Monthly Archives: August 2016

Inside!

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For those who have played Limbo, Inside is immediately familiar.  The fundamentals of the two games are essentially identical: a dark side-scrolling puzzle game where a lone boy embarks into a dark world filled with mystery and danger.  From a technical perspective, Inside looks quite a bit more polished than the simplistic silhouetted sprites and backgrounds of Limbo.  And while Limbo was a purely black and white experience, Inside features actual color, most notably the bright red shirt identifying the protagonist.  But while Inside is a significant visual advancement over Limbo, the game always feels like the successor to Limbo.  The atmospheres of both Inside and Limbo each share a unique shade of foreboding, gloom, strangeness, and hostility that mark them as brethren.

Both of these young protagonists face a long journey through an unreal and corrupted world that lies before them.  However, the settings of Limbo and Inside are actually quite different.  Limbo is essentially a dark fantasy, an evil fairy tale, that takes place in a living nightmare that a lone boy must overcome to find his lost sister.  But while Limbo skews toward the preternatural, Inside is more of a twisted science fiction tale that plays heavily on dystopian and apocalyptic themes.  The game begins with the central character of Inside making his way through a dreary, decimated landscape while he is hunted by a band of men and dogs out to kill him.  Eventually, he makes his way into a bastion of civilization amidst the (possibly) apocalyptic countryside, where the player comes to discover increasingly dark and disturbing revelations about this perverse future.

The controls of each game are incredibly simple, the boy can more left or right, jump, or grab and move objects.  Yet from these very rudimentary actions, the designers do a good job of crafting puzzles that stay interesting across the course of the game.  Like Limbo, the puzzles in Inside are all obstacles that make sense in the context of their environment.  Usually the goal the player is faced with is something relatively mundane like reaching a ledge, hiding from patrolling enemies, or crossing precarious passages.  Safely overcoming these obstacles requires observation of the environment and understanding the interactions available to the player at that particular moment.  

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One common observation/criticism of Limbo was that there was a heavy emphasis on trial and error.  That is to say that often the player wouldn’t be aware a threat was present unless they had already triggered it once and died.  Some people disliked this, some were okay with it.  Personally, I didn’t mind.  The seemingly out-of-nowhere deaths that would often befall the poor boy actually created a long string of startling and often farcical surprises in Limbo.  With Inside, I never really felt the same trial and error tension of Limbo.  Dangers and threats are often very obvious, and the player is given plenty of time to react to them, which meant that the sudden deaths of Limbo were far, far less common.  As someone who wasn’t bothered by this element of Limbo, I’m rather neutral on the lack of it in Inside.

A major problem I know I and many others had with Limbo is that the first hour of play is the highlight of that game, with everything else feeling downhill from there.  I felt Inside had a much better arc, as the game slowly ramped up the weirdness and bewilderment factor until the incredible and bizarre climax.  There is a great deal of intriguing dystopian world-building that is unraveled over the course of Inside.  And as far as the final act of the game went, I would never in a million years have seen that coming.  Because the starting premises were so similar, I thought Inside was going to end in a similar fashion to Limbo, but I was thrown a complete curveball.  If the name “Inside” seems odd for this game, it will entirely make sense by the game’s finale.  

Although… I can’t say that I didn’t immediately feel some disappointment with Inside’s final scene and resolution.  I walked away from the game with way more questions than answers, and I wanted a little more closure and understanding of what had just transpired after the game’s unforgettable final act.  Inside, like Limbo before it, is primarily a game that tells the story of its world through fine details left in the game’s environments.  Nothing is explicitly told to the player, but instead close observation of details in each scene is required. There’s nothing wrong with this storytelling technique I guess, but I found the world and events of Inside to be so intriguing and the finale to be so bizarre that I really wanted more answers than I got.  

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Limbo has a similarly opaque story, but I don’t think it really bothered me as much.  I think it was because the world of Limbo was more like a living nightmare, and nightmares by their very nature lack rhyme or reason.  I think that’s why I was fine being confused and unsure of the plot to Limbo.  Inside, on the other hand, makes evident that there’s a well thought-out dystopian world that lies beyond the view of the player, and the hints and teases of this world-building left me keen to learn more.

A little deterred by the ambiguity of the ending, I took to YouTube to find some fan theories for the game, of which there are many.  For as disappointed as I initially was, I really think watching these fan theories helped me make peace with the game.  A lot of details and facts were pointed out by the videos that I completely missed or didn’t really grasp the significance of during my playthrough.  I actually reflect much more positively on the game now than I did immediately after closing the final scene.

But is it good that I had to go seek outside sources to help me come to grips with the game?  Is it a mark of poor storytelling that I needed to look for information outside of the game itself to be satisfied with Inside?  My knee jerk reaction says yes, a game’s story should be self-contained enough that any player can reasonably appreciate it without needing to look to external sources to fill in the blanks.  But the more I think about it, the less I’m convinced that this is true.  The truth is that it’s a lot of fun to read and listen to fan theories and to use those theories to come up with your own ideas and conclusions.  The Dark Souls series has been the quintessential example of this sort of obscure, enigmatic storytelling and has spawned a slew of popular and interesting fan output.  I could see how obscurity could easily become a crutch to avoid creating well-crafted stories, but examples like Dark Souls and Inside show that in the right hands it requires even more thought and planning than stories with explicit plot details.

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Inside is a cool game.  While it’s easy to look at it as just a “better Limbo”, I feel that would be underselling quite a bit.  It might not have the novelty of Limbo, but the puzzle design, world-building, and general atmosphere and tension are far better crafted in a way that is a step above the improvements that normally occur when going from a predecessor to its sequel.  Fans of Limbo really shouldn’t miss out on Inside, and for those that have never played Limbo and are on the fence about Inside, I definitely recommend giving it a try when a Steam sale comes around.  

 

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Rescue Rangers

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Long before cable television rendered the idea antiquated, Saturday morning used to mean cartoons.  It was the time of the week that the network television channels would set aside as blocks of animated (and occasionally live action) programming aimed at the younger audiences.  This created an awful conundrum for the viewers of these programs, since it meant having to choose between sleeping in on a lazy weekend morning or waking up early so as not to miss the brief window for catching the shows that you loved.

These cartoons were so long ago that I barely remember them, but I do remember a few of my favorites, and one of them was Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers.  The show stars two chipmunks, the titular  Chip and Dale, who run a private detective agency for other animals.  This show isn’t about a world of anthropomorphic animals like Duck Tales, rather it’s set in a world where animals lead a covert existence among humans that are unaware of the intelligent civilization that goes on beneath them (more like The Great Mouse Detective).  The chipmunks and their friends go on various adventures to help their troubled clients while clashing with a series of colorful recurring villains.  While I’m afraid I remember very little of the television show, I do remember in vivid detail the well-known companion game to the show that was released by Capcom on the NES.

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This NES game is a fairly basic 8-bit platformer.  It has some similarities to Super Mario Bros. 2 in that the primary means of attack is to pick up objects from the environment and toss them at enemies.  While SMB2 provides the player with the ability to snatch up baddies and use them against their compatriots, Chip and Dale are hurt if they touch enemies from any direction.  Instead, their weapons are entirely objects found strewn about the environment, principally small brown crates that litter each level by the dozens, but there are also some more distinct items like giant apples (relatively to the chipmunks) and trash cans.  One of the things I always remember most clearly about this game is how enemies “die” once they take a hit.  Instead of falling of screen or blinking out of existence, the bad guy, no matter the size, speedily flies off the screen at a 45° angle.  I always found it super-satisfying to see the enemies before me blasted away in such a manner, and it’s accompanied by a really fun sound effect.

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Capcom was known for it’s great music on the NES, and fellow Disney title DuckTales had easily some of the most memorable tunes on the system.  Regrettably, the compositions found in Rescue Rangers don’t hold as much magic.  It’s not that they’re bad.  It’s just that the background themes in each level are extremely forgettable and compare especially poorly to DuckTales’ remarkable themes.   The only level that I thought had a catchy beat was the final stage. Meanwhile, the only two tracks that I could remember from my childhood were the chiptunes rendition of the cartoon’s theme song that plays at the title screen and the frantic boss music which has gotten stuck in my head quite a few times.  Otherwise, the soundtrack is unremarkable and a major letdown when compared to Capcom’s output in other games.

Recently, I’ve embarked (see here) on creating what I call my “Maximum 30“ list, which are a series of posts covering the 30 games which I consider to have the most personal significance to me.  It’s not necessarily a list of the best games I’ve ever played, just those that have had the greatest impact on me.  I began gaming on the NES at a very young age, and, near as I can recall, Rescue Rangers was actually the first game I ever beat.  For this post, I replayed the game for the first time in forever, and I could immediately see why that was the case.  It’s not a particularly difficult game, really the only part I would consider hard was the final level.

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I still distinctly remember the final boss fight with Chip and Dale’s arch-nemesis, Fat Cat.  True to the cartoon, he towers over the chipmunks and is a huge piece of the background.  I always found his attack to be a little peculiar.  He doesn’t attack with his claws or teeth, rather he moves around his cigar and flicks it at the player.  The hot ashes from the cigar act as projectiles which the chipmunks must dodge.  I have a feeling that in today’s tobacco-conscious world a cigar wouldn’t at all be featured in a product aimed at youths. I grew up when candy cigarettes were still a thing sold to children, but even as a kid, I thought Fat Cat’s prominent tobacco use in the game was a bit bold.

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Another very strong memory of the game is the discovery that it actually has two world maps.  The game begins on a world map that has 7 stages, but after beating the seventh stage and rescuing the chipmunks’ friend Gadget, she tells you that you need to pursue Fat Cat to his secret lair in another area of the city.  The Rescue Rangers then take a *rocket ship* straight up into *space* and then come straight back down onto a new world map which contains the game’s final three levels.  I vividly remember how amazing and surprising this was to me, both because of the discovery of new levels which I never knew existed and also because I thought the little rocket ship ride was absurdly cool.

Capcom put out some excellent games on the NES, and Rescue Rangers really isn’t their best.  Even just among the Disney games, it’s easily surpassed by DuckTales.  I owned Rescue Rangers back then, but didn’t own DuckTales.  DuckTales was available for rental in a local shop, but it didn’t come with a manual, and I don’t think I ever knew about the pogo stick move which is essentially critical to completing the game.  Consequently, I don’t think I ever got very far in DuckTales.  Of course, I’ve tried DuckTales again as an adult, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s definitely a better game than Rescue Rangers.

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But, like I said, this top 30 list of mine isn’t necessarily about the best games, rather just those which have left a big impression on my life, and Rescue Rangers easily fulfills that criteria.  I think most people have these games that they played when they were very young that they suddenly realize are super-easy when they come back to them as an adult.  Ironically, I find a lot of other Disney games, like The Lion King and Toy Story, are the opposite.  I mastered those games in my younger days, but now I’m baffled by how frustrating I find them.  I tried to decide which of these sides of the coin was better, harder than the past or easier, but I really couldn’t decide.  I don’t think either is so appealing, and they both betray that those games were more a product of their time and place.  I guess in some ways it’s just another harsh reminder that we can seldom regain those cherished experiences that exist in our memories, no matter how much nostalgia tempts us otherwise.  The great experiences of our futures will lie in that which creates new memories and new feelings, not necessarily that which tries to desperately reassemble the past.

 

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