Blog Archives

Severed!

I love the Vita, but I often find myself only really getting around to playing it when I have some travel time and I want something to take with me.  I think part of the reason I do this is because exciting new releases for the Vita are often spread so thin on the calendar that I don’t really feel any pressure to get around to anything when it comes out.  This is usually reinforced by the fact that a lot of Vita titles are ports of games that had already been out on existing platforms for a while, so there’s a chance I’ve already played them.  Furthermore, a lot of these ports often end up running poorly on the Vita, making it more attractive to play them elsewhere, even though I like to play games handheld.  It’s a very rare occurrence for a game to release first on Vita, and offer arguably the best experience on that platform.

Severed 02.jpg

I recently discovered, though, that one such game that excels on Vita is Severed, a first person dungeon exploration game by the same team that created Guacamelee.  It originally released exclusively for the Vita last year, but since then found its way to 3DS and Wii U, as well.  Taking place in a Mesoamerican-inspired fantasy world, it pairs an oddly vibrant art style with a contrastingly gloomy and ominous atmosphere.  The combat system is probably the most unique aspect of Severed as it relies entirely upon the Vita’s often underused touchscreen.

While exploring dungeons, enemies appear as glowing white orbs, and combat is initiated when the player moves onto spaces occupied by said entities.  When the main character, Sasha, incurs upon an enemy party in such a way, the player is surrounded by the group of monsters, while facing only one at a given time.  The foes outside of the player’s first person view are indicated as icons at the bottom of the screen that keep check of information such as their health, buffs, and status of their charging attacks. The d-pad/face buttons are used to switch focus between enemies, but the rest of combat is carried out on the Vita’s touchscreen.  When the current enemy in focus reveals their weak point, the player does damage by slashing their finger back and forth across the vulnerable spot.  Severed’s battles are real time, not turn-based, which means the faster the player can swipe their finger back and forth on an enemy, the more damage Sasha will deal.  

Severed 03.jpg

Conversely, enemy attacks can be countered by swiping against the motion of their attack, so, for instance, if an enemy slashes at Sasha, swiping in the opposite direction against the motion of their claws  will negate any damage dealt to the player.  The icons at the bottom of the screen signal if an enemy off-view is about to attack, and monitoring these indicators and performing successful counters is critical to success in the game, since Sasha’s health is never large enough to take more than a handful of hits each encounter.  The game has a decent variety of enemies, each which have different attack patterns and quirks that managed to keep me on my toes and ensured battle never became a particularly tedious affair.  

In a lot of ways, Severed sort of reminds me of a game from the heyday of the Nintendo DS.  There was a period of time in the DS’s early life when there was just a huge amount of titles making innovative use of the touchscreen.  Since those days, touch-based gaming has kind of fallen by the wayside.  I can’t think of many 3DS or Wii U games that really made heavy use of the touchscreen element in an essential way.  There have been some really great touch-based games on phones, like The Room series and Lara Croft Go, but for the most part I find really exciting releases on such mobile platforms to be very few and far between.  But while it’s disappointing to see this side of gaming whither, Severed at least manages to do something new and interesting in this area.

Severed 01.jpg

Unfortunately, there’s a slight ergonomic toll inflicted by Severed.  I find the easiest way to play the game is to hold the Vita with one hand, gripping the middle of the system with my palm, which leaves the other hand free to use the touchscreen and face buttons.  This method works fairly well and isn’t nearly as awkward as it sounds.  The problem really comes from the rapid swiping motions the game encourages the player to make.  Like I said, combat is real time, meaning the faster the player can move, the more effective they will be.  So for instance, some enemies open up weak points for limited windows of time, during which I found myself swiping as furiously as I could to inflict maximum damage before the opportunity closed.  Situations like this had a bad affect on my wrist, and often I would find my hand getting a little stiff and sore after only a small (30 minutes to 1 hour) play session.  I don’t want to leave the impression that I was in excruciating physical pain or anything, it was a mild discomfort, but it’s probably the only real negative I found to the game.

In recent years there have been a lot of RPGs I’ve found myself getting bored with after I’ve sunk in significant playtime due to how tedious their repetitive battle systems can become.  Fortunately, I felt like Severed managed to dodge this sort of fatigue, partly due to its relative brevity, but also because the game does a good job of continuously adding new wrinkles to the battle system that keep it from getting stale across the duration of Sasha’s quest.  The game has a fairly decent variety of enemies that it rolls out, each which require their own strategies to counter, but it also introduces some new mechanics that require the player to continuously adapt their play style.  

Severed 04.jpg

It’s a bit difficult to give an overview of Severed’s story due to the hazy and cryptic way in which the game opens.  It’s not Dark Souls level of vaguery, but the whole game definitely has a dream-like quality that implores the player to use their own imagination and intuition to fill in the blanks it leaves.  Here is the best explanation I can put together for how the game opens:  A young warrior named Sasha arrives in a strange, nightmarish realm to find her missing family that were abducted in a struggle that left Sasha without her left arm (hence the title).  She is guided by a shadowy, almost demonic figure of ambiguous intention and origin to set out on a quest through the nightmare world to discover their ultimate fate.

