Monday, September 29, 2014

What I'm Playing, June '14, July '14, August '14

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.

Annnnnnd here's the big one. I completely failed to track all summer, so I'm just shoving em all in. I probably forgot a couple but there's almost no way for you to tell. We've got one more to go before we're back on schedule, and that's September, which'll be up later this week.

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Fatal Labyrinth (Sega Genesis / Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection)
A Genesis roguelike that cuts to the chase and is a great starting point for the genre, being fairly easy but suitably tactical and providing crutches like checkpoints every five floors.

Super Bonk 2 (Super Famicom, Japan only)
An okay platformer that doesn't utilize its ideas well and basically plays like a more linear Bonk - which is enjoyable enough for a run.

Shovel Knight (Nintendo 3DS)
Beat this largely to prove to myself that it was just as derivative and boring as suspected.

Games Finished:

Crimson Alliance (XBLA)
While easily categorized next to similar-looking hack-and-slashes and Gauntlet-riffs, the careful balance of the combat here and emphasis on defense make for better comparison to the handheld Castlevanias.

Lord of the Rings: War in the North (Xbox 360)
Very nice combo action game with solid if simple brawler enemy design and a satisfying balance between shooting and slashing.

Phantasy Star IV (Sega Genesis / Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection)
I've pretty much already said my piece on this game, it was everything an RPG should be and never felt like a waste of time.

Resident Evil 5 (Xbox 360)
For a while this delivers all the (now easier) thrills its recycled RE4 mechanics promise, but the last act turns into a cover shooter that neither the developers nor the engine were able to manage (plus a constant AI partner as dumb as Sheva is catastrophically annoying).

Games Started:

Ys Book I & II (Turbo CD)
This is the kind of game that proves how much impact a soundtrack can convey - flat though the tale is on paper, it delivers an emotional punch just because Koshiro and Nagata's music is so gorgeous.

Dungeon Siege III (Xbox 360)
Nice tweener hack-and-slash with fun crowd combat that doesn't rely on loot or grind/questing.

bit Generations: SoundVoyager (GBA)
A simple all-audio game, this functions more as a statement on the potential of sound-only gameplay than it does as a uniquely compelling experience.

Lost Planet (Xbox 360)
The potential for monster-shooters remains high and an aspiration of Capcom's, but they missed the mark in this one that may as well be titled Space Invaders '06.

Dragon's Dogma (Xbox 360)
Very very junky combat that is technically incompetent and reliant on a brutally archaic game structure that overall makes a complete mockery of its premise of high action meets high role-playing, something accomplished perfectly well in, for instance, The Witcher 2. I don't normally go out of my way to dislike a game, but Dragon's Dogma is abysmal and the single worst conceived/executed professional game I have played in years. For every stroke of genius like Vanquish that makes me wish Japanese developers would spread their genre wings, there's a Dragon's Dogma to show some can't handle it.

Adventures of Lolo (NES)
Hey if Zelda takes too long to get around to block puzzles for you, this has got plenty, and they're tricky enough if you like that stuff.

Mega Man Xtreme 2 (GBC / 3DS VC)
A just okay adaptation of Mega Mans X2 and X3 that mostly falters due to the already bad level design of X3 and an ill-fitting appropriation of X4's Zero. 

Birds of Steel (Xbox 360)
Haven't played enough simulators to know where this lies on the spectrum but if this is what they're like then hey I'm on board because the game makes just doing turns and loops so satisfying.

Resident Evil 6 (Xbox 360)
This is the third terrible Capcom 360 game I played in this interval - it takes that atrocious last third of RE5 and just runs with it, making for one of the most unpleasant unwieldy shooters brains can imagine.

Vexx (GCN)
Though late to the Super Mario 64 party, Vexx provides nice open environments that take advantage of sixth generation hardware when most platformers had moved on to be whatever in the dumb hell Jak & Daxter & Ratchet & Clank are.

Vexx was suitably angry for the era at least
Indiana Jones' Greatest Adventures (SNES / Wii VC)
A surprisingly dynamic game that at least as far as I've played keeps things mixed up in the level arena even if the basic mechanics are a bit stuffy.

Charlie Murder (XBLA)
Pretty pointless and toothless action RPG in the form of a neo-beat-em-up, approaching zero gameplay to be found.

Wolfenstein: New Order (Xbox 360)
Your basic post-Half-Life 2 FPS with emphasis on run-and-gun rather than digging in, it's still surprisingly strategic and largely maintains the medium high standard the series is known for.

Nazo no Murasame Jou (NES / 3DS VC)
A version of Zelda where instead of all those stupid boring puzzles and mazes you get to fight crazy swarms of enemies.

Space Harrier 2 (Sega Genesis / Wii VC)
This is Greg L.'s favorite game ever and I am starting to get into it, even though I still find the mechanics of Space Harrier explicably hard to manage (see entry for 3D Space Harrier).

Legendary Axe II (Turbografx-16)
For side-scrolling action I actually like this better than Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts or Super Castlevania IV - it's more enemy focused than the former and faster than the latter, even if it's not as diverse as either.

It's the H.R. Giger reincarnation of the California Raisins!

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 4/13/14: Alien Storm

at 6:00 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: Alien Storm
Year: 1990
Developer: Sega (AM1)
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Arcade, Genesis, SMS, a bunch of home computers no one cares about

We've done Capcom, Konami, and Technos, so finally it's time to hit Sega. What better way to kick off the greatest developer ever's great line of beat-em-ups than their most famous work of all time, Alien Storm? I don't think any information in that last sentence could be considered actual. Unlike Golden Axu and Streets of Rage, not even a Genesis port could save Alien Storm from being lost to the ages. Probably because Alien Storm isn't really a home port kinda game. It's all about frilly flashy action with it's advertised three modes of game play: beat-em-up, shoot-em-up, and shoot-em-up again! (in a different way!).

So is Alien Storm a hyperactive schizophrenic mess, or is it a roller-coaster ride that makes the most out of its many modes of play to keep hearts a-pumpin' and brains a-throbbin'?

Pro-run: 7 credits each, died on stage, uh, I don't know, pretty early. (The first running stage, if I remember right.)

Is the game aesthetically appealing?
Yourself: I love this game's aesthetic. From the goofy Ghostbusters intro with the characters serving up fresh-cooked "alien dogs" to the giant mutant snails with trash cans and phone booths on their backs, there's a vile sense of humor paired with the grotesque artwork that sells the whole thing as '80s-style horror comedy the likes of From BeyondDead Heat, or Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Golem said he couldn't look at the monsters and see anything but Basketcase, and I couldn't come up with a more perfect description. These ghoulies look like a mix of gargoyles, a mad scientist, and the most heinous rubber masks come to life.

The soundtrack is clearly trying to evoke a funky Ghostbusters mood - though it succeeds in doing so, I can't say it offers any memorable tunes in the process. They definitely could've used the composing talents of a one Danny Elfs-man on this one.

Golem: When Yourself asks if Alien Storm is a hyperactive schizophrenic mess, that brings to mind this game's sense of animation. Something like Golden Axe has a very sensible look--you swing an axe, a guy doubles over. Alien Storm, though, has this stilted feel that I can't put my finger on, like folks just pop in and out of zany animations. It probably didn't help that I spent most of my time as the robot character, who will swap between back-mounted missiles, a laser whip, and a bazooka in the same span (and button presses) that Gilius Thunderhead would've landed a couple axe swings.

For the creepy, weirdo feel this game seeks, it finds matching FM sounds, blending funky bass and haunting high-pitched synths.

How is the control and move variety?
Golem: My character's distance from an enemy would activate different attacks. At close range, Scooter goes into a sweep attack using his laser whip, and far away, he sends out missiles. There are also a few attacks between, and placement is so fine that I often had difficulty knowing exactly what attack I'd trigger. It keeps the pace pretty manic, since I was concentrating on how many pixels I was away from a monster at the same moment that I was watching five other guys crowd around me. Most attacks cost energy, though, and when I ran out, Scooter could only swing a sword.

Anyway, there is also a dodge move and a dash move. Attack while dashing, and you get a dash attack; dodge while dashing, and you jump; attack while jumping, and you get a jump attack (Scooter's jump attack dropped bombs directly downward). I'd like some more practice using that dodge move, come to think of it. Finally, there is also a screen-clearing special move that cost lots of energy.

Which is only to talk about the brawling parts. There are shooting gallery stages where all you can do is shoot. Alien Storm also has two chasing stages, where you run on a brawler-esque plane, but the dodge button always jumps and the attack button always shoots lasers.

Yourself: The dodge is key - because of how fast enemies move, your main tactic to avoid being surrounded will be to roll out of the way. It functions similarly to the TMNT games' ultra-lofty jump - while it's faster and can't be canceled into any type of attack, it creates crowd manipulation based on positioning rather than stunning/clearing attacks.

How is the player character variety?
Yourself: Continuing with the Ghostbusters motif, one of the characters is a blue-clad Ghostbuster equipped with proton pack, one is Sigourney Weaver (in her Aliens attire but hey she was in Ghostbusters), and the other is I think a Cylon. Unfortunately they all play essentially the same. There may be slightly different attack ranges and C-3PO seems like the fastest, but there's nothing distinguishing enough that I could strategize around it. 

How is the pick-up variety?
Golem: The arcade version only has energy pick-ups to power attacks. While they're rare in the brawler sections, they're all over the place in shooting galleries, and players can fight over who gets the energy pick-up--shoot it, and it slides towards your end of the screen; if another player shoots it before it reaches your end, it'll slide towards him or her instead. The Genesis version also features health pick-ups.

Yourself: While limited ammo and pick-ups could theoretically lend to unique gameplay, the overabundant starting energy supply and relegation of pick-ups to secondary stages pretty completely undercut that. 

How is the stage variety?
Yourself: Alien Storm's attract reel goes so far as to throw in a line about "TRIPLICATED GAMEPLAY!", and that's really the order of the day here. In fact, if I knew just how triplicated the game is, we probably would've left it out of the WBEU along with the NES Battletoads. The game is set over three types of stages: beat-em-up side-scrollers, shooting galleries (a la Operation Wolf or light gun games), and auto-running run-and-guns. The field of play in the run-and-gun levels is restricted to the same small vertical belt as in the beat-em-up levels. After each beat-em-up stage is either a shooting gallery or a run-and-gun.

The first-person shooting segments are a bit more complex than their corollaries in Shinobi. Some enemies will hide behind boxes and store shelves, others will fly toward the screen in a parabolic arc, still others will pop up in the foreground for slashing attacks. The player has 8-directional control of their cursor and the screen even scrolls left and right a bit to show a wider view of the gallery - it isn't Wild Guns, but it's dynamic enough to feel like more than a bonus stage.

How is the enemy variety?
Golem: I'll admit that I mostly only noticed enemies varying in body size and attack range. The snails hiding in trash cans are pretty slow and small, so I had an easy time placing Scooter precisely for a strong attack. Big, salmon-colored tentacle guys demand more care, and I'd often take damage just walking close enough to get out an attack.

But then, you have exceptions like the flowers that regenerate and the kangaroos that shoot their offspring as an attack.

Yourself: There are a couple distinctive movement patterns (see one-on-one section), but generally the biggest factor used to escalate enemy challenge is speed. Enemies also have really skimpy health reserves, so most go down in a single combo or one or two heavy hits.

Though their appearances vary here and there, the enemies in the shooting gallery stages are pretty much the same group in every iteration.

How are enemy groups formed?
Yourself: As the enemy variety is limited, there aren't too many interesting combinations. Normally you see big groups of one enemy type, with different guys getting the spotlight at different points (most memorably, the kangaroos in the final stages).

Formations tend to come in big numbers - there are usually at least four enemies on screen and I believe up to six or seven. They come wave after wave too - this compensates for their short life-spans and requires you to be constantly adapting to new spawns. It also comes with a kind of tedious monotony, as it's easy to lose track of position and crowd control and just stop caring.

How does combat work one-on-one?
Golem: Alien Storm's tension comes from the exact space between your character and the enemy. Are you at the right range to do the attack you want? Can you press your luck and get closer, or are you going to worm your way in by starting off with distanced attacks? Finding a good range for an enemy usually works throughout the game. For instance, flying guys will piledrive you if it get too close, so that was a pretty clear indication to just plain stay outside of that guy's arm length.

Once you started on an enemy, if you got it in a decent stun, it was important to follow up with another attack to finish it.

Yourself: Enemies have a tendency to move in vertical patterns (for instance the fairy guys who basically move in a tight sine curve) which exacerbates the challenge in lining up mid-range shots. Very rarely will an individual simply walk straight up to you or circle around as is the typical beat-em-up pattern. Generally they attack by springing into charges or simply grabbing you when you stumble into their erratic path. In contrast, there are also flower-mines that stay planted and don't move at all. The way that contact is risky in and of itself and the enemies move almost unconscious of player position lends a shoot-em-up-like sensibility to the combat; the challenge is in staying totally untouched, then managing to quickly line up at the right distance and connect a hit - the follow-up is the easy part. 

How does combat work against crowds?
Yourself: It's basically about navigating that shmup-like flow, identifying safe spots amid the varying patterns. Your character is invincible during a dodge, so (especially in single player) there tends to be a lot of rolling around to get out of a crowd or behind enemies. The strategy largely comes down to picking off enemies one by one, trying to keep at a great enough distance that you can use the more powerful ranged attacks, then as the enemies close in, getting your way across the screen to hit them from the other side.

How is the boss variety and how did boss fights generally work?
Golem: There is one brawler boss, a fleshy blob that makes plastic stretching sounds every time it transforms. Each phase has one attack, and it ranges in space. For instance, the first form's laser alternates between firing into the space directly in front of it and directly behind it. I took plenty of hits, but I had an easy time observing why, and avoiding his attacks could easily boil down to finding a rote rhythm.

Yourself: The guy has three forms, but as Golem says, each is so simple that he's a bit of a joke when he shows up for a redux. On the positive side, the dearth of bosses certainly lends to the game's distinctive breakneck pace. Still....

How is the learning curve and difficulty?
Yourself: This is where the absence of bosses hurts. While the pace ramps up and more aggressive enemies (first the fairies, then the kangaroo-men) are introduced later on, Alien Storm serves to demonstrate that without the punctuation of hearty boss fights, a difficulty curve loses its potency. Optimally, bosses force players to re-evaluate the game mechanics; after the boss is defeated we're released back into a fiercer wild where we'll need that higher competency. Without these peaks, the arbitrarily ramping difficulty just feels tedious, like it's building to nothing. Then again, that's also a symptom of the lack of enemy variety.

Really can't believe I'm asking a beat-em-up to have more bosses, since generally I consider it a genre weak point. I guess I've learned something about myself. I guess we've all learned something about ourselves.

Interesting fact: the player characters are different colors in the Japanese version

Play again or recommend?
Golem: I'd like to play it again just to get a better feel for how to manage space, both getting the right attack and putting the dodge to use. This is a hard recommend because gameplay feels awful; you can't do anything cool with the enemies, and if you get hit, the attacks leisurely sap your health without as much feedback as your standard brawler. But then, getting a sense for the range of each attack was engaging, and while the game gets a little repetitive, it's not that long, either. It's more interesting than entertaining, I guess is one way to put it.

Yourself: However shallow, the speed of the game and the mode-switching certainly kept me fixated. Maybe it didn't give me much insight into beat-em-ups, but it's "a blast" [quotation available for advertisement materials] and - put it this way - if you're at the point where you're even considering Alien Storm, it'll be worth your while. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

What I'm Playing, May '14

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.

More catch-up on unfinished posts. Again, the ones with long summaries I actually wrote back in May and the others will just get a sentence. Never gonna get these done if I keep giving every game a huge essay. Next up is the summer list. 

Games Finished (that never had a Started entry):

Mega Man V (Game Boy / 3DS VC)

Really like the execution of level themes in this game and its downplaying of gimmicks in favor of small unique moments.

Mega Man Xtreme (Game Boy Color / 3DS VC)

The Game Boy Megas Man were really all over the place. Dr. Wily's Revenge is a semi-port of Mega Man that retools the level design, Mega Man V is 100% original, and now there's Mega Man Xtreme, a mixed port of X and X2. Four stages are drawn from each game and strictly recreated here, so while the level design remains brilliant because the first two X games are, there's also no need to play this game if you have access to the SNES titles (which, if you own a SNES, PS2, Gamecube, Wii, or Wii U, you do). There are a few things that set Xtreme apart as distinctly worse: 1.) Select is the dash button, which is really pretty awful on a 3DS, 2.) the gameplay is a little crunched down to fit the smaller screen (enemies missing here and there), 3.) the level selection doesn't cohere since it was taken from two different games, 4.) most of the collectibles are gone and 5.) when you charge your gun (aka all the time) the lead guitar track cuts out of the music, making this the rhythm-only version of the X/X2 soundtrack.

Spec Ops: The Line (Xbox 360)

Spec Ops: The Pretty Good Story about PTSD That Wasn't as Much an Adaptation of Heart of Darkness as People / The Game Itself Said It Was. And would have been more effective with less shooting, to be completely honest. If it's supposed to be mind-numbing and emotionally dulling, mission accomplished, but we were there by the halfway point.

Dynasty Warriors 6: Empires (Xbox 360)

The Dynasty Warriors: Empires games are a sub-series all their own, having run for five or six games now (they started at 3). They use the same engine as their main series counterparts but instead of focusing on character variety and bosses, they shift the focus to tactics. It seems a little silly that at this point "Empires" isn't just a mode in the main games, since I can't imagine them having separate audiences. Just a cheap move by Koei to inflate sales from their die-hard fans.

Anyway, worth an extra purchase or not, DW6: Empires is a solid game. Like in DWG3, the player is still conquering territories by grinding through troops at enemy bases, but enemy commanders don't play as big a role in the action, functioning as HP sinks more than bosses. The movesets are extremely basic, allowing room for tactics to take over as the key gameplay element. Each map is wide open and contains almost a dozen bases and enemy armies, meaning there are far more critical points to the battle. Because the enemies are so plentiful and widespread, the player needs to take advantage of their ability to pause the game and issue attack and defense orders to allies. The game feels more along the lines of Battalion Wars or Battlestations than pure action, as winning requires the full utilization of the player force.

The strategic over-map (familiar to anyone who's romanced the three kingdoms) is more a stage select than anything, offering far too few options to make for real macro-strategy. Still, Empires seems to provide a nice middle ground between the tough arena fighting of the main series and pure turn-based tactics.

Games Started:

Tomb Raider (Xbox 360)

Basically the same gameplay style as Resident Evil 5, this shines when it breaks into exploration of broad climbforming hubs, but does so too infrequently and bores with it's scripted mini-game segments.

Lone Survivor (PC / Steam)

If you've ever said to yourself, "what would happen if I made Resident Evil into a sidescrolling pixelated thing and gave the player character the ravenous hunger of Ultima VII's Avatar", then you've played, sealed, and delivered Lone Survivor. See you're in this post-apocalyptic world and there are zombies and you can only shoot in three directions so to get headshots you gotta get real close but worse than ammo scarcity is food scarcity and also your little dude is going insane (maybe? or is the world going insane?!) so you're forced to trek out into the wilderness and keep moving to keep fed. So maybe it's like Don't Starve meets Eternal Darkness. There's some neat mystery going on (that of course as all insanity-based games threatens to get overindulgent) and a bit of old-timey adventuring of the go-find-the-scissors-to-cut-through-the-skin-wall variety. It's definitely thrilling to duck through a dark passage and have no clue where in time or space it may lead. I generally like the tiny graphics, as it reminds me that part of the horror of older games was the power of imagination. The old rule is that what you don't see is scariest, but I'd say that what you can only kinda-sorta half make out is even scarier. Trying to figure out what the fuck I'm even looking at can get some twisted possibilities running through my head and be even stranger than the often bland cut-and-dry 3D of modern horror.

The low-res art looks great on the environments but a lot of the monsters come out looking more silly than scary

Moon Chronicles: Episode 1 or whatever (Nintendo DS / 3DS eShop)

This was a shockingly boring game that wasn't survival horror at all, more like a spaced out visual novel whose remaining episodes I certainly will not be playing. Also, how many Alien references do you need in one game?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Events, items, pick-ups, and power-ups in Shatterhand

at 6:00 PM
Key to understanding the elements that make a game interesting and challenging is classification. The same way genre taxonomy sheds light on what we look for from games as a whole, grouping individual components by function and presentation clarifies their role. Items - pick-ups or power-ups or what have you - are one of the more boring classes to discuss, but they are a powerful tool that can shape an entire game experience. Shatterhand is one such experience, reliant on a complex combination system for building power-ups. So let's take a step back and define some categories of elements that form the baseline from which this system is constructed. These definitions are contextual (as always) and are here formulated primarily for Shatterhand and its parent class of action platforming games. That said, they could easily serve as guidelines for similar rules in other game types.

An event is an input-result link tied to some fixed point in the game's progression. The game state where the event is available and the input that sets it off are together called the trigger, while the resultant game state is called the outcome. The fixed point could be a fixed point in time, location, etc., the idea being that the player can't take an event with them.

An example event from Shatterhand is the elevator activation in Area F: when the player moves through a certain area, a platform starts moving upward from the bottom of the screen. The trigger is pressing right on the control pad when the player character's X coordinate matches the midpoint of the below screen before the elevator has begun moving (that is, crossing the midpoint). The outcome is the same as the original state except a new moving platform and enemy have spawned and are moving upward from the bottom of the screen.
The invisible trigger line for the elevator event
An item is the visual representation of an event. Some events, like the one described above, are not paired with an item. However, an item not paired with an event would simply be a graphic (a visual representation); thus, every item must be tied to an event. Items are extremely common, including everything from doors (which represent an event that transfers the player location) to coins (which represent a score-increase event).

An example of an item from Shatterhand is the transporter. The transporter present at the end of every stage represents an event where the player is transported to the boss chamber. The trigger for this event is pressing down on the control pad while standing on the transporter. The outcome is that the player's location is set to the middle of the boss room and the boss is spawned. The boss spawning is not a separate event because it does not require further input from the player. It is part of the outcome of the interaction with the transporter - that is, if you aren't ready to fight the boss, the only way to stall is to not trigger the transport event.

Other Shatterhand items that don't fall into the lower classes are the health-up/extra-life stations, the money bag, and the act of punching an Alpha to turn it into a Beta or vice versa.

The transporter item
A pick-up is a specific class of single-use item that does not change the environment state. A pick-up can change the player state, the enemy state, or the state of other items, but it cannot change the environment state - that is to say, it can't move the player around or change the room. There's a bit of intentional ambiguity here - I initially had that a pick-up also disappeared or visually indicated once its event had transpired, but I realized that that conflates the functional and visual roles of the object. Aside: an item that changes the environment state and that may be multi-use is a switch (there are none of these in Shatterhand). 

An example of a pick-up from Shatterhand is the coin. The trigger for the coin is crossing it's location while it is visible and the outcome is an increased player G count, the disappearance of the coin, and an otherwise identical game state.

The coin pick-up triggering a score increase event
A power-up is a specific class of event that has a beneficial effect of variable duration to player mechanics. It does not necessarily have to be a pick-up or even an item, but often is. An instance of a non-pick-up power-up would be the Pow station - when the player presses down on the control pad while standing on a Pow station and carrying more than the displayed amount of G, their jacket turns red and they gain additional attack power until they are damaged three times.

An example of a pick-up power-up from Shatterhand is the sword helper. The trigger for the sword helper is walking across an Alpha item when the player is already holding exactly an Alpha and a Beta (in that order) and does not already have a helper. The outcome is that a sword helper spawns, the players letter inventory is cleared, the Alpha item disappears, and the game state otherwise remains the same.

All of the helpers in Shatterhand classify as power-ups, each with a corresponding letter requirement. Another pick-up power-up is the armor suit, which is triggered when the player already has a helper and collects the same three letters in the same order that created it.

Picking up the Alpha under these conditions causes the creation of a sword helper
[this random-ass post courtesy of a nearly finished outline I wrote six months ago for a podcast]

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The token trans sexual predator in Azure Striker Gunvolt

at 6:00 PM
Inti Creates' Azure Striker Gunvolt contains a negative stereotype of a transgender person that serves no purpose other than a cheap giggle and the degradation of an already marginalized social minority. That's all that really needs to be said.

But maybe you played the game and you didn't see that. And that's fine. I miss this kind of thing all the time, probably because I don't have a personal stake in it. I'm a regular old male dude and I like being a regular old male dude. I want other people to like being regular old female dudes and regular old trans dudes and regular old agender dudes and whatever else they choose to be. I don't care what they want to be. And I even more don't care what anyone wants me to think of them. That's where portrayals like Azure Striker Gunvolt's Zonda overstep their bounds.

This is a pretty basic race/gender theory 101 subject, but let's remember what "tokenism" is. Tokenism is the use of a single contrasting character in an otherwise homogeneous group who, through isolation, becomes representative of their group of origin. Tokens are typically portrayed as bland and insignificant (simply present to fulfill a diversity obligation) or aggressively stereotypical (either as a subconscious perpetuation of stereotypes or to draw attention to the element of diversity). To grossly simplify things, tokenism is a problem because it subverts the perception of minority individuals as individuals. The one black or gay or female character is shown as representative of group, rather than personal, identity.

As with everything in theory, I'm sure there's probably some specific name for the portrayal of a trans person as lusty, sexually predatory, perverse, and ultimately evil. A "Dr. Frankenfurter" maybe, except that Frankenfurter was ultimately sympathetic. Whatever it is, that's strictly where Zonda falls. The only trans character in Azure Striker Gunvolt, Zonda is a sexually threatening, dehumanized embodiment of indulgence, constructed from lurid imagery, rape-tinged dialogue, and sadomasochistic delight in death.

As is typical of Inti Creates and Mega Man in general, each of Gunvolt's villains has a distinctive palette and visual design, from Viper's flaming red mane to Elise's serpentine curves. Zonda, described as "bigender", is distinguished by a giant pink phallus erupting from their crotch. While other characters are identified by animal traits, Zonda flaunts the classical symbol of male sexuality awash in the textbook color of femininity. The portrait is reduced to an in-your-face caricature of intrusive sexuality, aligned with the damaging stereotype that a transgender person is defined solely by their choice of genitalia.

Zonda's dialogue (approved for ages 10 and up by the ESRB) is carefully crafted to disturb, laced with the flagrant prurience and innuendo used to dehumanize trans characters. Upon encountering the player character, they open lasciviously, "Mmm, look at you. You're all boy, aren't you?". The dialogue immediately objectifies the avatar ("look at you") and goes even further to hint a pedophilic angle with the use of "boy". From there we launch into biological sexual fixation - "A plug for every socket, and a socket for every plug" and onto the conflation of physical and sexual aggression, "I should warn you - I'm carnal. I'm a carnivore.". Zonda finishes - and I'm not exaggerating that all I've quoted here is all the character says - with what, in context, is a threat of rape: "right now, you're a dangly little piece of meat. Taking you for a tug is going to be fun.". The relentless association of transgenderism with sexual assault feeds into the underlying societal perception that trans people are a threat to straight males and tolerance is equivalent to a sacrifice of male liberty.

The subsequent death scene makes a mockery of the character and suggests Zonda is ultimately unworthy of life. The character is the only villain not to be directly confronted by the player - they are defeated off-screen and the player arrives just in time to witness them on their knees salaciously begging for the pain of death. Zonda's final words transcend innuendo into prolonged grotesquerie; "So hot... inside me... aaah!" "This pain... exquisite... nngh!!!" "Kill me... just like that... aaahhh...". In case you weren't sure what the game was getting at, the player character adds "that was no cry for help!" and the killer calls Zonda "abomination". In a world where violence against trans people is epidemic to the point of being a daily reality, sexualizing, mocking, and glorifying the demise of a trans character carries disturbing implications with regard to both the victims and perpetrators of this violence.

A subtler subversion of trans acceptance comes in the terminology used to reference the character: "bigender" and the pronouns "xe" and "xem". By invoking what have become standards of the gender discourse - that is, variable gender identities and gender-neutral pronouns - the game juxtaposes genuine political correctness with its relentlessly negative portrayal of Zonda. The overt sexualization and dehumanization of the character through their conduct concurrently devalues these otherwise positive trends, dragging the entire gender conversation into mocking dismissal. For the record, I chose not to use "bigender" and the x-pronouns to refer to Zonda in this piece because the general ignorance inherent in the portrayal makes me skeptical that any terminology from the game is appropriately applied.

Invariably it must be remarked that the developers and localizers of Azure Striker Gunvolt probably didn't "mean anything" by their characterization of their sole transgender character. The concept probably evolved naturally in conceiving an embodiment of Lust (the game has a seven deadly sins motif). They probably didn't approach it any differently from their Pride character who spouts "thee"s and "thou"s and makes for the honorable fool. It must also be remarked that intention does not matter at all. The game propagates negative stereotypes to its audience, whether through ignorance or choice. Transgender people are very real and in choosing to present a transgender character, Inti Creates now owns the stereotype that a trans person is nothing more than a thrusting phallus of deviant sexual predation begging to be beaten to death.

Addendum on the subject of localization: As with most Japanese-developed games, Azure Striker Gunvolt was translated into English by an entity external (8-4 Ltd.) to the original development team. The exact parallel between the English and Japanese scripts remains nebulous; however, the blame almost certainly falls on both parties. The visual design of the character and their use in cut-scenes - half of the problem - would've been defined by Inti Creates. As for 8-4 - even if the dialogue was translated exactly as written in Japanese, they have the responsibility of appropriating that to fit the target culture - leaving in socially irresponsible content is an active choice to create a socially irresponsible game.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Pièce de résistance: The Arnold (cocktail)

at 6:00 PM
Alright so in the quest to bring some real manly toughness to the table but also the iconic delicacy that has made Arnold the superstar he is today, we had to get pretty creative.

The key element in any cocktail is beer. I do not want to drink something that isn't a beer, so don't offer me some dainty conical or tiny highball glass of "spirits" topped with something called a "garnish". That ain't right. George Washington would never drink that and neither would Arnold. As mentioned last time, I decided to go with a Belgian-styled ale for the base here. Perhaps the least enjoyable of beers that advertise themselves as Belgian is Blue Moon, your local liquor stores' resident "Belgian White". Blue Moon is about as Belgian as Arnold, so that works. 

That's when I stopped and said "sure, this works, but Arnold didn't get famous for 'just working'." You know who "just works"? Harrison Ford. You don't get elected president of California with the acting chops of a Harrison Ford or a Jeremy Renner (? I am not positive I know who that is). Arnold always took it to the next level. If the script required him to push a car down a mountain, Arnold was there flashing his choppers, adding "guaraugh!!!!" right before every cut, and flexing his rippling biceps with perfect timing such as to imply unlimited reserves of power. Intense bravado is the name of the game when it comes to ingredient #2: Weyerbacher's 9.3% ABV Merry Monks' Ale. A tripel with a bready start and a fruity finish, Merry Monks' embodies the hefty flamboyance of Arnold's signature performances.

Let's go back to California. You know who did get elected as the governing authority of the most populous state in the greatest country on the planet? Mr. A. A. Schwarzenegger. In celebration of the only state wise enough to select such an illumined mind (and body) to sign its taxes and declare its bankruptcies, we grabbed the first Californian wine in sight that wasn't a stupid Merlot. It's key that the wine be from Arnold's tenure as state governor, as he emboldened the grapes of those eight years with a potent beefy character that can't be found on any other vine. 

At a time when American confidence in governance was flagging, Arnold stood up and took the next step in uniting the American people; he proved once and for all that being a movie star isn't as important as individual participation in democracy. A man who reached for the sky and caught all fifty stars, Arnold is truly as "American as Apple Pie", which is why we couldn't finish this drink without a hearty shot of the down-home American classic: apple pie liqueur. 

What is "neutral grain spirit"?
Without further ado, here is the recipe for...

The Arnold
-5oz Belgian white (Blue Moon used)
-5oz Belgian tripel (Weyerbacher's Merry Monks' Ale used)
-1.5 oz Californian red wine aged 2003-2011 (Ravenswood 2011 Shiraz used)
-1.5 oz apple pie liqueur

Mix all ingredients chilled. Do not shake. The spiced apple liqueur imbues the crisp, highly carbonated beer with a cider-like character which the Shiraz tops with a totally unnecessary 'wine' potency that overpowers the rest of the drink the same way Arnold overpowered the T-1000. Enjoy at your leisure.

About three drinks worth of alcohol in one, the Arnold packs one hell of a wallop. Not every man can stand up to such a challenge, but those who do will come out a little more like Mr. Universe. Remember to drive carefully.

Friday, September 19, 2014

What I'm Playing: November '13 - April '14 - Part 2: Games Started

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.

I am wildly behind here. This post was mostly drafted back in April when its companion piece was published, so I'm going to cap off the untouched games with perfunctory summaries so I can quickly take care of May and then all the months I failed to track.

Games Started:

Dynasty Warriors Gundam 3 (Xbox 360)

I can't say I've ever had an opinion on Dynasty Warriors, having only played/enjoyed Mystic Heroes - and that at a time before I had any exposure to modern 3D combat. Unfortunately I loaned my copy of Mystic Heroes to a friend with whom I shortly thereafter had a complete falling out, which only goes to proves the old adage: don't loan games if you want to have a strong opinion about Dynasty Warriors. For many years Greg L. refused to loan me games for exactly that reason. Eventually one day he caved and let me borrow his copy of Star Fox 64 and, quickly realizing that he still had a strong opinion about Dynasty Warriors, learned it wasn't so bad after all. Which just goes to disprove the old ad

Dynasty Warriors Gundam 3 doesn't have anything do with being a regular action game (i.e. Devil of Cry, God May War). Not sure why anyone would talk about the combat in those terms. It's an arena fighting game with a light real-time strategy backbone. Each player starts with a base at their end of the arena and move across the map, capturing territories as they go, with the primary goal of conquering the enemy HQ. The players (or the player commanders and the CPU commanders) are equally matched when they come face to face in attacking/defending zones. Those giant hordes the series is known for actually aren't the main combat - they just provide an interactive life bar for zones. Instead of standing on a flag while a timer ticks away to signify "capturing", DWG3 requires you to chop through X amount of cannon fodder robots - before an enemy commander can kill you or drive you away. The whole thing would make a perfect competitive multiplayer model - it's almost exactly a MOBA - and I don't know if I've missed the game where they did that or if they're just not going to because Japanese.

Not really a Gundam fan, just grabbed this one because it was (at the time) the most recent Dynasty Warrior

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES / Wii VC)

This game's pretty awesome, it's far better that Zelda I: The Adventure of Zelda. Solid action combat that mixes up one-on-one brawling mentality for Iron Knuckles et al with the larger scale action platforming sensibility of a Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden for larger rooms and caves that have you dealing with a fixed enemy layout built around a level architecture that you can't just run through. There's also a satisfying risk-it-or-lose-it RPG questing structure granted by the tight life limitation that gives the game a Dark Souls pace.

XCOM: Enemy Within (Xbox 360)

This is an expansion of Enemy Unknown, but there are so many new ways to develop your trooper corps that the game takes a different shape even from the beginning. Considering that Unknown was one of my favorite games of the last couple years with a fantastic combination of tactics, survival horror, and sim gameplay, it's not like I need an excuse to play again. But giant mech troopers and biological supermen are a great excuse anyway. It might just be that I'm rusty, but it definitely seems like the game's gotten harder to compensate for the new player capabilities. As much as it breaks my heart to see a soldier die, the fact that it gets such a response is exactly what makes this game great.

Super Mario 3D World (Wii U)

Sure is convenient having a roommate with a Wii U. Don't have to buy stupidconsolewithnogames but still get to play Mario. I had a blast playing through the first eight worlds of 3D World (in fact I guess this kinda coulda gone in Games Finished), as the game was loaded with all kinds of gimmicks and tricky puzzley bits leading to collectibles.

I can complain that it felt on the thin side, but this is a solid action-platformer that fills the dimensional niche between New Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Galaxy 2, so just in regards to the way it utilizes 3D space I think its worth investigating. Of course, that's me who's only played 2 of 4 NSMB games and skipped Super Mario 3D Land, so I may be fresher than the true Mario die-hard who is approaching this game with a fair amount of world-weariness. It's definitely too safe to feel like a worthy successor to the 3D Mario legacy, feeling instead like a spin-off game.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (Nintendo 3DS)

So far this game had two surprises for me: 1.) just how insignificant it is to have access to all the weapons from Scene 1 and 2.) just how significant a goofy gimmick like the wall-walking actually managed to be in shaping dungeons. While it's nice to rent weapons and the idea offers a tiny bit of improvisation potential, the overworld isn't actually any more open than previous games like Link to the Past, in that the price of rental is totally trivial (you will have all the weapons all the time) so the actual important parts of the world are just locked off beyond stuff not related to the weapons. Improvising dungeon order isn't that cool either. What is cool is that now that Link has a timed ability to cross gaps, moving platforms of all sorts have been incorporated into dungeon layouts, making this the "platformer" Zelda (I suppose in addition to Zelda II of course).

Earth Defense Force 2017 (Xbox 360)

Not since Jet Force Gemini has ant discrimination reached such lethal levels with such drastic consequences. EDF 2017 is categorized as a third-person shooter, but due to the lack of cover and the sheer volume of enemies, it takes on a different feel than what is the prevailing style of the genre (games like Max Payne 3, Gears of War, and Transformers: War for Cybertron).

A small handful of games has always stood out in my head as "the non-cover shooters", though design-wise they remind me most of 2D eight-directional shoot-em-ups like Robotron 2084, Smash TV, Total Carnage, and Shock Troopers. 3D shmups is I guess what I'd call them: DOOMResident Evil 4, Lost Planet, now EDF 2017.

3D Space Harrier (Arcade / 3DS eShop)

In space, no one can hear your hair. Hence the birth of 3D Space Hairier, a 3DS port of the arcade classic that incorporates stereoscopic third-dimensional viewing into the gameplay of this rail-shooting arcade classic. The port also adds touchscreen controls that I found far too touchy to be usable. Anyway, this is still Space Harrier. That old game of basically Star Force with a Z-axis. As much as I like Space Harrier, after all these years I still can't figure out how to play well past the seventh level or so without simply memorizing the layouts - I just can't see what's happening.

3D Galaxy Force II (Arcade / 3DS eShop)

Closer to Star Fox than Space Harrier and closer to Panzer Dragoon than Star Fox, the arcadey shooting here is pretty fun but never "takes off" and is hampered by a kinda lame Adventure Island-style mixed health bar / timer (that runs down through the entire game, not just each level) that could only belong to an arcade game.

Spider-Man: Web of Shadows (Xbox 360)

What I was most impressed by here was the flow of the story and the game environment and how successfully it evoked the escalating madness of classic comic events like the original debut of Venom or Maximum Carnage.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (Xbox 360)

I am a Lords of Shadow fan so it is no surprise I like this one - short of the Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry series, this is as good as modern melee action gets - what it lacks in gimmicks it makes up for in the challenging and deep enemy design that earns it the Castlevania name. Okay the stealth segments are wildly unnecessary but they're at least scarce. One of my favorite things about this game is how off-the-rails the art design goes, evoking the grotesque horrorscapes of 2D classics like Ninja GaidenSplatterhouse, and Super Ghouls n' Ghosts. I can forgive the use of an interconnected world over the preferable level structure of the first game just because there's so much cool stuff to see.

Hexen (PC / Steam)

Hexen is one of the earlier first-person combat games that was focused on the combat rather than the RPGing (opposed to Ultima Underworld or Elder Scrolls: Arena) - while the combat is more basic than I'd like, the game is set in hub-based mazes which is nice if not fun.

Don't Starve (PC / Steam)

This one really took off. I'm glad to see that's the case, not because I'm particularly in love with the game, but because I've been following Klei for a while now and want them to stay in business for as long as possible. The Shank games were some of the best 2D action of their generation and Mark of the Ninja's stealth platforming worked on every level. I'm guessing the games did well enough (Shank got a sequel after all), but they were never all that recognized. There's no question about Don't Starve though, I'm still seeing that in the news pretty regularly. Maybe it's because it was a solid game in the early PS4 field, but more likely it's because...

Don't Starve is a carefully crafted exploitation of every addictive game trope of the last five years. The game is Minecraft + Farmville + Diablo + (the catchy art of a) Braid or Limbo. While it's great fun to play and its varied inspiration does translate into varied gameplay, it's almost cynical in execution. Procedurally generated environments? Check. Reset player progress after failure? Check. Tedious harvesting for huge quantities of materials? Check. Crafting that in turn makes harvesting quicker/safer? Check. Building bases/farms to increase the rate of production? Check. Rare dungeons with huge rewards and extremely high risk? Check. It follows the model of these folded games where the goal of the game is actually to be able to continue to play the game, with the illusion that you're playing "better" as you keep going.

The best twist of Don't Starve is the adventure element, the mysterious world that makes you want to survive so you can keep uncovering its secrets. Minecraft fell flat because the world was so plain that after 3 hours you'd seen everything and all that was left was to play Legos. The weird altars and wormholes and pig huts scattered throughout Don't Starve suggest something larger at play, and while I've yet to survive long enough to uncover it, it's enough to give purpose to a good run.

Master of Darkness (Game Gear / 3DS VC)

Leave your shame at the door, because tonight we're ripping off Castlevania without abandon. Mr. Society or whatever is the weird dude you control fighting off yet more famous movie monsters in this competent but unengaging action platformer.

Counterfeit Monkey (PC / Gargoyle)

Yes, it's America's very first original text adventure, 2012 or 2013 or something's Counterfeit Monkey. I've only dabbled in text adventures, and almost beat Wishbringer like that once, but I always thought I liked them. I mean, I still think I like them. The old Infocom ones, that is - the ones where you can screw with anything and ruin the whole game and the dialogue is funny and the game is self-aware. Monkey showed me that there is a lot to hate in this style of game, predominantly when it's used as an interactive novel that simply requires you to type "N" instead of turning a page. As far as I played there was nothing wrong with the puzzles - they quickly became predictable and a bit easy, but I've been told other mechanics are introduced that spruce things up further down the line. Aside from the fact that the humor didn't work on me and the characters severely grated, my biggest problem with the story that eventually caused me to give up was simply that I wasn't drawn into the world - it felt more like someone had come up with some wacky rules for a game and then struggled to piece together a story that could somehow support them. While author Emily Short did a respectable job in making that world functional, I didn't particularly find it engaging, relying too heavily on cliches like totalitarian regimes and surly sailors. 

Soldier Blade (Turbografx-16 / Wii VC)

Bigger enemies, less stupid weapons, and better level variety makes this the best Soldier game I've played.

The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure (GBA / 3DS VC)

I dunno I only played the tutorial and it was like a puzzle game which wasn't what I thought it was.

Adventure Island (NES / Wii VC)

I played this as part of a project that you'll all soon be experiencing for yourselves from a first-person narrative perspective. It's really hard but a lot of fun and I think kinda underrated. Maybe. It's true that it's not as original as Mario or deep as Sonic, but it hits a middle stride for people that can't quite handle all the action of Ninja Gaiden, and it makes modern retro platformers like Super Meat Boy and Dustforce look redundant (as redundant as something declaredly retro can be).

Adventure Island II (NES / 3DS VC)

Same. You'll read about this soon. The much underplayed sequel.

Metal Black (Arcade / Taito Legends II)

Crazy ass arcade shmup with Darius roots that has fantastic boss design and such great music and visual style that it is quickly becoming one of my all-time favorites.

Taito Legends (PS2)

I mostly got this for the Space Invaders games, though the surprise hits of the collection were Gladiator, an early scrolling action/fighting game, and Rastan, a pretty tight action platformer.

Taito Legends II (PS2)

Incredible collection of shmups on here - Metal BlackRaystormDarius GaidenG-Darius, and Grid Seeker, not to mention a handful of unexpectedly decent action plaformers and beat-em-ups.

Shatterhand (NES)

One of those buried treasures that is buried for good reason, Shatterhand has a very awkward gimmick (floating sentinel power-ups) that leave it with watered down shooting and watered down platforming.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Shovel Knight: The Quentin Tarantino of video games

at 6:00 PM

Shovel Knight is a retro game. Betcha never heard of one of those! It's true, Mega Man 9, La Mulana, Retro City Rampage, and Super Meat Boy simply don't exist. You made all of those up in your head. But there's nothing wrong with being the very first game to do what 127 other games have been doing for the past five years. I bought it, so clearly I don't care. And amongst retro throwbacks Shovel Knight has accumulated serious hype for so diligently recreating the presentation and gameplay of classic early-nineties games. Why people get hyped for a game that could've come out in 1990 instead of just looking up any readily available game that did come out in 1990... well, that's what we're here to ask. Because that's exactly how Shovel Knight works: it tricks you into thinking you've played the ultimate classic platformer if you've never played a classic platformer.

What is Shovel Knight? I mean, not just what kind of game is it, but what is its unique identity? How can you tell you're playing Shovel Knight and not Mutant Mudds or Bonk 64? Well, it's a game where the player controls a blue knight wielding a shovel against a world where every knight has an elementally associated X-Men-style unique trait: the one with a helicopter for a head, the one whose suit of armor is a diving suit, the engineering genius, etc. The world is split into platforming levels topped with boss battles which are selected from an overworld map. The player can seek out gold to upgrade their health and magic stores and special weapons to expand their arsenal. The special weapons don't override your main attack and share ammo and can be freely switched on the fly, often coming into play for level navigation.

Shovel Knight stands out against its classic would-be peers in that it has EVERYTHING an NES game might have. It doesn't hone in on the Mega Man boss battles or the Duck Tales collection or the Ninja Gaiden platforming or the Castlevania enemies or the Super Mario Bros. 3 world map or the Kid Icarus upgrading, it just has all of those things. Are we to believe Mega Man 2 was incomplete because it lacked a world map? That the designers left that out because they hadn't thought of it, not because they didn't want it? That Super Mario World didn't add a Metroid element of collection to its exploration because it wasn't a smart enough game? I don't think Shovel Knight is so pointed, but the juxtaposition of all of these elements does suggest such a thought process. Simply asking "why didn't anyone cross over Ninja Gaiden with Duck Tales?" requires misunderstanding that what makes Ninja Gaiden great is that it's Ninja Gaiden. You can't take the gameplay idea and stack ten things on top of it and expect it to still be as good as it was in Ninja Gaiden. The entire concept is born from the modern subtractive notion of evaluation - that every game starts as a 10 and then loses points for what it doesn't have; "no RPG elements - minus one", "no achievements - minus one", etc. It's not that Shovel Knight doesn't have a reason to exist or that its blender-experimentation isn't worth a shot, but the product - a stack of ideas - robs the game of identity and weakens the effect of the elements it does borrow to the point that they simply sit as a reminder that "THIS IS AN INSPIRED GAME".

As a "retro" game I guess you could see it as a triumph that Shovel Knight so successfully mimics the design of the aforementioned classics, as the game could be understood as a meta-commentary on genre the same way Quentin Tarantino movies work without having any identity unique from the history of western/samurai/exploitation film*. It works as a statement that a platformer can no longer have identity because platformers are inherently bound to a time and place and thus the platformer-identity overtakes any unique aspect of the game - that there's no point in attempting a 'fresh' platformer because any such game, without contemporary context, instantly becomes a "new platformer" and is thus relegated to infinite subjugation to a notion of classics, such that the only way for a "new platformer" to succeed is to simply evoke the classics as thoroughly and uniformly as possible, burying itself in the camouflage of homage. Put another way, it's the notion that players and designers are concerned only with stamping ideas, not whether they own them by virtue of creation - "now we have our own platformer". Putting all of the genre classics into a single game relieves the need for experience with the breadth of the field and allows the player, in a single stroke, to think of themselves as a platforming expert. Of course, this is inherently paradoxical in that the triumph of the new game necessitates the supplanting of the old genre, presuming a new farther removed baseline in which the platformer has lost its meaning and function as a stylistic tool and has been reduced to a simple pastiche with genre itself as the ideal - where there exists no platformer whose purpose is anything but to be THE platformer. It's in some sense an encapsulation of genrefication as a whole, particularly through the lens of a mainstream removed from the time in which the original explosion was relevant. 

Of course, the premise of Shovel Knight viewed thusly marginalizes genre fans - it is a platformer for those uninterested in platformers, existing solely as a reductionist novelty. 

* I realize not everyone shares my take on Mr. QT but it's a catchier premise this way.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Shining Force II is like chess, plus it has a chess level!

at 6:00 PM

Isn't that sweet? Right in the middle of this serious-ass fantasy campaign about a late-term evil abortion comes a chapter titled "Rick Moranis vs. Archon" in which the player characters get shrunken down and thrown on a living chess board. It's a game of chess... for survival! Plus Harry Potter hadn't even done it yet so this is literally the first time in the history of fiction that real people were portrayed as fighting against chess pieces. 

Although, should I be bothered that the board isn't correct? Is that a thing of Japanese game designers not knowing much about chess (is it as obscure over there as go is over here?), or did they put like five queens and not nearly enough pawns on the board as an attempt at balance? Because they could've defined the pieces however they wanted to be balanced (since it's not like they behave like actual chess pieces). It's just kinda arbitrary that the board is wrong.

This really made me smile though. The Shinings Force, Fires Emblem, and even Xs-COM are what I mentally categorize as "chess plus" games, where the principles are the same as chess - threaten units with attack ranges, create traps, use placement for blocking - but rather than movement type as the major determining factor of units' value, you have numeric statistics and rock-paper-scissors balances (like Fire Emblem's sword-axe-lance cycle). Interestingly enough (to mention in this context), Shining Force II* is the game that really got me thinking along those lines.

Initiated combat in Shining Force II is unidirectional**. That means the immediate act of attacking an enemy unit does not negatively impact the player unit. Thus, instead of considering dealt damage against received damage (as is a key factor in Fire Emblem), an attack is valued by dealt damage vs. positional advantage. "Is it worth breaking my line for a big attack on that archer?" "Should I box in that high level unit instead of spreading out to attack weaker ones?" The matter of numerical damage aside, this is chess tactics, where the key determining factors of a move are positional - as important as whether a piece is captured are which pieces the move attacks (places in immediate danger of being captured) and which pieces it defends.

Turn order in RPGs usually follows one of two paradigms: the first, that used by Shining Force II, is unit turns, where the game determines a turn order of units based on their statistics, and the player moves a unit once when its turn comes up. The alternative is team turns, where teams alternate order and during their team's turn, the player can move each unit once (as in Fire Emblem). I don't think I've ever seen an RPG using straight up chess ordering, where a turn consists of a player moving any single unit once; you can see how that doesn't really facilitate RPG leveling/balance.

Team turns lend to a more predictive style of play where it's best to map out the opponent's likely next move and plan accordingly. Each player has complete control of the board that the opponent will face in their next turn. Though this does have its similarity to chess on a broad strategic level, the primary consequence is that players are actually making moves with gigantic multi-armed units rather than with individual pieces. There is so much a player can do with the moving parts of their army that a great deal of build-up is required, then rarely paid off, to execute individual turns. Though the player is controlling ostensibly independent units, they need to take into consideration a butterfly effect of consequences if the opponent makes a single unexpected gambit. Though this hints at grand scope, in effect it leads to an extremely safe mode of play wherein turns are constructed in such a way as to focus solely around guaranteed plays for one or two units.

With Shining Force II's style of turns, unit moves regain their chess-like significance as the primary agents of player strategies. Essentially, there is feedback after every decision point: when the player relinquishes control of a unit, they relinquish control of the game. The next turn may be theirs or the opponent's, but they won't be able to revisit that unit until the round is completed. Successful tactics need to account for how each unit on the map can benefit from each individual move, because they will get a chance to take advantage of it before an overall position is composed.

A more specific chess tactic available in Shining Force II but not in XCOM or Fire Emblem (referencing them a lot, but they really do provide the perfect counterpoint) is the sacrifice. Units are reset at the beginning of every battle in Shining Force II - a battle has no lasting repercussions except for experience point gains. Thus sacrificing a unit becomes a viable tactic. A sacrificial lamb can be used to spread out an enemy formation, lead an all-out attack, provide a momentary barrier, or to bait a trap. The lack of consequence threatens to lead to lazy play, where as a player gains the upper hand their strategy loosens and risks lose their meaning. The simple fact of it is that Shining Force II is balanced so that just isn't the case. There are of course guaranteed-win scenarios during endgame, but the pacing of the battles as tiered skirmishes means that a casualty at any point can lead to a substantial statistical disadvantage in the next skirmish. Sacrifices are still a major trade-off, and the presence of such a tactic only makes the game more strategically rich.

It may not inherently be a strength for a game to be chess-like in nature, but in my experience with strategy RPGs and Shining Force II in general it proves to be nothing but a boon. There is a reason chess is the most popular board game in the world and Warhammer isn't. That reason may have to do with date of origin and which game contains orcs; nonetheless, it's combinatorial complexity is something to aspire to, not compete against.

*For the record, I'm pretty sure everything here applies to Shining Force as well. I've just only played II.

**there is a tiny exception to this. Defending units, probably depending on their stats, have something like a 5% chance of doing a counterattack. It's so rare that it's not so much a factor in tactics as it is a forced non-determinism. I'm okay with this in Shining Force II (though it seems unnecessary given that the make-up and exact statistics of a player's squad in a grind-enabled game provides plenty of non-determinism anyway), but the similar implementation in Fire Emblem bothers me because of the drastic implications of a mistake in Fire Emblem. Get a bad roll on that 95% accuracy attack and you may lose a squad member permanently. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Lives lessons in Devil May Cry

at 6:00 PM

I've never really seriously played the first Devil May Cry, though I've gotten through a lot of 3 and beat DmC almost twice now (someone just cringed). There was a sale on the HD Collection (think it's over now) so I figured that was a good excuse to make myself finish 3 and also to finally give 1 and 2 a try.

DMC is more Resident Evil than I was ready for. I know the whole history where it started development as Resident Evil 4 (isn't it delightful that after a million redesigns, the process of envisioning a fourth Resident Evil gave us both the modern melee action and over-the-shoulder shooter genres? It always makes me sad to hear people say they'd rather RE4 have been survival horror again. It's also funny that DMC was banished from the RE series when Shinji Mikami thought it had become "too cool and action-packed". Then Leon Kennedy did a flying roundhouse to knock a zombie monk into a pool of lava.), but it's got more exploration and puzzles than I'd expect based on my knowledge of Kamiya and the series' later entries. The map is more to the tune of Resident Evil's Spencer mansion than it is to Bayonetta's extreme hallways. It actually lends the game a nice creepy atmosphere where on my first pass I'm always a little distracted trying to keep track of locations and get a jump here and there when enemies jump out. The fixed camera angles lend to that too.

But this is Devil May Cry, right? I'm Dante! Who cares if enemies jump out, because no longer am I constrained to tank controls and fixed aiming angles - Dante can dish out relentless strings of stunning blows on enemies that aren't half as fast as he is. It takes something more to amp up the tension, to stick to that survival feel, and that's where the lives system comes in. Yes, lives. In an action game. People love those, right?

Devil May Cry uses a limited lives system; the expendables are called "yellow orbs", because seriously I have no clue why they couldn't come up with a real name. At least it's not "chips". It works like this: you start the game with a stock of 3 yellow orbs, and any time you die one is consumed to revive you at the beginning of the fight, with all enemies back to their starting state. The only way to replenish your stock is to buy more orbs at the shop, costing precious limited resources that could be used toward upgrades. Thus the total supply has a ceiling, and it doesn't regenerate between levels or upon loading a save file. So the game is pretty much telling you: you better have a really good reason to spend one of these.

If you don't want to waste a yellow orb when you die, you'll have to start the level over again. Luckily, levels are short and familiarity with the layout pays off big time - as in Resident Evil, fifteen minutes of wandering and a dozen battles can be cut to five minutes and three battles once you know where you're going. Levels are tightly parsed (at least at this early point in the game - I'm only on Stage 6) such that objectives remain clear and paths are easily memorized - this isn't RE where in the first five minutes of the game you'll get a key that you need to use ten hours down the line (though, fast fact, it was only very late in the development that they added the mission structure). The end result of encouraging the player to reset if they die is that they get immediate feedback on how they're improving their gameplay in the short term and can quickly get a grasp on how to conserve health and orbs. The game becomes a minimization problem, bringing it all back home to its survival horror roots.

While this resetting does entail some redundant gameplay, it should only be in accordance with the player's lack of skill - that is to say, they should only be replaying parts they haven't yet mastered. The combo scoring system, an entire fifty-page discussion of its own, also encourages the player to get the most out of revisited areas through bettering their combat skills.

The yellow orbs still come in handy though - they're a crutch, but a necessary crutch. There are naturally those times when you come up against a new challenge - the first boss for instance - that kills you so quickly that you don't know what the fuck just happened. It'd be a pain in the ass to restart the level just to reach that point and get instantly killed again, so the yellow orbs allow a quick retry point so the player can keep focused. You can burn through orbs learning the boss, then when you think you're ready to give it a real go, load up your save and make one clean pass through the level. This allows the game to maintain challenge at a dual scope - honed in on individual fights with orb revival, and broadened to level survival compositing the individual challenges for a 'final' run.