Monthly Archives: April 2014

Game Boy Demakes: Max Payne

This is a part of a continuing series of posts covering Game Boy downports of popular console titles. You can find a detailed introduction here.

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Max Payne for the GBA was released in 2003, a little over two years after the PC version. With a story essentially identical to the PC game, Max Payne tells the violent noir tragedy of the titular character, an undercover agent investigating the trade of Valkyr, a new illegal substance that has appeared on the streets of New York. While probing a bank robbery, Max is framed for the killing of his only contact on the right side of justice. Against his better judgment, Max then sets out on a bloody quest to gain vengeance against those who would destroy him, ultimately resulting in him confronting the root cause of the Valkyr trade.

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For the handheld version, we see the popular noir third person action title converted into an isometric shooter. As one might imagine, this has many drawbacks. Max will often get attacked by unseen enemies just off screen which can get frustrating in some of the more wide open environments where it is difficult to pinpoint where those enemies are. Also, Max is only able to shoot in the direction he’s facing which can make evasion of enemy fire difficult, as you can only move in the direction you’re trying to fire in. In addition, there’s some light platforming which can be difficult since it’s hard to gauge relative positions in 3D space (if you’ve ever played Landstalker, you know this is a problem for isometric games). The problem with platforming is exacerbated since missing a jump results in instant death, and, unlike the PC version where you can quick save anywhere, the GBA version only allows four deaths before the entire level must be restarted again.

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It may sound like a frustrating game, but many of these idiosyncrasies are alleviated somewhat by the game’s bullet time. Max Payne is well known as possibly the first game to deploy a Matrix-style “bullet time” feature which allows players to slow down time and line up shots. The bullet time is limited by a timer which can be replenished with each kill. It seems that they were very conscious with the problems of aiming controls, as the GBA version is very generous with its timer, and it’s something you will need to rely on heavily to make it through the game successfully. Because of the aforementioned issues with combat, you will probably spend most of your time in bullet time where it’s far easier to aim. Consequently, the game is often rather bereft of challenge.

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Max Payne GBA tells essentially the same story as the much lauded PC version. Many of the set pieces remain, such as storming Club Ragnarock and the rooftop chase of Vinni Gognitti. While the combat can be sketchy in the handheld version, it does manage to nail the moodiness and gloom of the original. The game is fully voice acted, with many of the original’s lines intact. Cutscenes are also in the familiar comic book panel style. Some fans will be glad to hear that the dream sections of Max’s family are largely no longer playable sections, instead relegated to cutscenes.

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It’s difficult for me to recommend this game, even to Max Payne fans. While it completely manages to capture the atmosphere of the original game in spite of the lo-fi GBA graphics, the core game play is only okay at best. I won’t say it’s terrible, as it usually offers a means of working around its idiosyncrasies, but it’s really not exceptional either. And if you’ve already played the original version, you basically know the story (and if you haven’t, you should go play that version).

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Thomas Was Alone: A Lesson on the Importance of Storytelling in Games

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I often get frustrated by a great deal of video game narrative these days. Particularly in big budget action games at retail, storytelling in games is often trite, shallow, staged with samey-characters and saturated with the same repeating tropes and plot twists. Considering how obsessed big developers are with giving claims to high quality storytelling, they are essentially all telling the same one: There is a guy on a mission which requires him to fight a lot of people. Maybe the details differ a little bit from game to game. Maybe it’s a woman instead of a guy, or maybe instead of a gun, it’s a sword, or maybe instead of fighting people, they’re fighting robots. But essentially it’s the same template of an ultraviolent quest, only framed with different motives and setting.

In no other storytelling medium are the narratives so singularly focused on chronicling the exploits of characters with huge body counts. In film, we have violent action movies like Terminator and Aliens, but we also have a large number of movies where not a single character ever dies or is involved in an act of violence (go look at most of the critically acclaimed movies from last year). But the vast majority of video games are about powerful protagonists at the center of violent conflicts.

I understand that there are practical reasons, both technical and commercial, for why this is the case, but that doesn’t change the fact that all these games are in overly-trodden territory. Of course, there are a few good examples of games that manage to get away from the action game template, to varying degrees of success. Most of these games are descendants of the old-school adventure genre (not Tomb Raider-style adventure games, but games like Monkey Island and Gabriel Knight), such as The Walking Dead and Beyond: Two Souls. But these games are the exception, not the rule, and I’ve become tired with the situation I see. I have become a big fan of games that just get to the point and don’t weigh me down with excessive cutscenes or scripted events. It’s one reason I’ve tilted so much to indie games lately.

And man have I just played a good one, one that actually reaffirms to me the reason why games are even given stories in the first place. Back when it was released in 2010, I completely disregarded Thomas Was Alone. The game’s extremely minimalist aesthetics and gameplay led me to believe that it was just another indie game trying to be over cleverly, and in truth it is totally that. But the game attempts to deliver a message of hopefulness and wonder, and it completely succeeds at that.

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Thomas Was Alone is a game about a cast of quadrilaterals who have recently come into existence and are trying to cross a series of abstract landscapes. The gameplay is incredibly simple. You switch between the quadrilateral characters present on the level and guide them to their character-specific exits. Cooperation is key, as certain characters have special abilities that need to be exploited to get other characters closer to the goal. For example, there is a large blue square named Claire who can float on water which is lethal to the rest of the crew. You can position the other characters on top of her and ferry them across otherwise uncrossable expanses. Another example, John, is a tall skinny rectangle which other characters can jump on to reach higher ledges.

