Category Archives: Essays

Into the Breach!

From the makers of FTL: Faster than Light comes Into the Breach, a peculiar kind of strategy game that is completely unlike anything I’ve ever played before.  In the far flung future, global flooding has left only four small islands as the last habitable land mass on Earth. Civilization continues on until a race of giant subterranean insects known as the Vek begin attacking the citizens of these new nations.  After a long war, the remnants of humanity are driven to extinction with the exception of the last squadron of mech pilots who open a breach in the timeline to travel to the beginning of the Vek incursion and relive the war as many times as it takes to secure the safety of mankind.

590380_20180916000729_1.png

Each mission takes place on small, randomly generated maps that fill up an 8×8 grid of tiles.  The player is in command of a squad of three mechs that drop down onto each map and must defend cities from the onslaught of Vek emerging from underground.  Each mission requires the player to hold out and survive for roughly 4 or 5 rounds before the Vek retreat. As such, Into the Breach is really a strategy game that is more about defense than offense.  Whereas strategy games such as Fire Emblem and Advance Wars are mostly about eliminating all enemies in a given mission or capturing an objective defended by said enemies, there is no requirement to annihilate the Vek in Into the Breach.  Missions are failed only when a certain number of cities are destroyed.

590380_20180916000800_1.png

The acute scope and defensive nature of the game result in something that is a hybrid of puzzle and turn-based strategy elements. The puzzle-like nature of the game is strongly reinforced by the idiosyncratic way in which turns play out.  In most strategy games, the player and opponent alternate moving and committing actions with their units.  Not so in Into the Breach. Each round begins with the Vek moving into position and then indicating which tiles they plan to attack.  After this phase, the player is allowed to move and take actions with their mechs.  Following the player’s go, the round concludes with the enemies attacking the tiles they are targeting.  

Since the player can see where the Vek are going to attack, they can effectively prioritize which enemy to focus damage on.  Essentially, the player has the opportunity to sabotage the Vek before they can do anything. The Vek that are targeting cities are generally top priority in most sound strategies.  The best thing about Into the Breach, however, is that the player is allowed to operate creatively in how they handle the situation. As an example, perhaps there is a Vek that is preparing to attack a city, and the player isn’t able to deliver enough damage to it to take it out this turn.  However, most mechs have weapons that have some sort of knockback effect, so you can use that to knock the Vek away from the target. That seems simple enough, but it gets even more elaborate. Perhaps there is already an enemy on the tile you’ve knocked the first Vek into. The collision will do damage to both Vek, possibly destroying both.  Or perhaps something even more interesting can happen, if there isn’t a second Vek already there. The first Vek is already committed to attacking the same tile relative to its new position. What this means is that if you knock the enemy 1 tile to the east, then the tile it’s targeting will shift 1 tile to the east. If there is an enemy on that tile, the Vek you moved will deal damage to this bystander.  

590380_20180916000946_1.png

The complex ways in which you can manipulate enemies makes Into the Breach feel like a puzzle game at times.  Beyond the knockback effect I mentioned above, there are a large number of unlockable mechs that have special abilities that lead to even more strategically interesting effects.  One of my personal favorites is a mech that can kick up dust storms on the tiles it attacks. These dust storms blind any enemy standing in them and render them unable to attack. This can be paired with another mech that confers electrical charge to all of the dust storms on the map, so anything standing in those storms takes damage each turn.

This is what really hooked me on Into the Breach.  Experimenting with the various mechs and their abilities and discovering the ways in which their abilities can augment each other keeps the game from ever feeling stale.  It is absolutely like a puzzle game.  There are times when I would be in a difficult situation, on the verge of hitting game over, and I would spend several minutes going through the various possible moves in my head until finally I would have an epiphany and realize a way I could save myself from the situation.  Of course, it’s immensely satisfying when this happens.

Breach 2.PNG

Like its predecessor, FTL, Into the Breach can be considered a roguelike game.  That’s a bit of a nebulous term these days, but in this case it means that if the player gets a game over screen then all their progress is lost, and they must begin the game from the beginning.  In the game’s story, this plays out as the mechs opening another temporal breach and time travelling back to the start of the war. I had mixed feelings about this when I started Into the Breach. In the past, I’ve really enjoyed games like this, including Spelunky and Rogue Legacy, but lately I’ve started to feel that this formula just isn’t for me anymore.  The issue is really that I don’t have as much free time as I once did, and as roguelikes make you replay a lot of the early content in the game many times over, I worry that these games really aren’t the best use of my limited free time.

Fortunately, I feel like Into the Breach managed to narrowly sidestep this concern.  There are a few reasons to which I attribute this. First, you reach a point where you can start on any of the game’s four islands.  Initially, only the first island is available to play, but once you beat that island, the second island will be unlocked in all future instances that you start the game over.  The same goes for the third and fourth island. Ultimately, you can play the islands in any order you please, and the final mission becomes available once you clear two islands in a given run (although there is a reason not to go the the final mission until three or four islands are cleared).  Each island has sufficiently unique mechanics that choosing a different island to start on each time keeps the game from feeling stale.

590380_20180916000847_1.png

It also helps that there is a wide variety of unlockable mechs that promote experimentation each time the game is started from the beginning.  New squads of mechs are unlocked by completing special achievements in the game (similar to how starships were unlocked in FTL). Each squad comes with its own unique gimmick.  The squad that is initially available at the start of the game are the Rift Walkers and are fairly straightforward, focused almost purely on direct damage dealing and some knockback effects.  But then, for instance, there is another squad, the Flame Behemoths, that focuses on turning tiles into hazards by setting them on fire. My two favorite squads are the aforementioned Rusting Hulks, which are built around taking advantage of dust storms and electrical electrical damage, and the Zenith Guard, which make use of energy weapons that do chain damage to groups of adjacent enemies.  There is a good variety of strategy represented by the different squads, and I feel like everyone tends to find their own favorite. It’s also just fun to experiment.

Into the Breach has a unique approach toward difficulty and victory.  At the beginning of a run, a player chooses to start on any island they’ve completed so far.  Each time an island is cleared out, the difficulty is increased for the next island the player chooses.  After completing only two islands, the final mission appears on the map. The player can then proceed to this last mission or complete one or both of the remaining islands.  Thus the game can be won in a two, three, or four island victory. Since difficulty increases based on the number of islands cleared, the two island victory is the easiest to achieve, while the four island victory is hardest.

Breach 3.PNG

I’ve honestly never managed to beat this game’s predecessor, FTL.  I’ve made it to the final mission twice in FTL, and after the second time I realized that I would probably never be able to beat the game, simply because the final battle was so incredibly difficult.  Into the Breach has a far more attainable ending, and the final mission is not nearly as insurmountable. In a way, this was a relief, because it meant I could obtain some closure on the game, but I can’t deny that it also felt a bit anticlimactic compared to the awe-inspiring final boss of FTL.

I actually managed to beat the final mission on my first try at it while going for a two island victory, but it was still a fair challenge.  At one point, I was only a few turns away from victory, when I suddenly hit a wall. As I sat there strategizing, it suddenly dawned on me that every move I could think of would result in my team of mechs getting wiped out.  Since I couldn’t see a way out, I was almost ready to resign myself to defeat, when I had a better idea. It was really late that night, and I settled on simply saving the game so I could come back with a fresh mind in the morning.  (You can save at any point in the game and pick back up where you left off.) I came back the next morning, stared at the game for about 10 minutes, and then like a bolt of lightning, I was suddenly struck by a set of moves that would let me survive.  With my persistence rewarded, I only had to survive a few more relatively easy turns before I attained victory.

Since then, I’ve also managed to achieve a three island victory.  Someday maybe I’ll come back to try at a four island victory, but for now, I’ve set Into the Breach aside to move on to other games on my stack.  In my post about Hollow Knight, I discussed how exciting and rare it is to find a game that isn’t merely just good, but is something that I truly love and hold in high regard as one of the reasons I enjoy gaming so much.  Amazingly, I’ve played two games back-to-back this year, Hollow Knight and Into the Breach, that met this lofty standard. Years from now when I reflect on why I love gaming, Into the Breach will be one of the reasons. I think it’s that good.

 

Advertisements

WarioWare Gold!

220px-WarioWare_Gold_Cover.jpg

Despite holding a long time devotion to Nintendo’s handheld gaming machines, I’ve never played a WarioWare game.  Those games always seemed to disappear from stores really fast, and most of them are for systems that essentially predate digital storefronts.  If you didn’t buy them at release, it was hard to find them later on. I guess Nintendo considers them niche and don’t ship a lot of copies. I like the Wario Land games a lot, so I’ve always wanted to try the other big series to carry Wario’s name.  Thus, I jumped on the newly released WarioWare Gold for 3DS.

WarioWare Gold, like the rest of the series, is a collection of hundreds of minigames that are designed to be densely simplistic and only last a few seconds.  Nintendo has dubbed these microgames, since they’re so short.  In almost all modes of WarioWare Gold, the microgames are played as a random, rapid-fire sequence.  As the player progresses through the sequence, the microgames speed up and also get harder and more intricate.

Really, WarioWare is a test of mental reflexes.  Since the microgames only last a few seconds each, the trick to success is generally being able to quickly recognize and mentally orient oneself to each game as it pops up.  Even though they’re simple games, you have to think fast to be able to complete them before the timer runs out.

For the most part, the microgames aren’t terribly hard themselves, but they do get more elaborate on the higher difficulty levels.  So for instance, there is one microgame that features two breakdancing cats. The first cat displays a sequence of buttons on screen that the player must remember and input to get the second cat to copy the other’s dance moves.  At high difficulty levels, more buttons are added to the sequence and the game speeds up. The microgames come in 3 flavors: mash, which utilize the d-pad and a-button, twist, which use the gyroscope in the 3DS and require rotation, and touch, which use the stylus.  Less commonly there are also games that require the player to blow into the microphone. The game does a good job of using the myriad capabilities of the 3DS in ways that are gimmicky, but a fun kind of gimmicky that works considering the frivolous nature of WarioWare.  

The story of WarioWare Gold is about as flippant and unserious as you might expect from a game about 5 second challenges.  Wario is home one evening and realizes he’s too broke to order pizza for dinner. He brainstorms ideas to earn quick cash and settles on the biggest scam of them all: video games.  Deciding to hold an esports competition, he enlists the help of his surprisingly large social circle to program games for the event. The result is a tournament featuring hundreds of simple micogrames, because Wario is definitely a quantity over quality kind of guy.  

The story mode contains 18 chapters (called leagues to keep with the tournament theme) that each feature one of Wario’s friends.  The chapter starts with a short video that tells a vignette about the character and then features a sequence of a few dozen microgames themed around the character’s particular interest and personality.  Completing the sequence unlocks a second video that concludes the vignette. What’s surprising is how much thought and creativity is put into each of the game’s many characters. These characters have been featured in past WarioWare games where I assumed they were given more introduction, but even having no prior knowledge of this cast, I still found them pretty interesting and likeable.

The personality and goofball humor of this game is really what makes it stand out.  The microgame concept is a lot of fun, but Nintendo manages to really elevate the formula by putting so much effort into the presentation.  It would have been easy for them to treat the microgames as simple, throwaway experiences that don’t require much attention to detail. But each microgame has little touches to the art and overall presentation that are good at leaving a distinct impression on the player.  There’s also a lot of playful humor baked into the games themselves, as a fair few of the games are rather absurd in nature and then other games have hidden jokes and goofs.

I completed the story mode in a little over an hour.  It’s doesn’t really take long to beat the game. After the story mode is finished, a number of challenge modes open up.  Most of these function kind of like an arcade trial where your goal is to keep going until you finally fail, each time trying to beat the high score you set before.  On top of these challenge modes, there are “missions” that add objectives to playing the other modes (e.g., get a high score of X in mode Y), and the coins you earn from completing the missions and story mode can be used to unlock a variety of collectible knick knacks and virtual toys.  There’s a ton of replay value here, and I will probably be returning to this game on and off for months to come to try to unlock everything. However, I wish the story mode had been a little bit longer, if for no other reason than I enjoyed the characters and their misadventures and would like to see more of them.

All-in-all, I really wish I hadn’t slept on the WarioWare series for so long.  Hopefully, WarioWare Gold does well enough that a Switch entry won’t be a long ways away.

 

Bloodborne

 

Bloodborne™_20180325135321.jpg

I’ve finally gotten into Bloodborne.  To my deep embarrassment, I actually bought the game back when it came out a few years ago, but, try as I might, I could never beat the first boss, the Cleric Beast.  I eventually gave up and didn’t touch the game again until a month or so ago. I’m a huge fan of Dark Souls, and I understand these games require a high level of persistence, but this game just broke me for some reason.  For a while, I’ve been meaning to give it another shot, and the final catalyst was its appearance as one of the titles given out to Playstation Plus subscribers.

The first time I dug into Bloodborne, it wasn’t just the Cleric Beast that gave me trouble, I had a rough time just getting up to this boss.  I think I put in ~4-5 hours just slowly crawling through the streets of Yharnam. This time around, I remembered quite a bit from my original excursion and was able to reach the Cleric Beast’s bridge with surprising ease.  I honestly was really nervous that I was going to get stuck at this fight again, so when the boss first climbed into view, I felt a huge amount of dread welling up inside. I threw myself into the battle and gave it my all and………slaughtered the monster on my first try……..

After the boss battle had ended, I wasn’t entirely sure where to go.  Past the area where we fought was a dead end. And then I discovered…….  the Cleric Beast is actually an optional boss……

Bloodborne™_20180422202721.jpg

I’m not actually sure why I had such an easy time with this boss, while years ago I struggled to the point of quitting.  I started a new character this time, so perhaps I just chose better specs for him. But it’s not just the Cleric Beast that I had an easier time with.  All the enemies leading up to that point had given me trouble before, but this time I swam through them with ease. I think the real difference is that this time I understand the technique and rhythm of Bloodborne a little bit better.  I’m the type of Dark Souls player who spends a lot of time hiding behind a shield, and Bloodborne simply isn’t a game that can be played so defensively. There’s only one shield to find in the game, and its item description explicitly states that it isn’t very effectual.