RPGs tend to be games about heroes who embark on epic journeys to counter existential crises that threaten the entire world, but Severed is a deeply personal story about loss and survivor’s guilt.  Sasha is no savior of mankind, merely a young woman on a hopeless quest to save her loved ones, nothing more.  Additionally, her journey is a solitary one with only a few recurring NPCs occasionally interjecting her dungeon diving.  Yet despite the much more humble stakes of Severed, I still found myself thoroughly invested in Sasha’s unfolding tale up through its poignant and bittersweet conclusion.  And while it might not be a game about saving the world, I still found the final boss fight to be an epic struggle against a terrifying foe.

Severed is a great game for the Vita.  It’s not super long, only about 6 hours, which is probably just as long as it needs to be to not outstay its welcome.  It’s kind of sad that it hasn’t quite gotten as much attention as its predecessor, Guacamelee, but I think that’s probably due to the touch-based gameplay restricting the platforms it can be available on.  Regardless, I feel like the team should be commended for taking a risk to create a touchscreen-focused experience.  It goes a long way to disprove the popular theory that games that use controls besides the standard DualShock/Xbox controller or mouse and keyboard can only be empty gimmicks.

 

Halloween Gaming: Until Dawn: Rush of Blood

Until Dawn Rush of Blood TMU Header.png

This past week, I tried something a little different for my Halloween Gaming series.  I was able to try VR for the first time on the new Playstation VR headset from Sony.  When I say “for the first time”, I’m not including the old Nintendo Virtual Boy, which I played a ton after I was able to snag one for cheap when it was discontinued.  You want to know something weird?  The first time I put on the PSVR headset, I immediately recognized that it smelled like my old Virtual Boy did.  I think it’s the foam around the eyepieces (the part that makes contact with the player’s face) that gives the two such similar odors.

Anyway, weird Virtual Boy sense memories aside, one of the PSVR games that I’ve been most eager to try is the spinoff to last year’s excellent PS4 horror title, Until Dawn.  Until Dawn was one of the highlights of 2015 for me, and I had a great time writing about it for last year’s Halloween Gaming series.  While I’ve been really hoping to see the game get a proper sequel, the announcement of Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, an arcade-action spinoff of the original Until Dawn’s story, naturally had my interests piqued.

I don’t know if I can think of two games more different than the original Until Dawn and its spin-off, Rush of Blood.  Rush of Blood replaces the somber tone, slow pacing, and nuanced character development of its progenitor with a bombastic on-rails action experience.  The story of Rush of Blood is somewhat abstract and obtuse, but from what I can gather, the game is essentially a nightmare sequence being had by one of the original story’s cast members.  It’s never said specifically which character, but those who have seen Until Dawn all the way through should be able to figure out which one.

Rush of Blood 1.jpg

The game starts with the player character entering an eerily destitute amusement park where a carnival barker implores him to take a ride on a rollercoaster that was once the site’s star attraction. This is one of those rides where the attendees are given toy guns to shoot at targets that line the sides of the tracks, and so it serves as an interesting tutorial for what’s to come.  As the ride nears its conclusion, the psychopath from Until Dawn suddenly appears and switches the rails so that the player is separated from the barker and enters the park’s abandoned haunted house, where the psychopath leads a gang of clowns in an ambush.  From then on out, the player is facing live targets whose ranks are largely composed of standard nightmare fuel such as clowns, mannequins, spiders, and a particular gang of beasties that Until Dawn fans will immediately recognize.  Since the game takes place in a nightmare or a hallucination or whatever it is, the ride becomes increasingly surreal and dangerous as it begins to wind through locations that are clearly beyond the limits of the park, such as a slaughterhouse, a haunted hotel, and an abandoned mine.  

Until Dawn™_ Rush of Blood_20161019201309.jpg

Rush of Blood is pretty much a standard House of the Dead-style light gun shooter, outside of the VR hook.  The player has two guns which can be aimed independently with two different Playstation Move controllers.  The standard DualShock 4 gamepad can also be used as a motion controller in lieu of the Move wands, but in this mode of play, the two guns are always pointed at the same target (since there is only one controller being used).  The action side of the gameplay is reasonably competent, although aiming and reloading two guns simultaneously can get a bit hairy sometimes.  There were times when I was being rushed by large groups of enemies that I had trouble keeping track of which gun needed to be reloaded, and it resulted in a lot of spastic frustration as the monsters just overwhelmed me.  I suppose you could chalk these moments up to my poor skill.  The game definitely wants you to replay each of its seven chapters to the point of mastering them.  True to the game’s arcade roots, there’s a secondary focus on maximizing score through playing at an expert level, and each chapter features numerous branching paths which encourage replay.

Until Dawn™_ Rush of Blood_20161022115243.jpg

Since the advantage that VR brings to gaming is a greatly increased level of immersion, horror games are something that could hypothetically benefit enormously from the technology.  Rush of Blood is half horror game/half arcade-action, so it’s a bit of an unusual sample for what this new hardware can do for the horror genre.  Regardless, I think the VR aspect of the game did manage to enhance the title’s atmosphere and immersion.  I think it’s the head tracking that really does it.  There were several moments when I turned my head to the left or right or maybe upwards and caught a glimpse of something spooky that I wasn’t aware was there before.  When you move your real-life head and realize that something was lurking just right outside of your own eyes’ field of view, it’s actually quite creepy and unsettling.  