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As you play the game, the narrator periodically speaks up to provide insight into what the rectangles and squares are feeling and thinking. There is a meta-story going on here in which we are told that Thomas and his friends are actually emergent AI that are awakening into existence for the first time. As they cross the cyber landscapes before them, they grow to question the nature of their existence, their relationships to each other, and most importantly, the purpose they serve in being alive. Each quadrilateral is given their own personality, which is often influenced by the circumstances of their births. Thomas is the first to come into being and he is curious, observant, and afraid of being alone. Chris is a short rectangle who is often jealous of Thomas for being taller and able to jump higher. James is different from the others in that he falls upwards against gravity, and consequently feels like an outsider to the group. And there’s so many more. As the group’s journey evolves and their understanding of their destiny deepens, their relationships grow in a believable, deeply sincere way. They fall in love, become uplifted, become humbled, become enlightened, and ultimately accept the truth of their situation. Basic shapes they may be, but they are in some ways more human than most human characters of other games.

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The thing is, Thomas Was Alone is an incredibly minimalist game. It’s a very simple puzzle platformer with character designs that are nothing more than basic shapes. If I was to mute the audio and ignore the subtitles, the game could be confused with someone’s first attempt at a flash game. But with narration, suddenly the game becomes so much more. You begin to feel for Thomas and his friends as they face the world for the first time. Through their successes and struggles, these little rectangles come alive. It is a tale of innocence and selflessness, with violence completely absent.

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And thus, I come to realize the importance of narrative in games. The context given by the narration contributes so much to my feelings toward the game. Without it, this simple game would have been completely forgettable. As visually abstract as the presentation is, I ultimately cared about the trials of these rectangles and was vested in seeing through the path their journey would take. And, as goofy as it sounds, their fateful endings will have a lasting impact on me. If Hotline Miami is a game about the irrelevance of game plots, Thomas Was Alone is its opposite, a demonstration of the impact these narratives can have on gameplay.

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So in the end, I came out a little bit wiser about storytelling in gaming. I realize now that the context it can provide can enhance the experience, not merely distract from it. I only wish we could see game design branch out farther, and not simply be restrained to aggressive tales of walking personifications of power fantasies.

Gaming’s Top 5 Busted Laws of Physics

Virtual worlds tend not to have a close relationship with the order of the natural universe. Considering the enormous complexity modern physics uses to describe the governances of reality, it’s perhaps not surprising that the limited worlds coded by humans often have difficulty providing accurate replication of many physical principles. As someone who’s studied physical sciences for a long time, aspects of gaming worlds that violate well established natural principles can sometimes stick out like a sore thumb. I compiled the following list as a fun, only marginally serious examination of these inaccuracies. A lot of these exist for good reasons related to game design and the experience that is trying to be crafted, but others exist as the result of either intentional or unintentional oversight.

 

5. Sound needs a medium to propagate

Issue: There is no sound in space.

This one is a bit of a low-hanging fruit that is mentioned constantly, and it is a scientific faux pas that permeates science fiction and space opera across the range of audiovisual arts. From Star Wars and Trek to Wing Commander, Starcraft and a whole lot of shmups, loud boisterous explosions and other exciting clamors are often heard reverberating through the vacuum of space during the great clashes of star faring factions. Of course, space is permeated by an incredibly low pressure of gas (density is roughly on the order of a few atoms per cubic meter), which simply cannot carry sound as depicted by these great space epics. The intention is of course clear, as these sounds are used to convey the calamity of battle. I’ve always wondered though, what would a space battle feel like without the din of war? I actually think it might be a little creepy and unsettling to watch starships zip through the emptiness of space, unleashing blazing munitions on each other, and bursting into balls of fire all in deafening silence.

 

4. First Law of Thermodynamics

Issue: Energy is neither created nor destroyed.

This one is a little more complicated, so stick with me here for a moment. Depending on how you look at it, respawns violate this law, as well as how enemy bodies just sort of vanish after they die. When your character dies, say in Unreal Tournament or something modern like Halo, a new body for the player just sort of magically materializes out of the ether. This is a violation of conservation of energy, as new matter (which is linked to energy by Einstein’s famous equation) is spontaneously generated during such an event. You may be able to argue around this one if, perhaps, the player’s former body disappears at the same time as the player respawns, so that total quantity of matter doesn’t change. And while in a lot of shooters dead bodies tend to disappear after a short amount of time which allows for matter to eventually be balanced, the contradiction of thermodynamics is far more definite in RPGs like Diablo, where the player actually goes off on corpse runs to recover loot off of their mortal remains.

There are of course obvious game design reasons for a character to miraculous rematerialize after death, and it is a topic that has been discussed in more existential and philosophical terms when relating to the impermanence of death in video games. Another violation of this law is the hammer space that so many video game characters seem to have access to. Character inventories are often rarely visually depicted as being on their person. When they draw a gun or an item it usually just materializes out of thin air. One glaring example of this that gave me a chuckle was in Metal Gear Solid 4 when Solid Snake carries a large oil drum to conceal himself in. When drawn from his inventory, suddenly this oil drum that is wider than Snake and almost as tall suddenly just appears. It’s a lot easier to suspend disbelief when only relatively small items like guns and health packs vanish and reappear at will.

 

3. Coulomb’s Law

Issue: Like charges repel, unlike charges attract.

Coulomb’s Law is the inverse square law that governs the forces that electrical charges exert on one another. It is also at least partly the reason that solid objects cannot pass through one another. When two atoms are forced into close proximity, electron clouds from each atom begin to overlap and the negative charges repel each other (the Pauli Exclusion Principle also plays a role here). There are of course countless situations in video games where solid objects briefly exist in the same place at the same time. A common example is in multiplayer shooters where often members of the same team can pass through one another with great ease. Other examples are those kinds of walls that can be walked through to gain access to secret areas, or how when a player takes damage in a sidescroller they are usually given a few frames of invincibility that allow them to cross enemies unharmed. The reasons for these things are of course clear. Players can pass through teammates to make less hassle, secret hiding places in games are just fun, and invincibility frames keep enemies from trapping players and becoming one hit kills.

