There was variety in the guns too - the shotgun had a slow, powerful knockdown spread and the Uzi's rat-a-tat chipped away at enemies while only stunning them for a second. The guns and grenades were plentiful early on but died down as the game went on - perhaps this was a misguided attempt to increase the difficulty? Permanently taking away a(n already optional) mechanic is never going to be a satisfying method of making a game harder though. Since the guns were one of the more unique parts of Cadillacs, I'd have most enjoyed seeing challenge built up around them.

How was the stage variety?
Yourself: There was a variety stage... so there's that. For about sixty seconds you get to drive that eponymous souped-up Cadillac with guns that don't fire in a side-scrolling bulldozing segment that I can barely even remember. The best element of stage variety here was the dinosaurs. Like Growl - and this game has a lot in common with Growl - occasionally dinosaurs would stomp onto the arena and theoretically threaten players and enemies alike. The most interesting part about the dinosaurs is that players weren't supposed to attack them, so they encouraged you to reign in your attacks, play defensively, and pay attention to your surroundings. It's not that beat-em-ups don't typically require careful aim for skillful play - Cadillacs and Dinosaurs just does a good job of using dinos to translate it into an overt mechanic.

Golem: [i think it's supposed to be "rein in" [editor's note: thanks]] One neat stage had flamethrowers mounted in the walls that you could lure enemies into. That's the only environmental hazard in the game that I can name.

Yourself: Oh right, the sewer stage. There wouldn't happen to be any other beat-em-up set in and around sewers, would there?

"Cadillac and Dinosaurs" just wasn't as catchy
How was the enemy variety?
Golem: In theory, the classics are here: the standard grunt, the big, charging guy, the sneaky guy with a knife. Others occasionally hopped in to round out the set, too, including Lizard Blanka, who would shoot out a long tongue.  In practice, enemies were so tame that they didn't feel very different.

Yourself: A great testament to how little the enemy behavior surfaced is that one of the most common grunts wielded a rifle. We didn't discover until, oh, about Stage 6 that this enemy could actually fire his rifle. Whether or not they had unique actions built in, the enemies just weren't active and dominant enough to affect the flow of gameplay. 

How were enemy groups formed?
Yourself: I don't know. There were so few distinguishable enemy types that Caddies and Dinos had little choice but to go through every single mixup imaginable about a million times. It was very common after the halfway mark to see bosses (even multiple bosses at once) mixed into the milieu. Of course, since the boss battles themselves were littered with grunts, this kinda made the game feel like boss battles on repeat. There was just no discernible pattern or intelligence to the combinations, so there was no need to vary strategy from battle to battle.

That's not Blanka back there, is it?
How did combat work one-on-one?
Golem: Standard enemies didn't put up much of a fight in a one-on-one situation. For instance, the guys carrying guns? They only fire if you leave them alone long enough. The usual big charging enemies would hit you if you were locked in a combo against another enemy, but on their own, they're slow enough that you can just walk out of the way. One-on-one combat was just about wailing away on enemies.

Yourself: These enemies really did not have built in counters. As long as you acted faster than they did, you could always stay on top of things. 

How did combat work against crowds?
Yourself: Cadillacs and Dinosaurs is a speedy game - much faster than Streets of Rage 2 or Double Dragon - so combat against crowds is mostly about keeping aware of where everyone and everything is spawning and being able to immediately react. The challenge is mostly derived from the lack of screen space, the large volume of enemies, and the enemies' ability to dish out attacks without warning. Act fast or die young.

Golem: I never found any particular strategy for dealing with crowds. Nothing about the player mechanics or enemy AI enticed me to consider how to deal with a group. As Yourself said, they mainly functioned as a way to keep you from focusing on one enemy.

How was the boss variety and how did boss fights generally work?
Golem: Boss variety was a little strange. Some were total throwaways, like the generic grunt of a first boss. Others were obnoxious, like the one half-man half-dinosaur boss about halfway through. With three forms, he had tons of health, but he only offered small changes in his attacks. Other bosses combined these two attributes; for example, one boss in particular just zoomed around the room and swung with a knife after he stopped. The second to last stage also featured three of these guys as a boss fight.


Yourself: Yeah Jesus that Final Fight against the Slisors (that was the mutant dinosaur form of earlier boss Slice) was a real mind-fuck. It was certainly a rare unique moment for the game, but I didn't have the slightest grasp of what was happening. They just zipped around at a thousand miles an hour while we tried futilely to land even a single hit. 

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Yourself: Flat. Very flat. Not even really a plateau. I knew how to play before I even started. Hit the enemies. Jump when an enemy runs at you. There were just no complex enemies to fight here, so there was really nothing to learn. If you've never played a combat game there will be a bit of a learning step maybe.

Golem: Some of the bosses took some learning, just as in observing when to approach and when not. Aside from that, the poor enemy variety left little to adapt to.

Play again or recommend?
Golem: There are some interesting concepts here, like the dinosaurs and weapon variety, that are unfortunately underutilized. While excellently produced and aesthetically gratifying, the gameplay is ultimately boring.

Yourself: The mechanics are instantly gratifying enough that I'd imagine three beat-em-up newbs might have a fun time co-op running this, not noticing the absence of strategy. But if you've ever touched the genre before, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs will be an absolute waste of time. Plenty of beat-em-ups deliver great mechanics AND great design (for instance, last week's Undercover Cops) - there's no excusing one for the other.