Friday, December 19, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 12/7/14: Mighty Final Fight

at 3:12 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 action-packed... questionnaire.

Game: Mighty Final Fight
Year: 1993
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: NES, GBA, 3DS VC, Wii U VC

Ah yes. Baby's first Final Fight. Up through the mid-1990s, Capcom was supporting the NES alongside the SNES with original games continuing familiar properties. Hence Mega Men 5 and 6, Disney games like Darkwing Duck, and our own Mighty Final Fight. This one takes the same characters and locations of the arcade hit and instead of pixelating down the artwork, replaces it with a super-deformed style not totally dissimilar to Technos' NES hits, River City Ransom and Double Dragon.

Though a contemporary of Final Fight 2, Mighty suffers the same shocking limitation as the original SNES port: no cooperative play. As such, I'll be "flying solo" for this particular WBEU.

So anyway. Can Mighty Final Fight translate the visceral thrills of second-wave beat-em-upping to the unfamiliar 8-bit world or capture the terse challenge of its NES brethren? Fight on and find out.

How is the game's aesthetic appeal?
Yourself: It's a late NES game, so of course it's pretty technically competent. There's no slowdown or clipping to speak of (uh, unless they were fixed in the VC version), and the sprites are more colorful and detailed than the standard fare. Still, the boring (if colorful) urban/industrial settings of Final Fight are really not very exciting to look at. The chibi look captures a sillier side of familiar characters, but it is honestly a bit hard for me to look at these visuals and not wish I was just seeing the arcade Final Fight.

The music strikes a similar balance: it's well made and chipper, but none of the songs are particularly interesting beyond a beepy hook.

How was the control and move variety?
Yourself: The basic moveset is bog-standard: walk, jump, punch; if you really feel like it jump-kick. Touch to grapple is here but dashing isn't. As with the older, wiser Finals Fight, combos have what I guess you could call a long suspension time. That is to say, in both this and Streets of Rage, if you push attack three times quickly, your character will jab twice then uppercut. In Streets of Rage, if you stutter (or move) for a split second between button presses, your character will repeatedly jab, never moving past the first attack of the combo. In Mighty Final Fight, you can jab twice, hold off for almost a full second, then attack again to get your uppercut. This serves two purposes: 1.) it lets you re-position mid-combo or stun an enemy on one side of you while quickly knocking another down, and 2.) it prevents the player from infinitely chaining their quick jab which stuns the enemy without knocking them down or back.

Sorry, this game is so boring to write about I figured I'd get technical. Also, there is a level up system similar to Double Dragon's - kill enough enemies to gain a level which increases health. I think special moves are unlocked each level, but honestly I only figured out how to do one (with Guy): hold right while comboing to get a less useful two-hit kick combo. I noticed not every enemy gave me the same amount of experience, which seems cool, but I couldn't figure out what was affecting that. Didn't seem to be strings of flawless kills. 

How is the player character variety?
Yourself: Variety is one of Final Fight's strong suits, with the ever-popular town boyar Dan Haggar providing grappling mixups the likes of which Streets of Rage never dreamed. Mighty Final Fight sorta has that. We've got all three fan favorite dudes: the fast-walkin fast-punchin Guy spews out fists of fury that provide a wide cover window, Hagrid walks so slowly I couldn't even play as him, and Cody is your regular middleman. Enemies have so much health (like six to seven knock-downs worth of health) unfortunately that the power trade-off for Cody just isn't worth it when Guy is so much survive-worthier. I really couldn't play as Haggar. I made an honest effort and I lost three lives on the first level and the embarrassment just couldn't continue that way, which is sad, since in Main Final Fight I main final Haggar.

How is the pick-up variety?
Yourself: Oddly enough, the pick-ups are character specific. Once in a very great while (as in maybe 3 times in the course of the game) the player will be bombarded with angry barrels that if punched will yield tasty treats and a weapon or two. Cody gets his famous knife (an obvious Street Fighter IV nod), Haggar gets a sledgehammer (unfortunately giving a cold shoulder to his more famous pipe from Marvel vs. Capcom 3), and Guy gets shuriken because what else can a ninja do.

The sledgehammer is your pretty standard slammer with a fixed durability, while the shuriken provide 8ish projectiles with instant knockdown. Fittingly for Cody T. Balanced, the knife sits in between, useful for a few jabs or a single toss. The problem with the weapons is that there's no dynamism to their placement - each is so overpowered that it's basically a guaranteed kill against the next 3 or 4 enemies, but they only ever spawn in the same place in each level

How is the enemy variety?
Yourself: I think there are four enemies? Maybe five? There's the normal guy who just walks up to you and punches, a speedster who walks up to you quickly and punches, a woman with no distinguishably unique behavior, a knife guy who flips over you and throws knives, and a big dude who has longer reach. There is not a lot of depth to the individual foes and they behave 90% the same as each other. The big guy does a lot more damage, so he's at least a more serious risk. The knife guy is the most unique, as he seems to pace a bit to try to get you in his sights instead of mindless charging. He can also do a flip to cover a lot of ground and get behind you.

Oh, when I looked up screenshots I was reminded there's also a guy who blocks. The trick to him is grab don't punch. Which is already the trick to winning. He's like the enemy that tells you how to beat the game. 

How does combat work one-on-one?
Yourself: It is hard to honestly say. The fact is, enemies in this game are extremely easy to stun-lock, and after that they're extremely easy to wake-camp. Let's explain these semi-made-up terms, since they help elucidate what makes combat games work.

"Hitstun" is the term for the period of inactivity in the recipient of an attack after the attack lands. In Mighty Final Fight, every punch causes a short (~300ms) period of hitstun on an enemy. Though this is not true in every situation in every game, in Mighty Final Fight, a stunned enemy is vulnerable to another attack. "Stun-locking" is the activity of continually attacking the opponent while they are stunned to keep them in a stunned state. There are a lot of ways to counterbalance stun-lock, one of which being the forced third hit knockdowns I discussed above. When the enemy is knocked down, they're invulnerable for a moment and can get back up and get a new chance to attack.

Except not in Mighty Final Fight. That's where wake-camping comes in. "Wake-up" is the act of a character rising from a knockdown (usually invulnerable) state. Wake-up often grants a short period of invulnerability to allow the character to regain equal footing with their opponent. When there is no wake-up invulnerability, as in Mighty Final Fight, it is possible for the player to stand next to a downed opponent and attack just before they wake up, catching them in an attack before they have any chance to react. This can be called "wake-camping".

Because every enemy except bosses can be stun-locked and wake-camped until they die, the only challenges in Mighty Final Fight are landing a first hit and managing two foes at once. I'll get to the latter in a second. Landing a first hit is a simple timing affair. Often it's easiest just to approach an enemy from above or below and walk right into them for a grab - this shortcuts past their attacks. With everyone but the knife and big dude, Guy has a long enough punch to hit them from outside their range.

The problem with avoiding this tactic (as many beat-em-ups have cheese methods, like jump-kicking in Double Dragon) is that taking any damage at all, particularly in the later stages, is immediately damning. Recovery is so rare that if you take just a single punch from each enemy, you will run out of lives before the end of a stage. So the only way to win is flawlessly.

How are enemy groups formed?
Yourself: This is an NES game, so as they say on TV: "Three's a Crowd". And one of those three is you. So it's just two enemies at a time. In fact, unless it's the very last enemy in a round, I think there will always be exactly two opponents on screen. Like types are never paired, so even from the start you're always fighting a Regular with a Speedy. Of course, only 5 enemies means only 10 possible groupings, so, considering there are more than 10 fights in the game, there is a lot of repetition. Knife guys are kind of the only real threat, as they tend to keep their distance while you're trying to bug the other guy.

How does combat work against crowds?
Yourself: Continuing from above, what you're trying to do is get both of them into the same stun-lock wake-camp loop. As with most beat-em-ups, the player can attack two enemies at a time if they're both in range, so the strategy tends to be to get the two together. The best way to do this? Throw one at the other. This will knock both down and they'll land almost right next to each other. All you have to do from there is wake-camp both at once.

How is the stage variety?
Yourself: Very dry. All of the enemies have been introduced by Stage 2. Stage 4 doesn't even get its own boss. The only mixup in the mix is Stage 3, which has something so shocking I had to do a double take: pits. Yes, the gimmick feature from every single beat-em-up ever made, the one that was even in Renegade, is back for another round. The large pits that take up most of the walkway are admittedly probably the hardest part of the game, leaving very little room to maneuver. Knife guys in particular have an easy time knocking you in with one toss. Since it's possible to punch - but not grab - an enemy when they're partially off-screen, it is difficult to utilize the small space to throw enemies into the deep.

There are also occasional barrel parts (<1 per level) where steel drums roll in from the edges of the screen and you can punch them for a health item or weapon. There are even two bonus stages based around this minigame, where a high hit rate can grant an extra life or even a continue. 

How is the boss variety and how do boss fights generally work?
Yourself: There are four bosses here, all borrowed from Final Fight proper. I don't remember if Abigail was a muscley punk dude in the arcade game, but that felt weird. The first and last guys like to stay to the sides of the screen - the first bounces his way back and forth across and the final boss (as must, legally, every beat-em-up final boss) shoots a gun. Both can be defeated by the same trick: keep out of their horizontal plane to avoid their attacks and move in for a couple punches and a grab when they are recoiling.

Mass Effect fans can try their hand at talking their way out of fights!
The middle of this boss sandwich is composed of guys that pressure you and occasionally charge. Again, there's a simple trick for both: run away until they do their bull rush, then dodge and quickly get behind for a punch and a grab. Abigail in stage 3 is a bit harder than Samurai Dave in 2 just because s/he pressures more and I think charges faster. Stage 4 repeats both of these bosses, separately.

How is the learning curve and difficulty?
Yourself: Pretty much what you'd expect from such a low enemy game (see Burning Fight or Cadillacs and Dinosaurs for the closest comparison). Since you'll get plenty of one-on-one time with each new enemy, by the third or fourth conflict you'll have a pretty good sense of each's timing and range and exactly how to handle them. That is to say, by Stage 2 the enemy learning curve has ended. Perhaps knowingly, Stage 3 is your big "gimmick stage", so the challenge lasts one level longer, but 4 and 5 are a real drag.

Play again or recommend?
Yourself: This is about as solid a "pass" as you're going to get. I've never found myself a fan of the Capcom school and Mighty Final Fight does not improve on the formula - sparse enemy variety, redundant conflicts, and a bare-bones move set. Even a Capcom fanatic will find little to love, as the game is absent the iconic giant sprites, meaty stuttering combat, and 2-player shenanigans that make their games favorites. I guess for an NES Final Fight, Mighty is all you could expect - I just don't see why anyone (in 2014) needs an NES Final Fight. Try one of the dozens of SNES or arcade Capcom games if you really need a fix; even the lackluster Cadillacs and Dinosaurs is significantly more enjoyable than Mighty Final Fight.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What I'm Playing, November '14

at 5:38 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

Looks like Christmas has come early this year.

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Gargoyle's Quest II (NES / 3DS VC)

This is your pretty predictable midpoint for the Firebrand series, though as the name implies, it sits closer to Gargoyle's Quest than the more exploration-heavy Demon's Crest. Emphasis on boss fights is cranked up, as is skill selection, but the game is still a matter of linear platforming levels laid out on a linear RPG over-world.
The only way to beat a gargoyle is to be a gargoyle.
Sadly, that wraps up this series for me. I highly recommend the latter two games, and to anyone wanting more, the original works too. In fact I'm not sure it is all that sad - the games pretty cleanly ran the gamut of what you can do with Firebrand mechanics in a Metroid-meets-JRPG setting. It's not like many franchises get too great after the third entry without raising the question "what does this have to do with the series?" (e.g. Resident Evil 4). I'm not exactly grateful for the existence of Mega Mans X4-X8.

Mighty Gunvolt (3DS freeShop)

This half-game came for free with Azure Striker Gunvolt so I can't complain too seriously, but man does this feel like a half-game that came as a free pack-in bonus. The mechanics are Mega Man-lite (no weapon selection or power-ups), the gimmicks are directly imitated from ASG, and the level layouts are boring verging on trite. Every jump is painless, every enemy isolated to the point where there is only one supremely obvious solution to every conflict: wait til they shoot, jump, then shoot back. The boss fights are the best part, but only two are original (the rest are repeats from ASG). It's fun to see the Gunvolt characters rendered in NES style, but this is a demo reel, not a game.

Games Finished:

Wave Race 64 (N64 / Wii VC)

Still like the physics, still don't know what to do with the game. Perfecting time trials is a bit of fun and eliminates the arbitrary nature of the main competition. But it's so short on content. The racers aren't different enough or the courses dynamic enough that it feels worth playing through with everyone. I kinda feel like I'm already a pro.

Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360)

Can you say decompression? This game runs for about 15 hours past the climax, introducing a late game new-final-boss and then a huge denouement that returns to the basic herding and delivery tasks of the early chapters. The closest thing Redemption finds to a gameplay identity is the horse-riding, so it's a shame that so many horseback missions take the identical form of riding on a road while packs of enemies give chase. Herding cattle, rustling horses, and racing made the most use of varied and technical (but still very basic) skills, allowing the game to at least feel like something. Unfortunately those were not supremely fun activities, offering little payoff for challenge, so the game mostly gets by on the occasionally open-ended cover shooting.

Dueling is a great idea for building variety around shooting skills. Some greater depth built around weapon selection or enemy AI could've really sold this as more than a shallow minigame... alas.
There was one neat thing about cover shooters that occurred to me while playing Red Dead. Generally I hate any type of AI companions in a shooting game, as they add an element of unpredictability and don't let me turtle like I like to. Many such games (Gears of War, Spec Ops, Halo) use a regenerating health system that means if I take some hits I end up taking cover to recover and then my allies get all the kills. But that actually makes sense in providing a risk/reward challenge for the player: instead of pressure coming from depleting health or ammo reserves, the game creates pressure by gradually eliminating targets. Since getting to shoot guys is more important to me than survival, the impulse to push on and play aggressively is established through "helpful" allies.

This systems rewards skill without punishing lack of skill, adapting the gameplay to all levels of players. At the same time, because both the skilled and unskilled player will survive and complete the game, there is no direct feedback on how they're doing. Thus "helpful" allies would be best supplemented with a ranking/scoring system to fill in that missing info. Of course, Redemption is woefully lacking in any feedback on performance, being a forerunning member of the "games as cinema" rather than "games as games" school.

Spider-Man: Web of Shadows (Xbox 360)

This one had some good ideas not deserving of general comic book game skepticism. Entirely airborne (but still gravity-bound) combat is very cool, making maintaining air a key factor in combos. In a way, instead of jumping to platform, you're punching to platform.

Throughout the open world, hundreds of collectibles are placed in obvious but hard to reach locations to create swingforming challenges. The city evolves as the game progresses, incorporating new enemies and random events in each chapter, but the architecture remains static.

This game could've legitimized Spider-Man the same way Arkham Asylum did Batman. Unfortunately, loose controls, an asinine voice cast, and lazy writing nip that aspiration in the bud. The game's targeting and camera does not work nearly as well as it should, so pulling off a seamless combo generally requires luck or reliance on a small handful of long-range attacks. Even the swinging controls get hairy, with too many state-specific functions mapped to the right trigger. The controls can seem to lag or misread at times when the game doesn't yet register Spider-Man in the correct state to do a particular move.

Also, in the final two chapters the framerate gets awful (like 10fps swinging through the city). Kinda hard to excuse. 

Games Started:

Harvest Moon 2 (Game Boy Color / 3DS VC)

Never played a Harvest Moon proper - as a young lad I was never interested in games about farming and by the time I was an older lad Natsume had picked up on my young lad action needs and compensated with Rune Factory. But the Rune Factory series got real bad real fast when opaque story triggers (plant X flower on X square and water it at XPM on X day of the week) and awkward side systems (Runeys) became fundamental to the series. So, being more amenable to boring stuff these days, I decided it was time to turn back.
There was not a single Harvest Moon 2 screenshot on Google that depicted an actual field of crops
Harvest Moon 2 uses a very simple farming system with just a few crops and animals, but it also makes just harvesting a much bigger hassle than in Rune Factory. There's a lot of repetitive action picking every single crop individually and running back and forth from the field to the sale box. It's that laborious cycle moreso than profit margins that pushes me to optimize my field layout/harvest cycle. Maybe if it was too fun to water every square there wouldn't be any motivation to plant strategically.

One and Done:

Super Time Force (Xbox 360)

I played a demo for this game. The rewind-time mechanic that allows you to duplicate your character actually feels like a turn based orders system, like the alternating action of Valkyria Chronicles, Eternal Sonata, or Quest 64. On the "to buy" list.