Instead of a shield, Bloodborne gives the player a gun to supplement their standard weapon.  The sidearms do a nearly trivial amount of damage when compared to the melee weapons, but they have the advantage of being able to stun enemies if you can time your shots to coincide with the enemy winding back to do an attack. After an enemy is stunned, the player can run up and do a melee attack for a massive amount of damage.  Being able to effectively execute these types of counterattacks goes a long way in Bloodborne. I feel like in my first go round I had a lot of trouble getting the timing down on these stun attacks, while now it’s finally clicked with me.

Bloodborne™_20180317095503.jpg

Really, I’m left deeply embarrassed by the whole situation.  I spent $60 on Bloodborne when it came out, didn’t get very far into it, quit, and then I only came back to it after it was made free to me through the PS Plus subscription.  To further add insult to injury, I now know that the boss fight that stopped me from playing it was entirely optional. Sincerely, I kind of feel like a wasteful idiot.

On the plus side, I’m enjoying Bloodborne a ton.  Right now, I’ve made it through the Forbidden Woods, and I’m currently working on the boss at Byrgenwerth College.  The Forbidden Woods has probably been my favorite area so far. Up until that point, the game had mostly been focused on werewolf-themed enemies (with the exception of some oddities in the Cathedral Ward), and I was starting to get a little tired of them. The enemies in the second half of the Forbidden Woods break away from the werewolf stuff and go in a really creepy direction.  And now at Byrgenwerth, the enemies are even more disturbing and bizarre. So much so, that I’m actually starting to consider that Bloodborne may have the best monster designs of any of the dark fantasy games by FROM Software.

Serious Sam 3: BFE!

Serious Sam 3.png

The recent reveal of Serious Sam 4 got me thinking about its predecessor.  I picked up Serious Sam 3 fairly close to when it came out, but I only got a few hours in before life events distracted me.  After everything had settled down, it sort of fell by the wayside, as I was ready to move on to other games. But it was somewhat fortuitous that SS4 got me thinking about the game again.  I really need a game that just serves as a distraction right now, one that just lets me zone out and relax, and I’ve always found the Serious Sam games to be fairly good at that. I’ve never beat the game, so I decided it was time to rectify that.

Despite the fact that I consider myself a major Serious Sam fan, I honestly couldn’t tell you what the story is to any of these games.  They are obviously about an extraterrestrial invasion of Earth and have something to do with time travelling aliens messing around in Ancient Egypt, but other than that, the details of the plot completely elude me.  Like I don’t know who these alien hordes are, and why they’re so dead set on coming to Earth and wrecking up the place. The invaders are led by an entity called Mental, but what/who he/she actually is and his/her motivations are utterly beyond my comprehension.

20180501205048_1.jpg

Serious Sam 3 is a prequel to the first game of the series, Serious Sam: The First Encounter.  Obviously, you might expect, like I did, that a prequel would fill in some of the elusive backstory.  There is a brief cutscene at the beginning of the game that lays out Mental’s assault on the Earth, but this quick introduction only raises more questions than it answers.  We then cut away to Sam Stone helicoptering into Egypt with his squad mates on a mission to find a secret weapon that can stop the invaders. Everyone is wearing tactical gear and camo, prepared for the mission ahead of them….except for Sam, who inexplicably wears a t-shirt, jeans, and sunglasses with colored lenses (true to his wardrobe in the original game).  I feel like right away, I’ve stumbled into some sort of joke that’s meant to imply that I really shouldn’t think too hard about the events to follow.

And of course, story is really only set dressing in Serious Sam.  These games are deeply true to themselves. They set out to be the most intense die-hard action games out there, and they don’t pretend to be anything otherwise.  When Serious Sam: The First Encounter was released, I feel like the word was that it was a game that set out to recapture the pure no-frills adrenaline of games like Doom and Rise of the Triad.  That and that the game was just really good looking for its time. With the advent of games likes Half-Life and Unreal, action games had started to focus more on story and atmosphere than on pure action.  Serious Sam was deeply retrograde in this respect. But while the start of the game did sort of harken back to Doom, Serious Sam eventually develops its own identity, one that couldn’t have existed on the technology that existed at the time of Doom.

20180428125919_1.jpg

What really differentiates Serious Sam is scale and scope.  Classic Doom is essentially a maze game, born out of first-person dungeon crawlers.  Within that game, players explore labyrinthine corridors and structures, with most of the action being close quarters.  While Serious Sam games tend to have a few levels like this, most of the game instead opts for wider open spaces that serve as huge arenas for  extensive hordes of enemies to besiege the player all at once. At a given moment, dozens upon dozens, if not hundreds upon hundreds, can flood out of the woodwork to descend upon Sam.  The sheer number of enemies Sam can face at any instant is what really sets the Serious Sam series a part from other action games.

While it’s easy to see how such a game could quickly become an overwhelming experience,  these games tend to be balanced well enough that, for the most part, they don’t descend into relentless frustration.  The trick is to keep moving. Enemies don’t really track Sam all that well, which means as long as you don’t stay in the same spot (or better yet, move in serpentine patterns) you can slip through their incoming projectiles.  Another important strategy is to retreat backwards toward the direction you came. The faster moving enemies will manage to keep up with Sam, but the slower moving (and more dangerous enemies) won’t be able to catch up. This divide and conquer tactic allows you to take out the faster and weaker enemies first, and then proceed toward the bigger and more threatening enemies.

SS3_1.png

I enjoy a lot of different types of games.  I like games like Final Fantasy which have a heavy focus on storytelling.  I like games like Dark Souls that have rich and complex mechanics to master.  And I like games like Fallout that present a vast and immersive world to explore.  But sometimes a Big Dumb Action Game that just focuses on getting directly to the excitement can be really cathartic for me.  I feel that I’m the kind of person that has difficulty relaxing, and I think the problem stems from the fact that I have trouble silencing and shutting down my thoughts.  My head has too much noise in it. I like games like Serious Sam because the action is unfiltered.  The experience doesn’t have a lot of story or setpieces or other interruptions that stop my brain from being in a very focused state on the action, and this focused state burns off brain cycles from being used on thinking about work or other sources of stress.

By the time I had beaten it, I felt Serious Sam 3 was a thoroughly worthy entry in the greater Serious Sam series, but I would still recommend Serious Sam: The First and Second Encounter over this entry.  For various reasons, I just think those two games are a little more fun.  The only solid issue I had with SS3 was the final level.  It was a massive slog. The level is set in a long, fairly linear canyon that seemingly goes on forever and terminates in the final boss fight of the game.  And they take the game’s signature element, the massive hordes of enemies, a little too far. There were way way to many enemies in this level.  It took me forever to get to the end, and I was completely ready for the game to be over and done with by the time I made it.

