Monthly Archives: August 2015
Top 3 Tribute to the PlayStation Portable
As a follow-up to my Top 3 DS list from last week, I decided to make up a list for its oft underrated contender, the Playstation Portable. There was a time in my life when I was in a situation that led me to greatly prefer portables to consoles, and it was pretty fortunate that it happened to coincide with the handheld gaming golden age of the DS and the PSP. While it’s often considered to be far less successful than the DS, it actually sold 70+ million units and managed to amass a library that I think was quite respectable in its own right, although it’s too rarely recognized as such.
Before release, many thought the PSP would be a juggernaut that would eclipse Nintendo’s new handheld in the same way that Sony had bulldozed Nintendo’s console dominance. It packed considerably more advanced graphics hardware than the DS and used optical discs called UMDs. The UMDs were probably an inferior solution to the solid-state carts that Nintendo used for the DS, but CDs had given the PS1 the edge to dominate the cart-based N64, so many thought the same would happen in the handheld space. The drawbacks of the UMD were two-fold. Being optical discs, the UMD drive needed a small motor to spin, and this had a big impact on battery life. Also, it made an annoying screeching sound when it would load from the disc. The release of the download games-only PSP Go was considered a non-event by most, but it actually led to a huge number of games finally being offered for download through PSN, and I’ve always felt that PSP games are better played from the memory stick.
Out of the gate at launch, the PSP actually managed to offer up heavy competition to the DS, but after the release of the DS Lite and Mario Kart, it began to slip hard against its Nintendo counterpart. Western sales slowed to a crawl. Western publishers, who had initially been supportive of the platform, quickly abandoned the PSP, a move which was accelerated by profligate piracy on the system. However, in Japan, the enormous popularity of Monster Hunter Freedom gave the machine a huge second wind, and it managed to go toe-to-toe with the DS for the rest of its lifespan in that region.
Despite most gamers not taking it very seriously, I actually really enjoyed the PSP across its lifetime. Quantity-wise, it’s library couldn’t compete with the DS, but I found it did have a fairly respectable number of high quality releases. There were a lot of great games that trickled (and I mean trickled) out of Japan from the likes of Falcom (Ys series), Square Enix (Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts), Capcom (Mega Man, Ghosts n’ Goblins, etc.), Konami (Metal Gear series, Dracula X Chronicles, and Silent Hill Origins) and others. Also, unlike the Vita, Sony really hung in there with the PSP, releasing high quality installments of several of their big name series, such as Resistance, Killzone, MotorStorm, Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, Wipeout, and God of War. They also created a few new series for the PSP, namely Patapon and LocoRoco.
With so many great games available for the system, here are my personal top 3 highlights:
I’ve sung the praises of Half-Minute Hero on my blog before. The game stands out as a clever rethinking of the structure of your typical grind-heavy Japanese-style RPG. The idea is rather subversive for its genre. In most JRPGs, the hero is on a quest to defeat a single all-powerful villain attempting to end the world via an ostentatious, long drawn out, apocalyptic scheme. In Half-Minute Hero, the technique of an apocalyptic world-ending spell has been propagated through the world at large, so the game features a series of quests where the hero must fight a huge cast of evil lords who are in the process of summoning forward doomsday. The spell takes 30 seconds to cast (hence the title), which is a stark contrast to lengths the likes of Sephiroth and Lavos must go through.
The game plays out as such: the hero rolls up into a village and is alerted by his patron, the Time Goddess, that an evil lord has begun casting the doomsday spell in a nearby lair. The hero then has 30 seconds to quickly grind-up in the surrounding area to a level at which they can take on the evil lord. Random battles play out quickly and automatically, within a second or two, to facilitate the high speed of this entry into an infamously slow genre. One catch is that the hero can spend gold at the Time Goddess shrines in each village to reset the clock back to 30 seconds, so each quest will actually usually take a few minutes to complete.
It’s a relatively simple formula, but the developer manages to put a number of interesting twists on it during the course of the game. Despite the rapid-fire pace of the quests, the game finds ways to tell little stories during each quest and also fills them with clever secondary objectives that serve as side quests. And if I remember correctly, the game actually follows a few branching paths depending on if you complete these side quests. So while it seems like the formula would wear out its welcome quickly, through some inventive ideas, it keeps the player hooked.
And that’s only the first quarter of the game. After this mode (Hero 30), the game’s story continues across 3 other modes: Evil Lord 30, a Pikmin-style RTS, Princess 30, a shmup, and Knight 30, a monster defense game, with each of these modes similarly featuring 30 second stages. Needless to say, this game has a lot of content that is extremely refreshing in how it subverts genre conventions. And just like the gameplay, the story has a lot of playfulness and wit that makes it more than just a throwaway companion to the furious action.
Half-Minute Hero eventually saw a Steam release which goes on sale pretty often, so I would highly recommend it to the curious.
The PSP was inarguably a very poor platform for modern third-person shooters, as it possessed only a single analog nub. Modern 3D game design is based around using the left-hand to move and the right-hand to look/aim, and, on consoles, this is best accomplished with a dual analog setup. I always thought this was an odd oversight in the PSP’s design, as the importance of this controller scheme had already been established in game design by the time of its release, and the PSP was clearly designed for relatively high-end 3D gaming. A single analog nub may have been okay on the right side of the layout, so that the d-pad could be used for movement and the nub for camera controls, but this was not the case. As a result, many of the more advanced 3D games had infamously awkward “claw” controls, where the player had to manipulate the camera using their pointer finger on the d-pad while moving with their thumb on the nub.
With the control limitations in mind, I waivered a little on whether a third person shooter such as Resistance: Retribution should be included in my top 3. Retribution doesn’t require claw controls, but it does make use of the face buttons as a secondary d-pad, which is still not ideal. But I feel the game was designed with the controls in mind (it doesn’t require high accuracy aiming), and, consequently, plays pretty well.
Resistance: Retribution was the final PSP game released by Sony Bend, and it served as a culmination of their efforts to bring modern 3D action games to the PSP. Their other two PSP games were TPSes in the Syphon Filter series which were also very well received (especially the second game, Logan’s Shadow). These games represent some of the most advanced and smartly designed games on the system, meaning Sony Bend really knew how to work with both the PSP’s strengths and weaknesses. The Resistance series as a whole was a bit of a blur to me (I honestly only vaguely remember what happened in the third game), but I thought Retribution stood out for what it was trying to do with the PSP. It has the epic feel of a big console action game, but is also decently pick-up and play friendly. It’s also a killer looking game for the machine. Bend were able to push amazing graphics on this device, although I wouldn’t necessarily consider them the best. Others like Ready At Dawn (who did the God of War PSP games), Capcom (the later Monster Hunter games looked amazing) ,and especially Square Enix may have topped their technical prowess.
Sony Bend would go on to do Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the Vita, continuing their legacy of great handheld action games. Unfortunately, with the Vita being a low (read: non-existent) priority for Sony’s internal developers, they seem to now be working on a secret game for the PS4, but at least they’re still getting the chance to make great games (which is more than can be said for some other former Vita studios).
Mega Man Maverick Hunter X
I was somewhat conflicted as to whether to put this game on the list, as it is a rather faithful (but polygon-ized) remake of Mega Man X, and I didn’t know if I should count games that started off on other platforms. If I have to be honest, my favorite feature of the PSP was the ability to play PS1 games from the PSN store. I played so many great PS1 classics for the first time on this little device, including RE2+3, Parasite Eve, Dino Crisis, and Symphony of the Night, and a truthful list of the top 3 games I played on the PSP would probably be filled with these games. But that would only serve to highlight how cool the PS1 was, rather than the PSP, which is what I want to talk about. And if these PS1 games are going to be disqualified, maybe a fairly faithful recreation of a SNES game shouldn’t be included either. I don’t know, but I’m placing it here anyway, since this particular version is technically only playable as a PSP game.
Maverick Hunter X was actually my first encounter with a Mega Man game, and it was an incredibly enlightening one. As it should, since Mega Man X is well-recognized as one of the series’ best. It does a good job of representing what makes Mega Man a unique and beloved series. True to its counterparts, it’s not a game a player can breeze through. Each level and boss requires a fair bit of practice and can initially seem quite daunting when compared to the difficulty level of a standard platformer. But each time you die in these games, you hone your skills and learn a little bit more, and you’re able to push farther. And when victory finally comes against what seemed insurmountable, the satisfaction in such triumph creates a compelling catharsis for the player to throw themselves up against the next intimidating challenge. Needless to say, the game inducted me into the series, and I’ve been a fan since.
In addition to Maverick Hunter X, Capcom also remade the first Mega Man for the PSP as Mega Man Powered Up. Many actually consider this game to be the superior of the two Mega Man PSP titles, but I haven’t been able to spend as much time with it. (Unlike MHX, it’s not available to buy through PSN, and physical copies are somewhat rare.) Powered Up does more than just remake Mega Man 1. It adds two awesome new stages to the game, bringing the robot master count up to 8 (while the NES original only had 6, unlike the rest of the series).
Top 3 Tribute to the Nintendo DS
Oh look at that, I’m finally crossing the 50 post threshold! I knew I was close, but I didn’t realize how close until I happened to glance at my stats page. Seems like an occasion for which I should do something special. So this post is going to be a tribute to my favorite games on the Nintendo DS, a handheld with which I had a lot of great times.
The Nintendo DS is the machine that (perhaps to everyone’s surprise) kicked off a second golden age for Nintendo. When the two-screen handheld was announced, I think the new device was met with near universal bafflement. The GBA was still very young (especially when compared to the extensive lifespan of the GB/GBC family), and it was also fairly commercially successful. No one knew what to make of a new Nintendo handheld launching in that context. Nintendo also promised it wasn’t a replacement for the GBA (the infamous “third pillar”), which seemed to indicate that the company itself wasn’t particularly confident in the DS either.
It took some time for the DS to take-off in popularity to become the titan it’s remembered as. The original Nintendo DS model wasn’t the most attractive hardware, and it didn’t have many compelling games either for the first year or so. But around the time of the DS Lite redesign and the release of Mario Kart, the platform really exploded. Not just in sales and popularity, but developers also came to grips with the unique creative potential of the DS’s features to create a rush of great new games. There was a period there where a hardcore gamer could probably be content only playing new DS releases. There were so many acclaimed and unique games released in this boom period like Ace Attorney, Ouendan, Hotel Dusk, The World Ends with You, and Kirby: Canvas Curse. And Nintendo became ascendant again in the eyes of a lot of gamers who had strayed to the Playstation juggernaut.
As for me, I was a huge enthusiast of the Nintendo DS platform. The little machine accompanied me through some tough years, at a time when I really needed something that would allow me an escape. And even with all the time I’ve put into the DS and it’s library now being legacy titles only, there’s still so many games that I want to check out. Particularly a lot of late in life games like Picross 3D, Aliens: Infestation, Kirby Mass Attack, Dragon Quest VI, and Monster Tale. But among the many games I have played, the following three I would rank as my most favored:
Mario Kart DS
Some consider Mario Kart DS to be the first major hit for the platform. Not only was it an excellent excuse to to jump in with the recently released DS Lite, but it was also the flagship game for the DS’s online gaming capabilities. To be honest, I usually don’t enjoy the handheld Mario Kart games so much. I was left deeply apathetic after playing both Super Circuit and MK7. I think the reason why I’m indifferent to the portable skein of the series is that, to me, Mario Kart is best enjoyed playing against friends and family in the same room. It’s one of the last great bastions of local multiplayer. And Mario Kart is the only video game series I know that *everyone* enjoys playing, committed gamer or not. I mean, you can play these handheld entries locally, but that requires everyone have a DS handy, which is a condition that is exceedingly rare to find. (I will say I finally got into online Mario Kart in a big way with MK8.)
All that said, I surprisingly did really enjoy MKDS. I think it was because the tracks were so imaginative. For Mario fans, the themes they chose were really fun and great throwbacks, like the desert with the fire snakes, the SMB3 airship complete with Rocky Wrenches, and Luigi’s Mansion. Compare this to Double Dash, the previous title in the series, which I thought had really boring ideas for tracks (what does a cruise ship have to do with Mario?). Also, this was the title that introduced the retro circuits, meaning that the track count went from 16 to 32. All that said, I think this game just may be the most influential of its series, introducing a number of features and ideas the would carry over for all Mario Kart releases that would come afterward.
Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story
I’ve often mentioned on this blog that I’m a huge fan of Mario RPG in all its many forms, and Mario & Luigi is probably my favorite of the three series. And within a group of series that are known for having a fair few titles with incredibly high quality, I think Bowser’s Inside Story is one of the best ones. Maybe not as good as Thousand Year Door, but probably the best of the Mario & Luigi’s, at least.
I give the game this high credit due mainly to the presence of two characters, Bowser and Lord Fawful. Bowser becomes a playable protagonist in this game and is on a parallel quest to that of the mustachioed brothers, so a lot of time is spent focused on his character. And this version of Bowser is a ton of fun. You know, there’s been many different approaches to Bowser’s personality over the lengthy history of Mario, from the bestial King Koopa of SMB to the doting dad of Sunshine and to the megalomaniac of Galaxy, and his personality in this game is more in-line with the comedic tone of this particular series, where he’s depicted as an arrogant yet buffoonish alpha male jock. Which makes the highly intelligent and cunningly vicious Fawful an excellent foil to the dopey Koopa boss. If you don’t know Fawful, he was originally a henchman from the first M&L who managed to outshine the main villain in most gamers’ eyes. In Bowser’s Inside Story, he gets his time in the spotlight as the primary antagonist, and his devious schemes don’t just subvert Bowser, but utterly humiliate him. That is to say, Fawful is the ultimate Bowser troll.
Beyond Fawful and Bowser’s interactions, there’s a ton of great story moments in this game. M&L has a sense of playfulness, whimsy, and humor that you just don’t find in the standard platforming games that are laser-focused on highly-polished run-and-jump gameplay. And the battle system is a a lot of fun as is usual for M&L. I’ve always enjoyed the reflex-based aspects that Mario RPG injects into its battle system. It goes a long way to keeping me engaged and preventing combat from starting to feel like a grind. And the ending is also one of my favorite game endings where we finally see Bowser get his just desserts.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
If I had bothered to rank this list, I can without a doubt say that Ghost Trick would come up as number one. I honestly think that the DS’s excellent adventure games, like Hotel Dusk, Ace Attorney, Layton, and Ghost Trick, will be the most fondly remembered aspect of the platform, and Ghost Trick is easily on the top of this heap. Ghost Trick was the next project for director Shu Takumi after he led the enormously well-received Ace Attorney series. The game stars a recently-murdered amnesiac ghost who attempts to solve the mysterious circumstances of his demise. While the setup is fairly simple and rather cliche, the story that follows is actually fairly complex and original, with many twists and turns that I honestly didn’t expect. Furthermore, it is a story with a lot of heart, and I really felt for the characters and the struggles they went through. Despite all the convoluted supernatural weirdness that envelopes the plot, the characters felt very real and human to me.
Despite its lineage, Ghost Trick actually strays fairly far from the template of the simple visual novels that chronicle Phoenix’s adventures. Gameplay is greatly different. As opposed to the dialogue-based gameplay of Phoenix Wright, the story in Ghost Trick plays out in cutscenes mostly independent of the player’s input. The gameplay portion is centered instead on Sessile’s time-warping ghost power. Many people die during the course of the story, and Sessile has the power to rewind time to just moments before their death. This allows him to try to change the course of events that led to their untimely demise with the goal of preserving their lives. Saving them is not just for the sake of charity, but often because these people are leads in the mystery of Sessile’s murder. These time-bending rescues are accomplished by poltergeist-ing numerous objects to influence the characters and the sequence of actions that occur in the vicinity of the murder/accident victim. Consequently, it is more of a puzzle game than Ace Attorney, and the ways in which the game ultimately expects the player to utilize this simple ghostly possession mechanic actually get very inventive. There are many “a-ha” moments to be found here.
The art is another major difference between Ghost Trick and its predecessor. Ace Attorney makes use of very simple graphics with still character portraits and backgrounds. But Ghost Trick presents its world from a cross-sectional perspective (like a sidescroller), and the sprite work in this game is *amazing*, especially when it comes to animations. Character movements are impressively fluid, complexly-detailed, and full of whimsical personality. Just take a look at Inspector Cabanela below. I may even be willing to go out on a limb and say Ghost Trick has the best sprite work of any game I’ve ever played.
All-in-all, Ghost Trick is an amazing experience. For a platform that had so many endearing and heartfelt games, I think this one ranks at the top and is a must-play for enthusiasts and newcomers to the platform alike.
Journey: The Lone and Level Sands
I’ve been meaning to play Journey for a long while. I didn’t own a PS3 when the game came out, and by the time I did own one, I feared that that no one else would still be playing it. It seems to me that most people seem to agree its greatest value is as a co-operative experience. Fortunately, the recent PS4 release gave me a good opportunity to finally check-out what all the buzz was about and not risk having to trudge through the whole thing with just my lonesome self.
As was detailed by creator Jenova Chen before release, Journey’s deeper creative aim was inspired by the stories of the spiritual journeys astronauts had went through during their voyages through space. It’s easy for most of us to abstractly understand that our world is just a relatively small spheroid rock that circles a star that is one of countless many in an unimaginably vast and mostly empty void. But to actually face the reality of such a fact first-hand, well, unsurprisingly most astronauts ascribe it to be a very unique and profound existential experience. And to try to capture those feelings in a game is certainly very high-concept and quite ambitious for a creative medium that is overwhelmingly concerned with lone heroes single-handedly defeating vast armies of enemies. Perhaps more interesting is how Journey developer thatgamecompany went about trying to artistically replicate how these astronauts may have felt. Journey has nothing at all to do with space and is rather about a small hooded being’s personal quest to reach the peak of a sacred mountain at the far end of a silent and sometimes dangerous desert. Well, at least I assume the mountain is sacred. There is no dialogue in Journey and the story is relayed rather cryptically through a series of silent supernatural visions.
But after reflecting on the whole experience, I think I can begin to understand how the developers expected all of this to resemble the grandeur of space flight. The hooded being feels small. Not small like an insect, but small like a human being. The desert stretches out vastly around him (her?). There is no civilization encountered during the journey, which compliments the solitude of the hooded being’s quest and reinforces just how insignificant he is relative to the immensity of the desert (and the world and universe beyond). I imagine this feeling of insignificance is precisely how the game seeks to allegorize the astronaut’s experience far above the world in the greatness of space itself. Actually, the whole desert reminds me of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, a poem set in the desert that themes itself around the impermanence and fragility that exists in even mankind’s greatest accomplishments.
While the hooded being’s journey feels burdened with solitude, ideally he is not alone on his quest. The game is meant to be an anonymous co-operative multiplayer experience. Along the way, you will encounter other hooded beings who are other random players currently in the same area. These beings are strangers to you. Players are randomly and anonymously paired with each other, and there is no way to match up with people on your friends list. There is no voice-chat, and the only form of communication between players is through a chirping sound the hooded beings can make at a button press. You can choose to stick with those encountered and work together to complete puzzles, or you can run off and not deal with them. The game can be completed alone, without any help from a second player, but as I’ll explain below, this is not how you’ll want to play the game. I’ve heard and read many complaints about not being able to play with friends, but really, I think the unfamiliarity of the partners you meet along with the way is meant to reinforce how small both the hooded being and the player in the real world actually are. The game wants the player to be out of their comfort zone, and friends list connectivity and even voice chat between companions would undermine that goal. And after all, the world is not just vast in both space and geography, it is vast in the quantity of people that inhabit it.
This is important, because I think another thesis of Journey is that human desire for companionship is precisely rooted in their own relative insignificance within the enormity of the world. Multiplayer video game design has historically most often compelled players toward competition with one another. Even in cooperative games, players’ performances are often ranked against each other. In addition, many games give co-op players small ways to screw with one another (see Rescue Rangers, New Super Mario Bros., etc.) Journey, on the other hand, tries to eschew conflict between players to capture the importance of human companionship. There are no competitive hooks in this game, and it causes Journey to be a far more poignant experience. When I first encountered another player in Journey, I have to say that my immediate impulse was to try to establish that I was the better player. I’m programmed as a gamer to be competitive, after all. I wanted to be the one leading the way. I wanted to be the first to solve all of the quest’s (relatively easy) puzzles. I wanted to be the one finding all the collectibles and growing the longest scarf. But as the game wore on, I found myself less trying to be the dominant partner, and more just happy to be accompanied by another human being. I let go of trying to race to the next point of interest to make sure I could figure it out first. I found myself slowing down when the other player was having trouble keeping up, so that we could face the obstacles of the journey side-by-side. And I can honestly say that I think I would have felt far less satisfied if I had crossed the game’s final threshold alone.
Ultimately, I feel like I’ve heard it professed far too often that video games are nothing more than empowerment fantasies, and, honestly, while I’ve enjoyed hundreds of games that let me be an indomitable hero, I find it to be closed-minded to expect (or demand) that all games be of such nature. Journey is a prime example of something that deviates from this norm. It is not a game about empowering the player, rather it is about humbling them.
Brothers – A Tale of a Very Untimely Review
Brothers is, I suppose, one of the too rare games that actually tries to use its gameplay rather than its cutscenes to convey the creators’ deeper artistic meaning. As the player, you control the titular brothers simultaneously, with each analog stick individually guiding one of the two. The left stick controls the older brother, while the right stick moves the younger. Similarly, the left and right triggers serve as the action buttons for each character. All actions in the game are contextual to the object on which the action is being performed. At its core, Brothers is a puzzle game where you must use the brothers cooperatively to overcome obstacle and allow them to progress on their quest. Consequently, with the player guiding the brothers’ relationship, it is through this “single-player co-op” gameplay that the game’s deeper themes of the strength and bond of brotherhood are expressed.
The story of Brothers is fairly simple. Actually, I found the whole game to be almost fairy tale-like. A pair of brothers, one older, stronger and more mature and the other younger and more innocent, set off on a journey through a fantasy land to find a remedy to save their dying father. The quest is, for the most part, a non-violent trek, and the brothers must work together to overcome the obstacles they face along the way. Each brother has his own strengths to utilize. For instance, the younger, smaller brother can fit through tight spaces, while the older brother can lift the younger onto high ledges.
The game has a very “scenic” quality to it that reminds me of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. I was always very fond of the quiet awe those games were able to convey to the player. In Brothers, the way in which the player is shown the world feels very natural, for lack of a better word. You’re constantly being treated to these incredible scenic vistas, and the entire journey has a sort of lonely quality that makes you all the more humbled by your surroundings. And while a lot of games would use big, sweeping cutscenes to show off the grandeur of in-game locales, Brothers is mostly content to just let the player incidentally view the many fantastical sights the game has to show while they go about their quest.
While Brothers uses its two-stick gameplay mechanic to arguably help the player empathize with the fraternal bond of the main characters, I felt that, in the end, it didn’t go far enough with it. The game does a good job of conveying how much these characters rely on each other, which ultimately is important in the ending it sets up. But my problem was that it doesn’t go quite as far as it could have in giving us a nuanced understand of the brothers’ relationship. They help each other overcome the challenges that they face, occasionally share a funny or joyous moment, and they explode with distress when the other is threatened. But shared experiences are about as far as it gets in terms of emotional complexity. I should note at this point that the start of this game informs us that the brothers’ mother died before the game begins, and that the younger brother watched helplessly as she drowned. There’s some slight hints in a dream sequence that there are feelings of guilt, resentment, and anger between the two over her death, but it doesn’t really get developed beyond that. Maybe the developers wanted it to be left to player inference, but I felt better emphasis on this facet of their relationship could have really helped the narrative.
Ultimately, I felt I enjoyed the world of Brothers more than I enjoyed the story it had to tell. There is a very beautiful and awe-filled world that is presented here. As I mentioned, the story I felt to be a little shallow, and I thought it ended in a way that was just a bit too emotionally manipulative. It really wants you to feel strongly about the game’s resolution in a way that made me very conscious of the author’s hand in the story. Although, I will say that the final stretch of the game does use the two-stick/two-button mechanic in a way that really impressed me with how cleverly it was fit in the narrative. All-in-all, I did like the story even for all its simplicity, and I recommend Brothers as a good Steam sale game, if nothing else. It took me no longer than 3 hours to complete, and I think its brevity actually enhances its value, as it’s the kind of game that could have worn out its welcome very quickly if drawn out too long.