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.

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