SS3_3.png

The final boss fight is also a little odd.  Another signature of the Serious Sam series is that the games end in bosses that are ridiculously giant.  I remember how people freaked out over the first game’s ending, and how big the last boss was.  At the time, I don’t know if anything that big had ever been seen in a game. Certainly not anything that moved.  Serious Sam 3 doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the sheer volume of the screen that the final enemy takes up. However, my issue is that you don’t actual fight him in a typical way.  Rather, he’s like a puzzle that needs to be solved, and the solution requires an item that is just haphazardly hidden in the level, and there’s no indication given that you need to look for this item.  I had to pull up a guide on Steam to actually figure out what I was supposed to do. Once I found this item, the rest was ridiculously easy. I would have been let down by the anticlimax had I not been so ready for the game to end.

All those issues aside, Serious Sam 3 is a great modernization of the series, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to meaningful advance the formula that it is built upon.  I’m liking what I’ve been reading about Serious Sam 4, however. SS4 is a prequel to SS3 (which is in turn a prequel to SS1), and it deals with the onset of the alien invasion of the Earth, rather than its aftermath.  Action seems to take place all across the planet, as opposed to being contained to just Egypt. And they seem like they are adding a lot of interesting new enemy types. SS3 introduced a few cool new enemies, but it was mostly reliant on the staples of the series that were introduced in SS1.  I’m actually really excited for SS4 now, and I hope it can really be a turning point for the series to gain the popularity it’s deserved for a while. And maybe….just maybe… it will finally give a satisfactory explanation as to what is actually happening in these games.

Eight Underrated Deals from the Steam Summer Sale: 2018 Edition

Each year when the Steam Summer Sale rolls around, I like to put together a quick list of recommendations for lesser known games that are going for really cheap prices.  One of the reasons for doing this is that I think sales like these are good opportunities for trying out underrated or rough around the edges games that you wouldn’t always take a chance on at higher prices.  A way to explore your tastes in games, if you will. I have two criteria to maintain the spirit of the list: 1) These are games that I (arbitrarily) feel are underrated or have been forgotten about, and 2) They have a price point no greater than $5 (USD).

This year, the list is coming in hot, since the summer sale started just as I was packing up to take off for a week long vacation (probably the longest vacation I’ve taken in forever).  The sale ends Thursday (7/5) at 1:00 PM EST, so I realize there’s not a lot of time left to consider these recommendations. I thought about not doing it this year, but I decided I wanted to keep up the tradition, since I’ve been doing these lists since 2014.  

I had a little more trouble writing the list this year because of the time constraint I found myself in, but also because the deals just don’t seem as good as they’ve been in past.  When searching for games to put on the list, several titles I thought would be going for under five bucks by now weren’t. In fact, I’m not entirely sure previous years’ lists are still valid, since I noticed that Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed from the 2015 list wasn’t even on sale at all this year!  Nonetheless, I still think you can grab most of the titles form the old lists fairly cheap, so I recommend looking over those too if you are interested.

2014 Recommendations

2015 Recommendations Part 1

2015 Recommendations Part 2

2016 Recommendations

2017 Recommendations

 

2014-04-04_00004
Jazzpunk

$2.99

Jazzpunk was actually one of the first games I wrote about when I started this blog way back in 2014, and I think this is the first year that it’s finally hit a price point to qualify for this list.  Jazzpunk is more of an interactive comedy than a game. The game chronicles the missions of a secret agent codenamed Polyblank, who lives in a bizarre alternate Earth version of the Cold War. There’s not much challenge to it, rather you spend your time exploring the environment and discovering bizarre situations and odd mini-games to play.  The comedy relies heavily on non-sequitur and absurdism, so it can be hit or miss, and of course it will depend on your own sense of humor if you find it funny or not. I found it to be an amusing experience, at least.

20180703190715_1.jpg

Pirate Pop Plus

$2.49

Pirate Pop Plus is a simple arcade-style game that is based on an old Japanese game called Pang.  I don’t imagine many people are familiar with Pang. I certainly wasn’t until I played Pirate Pop.  In Pirate Pop, you play as a little pirate guy who needs to clear the screen of these bubbles that bounce along the ground and deal damage to the player upon contact.  You do this by shooting upwards (and only upwards) at the bubbles. Each time you hit a bubble, it breaks up into smaller bubbles which are harder to hit, but also bounce lower to the ground which means they are also harder to dodge.  As the game progresses, the formula gets varied up with gimmicks like alternating directions of gravity. Pirate Pop is basically an arcade game, meaning you start at the first level each time you play and your goal is to beat your previous high score.  It definitely can be fun to play for short bursts when you don’t have a lot of time to play something more serious.

20170225091105_1.jpg

Haunted: Halloween ’85

$1.19

Haunted was originally released as a homebrew NES cartridge and eventually a PC port was made available on Steam.  You play as a kid who wakes up from a nap to realize that he’s late for the Halloween dance at school. As he rushes to school, he discovers that his town has been taken over by monsters.  Part beat’em up, part platformer, Haunted plays like a real NES, while most games that claim to be modern NES games play more like idealized versions of games from that era. While it can definitely be fun, it is also crude and frustrating at times.  There are 6 levels, and no way to save. This means that each time you start the game, you start at level 1, just like most NES games. If you enjoy playing actual NES games, I definitely recommend it, but to others I would be a little more cautious. Two important tips:  The first is that there is a secret uppercut move that is activated by pressing Down+B and does much more damage than the standard attack. The other is to play the game in windowed mode, because I believe there is no way to exit out of the game in fullscreen other than Alt+F4.

quantum conundrum.png

Quantum Conundrum

$0.98

Quantum Conundrum is a first-person puzzle game that has a lot of similarities to Portal, but with the veneer of a Saturday morning cartoon.  You play as a kid exploring the mansion of his mad scientist uncle. The puzzles are based around the gimmick that you have a device that allows you to shift “dimensions”, which really means that you can alter the laws of physics in the surrounding environment.  Namely, you can make objects lighter or heavier, slow down time, or reverse gravity. You are guided through the game by the disembodied voice of your uncle in the same way the GladOS guides you through the test chambers of Portal. In general, neither the puzzles or comedy of the game are quite as good as Portal, but I think it’s still a fun game to play, nonetheless.

Strider.png

Strider

$4.49

Strider is a modern take on the classic Capcom action series.  This new version of the franchise is a bit more like the old NES game than its arcade counterparts.  Rather than a linear action game, this is a fast-paced hack-and-slash set in a massive Metroid-style open world.  Those that like Metroid-style games will probably find a lot to like about Strider.

serious sam.png

Serious Sam HD

The First Encounter: $2.24

The Second Encounter: $2.99

Serious Sam is sort of a B-tier first-person shooter from around the turn of the millenium.  In a time when many action game were going for cinematic-like adventures, Serious Sam had significantly less fluff and focused instead on a more pure action experience that was closer to games like Doom and Rise of the Triad than contemporaries likes Half-Life 2 or Halo.  Serious Sam is about the war waged by time traveller and one-man army Sam Stone against an alien horde that is invading ancient Earth.  Serious Sam’s signature style of gameplay is to basically inundate the player with a massive number of enemies at once. This might sound like it could get stressful, but I find that the games are balanced enough that they are challenging without being frustrating more often than not.  Serious Sam was released as two chapters, the First and Second Encounters, and both are well worth playing, although I would try the first one first to see if you like this formula of gameplay before picking up the second.

orcs must die.png

Orcs Must Die

$2.49

A handful or so years ago, there was a huge craze over tower defense games, and while I’m not much of a fan of tower defense, I really dug Orcs Must Die.  In Orcs Must Die, you play as a wizard tasked with defending a castle that holds the portal to the human realm from an onslaught of invading orcs. Your magic allows you to manifest a variety of traps in each level that are strategically placed to thin out the encroaching horde.  Unlike a lot of tower defense games, the wizard is an actual character that moves around the level, instead of being a disembodied entity that views the action from above. The wizard possesses his own weapons and spells that he can use to attack the orcs directly, which ultimately makes the game a fusion of tower defense and third-person shooter.  

ToG4

Tower of Guns

$4.49

Tower of Guns is a roguelike first-person shooter from a few years back.  The player is tasked with ascending a procedurally generated tower that is filled with relentlessly attacking robotic enemies.  The coolest wrinkle to the gameplay is that the projectiles the enemies fire move in relatively slow patterns, which makes weaving in and out of these oncoming attacks as important as dealing damage to the enemies.  This always on your toes gameplay is probably my favorite aspect of the game, and it’s one of the better games I’ve played that tries to marry first-person shooters with the roguelike formula.

 

Hollow Knight!

Hollow Knight Header

There were a ton of cool games that came out in 2017.  I wasn’t anywhere close to playing everything that I wanted to play.  Around November of last year, I sat down and wrote a list of games from the year that I wanted to complete or at least try, and Hollow Knight ended up getting the priority because I thought I could knock it out quickly.  My expectation turned out to be totally wrong. Hollow Knight ended up being an epic experience that drove me deep into unraveling its secrets. It’s one of the best games that I’ve played in a long time, so much so that it actually took me a few months before I decided I was satisfied enough to move on.

Hollow Knight is the story of the fallen, subterranean kingdom of Hallownest, whose citizenry was composed of a wide range of sentient arthropods, principally a beetle-like race that are simply called bugs, but also spiders, mantises, moths, and maggots.  In the distant past, Hallownest was a utopic nation that was beset by a strange infection that drove many of its inhabitants into violent insanity. Life has seemingly continued on at the fringe of the once great civilization, but the infection continues to slowly spread into this periphery.  Upon this desolation enters the quiet, wandering Knight, who is drawn to the surface city of Dirtmouth, which serves as the entrance to Hallownest. From there, the player journeys as the Knight down into the kingdom’s ruins to discover and thwart the source of the infection.

20171112153724_1.jpg

Hollow Knight joins the huge pile of games that take their inspiration from Metroid’s large contiguous side-scrolling worlds.  In the past few years, there’s been so many games coming out that use the Metroid formula that you would think Hollow Knight would have a hard time standing out, but I think its been fairly popular.  Part of the reason for that is that its other big inspiration is Dark Souls. Mostly this is seen in how it takes place in a world built on the ruins of a once great civilization that fell to decay and madness and relates the ancient history of this culture through purposefully cryptic means.  Fortunately, while the games that influenced Hollow Knight are clear, I found that this game managed to create its own identity and introduced enough of its own ideas that it didn’t feel like a cheap attempt to recapture the nostalgia of its inspirations.

For the most part, Hollow Knight is a fairly straightforward hack and slash game.  Most of the game’s challenge comes from studying the enemies and bosses and then building a strategy around their strengths and weaknesses, very similar to how you would approach a Dark Souls game.  It has an ethos that I describe as the best offense is a good defense.  You must learn and understand enemy attack patterns so that you can identify when you have an open window to attack safely.  If you attack carelessly, you will get utterly steamrolled.

20171217215713_1.jpg

While the Knight’s moves are fairly standard (slash left, slash right, dodge, charge attack, etc.), there were two aspects of his abilities that I particularly liked.  The first was the way healing works. The Knight heals by casting a spell that must be charged first. He is immobile while charging the spell, and if he takes damage, the spell gets interrupted.  This adds an additional layer of strategic depth to the game, since its important to understand when and where its ok to heal. The player needs to understand the enemy attack patterns well enough to know when they have an opportunity to safely heal and where to position themselves so they’re unlikely to get hit.  The other thing that I really enjoyed is that the Knight can slash downwards while in the middle of a jump. This can be used to attack enemies beneath the jump, and the Knight gets a little bounce when he does this. Bouncing from enemy to enemy like this is a lot of fun, and the air time can be used to evade certain complicated attacks.  Sometimes, it also allows the Knight to reach some hard to get to places that hold secrets. I love games like Duck Tales and Shovel Knight that have bouncy pogo moves like this.

The world of Hallownest was fun and interesting to explore and is dense with secrets to uncover.  The exploration aspect of the game is probably what resonated with me most about Hollow Knight. Each area of the map feels visually distinctive and presents challenges and enemies that mostly feel very unique.  Around the same time I was playing Hollow Knight, I was also playing Metroid: Samus Returns on the 3DS. While I kinda like that game, I have to say that everything in it just sort of blurs together. The levels and bosses I’ve played feel rather same-y and don’t leave much of a distinctive impression.  

20180116175823_1.jpg

Meanwhile, I can easily recall most of Hallownest, because Hollow Knight does such a good job of creating a varied world with unique places to explore.  My favorite area is Deepnest, the dark and deeply terrifying caves on the border of the kingdom that are overrun with a race of hostile spiders. Second would probably be the mysterious Ancient Basin, where the secrets of Hallownest’s godlike ruler can be discovered.  I also have to mention that the White Palace has my favorite music track in the game, a somber melody that conveys the weight of the tragedy that struck the kingdom, and the area is also intensely and satisfyingly challenging.

Hollow Knight has a few different endings, but essentially there are just two.  It has a few “normal” endings that are quite similar, and then a secret “true” ending that requires a great deal more effort and secret hunting to unlock.  I went into Hollow Knight knowing this, but I expected that I would only bother to get the normal ending. As it turned out, I was so enamored by the game that I committed myself to unlocking the secret true ending.  This was a bit fortunate as there is a significant amount of content in the game that you would only see if you went out of your way to get this ending. I’m talking about huge areas that you would never find if you only followed the path that the main story directs you through.  But I have to be honest, I had to consult a guide to figure out the requirements to reveal the secret ending. There really is not a whole lot of explicit hints in the game that would give you strong suggestions as to how to unlock it. It took me roughly 30 hours to complete the game, but if I hadn’t used a guide, I could easily see it taking double that time to find the items needed to see the complete finale.

20171110175052_1.jpg

That said, it was totally worth it.  Not only are the secret areas really great parts of the game, but I found the “normal” ending to be a bit anticlimactic.  I felt it didn’t really do justice to the epic quest that preceded it. The secret ending, on the other hand, has a new final boss fight that takes place after the original final boss.  I felt that the secret final boss was way more exciting and formidable and easily a major highlight of the game for me. In addition to revealing the true final boss, I just felt that the secret ending gave a bit better closure to the story.  The normal ending would have felt rather abrupt and confusing without the extra context of the lore found in the secret areas. I really wish that they would have made the normal ending a little more worthwhile, seeing as that’s the only ending most players are likely to see.

Hollow Knight was a game that I was excited to play due to the strong word of mouth I had heard.  There’s lots of popular games that I’m pumped to try, but sometimes I end up being let down by my high expectations for them.  Often when this happens, I question whether gaming is still something I’m passionate about. But sometimes a game totally surpasses any expectations I had and reinforces the affection I have for gaming as a hobby.  Hollow Knight is definitely that type of game. I had started out hoping to complete it quickly, but realized that I couldn’t do anything less than master it.

PSA: Unreal turns 20. Goes Free on GOG and Steam.

The year 1998 was a great time with a huge number of seminal games seeing release, such as Half-Life, Ocarina of Time, Resident Evil 2, and Metal Gear Solid.  Of course, this means that a lot of classic hits will see their 20th Anniversary in 2018, a realization that dawned on me when Epic announced that Unreal Gold was going free on both GOG and Steam to commemorate its May 22, 1998 launch date.  I had a blast with Unreal back in the day. I still have my original CD, but I was super excited to snag the download version for free. For those who are old time fans of the game or if you’re just curious about this highly influential PC classic, LGR did an excellent Unreal retrospective on Youtube that I think is well worth a view.  

Before Unreal’s release, Quake II was basically the king of PC gaming, and Epic Games fully intended Unreal to be a “Quake Killer”.  And they weren’t just making empty smack talk, either. Unreal ended up being an amazing game for its time. The graphics were well beyond anything that had come before, as enshrined by this now infamous magazine cover:

UnrealMagazine.jpg

That might look laughable today, but in the late 90s, the visual splendor of Unreal completely warranted this kind of hype.  And it used those graphics to create an alien world that had a level of atmosphere and immersion that was clearly raising the bar for video game settings.

Unfortunately, I feel like Unreal’s challenge to the computer gaming throne was really very short lived.  Just a few months later, Half-Life came onto the scene, and while it’s graphics engine didn’t quite have the bells and whistles of Unreal, it quickly became the biggest game to play for a variety of other reasons.  Honestly, I feel Unreal, as a game, has always been an overlooked masterpiece. It spawned the Unreal Tournament spin-off series, which was massively popular around the turn of the century, and the Unreal Engine, which has powered a ton of games over the years.  But people hardly ever talk about the game that started both of these things, even though its stands well on its own.

Unreal is currently free on GOG and Steam for, I think, the next day.  I will warn anyone who is interested that you can run into problems playing on modern PCs.  Personally, I can’t boot it up using the software renderer, I have to use Direct3D instead. This was a bit odd to me considering that other old Unreal Engine games always crash in Direct3D mode on my machine, necessitating the use of the software renderer.  When I run into issues with old PC games, I always seek help from the PCGamingWiki. Their Unreal page has a good list of mods and fixes that go a long way to getting this game running up to snuff.

The Four Games that Define Me

Last week there was a major trending topic on Twitter called GameStruck4, where users would post the 4 games that defined them the most.  I thought this was pretty cool, but I don’t really use Twitter, so I decided instead to blog about it here. 

A few years ago, I compiled a list of the 30 games that were most valuable to me.  It’s currently available on the About page, if you care to take a look.  Naturally, I used this list as a starting point to figure out what these four should be but narrowing it down to just 4 games was quite difficult.  This was of course the reason that the original list contained such a large number of games, instead of, say, being a top 5 or a top 10 list.  In the end, though, I’m fairly happy with the four I selected.  I think they are a good representation of what has lead me to make gaming a significant hobby of mine. 

Super Mario Bros. 3 

SMB3.png

This is probably the game on the list that is most obvious and obligatory.  This is really the game that started it all for me, as it cemented that gaming would be a lifelong interest of mine.  I believe I started gaming on the old NES around the age of 4, and even as a young child, it had a big impact on me.  I think this game resonated with me so much because the vast and inventive world of Super Mario Bros. 3 was very successful at stoking the fires of my young imagination.  Crude as the game may seem today, it was incredibly immersive to me at the time.  It offered an entire fantasy world to explore, filled with tons of creative levels and enemies and some amazing secrets.  The ability to explore strange and interesting worlds is one of the key things that has attracted me to games ever since. 

Final Fantasy VII 

FF7.jpg

When Final Fantasy VII came out, it was a huge game that swept up a ton of people, myself included.  This was the first RPG that I ever played, and it drove me to become interested in story-driven games.  For me, Final Fantasy VII was a “right time” kind of situation, and I’ve written before about why I think that game resonated with an audience of a certain age.  While my interest in gaming may have its roots in Mario, FFVII is a big factor in why I continued to stay interested in gaming as I got older.   

Deus Ex 

Deus Ex.jpg

While Super Mario Bros. 3 made me interested in immersion and exploration and Final Fantasy VII made me interested in story, Deus Ex managed to offer all of these things.  If you’re not familiar with Deus Ex, your first impression might be that it is a straightforward first-person shooter of the type that was super common on the PC in the late 90s/early 00s.  The reality is that Deus Ex is really more of an RPG, placing a heavy emphasis on story, non-linear exploration, dialogue with NPCs, and side quests.  While action games of the time like Quake and Unreal were about moving through a level and shooting at everything that moves, Deus Ex took the RPG approach of allowing players to tackle objectives through means other than violence. 

I loved exploring the world of Deus Ex, and the game became an obsession of mine for a good while.  But on a more personal level, it led me to become interested in the field of nanotechnology (a primary topic of the game’s story), which then led me to interests in materials science, biotechnology, and eventually surface science, fields which have formed the foundation of my career.  With that in mind, Deus Ex may be the game which has had the biggest impact on my life.  The profound realization that a video game has had a such a major influence on me gives me goosebumps. 

Also, the main menu music is pretty kickass. 

Final Fantasy X 

468px-Ffx-art.jpg

I had some reservations about putting this game on the list.  For one, I was concerned in selecting two games from the same series.  But also, I was concerned by giving such high merit to two games that aren’t even my favorite of the Final Fantasy series.  But after thinking about the criteria of the list (the games that best define you), Final Fantasy X was a clear choice due to one specific event that it created in my life.   

I have a sister that is over a decade younger than me, and because I moved away and went off to college when she was very young, I’ve often been afraid that we haven’t connected as well as siblings should.  But one summer when I was home from school, I started to play Final Fantasy X (this was my second playthrough of the game).  She happened to catch me playing the intro and became enamored with the story and characters.  We ended up spending the next few weeks playing through the entire game together.  Really, I was the one playing, while she watched on and talked about it with me.  I don’t think she was ever really into story-driven games, but she got really into the world and characters of Final Fantasy X.  It eventually became one of my best memories of spending time with her. 

