Thursday, May 8, 2014

What I'm Playing, November '13 - April '14 - Part 1: Games Finished

at 6:00 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

So you know how when you skip doing something once it's really easy to keep skipping it, especially when the longer you wait means the worse it's going to be to finally do? If you don't have at least one chore like this (cleaning the tub, dusting furniture, etc.), I don't think I can relate to you on a personal level. 

I've said before the main reason I keep track of games with these What I'm Playing posts is less because I expect anyone in Internetland to care and instead to force myself to keep a record of what games I'm playing so I can look back (such as at the end of the year when I'm doing a GOTY post!) and easily survey everything I've played. There was once a point in my life I felt confident in my ability to call up such lists on demand, but that point is long gone - probably less due to diminishing brain capacity and more due to the surplus of information with which I tax the old egg noggin. So this is a chore, and the fact that I haven't managed to finish one of these since November (I have a bunch of half-written drafts) is terrible. It's time to catch up.  


dys4ia (PC / Newgrounds)

This old boy is a very brief but colorful Atari-looking Flash game that laces together WarioWare-esque micro-games to tell a sweet and humorous first-person story of the period of biological transition in a trans girl's life. It's an autobiographical tale, giving it unique purpose not just as a work of the largely unrepresented transgender community, but (more interestingly) as a rare personal tale told through game. And a fun game at that - it's good to see a developer with a message and a purpose choosing the path of an actual game rather than an avant-garde interactive MeaningfulThing. dys4ia doesn't last much longer than ten minutes and doesn't develop anything beyond surface-level mechanics, but like WarioWare, the fun is in being thrown into random scenarios and trying to quickly figure what you're even being asked to do. It's the vivid array of preposterous and surprisingly personal micro-games that make the betimes sad and ultimately triumphant story memorable.

DuckTales (XBLA)

I have a hard time taking much away from DuckTales - while I enjoyed the miserly grab-fest and bouncy mechanics as I made my first venture through Duckland, the game's driving interaction was all method - a sort of archaeological procedure I carried out from room to room, carefully springing across the enemies and then carefully combing the walls and corners for every possible hidden gem. The problem is that there was never anything to challenge my ability to predictably execute this formula - sometimes a few enemies were harder to kill or snow prevented me from making the combo jumps I wanted, but I never had to think in advance or develop a new strategy. Maybe I could try to speed run it or ignore the collection, but there doesn't seem to be any real payoff to playing differently - there's no real flow. I just can't shake the overall feeling that it was a really empty, easy, one-dimensional game. 

Sengoku 3 (NeoGeo / Wii VC)

A 2001 beat-em-up with virtually no connection to the earlier Sengoku games, Sengoku 3 is the product of developer Noise Factory, who earlier brought to life the similarly styled Gaia Crusaders. You'd expect something pretty revolutionary from a beat-em-up as late as 2001, and that's kinda what you get - this sports a combo system as mechanically rich as Guardian Heroes, with three attack buttons that can be sequenced almost totally freely to trap enemies in lengthy attack strings. That comes at the cost of enemy variety, with only a handful of (admittedly well-rounded and distinguished) baddies who are repeated far too frequently and don't exactly respond to combos differently - the challenge is still all in landing the first hit. In fact the game might only be harder because of the need to land huge combos to do any significant damage, as you'll end up vulnerable for long periods of time, creating an unusually staccato pace.

Asura's Wrath (Xbox 360)

I don't know if I was tricked or if it's my fault for not paying good attention, but I thought (even after playing the demo!) that Asura's Wrath was supposed to be like 25% rail shooter, 25% boss battle, and 50% interactive cut-scene. The breakdown is more like 5% rail shooter, 25% boss battle, 30% generic 3D melee combat, 20% interactive cut-scene, and 20% static cut-scene. Which is a lot less time spent doing unique stuff than I had expected. The rail shooting gameplay isn't distinctive but it makes for great cinematics, the boss battles are beat-em-up style patterned affairs that mostly flow nicely and provide a hearty challenge (the final set being particular favorites), and the interactive cut-scenes are punchy fun that you'll quickly get the hang of and provide a nice basic set of graded mechanics. Quick-time events are always a scary prospect, but they're used wisely here, always cued by the actual events on screen and drawn from a basic set of "controls" (hit X when Asura punches something, move the joysticks when he dodges, etc.). There aren't any RE4 style surprise reflex moments, and even if you miss a QTE the game keeps rolling.

The game's weakness is an overabundance of generic arena melee combat - you know, that element they didn't really advertise and I didn't expect to be present at all. It's easy, but rightly so; the whole point is to feel like the almighty Asura letting loose on a bunch of pathetic goons - a cathartic experience, not a challenge. But where Wrath excels is in its constant forward progression and onslaught of new content, so these brawls feel like a vestige of a more archaic game. They just end up feeling like filler. Considering that even fluffed out like this Asura is still pretty short (as it should be - in my book, the shorter the better!), I really don't get why CyberConnect bothered with this mode of gameplay. Regardless, it's a great game with a great story; as has been said by many others, it's less a game with a great story and more an anime with great gameplay, so if you like anime but wish you could get your hands dirty once in a while, this is one to check out.

Sonic Heroes (Nintendo Gamecube)

Though the butt of many jokes that would be better aimed at Crash Bandicoot or Spyro, Heroes is a nice step beyond the Sonic Adventure model of speedy fragmented gameplay modes which unites simple, fast platforming with simple, fast combat and places the challenge in determining how to string together the playable characters to match the gameplay. Except for some lock-and-key abilities, most of the gameplay can be approached with any single character, but the way to really get the flow going is to find where to swap. That gives Heroes its own unique identity but also definitely allows it to be one of the more fun pure race-platformers in the Sonic canon. Considering the 3D platformer market is so dire (especially in the wake of the rise of the climbformer), it's nice to find an action-oriented navigation game like this (as opposed to the brutally bloated post-Super Mario 64 fare that dominates the genres small reign). 

Renegade (NES / 3DS VC)

The origi-beat-em-up, this has a lot more mechanics than you'd expect from a combat game in 1986. It's brief and doesn't have the chance to get in too much enemy variety, but it sets up the basic grappling, zoning, and chaining gameplay that would go on to define essentially all of action combat in years to follow. There's really nothing here that's any simpler than Double Dragon or Final Fight - or Devil May Cry really - in fact it's actually a bit more complex than your standard beat-em-up because of its auto-targeting, back attacks, environmental attacks, and state-specific attacks (e.g. down attacks). And it set the trend of having motorcycle enemies and stages.

Trax (Game Boy)

This HAL Labs top-down shoot-em-up is on the slight side, but it's hard to complain about its hearty helping of bosses, cartoony graphics, and Kirby-meets-Ikari-Warriors aesthetics. Control-wise it carves a niche between the primitive Commando-style overhead-shooters where the character's aim simply followed its movement direction and the more complex twin-sticked Robotron 2084 that totally isolated movement and aiming: the player moves their tank with the control pad and shoots in a fixed direction with B, while they can rotate their turret 45 degrees clockwise by pressing A, all the way around in a full circle. This allows the player some advanced freedom in setting up attacks by aiming on the fly or choosing a fixed angle. A handful of weapon pickups provide an intermediate, granting spread, back, penetrating, and area-of-effect firepower.

Capsized (XBLA)

This took a while to beat not because it was particularly long but because the stages are long (and life-limited) so you have to really sit down and learn each one - I really like the mini-labyrinth structure and the life system was actually used to alleviate some redundancy while still maintaining a survival premise. The strictest way to achieve this would be to reset the level every time the player dies - to incorporate checkpoints but still maintain ammo management gameplay, Capsized ditches the resets and instead restricts the player to a number of tries. The survival feel works in the end, paired well with the frantic nature of the combat - there's an old saying that you can't have a survival horror game with good combat, because if the player feels skilled at combat then that means they don't feel vulnerable. Instead of the clunky lethargy of Resident Evil or Silent HillCapsized gives you spastic insanity where shit is flying everywhere and bumping into you and you don't have the ammo to just hold the trigger. You still feel in control of the mechanics and they're smooth in and of themselves, but the scale of the battles exceeds them.

Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi (Sega Genesis / Wii VC)

The secret of Shinjobi is that the Statue of Liberty is a shadow dancer
I barely even feel like explaining the weird history of Shadow Dancer, the not-really console port of the arcade sequel to Shinobi, even though there was already a console sequel to Shinobi that's a totally different game (The Revenge of Shinobi). I love the strategic shooting of the Shinobi series, gameplay I would really describe as stealth-based, in that you're primarily tasked with indirectly attacking opponents. Shadow Dancer supplements the standard arsenal with a Mr. Dog, who can be charged up and shot at enemies to stun them and allow for a safe approach - but even Mr. Dog has to be timed to defensive patterns. The game also has an alternate mode (which I spent most of my time playing) that disables ranged shuriken attacks and forces you to really utilize Mr. Dog to set up close strikes against the gun-wielding foes - a fun stealth challenge that really forces you to learn (and better facilitates learning) how the enemies attack and move. Each level also introduces a unique structure to really keep the game fast and replayable - this is quickly becoming one of my favorite action games of the 16-bit era.

Burning Fight (Arcade)

I've obviously played through a ton of beat-em-ups for the Weekly Beat-em-up feature, so instead of trying to somehow rewrite them, I'll just link to the WBEU.

Growl (Arcade)

Undercover Cops (Arcade)

Cadillacs and Dinosaurs (Arcade)

Denjin Makai II: Guardians (Arcade)

The Combatribes (Arcade)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist (Sega Genesis)

Battletoads (Arcade)

Alien Storm (Arcade)

(I'll put a link here when this one goes up)

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