Outside of atmosphere and the creep-factor, Rush of Blood uses a lot of jump scares.  Cheap jump scares at that.  And they’re usually telegraphed in the most obvious ways.  Like, the lights will go off and you just know that something’s going to be standing right in front of you making loud noises when they flip back on.  In general, a lot of stuff yells in your face in this game.  The first time it happened, I found I was actually kind of fascinated by it, because I reflexively leaned away in my chair, since it was standing right next to me.  I would never actually move my body away from something on a TV screen.  I was impressed by how the immersion of VR was able to provoke such a “realistic” reaction out of me.

Until Dawn™_ Rush of Blood_20161019202556.jpg

Unfortunately, after the initial excitement, the jump scares wore thin pretty quickly.  Like I said, there’s a fair few things in this game which just pop up and scream right into your face, and it’s really unpleasant after the initial novelty.  To mitigate the obnoxiousness of it all, I actually decided to unplug the earbuds from the VR headset and just listen to the game audio off the TV, so the jump scares wouldn’t be so overwhelming.  Jump scares are one of the simplest and oldest methods that horror games have used to startle the player and create tension.  Some would argue that they are a really lazy way of creating cheap scares, but I would specifically argue they have no place in VR, especially to the extent that Rush of Blood likes to use them, simply because they’re just so aggravatingly unpleasant.

Ultimately, I thought Rush of Blood was a fun time.  I definitely do have some frustrations with it, such as the aforementioned issue with jump scares.  In addition, the game has seven chapters, but will only take about two hours to beat, and the finale is unfortunately rather anti-climactic.  But to be fair, the game is only $20 (not including the steep cost of the VR headset, of course), which helps me forgive many of its stumbling points.  Beyond those issues I have with it, it is suitably kooky and spooky for a game that is essentially a launch title for a whole new type of gaming experience.  And most importantly, it impresses me enough to leave me excited to see how future VR horror games will take advantage of the technology.

Halloween Gaming: Oxenfree

Oxenfree TMU Header.png

October rolls around once again, which means it’s time to get into the Halloween spirit.  For the past couple years, I’ve tried to spend the duration of the spooky season festively writing about horror games.  Last year, in particular, I had a fun time with it, and hopefully this year will be just as successful.  For those who missed those old posts and might be curious, I’ve collected all of the previous years’ essays on this page.  First up this time is Oxenfree, a narrative adventure game released earlier this year.

Oxenfree is at its core a ghost story in which a group of teens set out for a night of unsupervised revelry on the beaches of the mostly deserted Edwards Island.  During the course of the night’s events, the teens test out a local urban legend, and, unsurprisingly to the audience, the proceedings go terribly awry.  The group becomes trapped on the island while being harrowed and tormented by reality-bending paranormal entities from the island’s apocryphal past.

20160925181314_1.jpg

The struggle of a group of teenagers against an overpowering and inescapable threat makes Oxenfree somewhat similar to last year’s teen slasher title, Until Dawn. But unlike the shifting perspectives of Until Dawn, the player only controls one central character, Alex, in Oxenfree.  Alex is joined by four other protagonists, the most important of whom is Jonas, her new step-brother that she met immediately before the opening of the story. In addition to Jonas, she is accompanied by childhood friend Ren, slacker Nona, and Clarissa, the ex-girlfriend of Alex’s tragically deceased brother, Michael.  Alex’s growing relationship with Jonas and the tension that exists between her and Clarissa are the biggest focus of her character arc.

Oxenfree could maybe best be described as one of the much dreaded “walking simulators,” although, as this genre has started to grow significantly in the past years, I seriously wish a better common term for it would take hold.  Essentially, Oxenfree is more focused on story, dialogue, and exploring characters than on providing a solid challenge to the player.  Conversations are a particularly strong focus of the game.

The game’s conversation system is relatively simple, but also fairly versatile.  When Alex can chime in during exchanges, three text bubbles will pop up above her head, each with a potential reaction the player can select.  The player can also always choose to ignore these text bubbles, in which case Alex will stay silent.  Furthermore, the timing of the reply is also important, since Alex can interrupt other characters while they’re talking.  And of course, the game features branching dialogue based on the choices the player makes, although I’ve only given this game one playthrough, so I can’t really speak to how drastically the conversations can differ.

20160925175955_1.jpg

As the teens progress in their quest to escape the island, the unseen ghostly forces vie to impede their progress.  At certain points in the story, the ghosts trap Alex and company in time loops during which unearthly and threatening paranormal events occur.  Escaping these time loops requires a light (and I mean very light) amount of puzzle solving, and, after the conversation system, serves as the second pillar of Oxenfree’s gameplay.  These time loops, I think, were meant to add an element of a more traditional gameplay style, but they aren’t really much of a challenge.  The solutions are all very simple and more often than not are repeated in later segments.  It’s clear that the designers of the game were far more interested in developing out their branching conversation system than they were in adding these more traditional adventure game segments that require puzzle solving.

Horror is a highly subjective, hit-or-miss sort of thing.  What’s scary to me might not be scary to you, and vice versa.  I try to keep that in mind when assessing stuff like this.  Regardless, I don’t really think anyone would find Oxenfree all that scary.  There are some freaky sequences, but I don’t think the story really develops much tension.  Despite some vain attempts to make the player think otherwise, the teens are never really in “true” danger, or at least it didn’t seem that way during my playthrough.  It’s not like in Until Dawn where the wrong move can have one of the central characters eliminated for the rest of the story.   As a consequence, there’s never really the feeling of dread and apprehension that appears in a good horror game.  

20161002205441_1.jpg

But I’ve always felt that horror fiction can get away with not being scary if the mystery elements of the story make up for it.  A good horror story has twists and turns that keep the audience on their toes till the very end.  Unfortunately, I’m not really sure that Oxenfree executes so well on this point either.  The plot felt very by the numbers, and there really wasn’t much mystery at all to the game.  Key story points, like the identities of the ghosts, are all pretty obvious, and there weren’t really any surprising revelations to be had.  By the end of it, I had a “that was it?” kind of moment.  It really felt like there should have been more here than there was.  

I’m a bit perplexed by Oxenfree.  I don’t mean to come off like I didn’t like the game.  I did enjoy many parts of it.  But since earlier this year, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of positive buzz for this title on various different gaming communities.  Personally, my experience didn’t really leave me feeling like the game was worthy of the praise lavished on it.  I’m left wondering if there’s something here that I just “don’t get” that others do.  You know, I can only ever really speak for myself.  Oxenfree has some branching story paths, so maybe it’s possible that I’ve missed something big, but looking over various online discussions of the game’s story, I doubt that’s the case.  Ultimately, Oxenfree is not really a game that I can personally recommend unqualified to everyone.  However, I did like the game well enough to recommend it to people who resonate strongly with story and conversation-driven games like Firewatch or Telltale’s various series.  It’s not the strongest of that category of games, but on a Steam sale, it’s worth checking out.

 

The Crash Comeback

 

Crash Bandicoot.png

Crash Bandicoot, the one-time face of Playstation, turned 20 this past week.  I’ve always found it curious that the long decline of Sonic the Hedgehog has been a popular topic of discussion, but the corresponding decline in quality of the Crash Bandicoot series has not received nearly the same amount of attention.  I’ve had a few theories as to why this has been the case.  First, Sonic *was* the Genesis.  When most people think of the good times they had with that machine, the Sonic the Hedgehog games are among the first things that enter their mind.  They are a symbol for an entire gaming era.  But I think when most think of the PS1, the experiences that immediately come to mind are titles like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, and Resident Evil.  Even though Crash was generally held up as the mascot of the Playstation, he was not nearly as critical to its success and popularity as Sonic was to the Genesis.  And furthermore, the decline of Sonic is sort of symbolic of the decline of Sega as a whole.  Once a major pillar of gaming, Sega fans have not only had to endure the struggles of one of their favorite characters, but it has corresponded to the waning of Sega’s particular brand of creativity as a whole.

crash-bandicoot-4

While Crash was used by Sony as the mascot of the PS1, Sony never really owned the Crash Bandicoot brand.  Instead, Naughty Dog developed the game for Universal Studios’ game publishing arm (which is now defunct).  When Sony bought Naughty Dog to develop PS2 games, the rights to Crash didn’t go with them.  Instead, Konami worked with Universal to take the series multiplatform, and, similar to his hedgehog counterpart, that’s when trouble started to arise.  Now, after a long stretch of diminishing popularity with less than stellar releases, Crash is in the hands of Activision, who have shown little interest in getting the series back on track.  But I’ve noticed more and more over the past few years, however, there’s been a growing fan community that’s trying to convince Sony to take back the series and do it justice.

I’m a long time Crash Bandicoot fan.  The first game was among the titles I originally received along with the console.  As I’ve discussed before, the PS1 is my favorite console, and, as a result, Crash occupies a special place in my heart.  So, I’ve been in favor of the recent fan push to get Crash returned to the hands of Sony and hopefully start a subsequent return to glory.  It’s a long shot, and I know it’s very unlikely that we’ll ever see a new proper Crash Bandicoot game, but…whatever… you have to support what you love.

Of the original Crash games created and developed by Naughty Dog, I think my favorite would have to be the third game, Crash Bandicoot: Warped (setting aside Crash Team Racing).  I think the time travel plot made for the series’ most creative levels thematically, and while many prefer the levels in Crash 2, I’ve always felt they were a little soulless when compared to the settings that Crash 3 wanders through.  And I’ve also always thought it was an amazing game graphically for the original Playstation.  Crash Bandicoot always had great graphics, especially when it came to animations, but Crash 3 made use of vibrant colors in a way that just made everything pop better.  The final boss fight deserves mention as one of my favorites ever, as Crash faces off against Neo Cortex while also having to avoid getting steamrolled by a parallel duel between his shaman buddy Aku Aku and the evil Uka Uka.

crash-bandicoot-3

I also have to mention Crash Team Racing here, as it may be my favorite kart racer ever.  It’s certainly among my favorite games of all time.  In the arena of kart racers, the Mario Kart series basically sits high above all else from a quality perspective, but there has been a small few number of titles to challenge MK’s crown, and Crash Team Racing is undoubtedly one of them.  I would actually rank it above its N64 counterpart, as I think CTR has more interesting tracks and karts that handle better than the slipperiness of MK64.  I also think CTR just has way better visuals than MK64, but that’s a bit of an unfair comparison, since MK64 came out near the beginning of the N64‘s life, while CTR appeared at the end of the PS1‘s.

The fan movement to resurrect the Crash series hasn’t gone unnoticed by either Sony or Activision.  At E3, Crash was announced to be incorporated into the next Skylanders game, but far more exciting, a remake of the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy is in the works for Playstation 4.  There was also a major cameo by the character this year in a form that I won’t spoil here, but many of you probably know what I’m talking about.  These attempts by Sony to placate the Crash loyals have been incredibly amusing to me.  Most companies just ignore fan demands to revive old, dormant series.  Sony is oddly trying to sideways satisfy them by throwing out a few bones, but not actually doing what fans are requesting, which is an entirely new game.  Presumably, such a thing is on the table if the remakes do well enough, though.

crash-bandicoot-2

But if Sony really were to do a new Crash game, what would that actually be?  Some seem to want a new game developed by Naughty Dog, but I doubt Naughty Dog is up to the task anymore of doing Crash Bandicoot, and I doubt they would want to.  A lot of talent from the Crash and Jak days have moved on from the company, and their current talent pool is more experienced with and seemingly more interested in creating highly linear, story-driven action-adventure titles than making a new 3D character platformer.  In fact, there aren’t really many studios outside of Nintendo that do have such experience anymore, but I can think of a few.  Namely, Sanzaru Games, who did a good job with Sly Cooper 4 on PS3, could be the best match for taking on the task of Crash.  I would also suggest Next Level Games, who did the Luigi’s Mansion sequel on 3DS, could also be a good fit.

And furthermore, what would a new Crash entry even be like?  In its original time, Crash straddled the line between two distinct eras of game design.  Ostensibly, Crash is a 3D platformer, allowing movement along 3 axes.  But unlike other similar releases of the time (like Mario 64, Banjo, and Spyro), Crash was structured much more similarly to 16-bit era games.  While the aforementioned contemporaries featured objective-driven gameplay in open, free-roaming levels,  Crash still had a focus on linear level design that tasked the player with making it from point A (the starting point) to point B (the finish line).  This made it a lot more similar to earlier games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario World than other comparable games of the PS1/N64 era.

Should a new Crash Bandicoot retain the linear-style of the originals, or should it attempt something more advanced, like the free-roaming environments of Mario 64?  My feeling is that most fans, myself included, would rather a new game be true to what Crash was at its peak.  But would this make the game feel antiquated?  Ironically, I actually think that more recent games like Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D Land show that linear level design can still be very exciting and modern.

crash-bandicoot-1

Regardless of all these questions, I would definitely like to see Crash make a comeback.  Aside from the fact that I’m a huge fan of the originals, these kind of games just aren’t really made anymore, besides those featuring Mario of course.  And I think more than just being fundamentally fun, 3D platformers served an important function in the gaming world, as they were the gateway through which many young people became passionate about this hobby.  I mean, mobile games are fine and all, but I find mobile gaming to be a very limited representation of what games can be as a form of creative art and experience, and now more than ever, we need projects like Crash Bandicoot and Yooka-Laylee to capture the imaginations of young gamers who are otherwise glued to games on their phones and tablets.  In a world saturated with shooters and checklist-driven open world games, I really hope the vibrancy and inspiration of these carefree mascot characters can thrive again.

So there’s a chance Onimusha might come back…

In a recent interview, Street Fighter overlord Yoshinori Ono let slip that internal discussions at Capcom were occurring over which of the company’s many dormant classic series should be revived, with Onimusha being mentioned specifically by name.  I’m a big Onimusha fan, so naturally this is good news to me, even if nothing may ever result of such early discussions.  Beyond just Onimusha, I think Capcom of all publishers may very well sit on the largest vault of beloved series that have laid quiet for too long.  Off the top of my head, I can immediately think of Onimusha, Dino Crisis, Darkstalkers, Maximo, Okami, Final Fight, Power Stone, Demon’s Crest…. the list goes on.  It’s good to know that the door isn’t completely closed on some of these and indicates that Capcom still is in touch with what made the company a success in the first place…unlike certain other competitors of theirs.

Onimusha 3.jpg

Onimusha was the first game I got a chance to play when I first got ahold of the PS2 back in the day.  I don’t know if other people have these, but there are certain games that in my mind sort of symbolize my experience with a console.  These games aren’t necessarily the best or my favorite games for a particular system, but they sort of set the tone for how I remember my time spent playing the rest of the platform’s library.  For NES, that would be Super Mario Bros.  For PS1, it would be Final Fantasy VII.  For PS2, it would probably be the original Onimusha: Warlords.  

For those who have no familiarity with Onimusha, imagine it as a hack-and-slash samurai version of Resident Evil.  The series is composed of four games, all of which were released during the lifespan of the PS2.  (There was also a tactical RPG spinoff on the GBA, and some mobile and browser games which are best left unmentioned.) The series mainly features Japanese swordsmen as playable protagonists in an alternate history where humans are covertly hunted for food and ritual sacrifice by a race of extra-dimensional demons known as the Genma.  Across history, the Genma have made blood pacts with great conquerors to lend their power in battle in exchange for a stable supply of human nourishment drawn from the defeated peoples.  During the point in history that the series takes place, the Genma have allied with the ambitious Japanese warlord Nobunaga Oda.  Nobunaga’s armies thus become a supernatural threat to the nation’s already war torn populace.

Onimusha 2.jpg

Similar to the Resident Evil series, Onimusha features a fixed camera system with polygonal character models overlaid on pre-rendered backgrounds.  Movement comes in the form of RE-style tank controls, and  combat is, of course, focused on sword fighting as opposed to gunplay.  I wouldn’t call Onimusha a horror series, but especially in the first game you can sense the series’ survival horror forebears.  The original Onimusha features a dark and sometimes macabre atmosphere, and the events of the game are entirely centered on a feudal Japanese castle overrun with monsters in the same way that RE1 and 2 are centered on the Spencer Mansion and RCPD HQ respectively.   

In hearing of this news, I kind of have to wonder what a modern Onimusha game would look like.  I very much doubt today’s audiences would be receptive to a game that closely follows the series roots with pre-rendered backgrounds and tank controls.  I see a new Onimusha going one of two ways:  Either it would focus on slow-paced, methodical swordplay like Dark Souls or fast-paced acrobatic and combo-driven combat like Devil May Cry.  Of those two, I think the slower Dark Souls-inspired combat would be the preferable of the two, as that would be closer to the PS2 games.  Also, a game that took cues from Dark Souls’ horror atmosphere would help it feel like one of the original PS2 games.

Onimusha 1.jpg

However, all of this dreaming may be for not, as Ono explained that there are going to be certain “battles” he’ll have to fight to get a new game made.  But, whatever, it’s just good to know that someone is fighting for it.

 

Reflecting on the PlayStation’s 20th Anniversary

In the universe’s ongoing campaign to force me to graciously accept the passage of time, this last week saw the arrival of the 20th anniversary of Playstation’s launch in the U.S.  I’ve written a bit before about my affinity for the original PSX console (See Rayman!), and I can easily call it the console I’ve owned that has been the most memorable to me.

I suppose I was the right age for the PSX when it hit.  It’s strange to think of it today, but gaming (at least on consoles) up until that point had been dominated by a focus on children’s entertainment in the U.S., which contrasts with today’s gaming landscape, where the biggest budget efforts target an 18-35 year old male demographic with high levels of disposable income.  Playstation was the inversion point, as Sony realized that there was an emerging market of young adults who had grown up on video games as children, and there was no reason that they couldn’t continue to be gamers.  Consequently, they put a lot of effort into pushing titles that would appeal to the maturing tastes of these young gamers.  Nintendo, meanwhile, seemingly chose to focus on inducting the newest batch of kids into the world of gaming.

Jet Moto 2Jet Moto is a way faster game than I remembered it.

When these consoles released, I was a few years off from being a teenager, so I could have gone either way here.  Even at the time, I don’t think the “kiddiness” of Nintendo’s games ever really bothered me.  I mean, the N64 did have some really great titles, like Star Fox, Zelda, and Mario Kart.  But in the end, I’m glad that my parents, for whatever reason, picked up the Playstation instead of the N64 that one Christmas.  There were so many great games that resonated with my evolving world view at the time.  For instance, I’ve written before on how and why Final Fantasy VII seems to resonate so strongly with gamers of a certain age (The Final Fantasy VII Remake and What It Means to Me).

In addition, the arrival of CDs were a great thing for gaming.  I think so many of the reasons the system was a big event for me could be tied the distinct advantages that these discs brought to the scene.  Up until that point, the primary expense in making a game went into the manufacturing of ROM cartridges.  The cost-savings on the vastly cheaper CDs translated to greatly lower prices on store shelves.  Those green-labelled Greatest Hits releases of popular games at $20 meant that my meager savings at the time could go a lot farther in buying games.  The N64 analogue, Player’s Choice, had games retailing for double that.  

FFIX Fight

Final Fantasy IX is my favorite of the series.

The low price of the CD medium was also a boon for third parties as evidenced by how they flocked to the system.  For cartridge based games, failure to live up to sales expectations could bring a company to near ruin since a lot of money had been blown on producing costly cartridges that weren’t selling.  With CDs, these losses weren’t nearly as severe, and, consequently, many developers were willing to take greater risks, and this led to a greater amount of diversity in the games that were released for the console.  While there were a lot of quintessential games that were released on the SNES and the Genesis, the 16-bit era was also the era of the “me too” game, where too many developers were focused on making copycats of the few innovative blockbuster titles, and this led to a glut of mascot platformers, shallow beat’em ups, and lame Mortal Kombat clones.  

On the PSX, there were many series born around taking risks on new ideas instead of playing it safe with the tried and true.  Some of these include Resident Evil with its focus on atmosphere and suspense, Wipeout with its focus on high-speed, high-precision racing, Twisted Metal’s high-octane car combat, Tomba with its mix of platforming, RPG, and Metroid-style worldbuilding, and Tomb Raider which revolutionized the action/adventure genre with its mix of 3D platforming, combat, and puzzle solving.  This list could honestly go on for a while.  And even the games that were cloning the germ of other groundbreaking series tried to be innovative in their own ways.  For instance, you wouldn’t have Silent Hill and Parasite Eve without Resident Evil, but Silent Hill created its own identity with its focus on psychological horror, as did Parasite Eve which fused survival horror with Squaresoft RPG design.

CTR

Crash Team Racing is a legendary kart game.

This was also the era when gamers became really obsessed with story in games.  There had been story-driven games before on consoles (like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest) and, of course, adventure games like King’s Quest and Monkey Island were huge on PC, but with the relatively immense storage space that CDs offered, a new generation of heavily cinematic Japanese game design came to rule the roost.  The biggest directors of this era were veteran Japanese developers that were heavily influenced by their interest in Hollywood-style storytelling, including Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid), Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil), and Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy).  The influence of their cinematic approach to game design still dominates today’s big budget gaming landscape which gives just as much weight to storytelling as it does core gameplay mechanics.

Thus, Playstation was a major turning point in gaming.  I often wonder if I would still be as interested in gaming today if I didn’t have PSX during my early teen years.  It’s not so much because of the mature edge that it was marketed on, but simply because it enabled the birth of so many of the series that I love.  If nothing else, I don’t think my tastes in games would be as developed as they are, which is to say that I don’t think I would be as interested in the variety of games that I am.

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.

PSP2000

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:

Half-Minute Hero

HalfMinuteHeroCover

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.  

Resistance: Retribution

Resistance

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

MHX

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).

Journey: The Lone and Level Sands

journey screenshot

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.

A red-robed figure runs through the sand in front of some stone ruins, accompanies by another figure. The trailing figure's robe and scarf are glowing.

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.  

The Final Fantasy VII Remake and What It Means to Me

Aeris

I have to say, I didn’t think it would ever happen.  While they’ve remade all the FF’s between 1-6 as well as X and Tactics, they mostly seem to be content skipping over what is the series’ arguably most popular era.  I wonder what finally clicked to make them decide to go ahead with this undertaking?  All I can think is that Sony might have made a big push for it, considering how competitive the console race has been lately.  But then again, it’s not a Playstation exclusive, so that can’t be the only reason.

This game means a lot to me, and I always forget that it means a lot to me until I happen to see it in action.  This was an insanely popular game back in the day, and I think that was because it hit at the right time, and it introduced a generation of young gamers at the edge of adolescence to a type of “mature” game that would ignite their developing interests and propel them to continue playing games beyond their childhood years.  I know that’s how it was for me at least.  The game’s story centers on themes of fighting against a world that has tacitly come to accept oppression and corruption, and I think that resonates with youths of a certain age who are achieving new levels of moral awareness for the messy way our world actually works.  Furthermore, most games cast you in the role of a lone hero, like Mario or Sonic.  But RPGs like these focus on being a part of a team, and what those team members mean to each other is a major part of the story.  At an age of social awakening when a person is trying to find their place in the world and amongst their peers, these themes can be very powerful.

I think these reasons made FF7 very popular in its time, but the insane popularity came with a very strong backlash.  The thing about FF7 is that while it’s a good Final Fantasy game, if you take it out of the context of its time, it’s not really an exceptional one.  There are a lot of good Final Fantasy games after all, and the disproportionate popularity of FF7 is where I think the backlash against it has originated.  Even in the wake of FF7’s release, it quickly became the “cool kid” thing to say that you preferred FF6 as the series’ high point.  I think the backlash was, of course, somewhat deserved when FF7 was hogging so much of the spotlight, but I think now when nearly every title in the series has seen multiple rereleases, fretting over the inordinate popularity of this one entry is obsessing a bit too much over the past.

The running feeling I got through E3 this year was excitement tempered with heavy skepticism, and FF7 was no exception.  I will probably write more on that topic later.  The rational part of my brain is quick to dismiss this remake since Square has had (for a while now) a huge amount of trouble getting Final Fantasy games out the door.  Between FFXV taking soooo very long, FFXIV’s catastrophic false start, and the protracted Lightning trilogy that not even hardcore fans asked for, it’s really hard to have faith in Square as a developer to achieve greatness in their games as they once did.  But while I consider myself a pretty rational person and want to dismiss the game for these reasons, I can’t help but get excited when I see Barrett and Cloud walking through the slums.  Like I said, the game means a lot to me.  So while I have a heavy amount of skepticism, I still really want this game.  I’m really keeping my fingers crossed that it doesn’t turn into another console-generation spanning debacle like Versus XIII.

Rayman!

Rayman_1_cover

I remember when I first got my Playstation, a long time ago.  A Christmas gift, I was at first a little surprised that it wasn’t an N64.  My family had been occasionally renting the local video shop’s N64 for the weekend to play the very early N64 games like Mario Kart 64, Cruis’n USA, Star Fox 64 (!), and Mario 64.  As for Playstation, the first time I had seen one set up in real life was as a demo kiosk in a Sears (or some such store), and I was completely puzzled by the existence of it.  I was so young at the time that I think it was odd to me that anyone would want to buy a video game machine from Sony.  Sony was a boring company that made grown-up stuff like cassette players and radios and TVs, whereas the companies that were great at video games, Nintendo, Sega, Atari, etc., were fun companies that had histories making games for both the home and the arcade.  What did Sony have that could compete with Mario and Sonic?  Looking back over four consoles and two handhelds, it amuses me how severely wrong my initial impression of Playstation was.  The PSX would eventually end up becoming probably my favorite console.

It also strikes me as to how I don’t remember being disappointed at all by the appearance of the Playstation in my house.  I mean I loved Star Fox and Mario Kart, so maybe it should have been a little disappointing that I wouldn’t be able to play those at home going forward.  But I guess new games were new games.  I also distinctly remember being incredibly impressed by the Final Fantasy VII commercial running at the time (you know, the one that was entirely pre-rendered CG with no actual gameplay shown), so I think I was ready to dig into that game.

The other early games I had for that system were Crash Bandicoot, 2Xtreme, and Rayman.  Of those four, Rayman was clearly the odd man out.  The arrival of the Saturn and Playstation heralded the polygonal era, after all, and the lush hand-drawn visuals of this 2D sidescrolling platformer made it feel like that one guy who always goes in the wrong direction on the way to a party.  I know there’s a lot of admiration for the 16-bit generation, and that many people think graphics should have stayed 2D for a while, but personally, I was ready for 3D gaming at the time.  I was really getting tired of all the mascot platformers, shallow beat’em ups, and shoddy Mortal Kombat clones that were overwhelming the market, and 3D environments were introducing entirely new gameplay possibilities.

Rayman2

Thus, Rayman was an amazing curiosity.  A sidescrolling platformer in an age where platformers were competing to see who could best establish themselves in 3D.  But even though it made no use of polygons, Rayman was thoroughly a game that belonged to the Playstation-era.  The game sported lush handdrawn sprites and backgrounds that took up roughly 85 MB of the CD (or so I gather from the PSN version).  85 MB doesn’t even come close to filling a CD, but it’s a gargantuan size compared to the available cartridges at the time.  Some years ago,  screens of an early SNES version of Rayman was dug up, and if you’re interested, you can Google image search it.  I don’t want to show it here!

The music is also worthy of likewise praise.  I don’t often get into orchestral scores in games.  Usually they’re kind of boring and just sort of fade into the background of my attention.  They typically aren’t as catchy as the chiptunes of the early era of gaming.  In a way, chiptunes had to be lively and attention-grabbing, as they were an important supplement to the crude visuals of that era in setting the atmosphere and tone of a game.  But just like the gorgeous artwork, Rayman aims to impress with its CD-quality content, so I imagine an orchestral score was an obvious choice for them.  And like I said, it’s an exciting orchestral score, with tons of great compositions that have stuck with me to this day.

At a fundamental level, Rayman is just a good platformer with a very traditional “lone hero sets off to stop badguy” story.  This was the age when gaming really started to get story heavy (to a gregarious extent), and as in so many other aspects, Rayman mostly shunned the emerging trend of the time.  The story in the game is really mostly just the opening cutscene in which we are told that The Evil Mr. Dark has defeated Betilla the Fairy and stolen the great Protoon and scattered the electoons which orbit around it.  As a consequence, the natural order of the world is beginning to go awry.  Rayman sets off then to defeat the villain, and travels across a world map divided into worlds such as the Dream Forest, Band Land (themed around musical instruments), and Picture City (themed around art supplies).  The final world is set in the (The Evil) Mr. Dark’s lair, the Candy Chateau, a terrifying fortress whose name is only spoken of in hushed whispers.

Rayman Band Land

As for the gameplay, Rayman is in some ways a really great platformer, but also a really tedious one.  The truth is Rayman is a tough game that requires very tight and exacting platforming skills.  But while it can be a challenge, beating each level isn’t too frustrating.  The platforming requires precision is all.  It’s not unfair like some of the earlier super-tough platformers.  You’ll never have to fight against the collision detection or need to deal with unpredictably respawning enemies, for instance.

But here’s the catch and what can make the game tedious if you’re not prepared.  To unlock the Candy Chateau and beat the game, it’s not enough to beat all the levels.  You will need to free all six cages of electoons hidden in each level before a path to the Candy Chateau will even open on the world map.  Essentially, it’s like needing to find all the KONG coins in DKC to be able to fight the final boss.  Some of these electoon cages are easy to find, hidden within plain sight of the main path through a level, but sometimes they are in spots that can be fiendishly difficult to reach (i.e., they are life wasting death traps).  Many can be quite difficult to find at all, sometimes requiring you to take leaps of faith to offscreen platforms to reach.  Exacerbating this issue to its maximum frustration level is that Rayman has a finite number of lives and continues, and you will need each and every one of them (and probably more) to get all of these electoons.  I honestly am baffled by how anyone could finish doing it the proper way (i.e., not using cheats or abusing the save system to bank lives).  I certainly can’t, and even using cheats for infinite lives, it’s still a struggle.  I think I started this game a boy, but by the time I had gruellingly forged my way through the halls of the Candy Chateau, I was a man.

Ultimately, despite the fact that actually beating the game is a tremendous effort, I still think incredibly highly of this game.  It’s one of those things that’s more about the journey than the destination.  Most importantly, I treasure this game because it showed me the value of 2D gaming.  I realized that 2D games weren’t just an evolutionary stopgap until 3D could become technologically feasible, that they were a valid form of game design in their own right.  I’ve heard many express this sentiment about Symphony of the Night, but for me, it was Rayman that hammered that point home.  Rayman would see a sequel a short while later, but I’ve never played Rayman 2.  It makes the jump to a Mario 64-style platformer with full 3D environments, and honestly, at the time, I was disappointed at this.  2D was what made Rayman unique and special!  But I’ve heard in recent years that Rayman 2 is actually a really good game, so I may pick it up at some point.  Rayman would eventually make a glorious return to lovely 2D worlds with Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends, the former of which I found myself liking a whole lot (the latter of which I haven’t gotten around to yet).  But Rayman is still the highlight of the series for me, mostly because it sparked a lifelong love of 2D gaming.

%d bloggers like this: