Friday, January 9, 2015

Platformer of the Month Dec. '14, Maximo: Ghosts to Glory Part 1

at 12:30 PM
The platformer is the seminal genre of video game history. Always adapting to trends and technologies, never out of style, it provides an underpinning for the action games of era after era. Platformers are responsible for our sense of space and navigation; they form the bridge that transports reality into digital worlds. Without platformers, we'd all may as well be playing shuffleboard. Each month the Platformer of the Month Club dives into the deep well of platforming history, hoping to find forgotten treasure or even an extra life. 

Game: Maximo: Ghosts to Glory
Year: 2001 (JP), 2002 (NA)
Developer: Capcom Digital Studios
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: PS2

From the heartland of the 3D platforming era (1998-2003) comes this Capcom gem meant to bring Sir Arthur and his Ghosts 'n Goblins into a new era of 3D platforming (1998-2003). Unfortunately, Arthur fell into a wormhole somewhere during the transition and the developers were left with a new vaguely centurion-themed hero called Maximo (because the one thing we all remember about Ghosts 'n Goblins is that it was set in ancient Rome).

Perhaps more surprising for a Capcom game than for a 3D platformer, this one comes to us from the land of opportunity: Capcom's North American Digital Studios. While never finding its way to the "killer app" shelf, Maximo played an early role in distinguishing the PS2 as the console for old-school gamers - those who valued traditional challenge over wimpiness (Xbox) or not having any games to play (Gamecube).

To this day Ghosts to Glory nurtures a legacy as one of the hardest games of the sixth generation, forcing save management and limited lives on doughy soft gamers who were growing to view their $60 retail as a ticket to the end credits. But is Maximo: Ghosts to Glory really as grandma-rapingly brutal as legends hold? And if so, is it actually worth finishing? Hopefully you've got enough lives to reach the end of this feature and the answers you seek.

[Note: because this is a multi-hour, multi-session game, we've divided coverage into two parts, the first of which will be dedicated to mechanics and the contents of worlds 1 and 2.]

How is the game's aesthetic appeal?
Yourself: With character designs from the legendary guy who did character designs for Adventure Island, Maximo flaunts a googly-eyed cartoon look. This lighthearted approach works great for a mascot platformer, carrying through exaggeratedly warped landscapes. Matched with the game's would-be grisly subject matter - skeletons, swamp monsters, and grim reapers - the style takes on a Halloweeny sense of humor. It's more spooky than scary, if you will. The wackily chattering military skeletons can't help but remind me of Army of Darkness.
Sorry for the garbage screenshots. I can't find decent ones and have no way of capturing PS2 images.
The graphics hang onto the classic N64-era look, skimping on textures and favoring clean, well-defined polygonal surfaces. This accentuates the surreal impression of the shifting, sometimes floating architecture, allowing the game to look good even on a big-screen HDTV. Oh, also, everything is shot at a dutch angle. Just because.

Golem: The cartoon horror approach goes past Ghosts 'n Goblins and brings to mind something more like Decap Attack, where each enemy and setpiece has its own exaggerated, comic appeal. The way skeletons' skulls whirl in circles after being struck, or heck, just watching them shuffle around is worth a chuckle.

As for the soundtrack (by television's own Tommy Tallarico), it's sadly short on melodies; while fitting in tone, they aren't half as memorable and catchy as the visual presentation is. Ah well.

How does the player character and camera control?
Golem: Maximo walks at a decent pace, with just a tiny bit of momentum applied. The PS2's standard issue analog stick grants responsive 360 degree control. He can double jump in mid-air, which is useful for reaching higher, going farther, or reorienting his trajectory partway. There's more air control than in Ghosts 'n Goblins as well, allowing refinement of jumps in midair. Finally, Maximo knows a few sword swings (lateral, overhead, and air-to-ground stab) which are then complemented by new moves granted by pickups.

Yourself: Sword attacks are speedy and short range, but there's no one-two-three combo here. Maximo pauses after every swipe - a vulnerability more reminiscent of Castlevania than Mario 64. To his advantage, the horizontal swing covers an almost 270-degree arc. I find the double-jump to be more useful for re-steering than for heightening and lengthening leaps - it gives me an extra moment to consider my landing.

Maximo also wields a shield that can be held up to block attacks from directly in front. One of the most fundamental power-ups (which I only mention here cuz it gets its own button) is a Captain America shield toss.

The camera sits just above an over-the-shoulder angle, giving a long forward view with a relatively limited horizontal and vertical FOV. If we're comparing to the Super Mario 64 gold standard, it's similar to what Golem calls "The Close-up to Mario". There's no free analog control, but one shoulder button provides first-person free-look and another auto-center.

How are character-specific mechanics varied?
YourselfIn layman's terms, Maximo is a jack of all power-ups. His gear can be divided into two simple classes: sword magic and ability tokens. Sword magic is straightforward enough: depending on the element, the sword increases a degree in power and gains a special side effect - the ice sword freezes, the light sword is strong against undead, etc. Each sword power-up fills Maximo's magic meter, which then depletes anytime he lands a swing. When magic runs out, the element disappears.

Ability tokens are more varied. Some grant new attacks: the shield toss, a follow-up sword swipe, or a sword thrust that carries Maximo a bit forward. Others modify standard abilities, like a longer sword and a wider spike shockwave. A few are special moves that enhance the elemental swords, like a projectile and a magical shockwave. Then there are shield elements which can make blocking reflect damage, inflict knockback, or vacuum up coins.

Overall there are about a dozen different ability tokens. Abilities always stack (with a single exception: shield elements overwrite), though Maximo will lose most of them if he dies. From the start of the game he has three "lock-spots" - the first three tokens gathered fill these lock-spots and stick around even after death. With each world conquered, Maximo gains a new lock-spot, such that in the final world he can have seven abilities that carry on after death.

Power-ups have fixed natural habitats, meaning that early in the game you're likely to come across the basic abilities and later you'll find more powerful ones. Because of this, your locked abilities won't change much between playthroughs. The first three slots are almost guaranteed to be shield toss, thrust, and follow-up - that's pretty much all you encounter in World 1. Each sword element is generally associated with a certain world, though every once in a while you'll see one out of place (fire in particular shows up throughout).

Golem: Discovering the powerups of each world lends a sense of fun to the game. With the heritage that Maximo has, you might expect a harsh, punishing game where each powerup should be approached with cynicism--but instead, I always found myself excited to learn what new abilities Maximo would find. It was gratifying to learn that his sword could extend its reach or that he could freeze enemies. Plenty of powerups are throwaways, too, but a number of them are real boons.

What kind of items are present and how are they distributed?
Golem: Some items power Maximo up, like health potions for restoring health and extra armor for extending the health bar. Others grant new attributes or abilities, like the electric shield or the forward sword stab. Aside from those, you've got coins for buying items from shops as well as keys for opening chests and gates. All of those can be dropped by enemies, collected from chests, or found just laying around the world.

Each world in the game also has a particular container for storing fairies, which grant continues. For instance, in the first world, glowing headstones will cough up fairies if Maximo attacks them.

In short, there's quite a variety of items.

Yourself: The game has one of those classic platformer pause menus with six bobbing icons in the top right corner indicating how many glowing jubles you've collected, but in actuality collection is practically driven. Because lives are limited over the course of the game, continue-granting fairies are must-grabs. Coins too are doled out at a pace such that a player grabbing everything in sight will have access to many more life and armor power-ups than one rushing through.

What kind of navigable elements define the landscape?
Yourself: The first couple worlds tend to alternate between flat corridors adorned with dangerous terrain and small floating platforms that may or may not move. Note that when I say "floating" I don't necessarily mean "suspended in midair" - I just mean that they're islands surrounded on all sides by a hazard or drop.

The popular dangerous terrains for world 1 are some kind of purple grave moss from which erupt damaging skeletal hands and instant-killing hot lava. World 2 uses two similar equivalents: water to drag the player's speed down (which occasionally contains alligators who burst up for a quick hit) or water too deep for Maximo to tread (death). The placement is a bit different - the purple moss tends to be along paths or on small platforms, inflicting danger if the player dodges the not-accidentally-placed enemies in the safe zone. World 2's swamp water usually is the main path, with platforms along the side solely to provide a respite from the danger. World 2 also has an in between hazard in one particular level: tar. The player can walk through a tar pit for ten or so seconds before sinking down to a permanent grave.

Patterned moving platforms are fairly rare - in the first two worlds they only appear in a single stage. Traditional falling platforms also make an appearance in World 1's "Coffin Canyon". Jumps are more often made difficult by enemy occupation of the landing (and launching) area.

Flat, open spaces are very uncommon, so the player is rarely forced into arena combat. The choice is usually whether to jump past or linearly eliminate threats. Since the game is mostly made up of floating platforms, enemies won't chase you too far.

Golem: Maximo loves small platforms and thin corridors, so combat is often in tight quarters. This keeps the combat/platforming pace at a nice clip, making sure you rarely face more than a few enemies without an interesting jump.

What kind of enemies impede progress?
Golem: Enemies take a few hits to fell, but they're aggressive enough that each encounter demands focus. Each one has a distinct attack pattern, whether it's the shield-bearing skeleton that loves to block hits or the bomb-spitting flower that's vulnerable in close quarters. Their tactics never grow very complicated, and the game instead focuses on squads of enemies. Your standard skeleton may not seem like a big deal until he's got a flower backing him up from far off.

Yourself: Many enemies only spawn when the player approaches. Thus the first element of defense is simply awareness, the ability to grasp what kind of enemies might be spawning (each level has a fixed set), where they could spawn, and how to react at that time. A skeleton slowly pulling himself out of the earth is vulnerable to a quick aerial attack, while a coffin shooting up can bump the player away - or, at the correct distance, permit a preemptive strike. Later on metal coffins will do damage and bounce back sword swipes. Within the same realm, treasure chests occasionally turn out to be mimics, requiring the player to clear the area and take their time when collecting bounty. Just the spawning behavior here requires a lot of skill to manage.

Enemies tend to work within defined territories, from patrolling halberdiers to sentinel crows to river alligators. A key element to progression is learning to identify an enemy's threat zone in order to either isolate it or avoid it altogether. Crowds are dangerous, as Maximo's shield only faces one direction and a blocked attack causes a lengthy recoil; equally dangerous are the precarious ledges that border battlegrounds.

How are individual levels built from these elements? Does this facilitate exploration?
Yourself: Levels are pretty linear across the first couple worlds, sequencing together platforming corridors and usually more enemy-heavy rooms. A corridor might task the player with running across a series of cliffs that fall out from under their feet or jumping along moving platforms floating down a river. Typically projectile and patrolling enemies are laid out at fixed points that may make them easier to dodge then fighting, like an axe guy on an island near the floating debris or a halberdier guarding the far end of a plummeting bridge. Melee enemies tend to spawn where you least want them to, like on an open-edged platform that provides a resting point between tighter jumps.

World 2 seems to prefer this type of design, with "'Dem Bones" dedicated almost exclusively to long stretches of bone platforms over tar pits, "The Quick and the Dead" to the aforementioned debris sailing down a river, and "The Village Level" to high moving platforms and tree-branches. The aforementioned alligator-infested water propels the player forward without allowing them time to wander.

What I call "rooms" are areas where linear progression is halted by a locked door, large numbers of enemies, or a non-obvious path. The world 1 stage "Dead Heat" sees the player enter a courtyard containing six sarcophagi and three sepulchers. The only way to get through is by passing a locked gate guarded by a halberdier. To find the key, the player needs to open each thing that houses dead people. Enemies spawn once the player enters each sepulcher and a few spawn points lurk around the sarcophagi too. The door can't safely be unlocked without first killing the guard.

These are a bit more common in World 1. There's the thing I just said from "Dead Heat", and "Coffin Canyon" ends with a similar series of rooms, the first a graveyard with a locked door and the second another sepulcherville with a hidden switch. The opening stage, "Grave Danger", uses mostly wide graveyards with hidden paths and spawning enemies along either side.

Golem: Within each room, the path to the next room is typically laid before the player. For instance, in the "Dead Heat" sepulcher example, one road leads between a series of tombs and up to the locked gate. Meanwhile, each sepulcher is locked and coffins lie ready for ransacking. The thing is, once you open a lock or open a coffin, you're liable to trigger an enemy spawning. A quick playthrough will stick to the road, while a full clear will open up each sepulcher.

Enemies spawn only when Maximo gets close enough, so exploration comes with the risk of damage. Maximo rarely obscures the main path, making such excursions a choice rather than the result of haphazard trial-and-error.


Clearly Maximo: Ghosts to Glory has a lot going on. We'll be back with part 2 to fill you in on the back half of the game, the bosses, and our final impressions!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

What I'm Playing, December '14

at 1:10 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

December just goes to show that two weeks off is a lot of time to work on video games. People always act like it's weird or bad to take off work to do the thing I enjoy most in life: stay at home, sleep in, relax, play video games, and watch movies. Like somehow it's lazy of me to want to do those things, but going to the beach to get drunk for a week is this grand achievement. Sorry I enjoy things that you don't, other people. Sorry! Bye bye!

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing

Mighty Final Fight (NES / 3DS VC)

This kind of dumb game brings Final Fight to your NES in a package that is admittedly more complete than the SNES port (it has all 3 characters but still no 2-player). There are also some Final Fight 3-ish special moves that I actually barely figured out and definitely didn't need to easily beat the game. My opinion on Final Fight and Capcom beat-em-ups has always been that they're overly simple and boring. Mighty Final Fight fits that generalization, but being a more condensed game at least presents a clear vision of you know what I'm just going to do a Weekly Beat-Em-Up on this. I like doing those.

Ultimate NES Remix (3DS VC)

Probably definitely shouldn't have bought this one. The premise of challenges built into NES games I've already played isn't that enticing. Then again, I loved indiezero's Retro Game Challenge and people on the Internet said "this is RGC but for real!" Also, the idea of remix stages which trade elements between games - like playing as Link in Donkey Kong! - seemed pretty neat.

While the game is addictive enough to beat, the content isn't nearly as complete as a comparison to Retro Game Challenge suggests. Where Challenge presented eight complete games and open-solution challenges within them ("beat Stage 1 without dying", "collect 1000 gold pieces"), Remix is more like WarioWare, where you are dropped arbitrarily into a situation and given an immediate goal ("kill all three Goombas on screen", "grab the 1UP before it falls"). In both cases the challenges are used to teach the player about the game, but RGC teaches the player goals and lets them learn the means, while Remix explicitly explains mechanics and tasks. This is what makes it a minigame collection while RGC was an anthology.

The game works with that premise, but is ultimately diminished by the lack of originality in the remix stages. While a few transplant elements from one game to another (play as SMB2 Peach in Lost Levels or play stage 1-1 of SMB in SMB3), most just add arbitrary restrictions that don't qualify as remixing so much as adding difficulty. For instance, decreasing the sight radius in SMB3 or giving Glass Joe a one-hit-KO punch in Punch-Out!!. There is way too much repetition in the remixes - considering there are only 50 such stages (75 if you count the bonus stages) and 16 games to work with, you'd expect each to be represented a couple times. Yet the vast majority of the remixes concentrate on the Mario games, with almost no creative takes on Kid Icarus, Excitebike, Kirby's Adventure, or half the other included titles. I realize Mario is the fan-favorite, but what's the point of reviving all these other games if you aren't going to give them any attention? The Mario games are the ones everyone's already played a million times (and that stand alone best) - Kid Icarus and Metroid for instance benefit much more from remixing.

Games Finished

Maximo: Ghosts to Glory (PS2)

The PS2 era sorta-Ghosts 'n Goblins game that was handled by Capcom's Western division. Check out the Platformer of the Month feature for more coverage.

Secret of Mana (SNES / Wii VC)

Secret of Mana belongs to an elite club of games that I've done a complete 180 on, from unmitigated dismissal to unmitigated fandom (Wonder Boy 3 and Max Payne 3 are two others I can think of right now). Mana is a weird game, built around a mixed real-time/turn-based combat system, AI companions, and usage-based leveling. The trick, as I've written before, is taking it in context of WRPGs rather than JRPGs. This isn't a slow-paced action game. It's a turn-based game with real-time positioning.

Getting the dragon and free open-world travel makes a big difference too. The game starts off with a weirdly cumbersome map - it's mostly linear, but there are islands you need to jump between, which requires finding the right cannon to take you where you need to go. Not a huge deal until you set the game aside for five months and come back without any idea how to get around or sane world structure to help. The dragon opens things up, making it easier to revisit areas and allowing quite a bit of non-linear exploration.

Maybe I fixate more on how I've come to like Mana than why I like it because the latter answer is simple. 1.) It has an incredible soundtrack. 2.) Character-building is entirely player-determined - you not only pick your fights, but pick which weapons/magic to use and in turn upgrade. 3.) Real-time combat provides strategic non-deterministic positioning - i.e. you can change the way a fight goes just by standing in a different place. 4.) Good boss fights that require unique puzzle-solving (e.g. the wall that heals itself and closes in on you). 5.) Minimal story.

Ninja Gaiden (NES / Wii VC)

Part of the Immaculate Conception of NES platformers, Ninja Gaiden alongside Super Mario Bros. 3, Mega Man 2, Castlevania, and Super C defined what it meant to be an action game in the late 1980s. Though they're all challenging in their own right, Ninja Gaiden is the one best known for insane difficulty. So perhaps it's fitting that it took me longer to beat than any other game I've ever played - yes, I've been working on Ninja Gaiden for approximately 20 years now, since I first got it on NES around age 6.

That being the case, I was kinda surprised that I knocked it out in a single sitting in just a couple hours. If ever I was led to suspect my new ADD meds are making me better at video games, this seems like proof.

Anyway, this is one of my higher ranked NES games, though I've never pretended to like NES games all that much. This is just one game that has satisfying action AND cool art AND great music.

Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos (NES / Wii VC)

This one increases the complexity of the level design with gimmicks, and of enemies with tracking behaviors, making for a more refined, but perhaps less distinguished version of its predecessor. It was actually the first one I beat - I picked it up as a reprieve from Ninja Gaiden II '08 and before I knew it was facing off against the final boss. Maybe it's familiarity, but this one also feels like it has the smoothest difficulty curve in the series. And the best music. But that ninja shadow gimmick is lame.

Actually against bosses the shadows are pretty cool to manipulate tactically. It's just in levels that they're pointless.

Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom (NES / Wii VC)

The least popular of the original trilogy, this one was hurt mostly by history. After the departure of the creative lead on the previous two games, the former art director took over. I don't know what that means, but what resulted was a game that is thematically the tightest but poorly balanced. It also feels a lot more flat and linear than the previous two, even if it makes solid use of unique level elements. The enemy design feels like a step down from 2, heavily featuring stationary turrets that slow the game's pace.

Worst of all Ninja Gaiden III had a rough localization process. See, as originally developed, the game is clearly the easiest of the three. It is much more linear and has a password system, lots of 1-ups, and gracious power-ups placement. This original Japanese version is what I played. The localization unit felt the game was too easy for a series known for sadistic difficulty - honestly, I agree - but they went too far in ramping up the challenge. Limited continues is an obnoxious twist that Ninja Gaiden had never needed before. Piled on top of way more enemies and double damage rates, they ensure the North American edition is a serious chore.

Ninja Gaiden II (Xbox 360)

What a delight this was. I genuinely do not understand why this game was ill-received or how reviewers had the audacity to call it redundant. Where Ninja Gaiden '04 is an action adventure that mixes Prince of Persia platforming with Zelda mazes and Devil May Cry beating them up, Ninja Gaiden II is pure murder action. It's more intense for it, and certainly harder to take in long sessions, but if it's fast-paced combat you like, this is the one to go for. Haven't put much time into hard (Mentor) mode yet, but if this isn't a new classic, I'm not Sammy Davis Jr., and I don't even know who that is.

I have more to say about Ninja Gaiden II, but I'll save it for the game of the year awards....

Ninja Gaiden Black (Xbox / Xbox Originals)

Alright truth time. I beat this one many years back, but I got so caught up in Ninja Gaiden Christmas Fever that I felt like I had to blow through it again. So, while technically this does not belong on this list, I just wanted to see a fifth Ninja Gaiden. It's an addiction, you know?

Black remains it's totally own awesome thing. It's slow and methodical, simple with inputs and weapons, and ultimately a game that is all about the enemies. NGII gets so bogus fast that it's hard to keep track of individuals so much as group tendencies, and the game's preference for large homogeneous groups emphasizes that. Black, by comparison, is nearly a fighting game. You need to know every move from every enemy and how to respond accordingly. Flying Swallow the military guy when he reloads? Always counter claw fiends as soon as they materialize? Izuna Drop, Izuna Drop, Izuna Drop? It seems a bit rigid, but enemy movement is so dynamic and the environments so varied that learning techniques gives way to adapting them to spacing.

It's also extremely cool that the game introduces new enemies for higher difficulties and Mission Mode - and I don't just mean more powerful palette swaps, I mean entirely new enemies. The speed also picks up as things get harder - I think I'd say the first stage of Hard mode is paced comparably to the first stage of NGII normal (Warrior) mode.

Games Started

Superhero League of Hoboken (MSDOS)

This is sort of a point-and-click-adventure-meets-RPG, but really it's just an RPG with a point-and-click interface. It's interesting to see a game with finite random battles (win enough and they go away), and I definitely like that there are no healing spells or items. I could really get into this game... if it wasn't called Superhero League of Hoboken. Unfortunately the 90s comic book humor really doesn't work for me here any better than in Comix Zone. It's occasionally funny, but generally just plain ugly.

If you think this image is funny, you will love this game.

One and Done

Bonk 3: Bonk's Big Adventure (Turbografx-16 / Wii VC)

Was doing a Let's Play of this, probably should save my commentary for the video. It's alright, not the worst Bonk I've played and not the best. Bonk just isn't that great a series. It seems pretty decent when it's been half a decade since I seriously played a Mario game, but then I play Super Mario Bros. 2 or New Super Mario Bros. Wii for 20 minutes and realize it's not. I did beat it, though not very impressively.