 

2. Newton’s First Law of Motion

Issue: An object in motion tends to stay in motion. An object at rest tends to stay at rest.

This is a big pet peeve of mine in a lot of video games, especially platformers. Consider what happens if, say, you were riding a train and decided to jump straight up. In the real world, you will land in roughly the same spot on the train as you jumped (assuming the train is travelling at a constant speed in a constant direction). This is a result of Newton’s First Law of Motion; essentially it is your inertia that would keep you moving in the same direction as the train, not the friction of your feet on the train floor.

In a lot of games, this is not what happens. In many games, if, say, your character is riding a moving platform, jumping straight up will cause the character to remain in the same horizontal position relative to the screen, not relative to the platform. Essentially your character flies backwards relative to the moving platform. Even games lauded for quality, such as the Super Mario Bros. 3 and Sonic the Hedgehog, suffer from this bizarre distortion of Newtonian mechanics. Half-Life has an example of this that has always hit a nerve with me. In the start of the game while riding the tram into Black Mesa, if you press the spacebar and jump, Gordon goes flying backwards and slams into the back of the tramcar. It’s sort of a hilarious “bug” for a game about a MIT-graduated physicist working in a high-level government research program.

Unlike double jumping or sound in space, there’s not necessarily a good reason for this to occur in the game. It is more a product of crude coding (or perhaps a bad understanding of motion) than a functional game design choice, and, unlike the others on this list, the sheer way in which this one annoys me gives it a place here.

 

1. Newton’s Third Law of Motion

Issue: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The principal violator of this law is air control, but double jumping violates this principle as well. What would games be without air control, a complete violation of Newton’s Third Law of Motion? When in midair, a human (or humanoid) has very little ability to control their trajectory without some sort of wings or propulsive equipment, yet Mario, Megaman, Sonic, and most sidescrolling heroes have the uncanny gift of being able to slide midair in whatever horizontal direction they please. Not only that, but it is often required they perform this fantastical feat to complete their quests. There are a few occurrences of sidescrollers where this is not allowed, Castlevania and Another World come to mind. In these games, the spot you’ll land is entirely determined by the spot (and forcefulness) of your jump, as it would be in the real world. This, of course, can be used to make games more challenging and methodical, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

This one ranks at the top of the list because it just makes games so much more amusing. Remember the parts in Megaman games where you’re falling and have to slyly maneuver yourself through a curving pit of wall to wall spikes? What would Mario or Sonic be like if you couldn’t alter your course midair by just a little bit to perfectly land on that goomba or badnik?   Super Meat Boy’s in-flight agility is what makes that game so enjoyably fast and fluid. I could go on with countless examples of how air control is just fun. So while it’s not accurate, it’s highly appealing. Which is fine, as slavish devotion to reality needn’t be a requirement for a good virtual world.

Game Boy Demakes: Daikatana

Across its long and successful reign over portable gaming, companies always found serious value in porting their console games and franchises to the Game Boy brand. But because of the platform’s relative technological primitiveness, these handheld ports often had to undergo serious downgrades and workarounds to maintain playability on the reduced hardware. For instance, in Super Mario Bros. DX, the low resolution of the Game Boy Color screen meant that the camera is much more zoomed in on Mario and less of the level is immediately visible. To combat this problem, Nintendo allowed for a limited ability to actually scroll backwards in the game, which was not possible in the original. Others contended with the limited memory of Game Boy cartridges, such as with the Megaman ports which saw a reduced robot master count.

Things started to get even trickier in the mid- to late-90s when console gaming became largely polygonal. Suddenly, downports had to become a great deal more imaginative in how they translated new 3D games into enjoyable experiences for the stalwartly 2D and 8-bit Game Boy and Game Boy Color machines. I’ve always had an interest in these Game Boy “demakes” of popular series. It’s an interesting display of game design skills when you see how developers handle converting their near inextricably 3D games into 2D throwbacks. Some succeeded quite well at this test, and others failed abysmally. Here, I’m going to kick off a short series of posts I have planned for these Game Boy demakes, where I discuss which ones aced it and which ones fell flat.

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I think it is fitting to start the series off with a portable translation that actually managed to outdo its originator. The original Daikatana is a notorious PC FPS from the lavishly acquainted Ion Storm, which was helmed by John Romero, one of the principal designers of the legendary Doom. The product of a long and tortuous development cycle, which received a great deal of attention because of Romero’s fame, Daikatana is unfortunately known for being something of a mess in terms of game design. After a notoriously aggressive (and some would consider offensive) marketing campaign, Daikatana became a punchline for bad video game jokes. The game focuses on protagonist Hiro Miyamoto, whose ancestors forged the mythical Daikatana, a lost blade which can sever the fabric of time itself. In the dystopian future Hiro finds himself living, the world is ruled by the despotic Kage Mishima, who had successfully unearthed the long missing Daikatana and used its powers of time travel to alter the course of history to result in his ascension to global domination. In a failed attempt to wrest the sword from Mishima, Hiro is cast into the past and sets out to return to the future with companions Mikiko Ebihara and Superfly Johnson. The game sees the characters off through time periods such as Ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, and the modern day.

The AI partners Mikiko and Superfly are an important part of the original game, as they are almost always with you and are a constant source of ire. They have notoriously incompetent path finding, often either getting stuck in the level or just stubbornly getting in your way. The game has plenty of issues beyond inept partners as well. All in all, the level design is notoriously sloppy and confusing, and later sections have absurdly finicky platforming sections that make Xen feel like a stage in Super Mario World. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone defend this game, which says something. Usually a bad game will have at least a few champions out there, but I’ve never heard a word in favor of Daikatana.

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But enough about the awful PC game, this is about the Game Boy Color port, which is actually quite stellar! Released in 2000 shortly after the PC version, Daikatana on Game Boy Color sees the FPS converted into a top-down action adventure game. The story is essentially the same, with Hiro being joined by Superfly and Mikiko on an adventure across time to regain control of the Daikatana. However, instead of hopeless AI partners, Hiro’s companions mostly travel with him unseen, kind of like how in Final Fantasy the party is represented by just the main protagonist outside of battle. Occasionally, you will switch control from Hiro to one of the companions, but functionally all the characters are almost the same. This immediately turns your traveling buddies into bros, as opposed to frustrating deadweight.

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The gameplay bears a fair resemblance to Zelda, or at least it would if Zelda had guns. Combat is noticeably somewhat loose. Sometimes the game will have enemies firing at Hiro while he is confined in a tight area, leaving no way to dodge incoming fire. This is probably most pronounced in the first area of the game though, and afterwards combat becomes much more likeable. There are no Zelda-style dungeons per say, but puzzle solving and exploration permeates most of the levels, as well as platforming which is, at worst, unobjectionable.

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The GBC version has levels that, in terms of length, are far more concise than the PC counterpart. That is not to say they are too short, however. They are long enough to be memorable, while still maintaining the on-the-go nature a portable game needs. This contrasts well with the monotony that sets in during so much of the sloggish PC version.

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Everything in this game just seems to work so much more smoothly than its PC counterpart. The time-traveling adventure of these characters becomes so much more interesting and memorable when it’s actually attached to a game that is worthwhile to play. Granted they may as well be completely different games since their only similarity is in plot. I would hope someday it would see a release on 3DS Virtual Console, but the rights are likely controlled by Square Enix (via Eidos), and they have yet to release their more prominent Game Boy games, meaning the lesser known Daikatana has next to no chance. Nonetheless, I highly recommend Daikatana to those with an interest in the GBC library.

Tower of Guns and Indie Trends

Indie games tend to latch on to certain trends. In the same way that the 2008 release of Braid led to a raft of indie puzzle platformers with unique visual identities, the 2012 commercial releases of Spelunky and FTL seem to have done the same with roguelike hybrids. Steam in particular now sees tons of releases, such as Rogue Legacy, Teleglitch, and Don’t Starve, which contend to be “rogue-like-likes” or “rogue-lites”, games which ditch the turn-based RPG nature of true roguelikes and instead concentrate on the randomization and survival aspects for which that genre was known. Enter Tower of Guns, one of the latest Steam releases to follow the trend of splicing such elements into more familiar game styles; in this case, it’s an FPS with permadeath and lots of randomization. The result is something closer to Rogue Legacy, with a heavy focus on fast-paced combat, as opposed to Spelunky, which is closer to its roguelike inspirations, placing emphasis on exploration and survival tactics.

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Tower of Guns tasks the player with ascending the titular structure, a massive death gauntlet populated with randomly generated levels stocked with giant turrets and robots firing full throttle with the player in their sights. Combat is similar to the original Quake, fast-paced and highly mobile. There is little cover in the game, and certainly no chest-high walls to hide behind, so players spend most of their time dodging and weaving through enemy fire, while delivering their own return volley. Level construction is similar to Rogue Legacy, with each level consisting of a randomized arrangement of prebuilt rooms, with enemy placement in each room being randomized as well. Permadeath is an important element in the game. If you die, the tower is generated again and you start your climb anew. Unlike Rogue Legacy, there is no persistent leveling in the game, but the selection of weapons and perks expands as certain achievements are completed in the game.

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While the infusion of roguelike elements might not be the freshest idea out there right now, the game does make it work. Like Spelunky and FTL, it does manage to capture the “one more go” impulse you feel upon death in those games. And the dynamic Quake-like combat is super-refreshing when compared to the sluggish nature of today’s shooters. Quite frankly, cover is something I’m growing tired with in modern action games. Hiding behind a chest-high wall and peeking out to fire at an enemy who’s playing the same game of peekaboo on the other end of the map just doesn’t create the same adrenaline pumping experience as games which require quick agility to avoid damage. Thus, Tower of Guns finds itself in the modern company of games like Vanquish, Serious Sam 3, and Hard Reset, which keep the player quick on their feet. And while the enemies, a collection of turrets and robots, aren’t the most visually imaginative foes, they do have an unrelenting tenaciousness that forces players to take them seriously. You won’t quickly forget the first time you see a turret fire a barrage of giant bullets in your direction.

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If I have any reservation about the game, it’s that I’m unsure if it will have quite the same longevity as something like Spelunky, a game which I still play frequently over a year after its release. I keep likening the game to Rogue Legacy, and I have the same attitude for that game. These games don’t have quite the same level of secrets and mysteries that has kept me coming back to Spelunky so often. This is not to say that Tower of Guns is something I plan to put down soon. Nearing 10 hours, I’m still hooked on the rush the game delivers. I hope, though, that the developer will continue to provide support for the game and maybe expand the weapon selection (there are currently only 8 weapons) and add additional difficulty levels (to my knowledge there is only one).

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Finally, one more thing with regards to the roguelike trend, I think I’m enjoying it more than I enjoyed the puzzle platformer binge from earlier years, which, with a few exceptions (such as Fez and Limbo), started getting old fairly fast.   I feel like the emphasis on gameplay in this new trend works to its advantage over the artistic focus of the early puzzle platformers. When this type of game is done right, such as in ToG, indie developers have shown that they can craft truly compelling gameplay experiences. And since most modern big budget games are focusing heavily on highly-controlled cinematic experiences, these indie crafts are a breath of fresh air.

Volgarr the Viking and the 2D Gaming Renaissance

There are a lot of games which make use of retro-style, big pixel graphics, but which are nothing like those which appeared on true 8 and 16 bit gaming machines of the past. Fez is one such game. During the interminable wait for this game’s release, it grabbed gamer’s attention through its vibrant retro aesthetic, demonstrating pixelated worlds that captured people’s imagination. The actual game however is one of extraordinary originality and creativity, filled with not just amazing pixelated vistas, but also mind expanding environmental puzzles of a type rarely used in game design. Another example is FTL, which uses relatively simple graphics to convey your epic journey across the stars to thwart your rebel pursuers. The gameplay, on the other hand, is a fluid real time strategy survival setup of which no analogue exists from the days before IBM PC became the standard.

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One game I’ve been playing recently that tries hard to be true to the games of the quainter era, not just in style but in spirit, is Volgarr the Viking. An action platformer similar to something like Rygar or Rastan, its sports the obligatory big pixel graphics (although for some reason a really gross filter is on by default, which makes everything look like a smeared MS Paint image.) It also tries to be as nails hard as some of these older games, with limited health pickups and only one checkpoint in each world. Enemies and obstacles are fiendishly placed, as the game is unrelenting in its goal to see you die. And players will die. Over. And Over. And Over.

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But in its obsession with retro-styled difficulty, Volgarr betrays its modernity. The remorseless death gauntlets of Volgarr have a level of planning and thought that was almost nonexistent in its poorly designed 8-bit counterparts. There is nothing cheap or unfair about Volgarr. As you die over and over, it will become apparent that every obstacle and every enemy can be overcome with the right move and the right reflex. Each level begins utterly intimidating and seemingly insurmountable, but with patience and astuteness, you learn its ways. And after more deaths than anyone would care to count, the level becomes instinctual and you barrel through it with far greater ease. Then you defeat a boss, and the whole daunting process starts fresh in the next level. But as long as you hone your skills, the game will eventually yield. Thus there is a quality to Volgarr’s level design that was uncommon in the Master System and TG16 games from which it takes inspiration. Games like Rygar, Rastan, and Shinobi were mostly cheap and borderline unfair, requiring some level of luck over skill to manage your way through things like poor collision detection, finicky respawning enemies, flickering sprites and slowdown, etc. Game design was just a little more crude in those days. We enjoyed it though, because that’s what we had at the time. Volgarr, on the other hand, is a far more polished experience.

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And that’s okay I think. There is an idea that I feel is all to commonly held that modern 2D games exists just to feed a desire to recapture nostalgic experiences. And I think that’s a terrible way of thinking. I think the possibilities of modern hardware and the openness of digital storefronts should be taken advantage of to create new experiences, not desperately reconstruct some bygone ideal. Loathe as some people would be to admit, modern consoles like the 360 and PS3 are superior 2D gaming machines to the likes of Super Nintendo and GBA. The high resolution output of modern machines allows not just for a prettier image on an HD display, but also a greater density of detail to be invested in the game image. Games like Super Meat Boy, which is based upon a tiny character frantically hurling himself through an imposing gauntlet of obstacles in near full view to the player, or Fez with its minutely detailed environments would not have been possible at low, early 90s resolutions. Further compare movement in a game like Super Mario World to that of New Super Mario Bros. Wii or Rayman to Rayman Origins. Modern processors allow for fast and fluid movements, which didn’t exist in the relatively stiffer platformers of the 90’s (the arguable apex of popularity for 2D platformers).

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I feel like there is a 2D gaming renaissance going on right now with so many exciting new ideas like Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, Don’t Starve, and Mark of the Ninja to name a few. There are way more ideas in this arena today than there were in the years when everyone was trying to clone Mario and Sonic’s success. Yes, 2D games are almost nonexistent among games that come in $59.99 boxes, which is a point that some people out there get really hung up on when talking about the quality of modern 2D games. But I personally see no reason why digital titles should be considered less valid than those placed on store shelves. It’s true also that some people have accused big pixel graphics of being a gimmick used to bait people’s nostalgia. While there are some games that do rely on retro-aesthetics to try to overcome insipid gameplay, I feel that’s far from a universal case, and it can be a perfectly valid part of a creator’s honest artistic vision.

Donkey Kong on Game Boy: Why Can’t Mario Be Weird Anymore

Donkey Kong on Game Boy; or, Why Can’t Mario Be Weird Anymore?

The Donkey Kong arcade machine was a really cool game in its day, but with four relatively simplistic, single-screen levels, it has been almost completely eclipsed by its descendants, Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Country. While I think new gamers today could get in and enjoy the old SMB and DKC games, I think the original Donkey Kong would probably fail to make an impression.

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Fortunately though, in 1994 (the same year as the release of Rare’s Donkey Kong Country), a new version of Donkey Kong was released for the original monochrome Game Boy. This version begins in a familiar way, four levels, starting with the iconic barrels and ladders stage. But this time, after what should be the romantic reunion of Mario and Pauline, the defeated beast climbs to his feet, grabs the dame, and tears across 10 unique worlds of a much greater and expanded quest for Mario. These new levels are far more faithful to the original idea of Donkey Kong than perhaps Super Mario Bros. ever was. While SMB was composed of left to right obstacle courses, terminating in a flagpole, DK GB levels are generally much smaller, mimicking the arcade original and mostly never exceeding 2 or 3 screens in size. The goal is relatively simple; in each short level there is a key which you must bring to a locked door to successfully exit the level. Complicating this task is that while carrying the key, Mario’s movements are greatly restricted. He can’t jump as high, climb ladders or ropes, or enter tight spaces. Ultimately, a bit of puzzle solving is usually required to get the key to the exit. While puzzle platformers are super common today, they were less so in 1994, which the game somewhat unique.

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When this game came out, I think it surprised a lot of people with how epic of an adventure it really was. The smaller level designs felt like Donkey Kong, although being more puzzle like in nature, and the concise and focused arcade style gameplay felt like a natural fit for the portable Game Boy. The puzzle-like levels are also filled with a ton of creativity, constantly revealing surprising new elements as the game progresses, which is not especially unusual of Nintendo game design even today.

In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Mario was utterly weird. The Mushroom Kingdom is a bizarre place, filled with an inexplicable network of green pipes (used for transport?) and torn by a conflict between the turtle-like Koopa tribe and the peaceful mushroom people race (strangely called Toads), led by an inexplicably human looking princess and her champion, a portly middle-aged plumber. People have kind of become desensitized to the strangeness of the Mushroom Kingdom, but in those days it fell in alongside other bizarre Mario settings, such as Sarasaland, Subcon, Dinosaur Island, and his Wario-conquered island getaway from Super Mario Land 2.  Amongst these locations, the world of Donkey Kong feels unusual in just how normal it is, taking place seemingly on modern Earth. For instance, after completing the first four arcade levels, Donkey Kong whisks off to the second world, simply known as “Big-City.” These levels take place among modern urban streets and skyscraper rooftops. This is to be sure an unusual place to find a plumber whose exploits are mainly known to occur in the surreal, cartoonish Mushroom Kingdom.

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I guess that kind of brings me to a problem I have with modern Mario games. There is a pervasive lack of new settings to fuel new adventures. The standard Mushroom Kingdom setting, which was initially mystifying, has become routine. In the age before the N64, Mario visited a ton of wild places that we don’t see today, and fought a slew of enemies that weren’t in Bowser’s standard retinue. The Super Mario Land games are a good example of Mario striking out beyond the Mushroom Kingdom’s borders. Nowadays, there is a widely professed lethargy with Mario games, particularly identified with the New Super Mario Bros. series. Unfortunately, most of these games are the same grass-world, desert-world, ice-world blah blah blah archetypes that are regurgitated over and over again. Even Paper Mario has become infected by this lazy trend. Thousand Year door lets you visit a ton of cool setups, like a haunted pirate island and train ride caught in a murder mystery. Super Paper Mario isn’t exactly the height of the series, but it has imaginative chapters like a prehistoric world where cavemen fight a hostile plant race, a spaceship based level, and the private fortress of a giant geeked-out chameleon. The latest release, Sticker Star for the 3DS, however, strips away all that creativity and sticks you in the same grass-world, desert-level, etc. tropes we’ve been playing since SMB3.

Nintendo doesn’t seem super interested in reversing course here either. I kind of hold up Super Mario Galaxy as my ideal in this regard. Shooting Mario off into space offered them a huge playground upon which to foster new ideas. For me, the game did a lot to reinvigorate my lifelong love of Mario, a task for which the more standardized New Super Mario Bros. for the DS fell short. When I started playing Mario as a kid, the thing that drew me most to his adventures was just how inventive and offbeat they were. I kind of wish I could go to my six-year old self while playing SMB3 and tell him, “If you think this is crazy, wait till he goes to space.” But Super Mario Galaxy doesn’t seem to have created a lasting impact. Now we have the 3D Land/World games, which while sometimes inventive, are composed generally of the SMB3 archetypes situated in abstract spaces. While those games have a serviceable fun to them, I don’t feel they do a lot to inspire the imagination.

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So I guess what I’m saying, is that Nintendo needs to tap into its foundational weirdness to really refresh Mario. Leave behind the rote grasslands and deserts and islands to show us something new. Let the goombas and cheep cheeps and koopas have a little bit of a rest while new enemies decide to take up the futile quest of defeating Mario. Let people make new memories of these games, instead of just trying to rustle up sympathy with the old ones. Even if Nintendo isn’t ready to create a radical new invention with Mario, maybe they could at least give a fresh breath to some of their lesser used older ideas. Wouldn’t it be great to return to a 3D envisioning of Subcon, replete with turnip hurling, shadow world, vengeful Phantos, and rocketships that grow in the ground. Or maybe we could see a new envisioning of Donkey Kong for the Game Boy. Imagine Mario chasing DK through a lively modern cityscape!

Although… now that I think about it, Sonic started getting really bad when they entered into real world settings, so maybe we should be careful what we wish for here. But I still have faith in Nintendo. They constantly prove their creative edge, and I feel if they put their heart into it, they could create something great that didn’t rely so heavily on the tired tropes. But nonetheless, DK for the GB is a great game!

Sega 3D Classics: 3D Is More Than Just a Gimmick

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Lately I’ve gotten into the Sega 3D Classics released on the 3DS eshop around Thanksgivings last year. These are a collection of games from both the arcade and Genesis that have been ported to the 3DS with added 3D effects. So far, I’ve bought into Galaxy Force II and Shinobi III, and I have to say, I really like what I’m seeing. Galaxy Force II is a superscaler rail shooter from the arcade, kind of like Afterburner in a spaceship, but with levels that have a little more imagination than what you would find in the latter. So basically think of it as Star Fox made in the mindset of a late ‘80s Sega arcade game. As a game that generates 3D environments with the use of sprite scaling, it’s incredibly impressive on the 3DS, with visuals far more gorgeous and intricate than you may have come to expect from a superscaler game. Shinobi III on the other hand is a port of the well-known Genesis action game, but with depth added to the various background layers and some of the foreground animations. As a sidescroller, the 3D effect is not as striking as that of Galaxy Force, but it does manage to add something extra to the visual charisma of the game.

I actually didn’t know what to expect from these Sega 3D classics, done by known emulation powerhouse M2. At first I was just interested in being able to play these games on the 3DS. Nintendo had earlier experiment with NES games remade in 3D for the system, but this initiative seems to have fallen flat. I think it failed for two reasons. One, the NES is not such a great system for which to do 3D upgrades. Unlike Genesis games which support multiple background layers and parallax scrolling, the NES basically only has a foreground and a background layer. The resultant image in 3D is just that these two layers are slightly displaced in depth. Of the NES classics released, I’ve only tried Kirby, and the effect really did not leave much of an impression on me. The second reason I think Nintendo’s efforts fizzled was that they simply did not choose games that people want or that really benefitted from 3D. Only six games were released, and while Kirby and Excitebike are good games to be sure, other selections were just confounding. No one has ever gotten excited for a rerelease of Urban Champion, and I’m not sure Xevious and Twinbee have huge amounts of enthusiasm in their court. Kid Icarus, on the other hand, definitely has a vocal fanbase, but with most of the backgrounds in the game being either black or monochrome, I can’t imagine it really benefits very much from the 3D effect.

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But where Nintendo has failed, Sega and M2 are showing them how it’s done (on their own hardware nonetheless). The Sega 3D Classics are a selection of six great games (well almost, I’m not so sure about Altered Beast), with a second set currently in the works. To be sure, these games are completely playable without the 3D effect, but they’ve made me come to a realization. I like 3D. I play all my games with 3D turned on, and playing these old, originally 2D games has made me realize just how much I enjoy it.

Although it has a good selection of software, I don’t care so much for the 3DS as a piece of hardware. The screens are low-res and pixelated (an issue exacerbated on the XL), the battery life is not so good, the screen hinge needs to more firmly click into place (screen wobbling drives me crazy), and it’s not especially ergonomic. But one thing I really like about the 3DS is the 3D. Sometimes I turn the 3D off, perhaps because the screen has become dirty, and I immediately feel a little dissatisfied. 3D is certainly not an indispensable feature, but it does add a certain enchanting immersive quality to the image. There is a liveliness there that just doesn’t exist in 2D mode. Some have branded the 3DS screen as a gimmick, but a gimmick is something that exists only for a novelty, and once the novelty wears off it becomes completely disposable. Zooming through the alien worlds of Galaxy Force II just isn’t as exciting when the image is flattened out.

The second set of Sega 3D Classics are currently coming out in Japan. I hope the first set has sold well enough in the U.S. to warrant we get this new round. It seems this time they are focusing a little more on the arcade superscaler games, with three of the games revealed so far being Afterburner II and OutRun. I think the arcade focus benefits them. As I mentioned above, the pseudo-3D environments of these superscaler games benefit more from the treatment than the Genesis sidescrollers. Also, unlike most of Sega’s Genesis games, their arcade games have not been ported and rereleased on a hundred different platforms already.

I come to a sad realization when I write this post in that, although I like 3D, it’s a technology that is probably not going to stick around. 3D TVs were a big push in years past, but now seem to have died out. With the fad over, I’m left with doubts that Nintendo’s next handle will sport the feature. Perhaps there is hope though. If the new high profile VR headsets gain traction, we might actually see a lasting future for 3D entertainment.

Jazzpunk: Fun in Games

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I’ve recently wrapped up Jazzpunk, a new Adult Swim release for PC. Adult Swim Games is probably best known for their iOS and Android releases, but starting with the release of Super House of Dead Ninjas last year, they’ve been quickly building an exciting library of PC releases as well. Jazzpunk is their fifth game, and probably the most Adult Swim-like of their releases so far. For a late-night network focused on comedy and cartoons, most of their PC games have not really been focused on humor. Instead, their catalog mostly consists of skill and challenge focused titles like Super House of Dead Ninjas and Volgarr the Viking.

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Jazzpunk, however, is quite the opposite. A first person game mostly focused on exploration and light puzzle solving, humor definitely dominates over challenge. The setting and characters are ultra-bizarre, in grand Adult Swim style, taking place in a strange retrofuturistic alternate timeline 1960s. You play as Polyblank, a super spy representing the interests of some sort of…ummm….. private …..intelligence…. ring? The setup is super weird and the particulars still baffle me, but that adds the absurdist, sometimes nonsequitir, comedy. The game is mostly a series of short missions that are completed with point-and-click adventure style problem solving. And the puzzles are really simple. I don’t think I ever got stuck once in the game, it was always super obvious how to progress.

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But if you’re just completing the main mission objectives, you’re missing out on a lot of what the game has to offer. Each area is packed with tons of little stuff to interact with on the side. For instance, while on a mission to an exotic beachside resort, you can wander away from the mission and hunt for buried treasure on the beach with a metal detector. The buried ”treasures” you’ll find are all utterly absurd joke items. And the laughs are all you’ll get for doing these “side missions” (for lack of a better word). Going out of your way in this game won’t net you any experience points or any high-class equipment or items to make the game easier. Your reward is simply the enjoyment of the experience.

That is, I think, unfortunately maybe a very strange concept for some. Both game designers and gamers are obsessed with rewards. Some feel completing a side quest or going out of your way to do something off the critical path should result in some sort of reward being dispensed. And by reward, I mean something to make the player a little bit more powerful or advantaged. It’s somewhat of a bad point of view in my opinion. Enjoying the experience of a game is a far better reason to be playing than simply jumping through arbitrary hoops to make some arbitrary character trait go up. The primary reward of playing should be the fun or stimulation the gaming experience provides. This is as it is with Jazzpunk. Rooting around in the corners of the game won’t make the ending come any easier. The reason for going off the beaten path is to see the fun and goofs you’ll find hidden everywhere.

In the end I liked Jazzpunk, but it’s a little difficult to recommend the game. It feels like a good game to look up during a Steam sale, because the $15 asking price is a little much for this package. My main problem is the game is very short. Even exploring as much as I did, it still only took a few hours to reach the credits, which appeared as a complete surprise to me during an “Is that it?” moment. Recently there has been an aggressively expressed sentiment by haughty professional game reviewers that the length of a game has no impact on its quality, but I feel this is a somewhat simplistic view. For Jazzpunk, the moment the game started getting really interesting for me (when the main villain is introduced) was the moment the game began to wind down. When I was ambushed by credits, I couldn’t help but feel a little unfulfilled, still hungry for more. If a good game is so short that it leaves the player pining for so much more, then that is definitely a bad thing.

Jet Moto: Do Futuristic Racers Have a Future

Jet Moto TitleJet Moto was one of my favorite games for the PSX. I recently manage to find my old CD of the game, and gave it a go. First thing I notice, man is it an ugly game. It is one of those PSX games that hasn’t aged so well in the looks department, with blurry, wobbly low-res textures spread everywhere. But I digress.  Somewhat similar to a futuristic version of Wave Race, Jet Moto is a racing league for off-road hoverbikes, with courses that traverse dirt, sand, swamp, water, and ice. It’s always felt a little unique to me in the genre of futuristic racers in the sense that, while most of these games (e.g. Wipeout, F-Zero, Extreme G, etc.) charge through sleek and synthetic landscapes at absurd speeds, Jet Moto is a little more grounded in rugged outdoor settings, mostly themed around swamps, beaches, and icy mountains. It may sound strange, but Jet Moto feels like it could be something you could actually see on a channel like ESPN, assuming of course hoverbikes were a real thing.

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The game also has a ton of personality to it. There are 20 racers in the game, each with a colorfully detailed backstory and hand drawn, comic book style avatar. These Jet Moto professionals range from cowboys and surfers to a jazz singer and a mad scientist. At the end of a circuit, the results screen shows the winning racer being bestowed with their trophy from a somewhat risqué member of the opposite sex. Male racers get rewarded by a scantily clad woman, usually showing lots of leg, and female racers get treated by an equally lascivious male. One exception though is a male racer called Rhino, who receives his trophy from the male variants, possibly indicating he is one of the first openly homosexual video game characters, so that’s something I guess.

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Jet Moto was the product of SingleTrac, the studio behind the original Warhawk and the excellent Twisted Metal 2. Originally working as a second party studio for Sony, the studio was eventually bought by GT Interactive and its Sony-owned franchises were given to 989 (who would later become Sony Bend). Jet Moto 2 would be created by the latter studio. While I think it is a perfectly fine game, it has always felt a little less interesting to me. Eschewing the realism of the original, Jet Moto 2 becomes a little more whimsical, with fantastical tracks such as a circus, an earthquake-demolished city, and a finale that crosses through both Olympus and Hades. There would eventually be a Jet Moto 3, which sold especially poorly, and the series has not been heard of since.

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Playing Jet Moto reminds me of how much I once enjoyed futuristic racing games. I’ve always enjoyed arcade racers as a whole, and futuristic racing games strike an especial chord of the imagination, with their extraordinary speeds and incredible settings. Almost all arcade racers are lenient with the laws of physics, but futuristic racers take an especially hostile stance to the Newtonian world. And it’s unfortunate that this sub-genre appears to be going extinct. Sony’s Wipeout is the only series that’s seen regular release, and with the close of the Liverpool studio, it appears that this last torch has blown out.

The disappearance of the futuristic racer is really more or less in line with the fall from grace the entire arcade racing genre has suffered. Need For Speed continues to see near yearly release, and Codemasters still produces, but their creations tend to lean toward the hardcore. It seems like the genre reached its climax with Spilt/Second and Blur. Both of these were excellent releases, Split/Second being my favorite racer from last-gen, but both launched in the same month against Red Dead Redemption and were abysmal failures from a commercial prospective. The failure of these excellent games seems to have deterred others, as there have been no real notable entrants in the genre afterwards.

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Maybe it’s a symptom of the times. In the age of the PSX and N64, racers were of extraordinary popularity as they lent themselves well to the split-screen multiplayer of these offline machines. Meanwhile, PCs of the time were dominated by FPS and RTS games, which were far more compatible with online multiplayer. Controllers in the pre-dual analog age were not especially suited to movement in FPS, and split-screen FPS has always suffered from the screen watching problem. The limitation to four players doesn’t help as well. With such few players, it’s easy for skill differentials to make the game frustrating for less skilled players and devoid of challenge for more skilled players. Bots can be used to expand the number of competitors, but the consoles of the time were not really capable of competent AI. Racing games on the other hand do not require high-level AI to fill out acceptable computer opponents. As consoles have tilted toward online-focused multiplayer, it’s easy to see why team-based FPS games have ascended in popularity, while racers have languished.

So is there any reason for arcade racing fans to hold hope? I don’t really know. I imagine if they make a resurgence, it will be amongst small-scale developers (i.e. indie), but there’s really been no movement on the front. Maybe in FTP games? I could see a FTP Jet Moto monetized with cosmetics as possibly being successful. I’m sorry, I know it’s really kind of downer I’m ending on here. At least we can take solace in the fact that our old favorites will always be there for us, if they don’t make our eyes melt first.

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