Final Fantasy X, as well as the rest of these games, led to an epiphany I had about gaming as I grew older.  Gaming, like any hobby, isn’t purely just a form of idle recreation and escapism.  Our hobbies, whether they be gaming, blogging, sports, music writing, whatever, are tools we use to explore ourselves as human beings.  They aren’t just a means of staving off boredom in an age when humans have too much free time.  They enlighten us about ourselves, help us forge new connections with others, and create new memories, both shared and deeply personal, that advance us as people.   

There was a time I believed I would someday grow out of gaming.  That hasn’t happened yet, but maybe it will eventually.  For the most part, I don’t really regret the time I’ve spent on games, for the reasons I’ve shared above.  I think back to playing Super Mario Bros. for the first time and how amazing it seemed, and then I think about what games are like today and how much they’ve grown and changed.  It’s really been incredible to be able to watch this evolution.  I hope everyone else can feel the same way I do. 

Donkey Kong Land: A Retro Review

When going through my archives, I noticed this old post about Donkey Kong Land had been mysteriously deleted and was no longer available on the site.  I actually really liked that post, so I’m restoring it from my Google Docs backup.  I’m being lazy and assuming the backup is the final draft without any proofreading, so I’m hoping there aren’t any embarrassing typos or errors.

DKL Title

Long before Rare revived the Donkey Kong character with their watershed, Silicon Graphics-infused Donkey Kong Country, Game Boy actually got a pretty rockin’ renewal of the classic arcade game in the form of 1994’s Donkey Kong.  DK94 (as its commonly distinguished today) was an amazing game that stood out among platformers at the time with a fairly unique focus on puzzle platforming in creatively condensed level designs.  Despite being a legendary DK title today, at the time, it was quickly overshadowed by the SNES release of Donkey Kong Country which appeared later that year.  DKC’s impact on the gaming landscape was immense, and the the series it spawned went a long way toward keeping the Super Nintendo not just relevant but dominant until preparations were finished for the N64’s release.  Rare would churn out two infamous SNES sequels in the same number of years, but perhaps less known is the series of similarly annualized  Game Boy Donkey Kong Land games which have faded into obscurity behind the DKC trilogy, as well as the beloved DK94.  Fortunately for gamers though, both the SNES DKCs and Game Boy DKLs have recently made a return via Virtual Console for Wii U and 3DS.

The big hook of Donkey Kong Country is, of course, the use of CG pre-rendered 3D sprites and environments that were widely regarded as “tubular” in the dialect that dominated the mid-1990’s.  In an age when real time polygonal graphics were still very crude, the pre-rendered graphics of DKC were colorful, detailed, and well-realized and were made all the more incredible by being available on the Super Nintendo machines that had been available for years.  Rare was a company that was well-known for its technical wizardry and revitalizing gamer’s admiration for the capabilities of the SNES hardware simply wasn’t enough for them, and, consequently, 1995’s Donkey Kong Land, a monochrome Game Boy game sporting the same pre-rendered 3D graphics as its console parallel, was concocted.

DKL4

Impressive graphics for the time and hardware.

Donkey Kong Land is contradictorily both one of the most impressively designed and most poorly thought out games to come out during the long lifespan of the portable platform.  Rare largely succeeded in bringing its impressive pre-rendered graphics to the handheld, but it came at a huge cost.  The simple truth is that the tiny, dimly lit, monochrome, low-res, heavily motion blur-afflicted LCD screen of the system complimented the intricately-detailed DKC-style exceptionally poorly.  The level of detail is such that it’s just hard to tell what’s happening on screen sometimes.  This may not be as apparent on the 3DS VC releases, as the 3DS features a far brighter and crisper screen than the old brick, but the complex grayscale shading of the pre-rendered graphics just makes everything sort of blur together in many scenes.  This is easily the most commonly cited criticism I’ve heard against the game.

DKL5

The map of the second world.

When I originally played this game around the time of its release, I was definitely amazed by the graphics, but there was something off about them that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until the underwater sections in the second world.  I think those underwater levels are actually some of the hardest to follow because of the busy visual design, and they were also the point I finally realized that the graphics were just too elaborate to display clearly on the primitive Game Boy LCD.  Back then, my young brain couldn’t immediately comprehend how something could be a technological leap but also a hindrance.  Today, I feel like so many people are cynical toward advances in video game technology, insisting that we’ve hit a point of diminishing returns, but back in the ‘90s we were exhilarated by the rapidly advancing state of hardware.  Sometimes, it was hard for us to grasp that there would be missteps along the way of progress, and more technically sophisticated graphics weren’t always better by default.  I think Donkey Kong Land first provided that realization for me.

DKL2

DKL features some interesting locales like these cloud levels.

While I agree that the graphics were a hindrance, I don’t want to give the impression that they completely ruin the game.  When first playing it, I remember I eventually adapted my eyes to focus such that I could keep up with the action more easily.  Actually, I think the game has some far bigger problems than graphics.  The game has an incongruous difficulty level for the platform that I think is its real flaw.  The platforming in this game requires very tight maneuvers which can at times be unfairly arduous, since due to the size of the Game Boy screen, you can’t see very far ahead of the character.  You don’t really want to be running because its easy to bump into an enemy you haven’t seen yet, but many of the jumps require you to be at the elevated speed to successfully land.  To exacerbate the issue, the collision detection is often unpredictable.  Often times, you’ll feel as if you’re about to land a jump but slip through the edge of the platform, or you’ll get struck down by an enemy you could’ve swore you landed on top of.  I think this kind of graceless platforming design is a far bigger issue for the game.  Also, to top it all off, the save system really does not compliment the portable experience very well.  In DKL, the save screen is only accessed after collecting all four Kong coins in a level.  Collecting the coins is fairly easy in the early goings, but in the later stages, you often go a fair few levels without finding all of these collectibles, meaning your cut off from saving.  Such extended periods between saves just aren’t suitable to an on-the-go experience (which is the on-going theme of this game’s design).

DKL3

The first underwater level was a particularly difficult struggle for the eyes.

With all that said, I do think Donkey Kong Land has some strong points.  Although only really explained in the manual, the story has always struck me as somewhat clever.  Although you ostensibly fight the Kremlings and K. Rool, the actual villain seems to be Cranky Kong who, out of jealousy for the success of DKC, schemes with the Kremlings to create an 8-bit challenge for Donkey and Diddy that has the banana hoard on the line.  Consequently, DKL features an entirely new set of levels divided across 4 worlds: a pirate ship, a sunken ruin, a mountain, and a city.  Several of these levels have themes, enemies, and gimmicks that I’m not sure have been done in other DKC games.  For instance, there are levels that take place up in the clouds, on construction sites, on mountain cliff sides, etc.  For all of its flaws, there’s a fair bit of originality on display in the game.  And of course, on top of all that, the music is excellent.  (David Wise was credited as a composer.)  When replaying the VC release, I realized just how many tunes that have been stuck in my head for years were heard from this game.

Two sequels would follow DKL, both released across the two subsequent years that followed the original.  Honestly, I never played the sequels when they were originally released, but after having a go at the VC releases, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the first DKL.  The sequels are unlike DKL in that they are actually just miniaturized versions of their DKC counterparts (Diddy Kong’s Quest and Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!).  As far as I can tell, the levels in these games are Game Boy-ized facsimiles of those found in the console games, very closely similar in layout and design with some small changes made to accommodate for the differences in hardware.  Definitely, the lack of originality was a bit of a bummer in light of the completely unique DKL.

DKL8

I may be wrong, but I don’t think a city like this was ever depicted in the other Rare Donkey Kongs.

More interestingly, however, is that the graphics are greatly simplified from Donkey Kong Land.  The backgrounds are not fully computer rendered and instead have a “penciled in” quality to them.  This definitely raises the visibility of the on-screen action, and, presumably, that was the intention.  I have some doubts, however.  It’s not just the backgrounds that have been “reduced,”  the sprites also have this sort of lower quality feel to them.  I think its easy to see what I mean when you compare the KONG tokens, as I’ve demonstrated below.  I’ve always wondered if the real reason for the changes to the backgrounds was that Rare appropriated a lower budget to sequels.  These games came out in the years just before Pokemon dropped, and I’ve heard that Game Boy sales were in a slump during that period, so Rare may not have wanted to invest as much effort into the platform.

DKL9

The pencil-like backgrounds of DKL2 provide for better contrast with objects on screen.

As I close out this post, I’m sure I may leave some readers with a difficult impression as to whether the 3DS VC release of DKL is worth playing for those with no prior experience with the game.  That’s a difficult question to answer.  The massively superior 3DS screen alleviates many of the problems with the difficult to discern graphics that had to be endured on the far less crisp Game Boy display.  But the erratic and fickle difficulty design, of course, still remains.  Think about it, though, I realize that the first SNES DKC also had this aspect at times.  Ultimately, I think fans of the SNES DKCs who might have never played this version but are looking for something new to sate their nostalgia will enjoy this game.  It does put more than a few of its own twists on the DKC formula, and the availability of save states on the 3DS VC will definitely provide a less stressful alternative to the game’s original save system.  Unfortunately, I think those without much affinity to the series will not gain as much fulfillment from this game, especially if they haven’t played the SNES counterparts which are superior and without question better games to check out first.

The Crash Comeback Part 2

Crash Bandicoot Part 2 Header

As I’ve discussed before, I’m a huge fan of Crash Bandicoot, or at least the games that came out for the original PlayStation (Crash 1, 2, 3 and especially Crash Team Racing).  After that time, I sort of fell off with the series, and I know its quality has seen ups and downs.  I was super excited to see the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy announced for PS4, which collects modern remakes of the original trilogy of games.  I’ve been playing the first game in the collection off and on since it’s release for over six months now and finally managed to beat it.  It’s matches surprisingly well with how I remembered it, and the remake is an excellent recreation that stays true to the original. 

In a lot of ways, Crash Bandicoot feels like a half-step between the types of games that existed on machines like the Genesis and the SNES and more advanced games of the time period like Mario 64, Bnajo-Kazooie, and Spyro.  I think most people who have played Crash have realized this at one point or another.  Crash doesn’t make as good use of the third dimension as something like Mario 64 does.  While those other games are about adventuring and exploring in these big open environments, Crash is really still about getting across a level from the starting point to the finish line in a rather linear fashion.  The player primarily moves forward into the screen without a whole lot of space to move horizontally or vertically.  Truth is that while I love those old Crash games, they’re really not as innovative as they could have been, they simply extrapolate games like Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario World into the third dimension.   But while playing the remake, I realized that this is especially true for the first Crash game, because a lot of the levels (and I had completely forgotten there were as many as there were) are played from a sidescrolling perspective, barely making any use of the third dimension at all. 

Crash Bandicoot N_ Sane Trilogy_20170710182153.jpg

Crash Bandicoot is also a much harder game than I remember.  One issue with this game is that it’s really hard to understand Crash’s position in three-dimensional space, making certain jumps and enemies harder to deal with than they should be.  There were plenty of times when the collision felt off, like I would die from touching a hazard but to me it didn’t look like I had even made contact with it.  I don’t think I noticed this issue with the original game, but that was probably more because 3D gaming was completely new at the time.  I chalk this up to the fact that you can’t move the camera in the game.  It always sort of floats behind and above Crash, and since you can’t reorient it like you would in other games, you have no tool through which to better gauge distances you might not understand so well.   

But more than that, I think the game is just hard at a core level.  I personally had no memory of the game being this hard.  Really, it’s just certain particular levels that stand out, while most of the rest of the game is fine.  The Road to Nowhere specifically stood out to me as being absurdly over-the-top in terms of difficulty.  It took me well over an hour (maybe two) just to get through that one.  I learned that for the remake the studio altered all three games to have similar physics as the third game.  I think what this essentially means is that they made Crash move and handle like he does in Crash Bandicoot 3, so that it would feel consistent across the entire package.  I think this may have ended up making the first game harder, since it was built around a more forgiving method of determining when Crash successfully landed on flat ground.  There are several articles and discussions out there which explain this better than I am, fortunately.

Crash Bandicoot N_ Sane Trilogy_20170730204816.jpg

Difficulty aside, so far this package has been a really great way to re-experience Crash Bandicoot.  (I say this having only played the first game so far.)  Crash Bandicoot was always a stunning game to look at, and I think that the graphics of the original game have held up fairly well over the years for a PS1 game.  When Uncharted 2 launched, Naughty Dog really became known for their powers at creating amazing graphics, but I think they’ve always had a visual edge over their competitors.  The Crash Bandicoot series always made amazing use of colors at a time when most PS1 games were very dull to look at.  And Crash himself is an extremely expressive character that is incredibly well animated.  I always felt that the exuberant animations of Crash Bandicoot in that original game always gave him a level of personality that characters like Mario and Spyro and Banjo never had. 

The new remastered collection completely rebuilds the games from the ground up, and I think they’ve done a good job of making a game with graphics that are up to modern standards while still recapturing the style and feeling of the original Crash Bandicoot.  They’ve stayed fairly true to how the games were meant to look.  Aside from staying true to the original, the game is just great to look at, having some of the best graphics I’ve seen from 2017. 

Crash Bandicoot N_ Sane Trilogy_20170722164952.jpg

I think this playthrough has really solidified Crash 1 as a game I think I love so much mostly because of my own personal history with it.  I still think it’s a good game, but someone who doesn’t have a connection with it will probably bounce off it as its nothing particularly special.  It has some great character to it, but, particularly later in the game, some of the levels can be maddeningly difficult, while others feel rather bland.  Truthfully, I don’t think I’ve ever really harbored any illusions about Crash 1, though.  I think I’ve always kind of known that it wasn’t a truly amazing game, and that its popularity was mostly boosted because it was supposed to be Playstation’s competitor to Nintendo’s Mario.   

That said, I’ve always felt its sequels were far better and much more worthwhile games.  As I finish the first game, its only made me more look forward to starting the second game, which I hope will be much more fulfilling.  Actually, I don’t have a lot of experience with Crash 2.  Back in the day, I only ever owned Crash 1 and Crash 3, and I rented 2 a few times.  I’m excited to finally have a real playthrough.  I know it’s a lot of people’s favorite game in the series. 

 

%d bloggers like this: