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System Shock Remake Has a New Demo and a Kickstarter

The previously announced remake of the original System Shock has just resurfaced with a new demo and a Kickstarter campaign.  I’m a huge fan of System Shock 2, but I’ve never been able to get far into the first game because it’s design has aged fairly poorly.  The demo is available via Steam, GOG, and Humble Store, and the links can be found on its Kickstarter page.  You don’t even have to donate to access the demo!  It’s great that this game is getting new found attention.  While it was a pivotal part in the early development of 3D gaming, I feel like most people know nothing about it, and if they do, they only know it through its more popular sequel.

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Image courtesy of the System Shock Kickstarter.

Aboard Citadel Station in orbit of Saturn, an experiment with artificial intelligence has gone awry, and the Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network, better known as SHODAN, that maintains the station now believes herself to be a goddess destined to re-engineer life and the universe.  She has turned against the inhabitants of the orbital colony, warping them into cyborg and mutant slaves, and has ambitions of annihilating humanity to begin her own ascension.  In System Shock, you play as the hacker responsible for SHODAN’s insanity and must overcome the horrors of Citadel Station as he (she?) desperately searches for a way to stop the rogue AI from launching an attack on Earth and the rest of humankind.  Released in 1994, the game was an early mix of FPS and RPG and had a heavy focus on player immersion.  If you’ve ever played a first-person game that focuses on storytelling through environmental exploration, you have System Shock to thank for that.  The game is also an example of a pre-Resident Evil atmospheric horror game, although it rarely gets credit for that.

System Shock was the team at Looking Glass Studios’ follow-up to the Ultima Underworld series that they had created years earlier.  Ultima Underworld was a first-person action RPG set in the Ultima universe and featured many of the key elements of System Shock, namely a focus on immersion, exploration, and allowing the player to discover multiple solutions to a given obstacle.  Ultima Underworld, itself, is also incredibly important to the history of gaming, as it was the evolutionary link between grid-based/turn-based first-person RPG dungeon crawlers like Wizardry and real-time first-person action games like Wolf3D and Doom.

System Shock had a number of high profile projects that were in some ways its direct descendants.  Warren Spector’s Deus Ex was heavily based on the ideas of immersion and exploration that were pioneered by his work on System Shock and Ultima Underworld.  System Shock 2 was released in 1999 by Irrational Games and is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest PC games of all time.  In 2007, Irrational would later use System Shock as the template for its biggest hit, BioShock.  And I’ve heard rumors that Dead Space was originally meant to be System Shock 3 (which is easily believable if you’ve ever played the two series).

With all the HD remakes and re-releases that come out these days, I have difficulty thinking of a game more in need (or more deserving) of the treatment than System Shock.  While it’s both important and influential, its UI and control scheme are incredibly antiquated.  The game predates such things as WASD and mouse look.  Today, these issues are notorious of early 3D games, but they are exacerbated in System Shock due to the game’s level of complexity.  The remake’s Kickstarter promises big improvements on this front.  To me, this would be a really valuable achievement.  While System Shock 2 has achieved a legendary status in PC gaming, I think the original System Shock has been held back from being as fondly regarded due to how obtuse it is to play for modern gamers.

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Images courtesy of the System Shock Kickstarter.

The remake is being overseen by Night Dive Studios, a company whose main mission has been to procure the rights to classic PC games so that they can be re-released on digital storefronts like Steam and GOG.  A while back they managed to rescue both System Shock 1 and 2 from legal limbo and re-released the original versions of those games for sale.  I’ve heard that back in the day Looking Glass sold the rights to the series to an insurance company to keep EA from getting control of it, and Night Dive was able to successfully negotiate the re-releases of the game with that insurance group.  Other classics that Night Dive have gotten re-released include I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, The 7th Guest, Turok, Shadow Man, and the old Humongous adventure games among many others.

Night Dive is promising that the remake is being built from the ground up and will feature numerous improvements and tweaks.  They’ve even gotten the original voice actress to reprise her role as SHODAN.  The demo is currently available from Steam, GOG, and Humble Store and is a good exhibition of their vision.  I’m excited for this project, because, while I’m a huge System Shock 2 fan, I’ve always been a bit deterred from playing the original due to the issues I’ve discussed above.  Hopefully, this project will meet its crowdfunding goal, not just for the sake of this remake, but also because there’s been talk of an actual System Shock 3 in the works, as well.

 

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Turnip Time: Super Mario Bros. 2

Super Mario Maker has gone a long way to revitalize my passion for classic Mario.  Not that I ever really lost any love for those titles, but Mario Maker has really helped me reconnect with why I treasure those games as much as I do.  Of course, Mario Maker’s level editor has one glaring omission from the classic Mario cannon:  Super Mario Bros. 2 (Turnip Version).  SMB2 is the odd-man out of classic Mario, as it is actually a Mario reskin of the Famicom Disk System game, Doki Doki Panic.  The “real” SMB2 never made it to the NES as Nintendo of America considered it too hard for the American market.  (It’s also just a lackluster game, but more on that later.)  But even though we now look at SMB2 as an anomaly in the classic lineup, for those of us who were gaming at the time, the world of Mario was still very new and weird to us all, so the unusual setting of SMB2, the dream world of Subcon, didn’t feel all that unusual given the context of the series.  It also wasn’t all that unusual for sequels of NES games to be radically different from their predecessors, which means I don’t think I ever personally thought of it any less for being such a unique game amongst its brethren.

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It’s unfortunate that SMB2 was left out of Super Mario Maker, but actually fairly understandable.  Not being a “true” Mario game, the mechanics of SMB2 deviate significantly from the rest of the series.  In SMB1, 3, and World, Mario interacts with the world primarily by stomping on things and bumping/breaking things with his head as he jumps.  Jumping on enemies/objects to attack/break them ended up becoming a fairly standard mechanic in the platforming genre.  But SMB2 is fairly unique in that it is a game that is about picking up and throwing things.  The levels are filled with environmental objects to grab and toss, like buried vegetables, mushroom blocks, and keys, and the majority of enemies can be snatched up and used as projectile weapons against their allies.  While it doesn’t seem like a radical idea, I’ve racked my brain trying to think of platformers that use this mechanic, but while I can think of a lot of games where jumping on enemies is used as an attack (Sonic, Crash Bandicoot), the only platforming series I can think where tossing enemies and objects is a central mechanic is Donkey Kong 94 (and its sequel Mario vs. Donkey Kong) and arguably the Wario Land games.

What I really admire about SMB2 is how well it expands upon the adventure aspect of the original SMB.  While I enjoy a good challenging platformer, the thing I like most about the classic Mario games is the sense of wonder and discovery that comes with exploring the levels.  While SMB is a game about going forward from one edge of the screen to the other without turning back, the levels in SMB2 are about travelling up, down, left, right, inside, and out.  I think my favorite level is World 3-1 which begins at the base of a waterfall that the player must travel upward through.  At the top, the player must knock an enemy off a flying carpet which can then be ridden farther upward into the clouds.  The game even begins with a long straight fall down through darkness that lands in the world of Subcon.  These new degrees of freedom give the world of SMB2 a liveliness that didn’t quite exist in its predecessor.

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Beyond just level structure, there’s tons of imagination in SMB2.  The world of Subcon is filled with strange and unusual creatures and features.  A number of recurring Nintendo characters made their first appearance in this game including shy guys, sniffits, bob-ombs, and pokeys.  Easily the most memorable baddie in the game is Phanto, the relentless flying mask that pursues the player as they carry the cursed keys that are required to open the many locked doors that stand in their way.  Being chased by that nightmare abomination is probably one of the most tense memories that a lot of gamers have from their early years.  And the landscapes and artifacts of the dream realm are almost completely peculiar and unique to this world’s creative vision.  Mario and crew journey across the backs of whales in an icy ocean, jump into TARDIS-like vases that are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside,  and of course buried in the ground there are the iconic red potions that create doors to the shadowy subspace where power-ups are hidden.

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On my recent playthrough of SMB2, I was actually pretty amazed at how unique and memorable each level was.  It’s been many years since I’ve played the game, but most of the levels were immediately recognizable to me.  I’m afraid I can’t say the same thing about original SMB.  Outside of 1-1 and 1-2 (which I’ve played thousands of times), the stages of the original SMB just sort of blur together to me.  I remember specific types of stages, like the underwater worlds, flying fish bridges, tree tops, etc., but I don’t really remember the fine details of specific levels that well.  SMB2 has much more individually distinct stages to explore.  In addition to the aforementioned waterfall level, I’m a big fan of the level that is styled after Pitfall with caves that are visible beneath the character’s feet, and the ice level where the character must cross an ocean on the backs of a pod of water-spouting whales.  

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It’s also cool that the game allows the player to choose between Mario, Luigi, Toad, or the Princess at the beginning of each level.  No other classic Mario game really offers that.  At best, you can choose to play as Luigi (and usually only if you’re Player 2).  The four characters also control differently, and many consider Mario to be the least interesting character.  I think most people are like me and consider the Princess their favorite as she can float horizontally for a short moment during her jump.  To me, SMB2 is really a Princess Toadstool game.  I know the people who market games often have cynical attitudes toward the willingness of male youths to play as female characters, but all my friends at the time preferred the Princess.  I also know that many really like Luigi since he has the highest jump, although his movement is slippery and a bit harder to control.  I’ve never bothered much with Mario or Toad honestly.  Mario is supposed to be the well-rounded character, but he ends up being kind of boring.  Toad is slow and can…..ummm…. dig up plants really quickly???  

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Of course, there is that other SMB2 out there, the Japanese version that is known as The Lost Levels over here.  The Lost Levels was first released as a part of Super Mario All-Stars in the US, but I’ve only ever played the English localized 8-bit version available on the North American 3DS eshop.  After playing that version, I’m incredibly glad that game never made it to the NES.  I’ve found it to be such a joyless game, and I think it probably would have dampened my excitement for Mario back then.  

The Lost Levels focuses less on expanding the adventure aspect of Mario and more on greatly increasing its challenge.  The game was admittedly advertised on the box as being for advanced players, and while the original Super Mario Bros. could be quite difficult in later levels, The Lost Levels is much harder.  And not a fun kind of hard like Super Meat Boy or Mega Man 9, The Lost Levels has a difficulty that is more focused on just trying to screw the player.  Remember how amazing it was to discover the warp zone at the end of World 1-2????  Well, The Lost Levels has parts where the player can get trapped in reverse warp zones that send them back to worlds they’ve already beat. The Lost Levels is far from an insurmountable challenge, but in obsessively trying to beat down the player, it strips out all the wonder and thrills that were found in the original.  That’s not to say that fiendishly difficult levels don’t have a place in Mario games, but I think the best way they’ve been incorporated is as optional secret content like they were in Super Mario World.  An entire game that is nothing but those kinds of levels just loses its charm very quickly.

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Ultimately, despite it’s rationalizable exclusion from Super Mario Maker, I don’t think SMB2 is a particularly underappreciated game on Nintendo’s behalf.  It was the first game they remade in the Super Mario Advance series, as SMB1 and Lost Levels had already been remade in Super Mario Deluxe.  And certain aspects from the game have made their way into the “true” Mario games, such as pokeys and bob-ombs, although the most iconic enemy, the shy guy, has only been featured in spin-offs like Yoshi’s Island.  But I do hold out some hope that we might get some SMB2 love in Mario Maker.  After Nintendo’s excellent continuing support of games like Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon, I would like to think that it might not be impossible that an SMB2 tileset could arrive in the form of DLC.  I personally wouldn’t even really have any objections to paying for a piece of content like that.

 

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.  

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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.

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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.

I bought a Dreamcast.

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Every now and then, about once a year or so, a little monkey jumps on my back and compels me to splurge a little bit on retro gaming stuff.  This year it happened that I finally bought a Dreamcast after having wanted one since the glorious date of 9/9/99.  I don’t really know what finally made me decide to go in on one.  Part of it was the excitement everyone seems to have over Shenmue 3.  Part of it was also that I was perusing Gamestop’s new “vintage” gaming selection out of curiosity, and I came to the realization that secondhand Dreamcast stuff wasn’t that expensive.  Oddly enough, I’m not getting into Shenmue yet (it’s too expensive right now), and I didn’t buy from Gamestop (I used ebay).

Sega was always gaming’s greatest underdog, always defiantly standing against titans like Nintendo and Playstation.  It’s amazing that they stayed in the hardware business for as long as they did.  Their machines were never able to achieve the worldwide mindshare that their competitors had.  Genesis was probably the most successful thing they ever had, managing to run neck-and-neck with the Super Nintendo outside of Japan.  It’s impressive to me that they were able to stay in hardware for as long as they did.  Sega was known for its bold but spuriously logical business decisions that usually turned into embarrassing failures (32x, Saturn launch, etc.).  I suspect that their long stubbornness to go third party was actually just another decision born out of bad business acumen, but one that actually ended up being great for gamers.

Dreamcast always strikes me as a deeply beloved machine.  Dreamcast was the Sega underdog’s swan song, and I think that’s what contributes to its mystique.  I find that even those who are consummate Playstation or Nintendo fans often express a fairly high respect for the platform, something they don’t show for the Genesis, Saturn, or Game Gear (and certainly not Master System).  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it was just a way more competently managed product than Saturn.

In North America, it graced us for little over a year before discontinuation.  But that was surprisingly enough time to amass a fairly respectable library, both in quantity and quality.  That can partly be thanked to being out a year earlier in Japan, but it still amuses me to compare it to modern consoles which were relatively light on releases in their launch year.  Getting a game out the door and onto shelves was very different back then, I suppose.  It does mean, though, that despite its short lifespan, it’s worthwhile to go back to for retro-game fans.

And now, here is my shame: until this recent purchase, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Dreamcast in person, much less played one.  I really wanted to get into Dreamcast at its launch, but I was just shy of the age where I could start earning income for myself.  And with the PSX library still being so hot, I didn’t even bother trying to justify such a purchase to my parents.  Nonetheless, I hung onto every bit of preview and review coverage I could find online for the Dreamcast and am left with this weird vicarious nostalgia for the system.  The Dreamcast and its games just struck me as intensely cool in a way that Playstation wasn’t, even though I loved the PSX and its amazing library to death.

So fast forward nearly 16 years later, I now have a taste of that for which I so long pined.  The system itself is relatively simple.  The front-end user interface for managing save files, settings, and audio CDs is very sleek and functional with its simple sky blue background.  To be honest, I never liked the PS2’s front end with the dark, abstract environments that it used as a background decoration.  It just seemed depressing and desolate to me.  The springy Dreamcast logo is way better than the weird cubes jutting up from beneath the dark blue cloud that the PS2 greeted gamers with.  But this is all merely cosmetic, and unlike modern gaming machines, no one’s really going to spend a lot of time using the front-end.

The controller is another thing.  I don’t really feel strong emotions for it one way or the other.  I find it interesting that it has fewer buttons than either the PSX or N64 pads.  Fewer buttons means its more difficult to pull off complex game systems, but, so far, I haven’t run into any games where I feel that more buttons would help.  Honestly, (console) game design at the time probably didn’t favor overly-complex control schemes.  Meanwhile, most modern games seem to map an action to every button on the controller and map further actions beyond that to specific button combinations.

Honestly, its difficult to analyze the controller, because I feel that I’m spoiled by modern gamepads which have become highly evolved.  I’m quite fond of the Dual Shock 4 for its ergonomics and the tactility and precision of its buttons/sticks.  I use it not just for PS4, but also extensively on the PC.  The Dreamcast controller feels like a cheap third-party controller, in contrast.  Of course to be fair, I should be comparing it to its contemporaries, but it’s been so long since I’ve used the PSX controller that I don’t remember it that well.  And I wasn’t really an N64 gamer.  The analog stick feels okay to me, tight enough for the games that were coming out at the time, but it probably would be terrible for modern games where more precision is needed.  Also, there’s only one stick!  The PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube all had 2, and 2 is really necessary for advanced 3D gaming (one to control movement, one to control camera).  Assuming it didn’t die so early, I’ve always wondered how Dreamcast would have stacked up against the competition in terms of multiplatform releases for the rest of the generation.  I can’t imagine it would have ever been the preferred machine for multiplatform games.

The VMU is a neat addition, but I find that it’s used by hardly anything.  It’s been great for Code Veronica, though, where it displays your health without the need to go into the menu.  As far as I can tell, the battery is dead in mine, so I haven’t been able to try it out as a portable game machine yet.

The d-pad is a bit of a point of contention for me.  It’s an okay d-pad, I guess.  Not as abysmal as the 360 pad.  Again, it’s been so long since I’ve played on an original PSX pad, so I’m not sure how it compares, but the DC pad has the problem that a lot of lower quality d-pads have where it registers diagonals way too easily.  You can have your thumb touching only the up-direction, but if you’re pressing it off center, then it will register a diagonal.  I think it’s given me an appreciation of why people hate tank controls in old survival horror games.  I played RE1-3 on PSP and never had trouble with these controls.  But the PSP has an excellent d-pad.  In Code Veronica, on the other hand, I’ve often had the problem of veering off-course (usually straight into a zombie’s face) when I’m trying to run in a straight line.

Here are the games I’ve gotten so far on Dreamcast:

Code Veronica:  I’ve given all the mainline Resident Evil games a go except for Code Veronica and Zero, so this is a big hole in my gaming experience.  At first I thought it was going for something a little different than the standard Resident Evil formula, but it’s really the same formula just expanded over what feels like a much larger area than the mansion or the police station.  In some ways it’s a better sequel to 1 and 2 than 3 is, but I don’t think it does anything as innovative as what 3 did with Nemesis.  I’ll maybe write more on this game after I’ve beaten it.

Time Stalkers:  This is a cool dungeon crawler that caught my eye while browsing ebay.  Doesn’t seem like it’s one of those games that a lot of people talk about while remembering the Dreamcast, for whatever reason.

Hydro Thunder:  I am a glutton for arcade racers and a huge fan of Hydro Thunder Hurricane on XBLA.  Honestly, I didn’t realize that Hurricane hewed so close to being a more advanced remake of this game than a sequel.  It’s kind of hard to play, consequently, as Hurricane just does what this game is doing so much better.  All it does is make me want to break out the 360 to play Hurricane again.

Vigilante 8: Second Offense:  I’m a huge fan of Twisted Metal, but I’ve never really tried the Vigilante 8 series.  I thought this would be a good opportunity to do that.

Zombie Revenge:  As I mentioned, for someone with no Dreamcast experience, I’m oddly aware of most of its library due to the preview coverage I read at the time.  But I don’t remember Zombie Revenge at all, and only heard about it after recently listening to the Dreamcast episode of Retronauts.  I was looking at House of the Dead 2 originally, but realized the light gun wouldn’t work on my HDTV, so I went with this spin-off instead.

Blue Stinger:  This is a very unusual survival horror game that was recommended by one of my favorite YouTubers, Derek Alexander.  Seems like a bit of an odd game, from the same team that made the infamous IllBleed.  Looking forward to playing it.

Noticeably, there’s no Sonic Adventure on this list.  I’ve played the Steam version of SA a bit and realize that, while it was amazing at the time, it’s aged incredibly poorly.  SA 1 and 2 still seem like quintessential Dreamcast games though, so I may give them a go sometime later.  I hope to write a few more posts about the above games as soon as I’ve played through them.

Rayman!

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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.

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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.

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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.

Utmost Spookiest Games: Fatal Frame

This game….. this game….

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Fatal Frame may be the scariest game I’ve ever played. “Wretched” might be the best adjective to describe this game, as it oozes with an overpowering atmosphere of desolation, apprehension and dilapidation that is completely unique amongst the horror games I’ve played. Fatal Frame chronicles protagonist Miku Hinasaki’s terrifying investigation of the haunted Himuro mansion, a decrepit feudal Japanese castle that is the legacy of the depraved and extinct Himuro clan. In a classical horror fiction conceit, Himuro is in search of her brother who went missing during his own investigation of the sinister site. The main conceit of Fatal Frame (for which it is named) is the use of an antique camera, the Camera Obscura, to damage the malevolent ghostly denizens of the mansion by way of capturing the apparitions on film.

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As I stated before, the most impressive aspect of Fatal Frame is the unrelenting atmosphere. Himuro mansion is in utter ruin but still intact enough to provide an ominous interior space that weighs on the player’s spirit. The mansion is musty, dark, and, as a result of its feudal origins, lacks windows in most of its rooms. These aspects create a feeling of unnerving isolation for which I know of no other comparison amongst the games I’ve played. The isolation is the key component in the tension that pervades the experience of this game. I’ve had some trouble getting through the game simply because I can only handle ~30-40 minute play sessions before the oppressiveness of it all just leaves me exhausted. I seem to remember this game releasing to rather tepid reception when it originally came out which leaves me utterly confused after playing through it now as it stands amongst the most horrifying games I’ve ever played.

Playing such an excellent example of a horror game makes me reflect on what actually makes for good horror in video games. I’ve always had a disagreement with a friend of mine over what actually makes a game scary. In his mind, he places a heavy emphasis on limited ammunition and encumbered combat. I, on the other hand, place focus on atmosphere and story. I think Resident Evil 4 is a good example that illustrates our differences. I find Resident Evil 4 to possibly be the scariest of the series. So many gruesomely dreadful locations and situations hang in my memory from that game, such as the initial assault at the village, the Regenerador lab, and the encounter with the Verdugo in the maintenance area. By contrast, my friend feels that Resident Evil 4 is the least scary of the series up to that point, as there is a relative abundance of ammo, healing items, and weapons which eliminates tension from combat. Personally, I don’t feel that such combat design really increases my dread in a game, perhaps because I’m always aware that I can just reload at the last save point if I die and therefore don’t perceive the same sense of danger.

This relates to Fatal Frame because, at least in my perspective, the game is least scary when you are actually under attack by a ghost. Combat with the ghosts is fairly simply. The ghosts float toward Miku, sometimes in unique patterns that the player has to adapt to, while the player tries to keep the camera focused on the ghost’s weak spot for as long as possible to build up the damage that will be inflicted when as shot is taken. If Miku is caught by a ghost, the entity just sort of shakes her for a little bit before it backs off. These experiences are not really all that frightening. The praise I give Fatal Frame is far more rooted in the dreadful atmosphere, aggressive suspense, the oppressive feeling of isolation, and the horrifying story that unfolds. Himuro Mansion is just a deeply discomforting place to walk around in, and the game keeps the player on their toes by sprinkling in some insanely creepy jump scares, cutscenes, and eery peripheral events.

In the end, I’ve been a little vague on specific examples of what makes this game work, but that is mainly because I want to avoid spoilers, as I feel this is a title any fan of horror games should seek out and play. It can currently be found in the PS2 classics selection for PS3 which is available via PSN, but physical copies can be found of the original PS2 and Xbox (the first Xbox 1) versions.

Super Mario Land 2 on the 3DS Virtual Console: A Retro Review

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The Club Nintendo rewards program is something I’ve finally started to keep up with this past year. Previously, I had never bothered with it, as I had never really bought enough Nintendo products within a single year to really qualify for any rewards. But last year, I picked up a 3DS XL(which was an excellent time to get into the 3DS) and a handful of games, and, consequently, decided to register everything and fill out the multitudinous mimetic surveys in the hope of accruing enough points to finally get some free stuff. And free stuff I did get, although nothing overly exciting. Not managing to reach the highly exclusive, super-elite “platinum” tier, I instead was treated to the reward options of the lowly “gold” tier, which consisted mostly of virtual console games. To be fair, they did choose some cool virtual console games to offer members at this level, but it still felt a little anticlimactic after filling out all those surveys and copy-pasting into the suggestions box my go-to request of “PLZ BRING GBA GAMES TO 3DS LOL!” In the end, I settled on nabbing Super Mario Land 2, a game I had a blast with when I was younger.

As with its predecessor, Super Mario Land 2 feels a little off-beat for a Mario game. This is on account of it being the product of the team that masterminded the Game Boy, Nintendo R&D1, as opposed to the team behind the monumentally significant console titles, R&D4. I’ve heard that internally the Nintendo development teams were fiercely competitive with each other, a behavior which was greatly encouraged by Nintendo’s upper management. It shows in SML2, because R&D1 was clearly not interested in simply trying to make an imitation of the console games but rather venture into creating a Mario title that feels very unique and idiosyncratic. But, on the other hand, they did succeed in creating something that has the feel of a Mario game which cannot be said about Super Mario Land 1. You can definitely tell that they had mastered developing for the portable’s hardware by this point. The game possesses the polish, length, and creative flair of a “real” Mario game. As is classic to Mario, you run, you jump, and you stomp on enemies and ram your head into question blocks for powerups and coins. But there are a few little tell-tale differences that clue you into its origins. You don’t attain a 1-up after collecting 100 coins. Rather, your coin count keeps going up after 100, and you use the coins to gamble for lives and powerups in a minigame available from the overworld map. (Using coins to gamble for prizes would be a major part of the Wario games which R&D1 later developed.) The game also breaks from the standard Mario level themes and allows travel to the moon, a submarine, a haunted cemetery, a giant clockwork Mario robot, and several other original locales. Also, I find the bosses are somewhat “out of left field” for a Mario game. I don’t think Mario games have ever really had notable bosses aside from Bowser and the Koopalings. In Super Mario Land 2, on the other hand, the boss fights get a little strange and include battles against the three little pigs, a witch, a giant rat, and Tatanga (the boss of the original SML) amongst others. The game climaxes with a battle against Wario, who sees his introduction in this game.

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One thing I think gamers who played this game as a kid will notice when picking it up on Virtual Console is that the game is really easy. After replaying this game, I had the same sort of revelation I had after replaying Final Fantasy VII a few years ago. For both of these games, I actually found them very tough when I was much younger, but now as an adult, I find them to be absolute pushovers. I was particularly amazed at the ease of FFVII. I remember grinding for hours in that game as a kid to prepare for difficult bosses like Air Buster, Reno at the top of Sector 7 pillar, and the Materia Keeper. During my replay, I blew through all of those bosses and the rest of the game with incredible speed. I can’t understand how I could ever have been so bad at that game to need grinding, especially considering that it’s turn-based. But that’s how it goes I guess.

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That leads me to wonder how new players to Super Mario Land 2 would receive it today. Despite the ease, I still really enjoyed replaying SML2, as I did with FFVII. But a lot of that has to do with how important the game is to me. The only Nintendo console I owned as a kid was the NES, so the Game Boy provided a valuable link to Mario, one of my favorite gaming series, during the Genesis and PSX years. For new players with perspectives not clouded by such personal attachment, they may find the game simply too easy and too off-beat for a Mario game (especially if they are comparing it to modern titles in the series). But I feel that some may appreciate the off-beat nature of the game because it is the result of there being a fairly large amount of creative levels and enemies on display here. The music is also really great, truly on par with the mainline Mario entries. And while the game may not be particularly challenging, there are a fair few secret exits in the game which open up hidden levels on the overworld map. The secret exits aren’t extremely well hidden, but you won’t stumble upon them unless you’re specifically hunting for them. These secret exits are good at creating an impetus to take time and explore the levels, instead of just blowing through the areas because they are so easy.   Super Mario Land 2 - 6 Golden Coins_26

In the end, I think new players with an interest in exploring retro gaming will probably find a lot to appreciate in this game, but those not so attracted to gaming antiquity likely won’t be as absorbed. As for me, I find that I still rank SML2 among my favorite Game Boy games. The only other game I feel that could possibly compete with it for my number one favorite on the platform would be, of course, Donkey Kong.

Shadowgate: Difficulty, Defeat, and Resignation

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There’s nothing quite like the difficulty of old school adventure games. Of course old games in general tend to be quite hard, from finicky NES platformers like TMNT to overbearing arcade beat’em ups like, well, TMNT arcade. There are a couple of reasons why this was the case. Arcade games were made excessively challenging to string gamers into dropping more quarters into the slot. NES games were often made with shoe-string budgets by small teams on time (and technology) constraints who didn’t put much effort into fine-tuning the fairness of their game. Sometimes, they were just created by crazy people like David Crane who thought that if a game wasn’t a grueling Sisyphean exercise then the gamer wouldn’t be getting their money worth. But nothing out of the pool of retro games really compares to the inscrutability of old school adventure games with their insanely cryptic puzzles, pixel-hunting, and often opaque and impenetrable logic. Sometimes solving these puzzles felt like you had to expand your mind to higher dimensional planes.  Of course, you could take the easy way out and gather the solutions from someone else, but in the age before the proliferation of internet access that was not necessarily easy.

My mind had slowly and mercifully forgotten about how puckishly bewildering these games could be until the recent release of Shadowgate on Steam. This new Shadowgate is a sort of expanded remake of the original Mac/NES game and another product of the Kickstarter nostalgia funding craze. If you wanted a faithful but modernized recreation of the old Shadowgate, then you’re probably going to be pretty pleased with this latest release. The new version possesses three difficulty levels with slightly modified puzzles for each, but from what I’ve played, all difficulties maintain Castle Shadowgate as an utterly baffling enigma. In other words, this game is old-school hard. To my knowledge, I’ve never played the original Shadowgate, but this new release basically falls in line with some of the adventure games I remember from that era. The game requires the player to pixel hunt (there is no convenient feature for highlighting interactive objects as is common in modern adventure games), puzzle over the uses for a particular item as it is often unclear (if it has any use at all, and sometimes you find yourself testing every item in your inventory on a feature of the environment in the mad hope that the solution will simply emerge), and finally, to top it all off, the game has a time limit by way of your dwindling torch. The torch goes out after you do a certain number of actions and if you don’t have a replacement torch, its game over. I find that progress in the game has entirely no momentum. After being stuck in the game for the better part of an hour, I was delighted to find a secret passageway behind which I thought I would find all the items I needed to solve the puzzles I was stuck on. That glimmer of hope was pretty short-lived, however, since all I found were more puzzles and no apparent solutions back there.

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Recently, I’ve undergone a major transition in my life. I completed my doctoral dissertation and left school in February, but I didn’t start my new job (which has required a cross-country move) until recently. (I started this blog back in April as a means to maintain sanity during the months of unemployment.) The move to a new city and a new job has gotten me in a mood where I’ve begun to question a lot of things in my life, my interests and past-times included. Video games have been a pretty big part of my life ever since I started gaming on the NES at the age of 4. I know there have been a lot of negative things going on in some circles of the gaming community lately, and some people have expressed that freely admitting to having a deep interest and appreciation of the craft of video games is appalling and embarrassing, but I can’t concur. Some people may find it a shameful waste of time that could have been devoted to more worthwhile interests, but is it any different than being deep into a favored sports team or being hooked on the latest fashions or dying to see the latest superstar in concert? These are, after all, interests that millions of Americans and millions upon millions more in countries beyond possess. During my introspection, I’ve come to realize that I’ve seen a lot happen and a lot change in the sphere of gaming during my life, starting from fuzzy, pixelated, bleep-bloopey NES games to polygonalized PSX games with redbook audio and from arcade dominance of multiplayer gaming to the arrival of the internet-connected arenas and fantasy worlds of the late ‘90s. And that’s just scraping the surface of the evolution that I’ve seen take place. From such a perspective, it’s hard to think of the craft of video games as something that isn’t worthy of appreciation. But gamers can differ pretty wildly in what types of games and what aspects of games they appreciate. I personally try to keep an open-mind toward everything, but there are definitely elements of what I play that I value more than others.

One thing that I do value highly is a well-designed challenge. I think a lot of gamers, particularly older ones with children, prefer games that they can quickly beat because they are only playing for the “experience” and aren’t interested so much in mechanical depth, which is fine for those people I guess. I also know that some believe video games are merely supposed to be “empowerment fantasies” which make the player feel like a larger than life hero, and a challenging difficulty level is not conducive toward that effect. I’m a little more dismissive of this latter viewpoint. I don’t really see how playing a game where you fight an army of pushovers is supposed to be empowering. Any victory achieved in such a game feels empty to me. Rather, I feel empowered by successfully honing my skills toward mastering adversity and challenge that is presented to me. I’ve always found Megaman games to be a perfect example of why I find challenge important. With each new level you enter, you struggle as you hone your skills, but eventually with patience and attentiveness, you’ll be able to reach the robot master and deliver unto him the beat down he deserves. And after besting such formidable bosses and levels, there’s always that wonderful feeling of catharsis in knowing how expertly you overcame it all. I also feel that challenge is important to making a game memorable. Easy games tend not to be particularly memorable to me, because it just sort of feels like I’m going through the motions to reach the end credits roll. Appropriate difficulty, on the other hand, necessitates a closer relationship between the player and the game as a greater effort must be effected toward understanding and paying attention to the game.

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While I personally deeply appreciate challenge, I have limits, and Shadowgate tests those limits with the severity of its puzzles. When I give up on a game, it tends to be because I find it boring, but Shadowgate is the first game since the Megaman Zero Collection on DS that I’ve thought about giving up on because it was just too hard for me. Contradictorily, I keep playing the game simply because it vexes me to the point that I refuse to let it defeat me, and, consequently, I’m hooked on the game even though I’m not sure if I’m actually having fun, and this makes me question whether spending time with it is worthwhile.

Clearly Shadowgate is stimulating to me, since I keep returning to the whole grueling ordeal, but is it a meaningful kind of stimulation? I’m very quickly starting to feel that it isn’t, as I’m just not achieving much satisfaction from play. I don’t feel the same catharsis that I feel after taking down a robot master. Any progress I make in Shadowgate doesn’t come with the joy of accomplishment; rather it is tempered with full realization of my cluelessness regarding all the other tests that are left unsolved in the castle. As I said, there’s little momentum in this game. It truly is old-school hard, as advertised.

Since I find the game too hard, I’m confronted with a few options. I could just simply give up. That seems too easy, and, as I’ve said, I want to appreciate games and that would rob me of that goal. I mean, someone out there must appreciate this game, or it wouldn’t have been Kickstarted back from the grave, meaning there must be something worthwhile here. I could abuse the overly helpful, hint-dispensing sidekick character and coast through the rest of the game, but that would rob me of any feeling of personal achievement and, as I’ve discussed above, closeness to the game experience. Instead, I think I’m going to do something that I’ve always ridiculed others for. I’m starting over in easy mode. That way, I still get to gain some appreciation without having to have my hand embarrassingly held through the whole experience. And I have a feeling that easy mode in this game is still pretty hard.

So there you go, a rare admission that I suck at something and I’m totally knocking it down to baby mode. Shadowgate has truly humbled me. Next thing you know, I will no longer consider those who shirk away from Dark Souls to be a bunch of casual hardly-cores. Truly, a new day is dawning in my life.

Game Boy Demakes: Resident Evil Gaiden

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Resident Evil Gaiden for the Game Boy Color was released all the way back in Summer ’02 (late ’01 if you were in Europe) and was actually outsourced by Japanese publisher Capcom to UK-based developer M4, although its development was presided over by Resident Evil producer Shinji Mikami and Code Veronica director Hiroki Kato (who is credited with writing the game).   It strikes me as a bit strange that the Japanese developer would outsource a handheld version of the series. The culture of handheld gaming has always seemed like it’s been quite a bit stronger in Japan than other territories (even before the DS and PSP dominated consoles last gen), and one would think that the Japanese company would target the handheld version of such a popular series primarily to its Japanese player base. It would be kind of like Microsoft outsourcing a PC port of Halo 4 to a company like Falcom. I guess it shows that the Capcom higher-ups may not have had much serious interest in bringing Resident Evil to the portable market (which at the time was really just Game Boy) and probably just treated it as an opportunity to make a quick buck off the lucrative Game Boy shovelware market.

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When dealing with downporting sophisticated 3D games to Game Boy platforms, there were two paths that could be followed. The first path is to try to make the 8-bit gameplay of the downport a reasonable facsimile of the original version. Metal Gear Solid is probably the best example of this approach. The GBC version of MGS actually replicates a huge portion of the gameplay aspects of the PSX progenitor, such as mapping enemies on the soliton radar, being able knock on walls to draw the attention of guards, hiding in boxes that you keep in your inventory, using a cigarette to detect laser tripwires, etc. Partly, this is more natural for MGS, as it is played from a top-down perspective that is easy to replicate with Game Boy graphics (the original Metal Gear ran on the 8-bit NES, of course). But for other games, like Resident Evil (or Daikatana which I covered earlier here), their camera and control setup requires a significant rethinking of how the gameplay actually works. Of course, a game like Resident Evil with its prerendered backgrounds and odd camera angles would need to be modified to something more suitable to an 8-bit device, for instance a sidescrolling or top-down (as is used in Gaiden) view. Of course it would, right?

Actually, before there was Resident Evil Gaiden, a company contracted by Capcom named HotGen (another UK-based studio) developed a faithful conversion of Resident Evil 1 for the GBC that included the odd camera angles, prerendered backgrounds (with way low resolutions of course), and familiar tank controls. You can see screenshots of that version below. The game was supposedly completed and submitted to Capcom in 2000, but Capcom decided that it wasn’t enjoyable to play (I wonder why?) and subsequently cancelled the release. However, from what I can gather, code of an unfinished version leaked on the internet. I haven’t played the leaked code, but interestingly enough, I’ve read from a few who have, and some actually disagree with Capcom’s judgment and described the game as surprisingly playable and fun.

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Resident Evil 1 for the GBC

Resident Evil 1 for the GBC

Regardless, Capcom tried to shrink down Resident Evil again a very short time later with Gaiden which was first released in Europe in December 2001. This time they tried to significantly rethink the Resident Evil gameplay to make it more suitable to the limited hardware they were dealing with, replacing the third person action with a more simplistic shooting gallery style system. The story takes place post-Raccoon City when Leon Kennedy and surviving S.T.A.R.S. members have gone underground and banded together to expose the truth behind Umbrella’s continuing B.O.W. research. Reports come in about an outbreak aboard a cruise liner and Leon Kennedy (whom the player primarily takes the role of) and Barry Burton are sent to investigate.

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You explore the zombie-infested cruise ship from a top down perspective as you uncover the true nature of the outbreak. Only certain areas of the ship are initially accessible to explore, but new areas are unlocked in true Resident Evil style by finding keys, performing very light inventory puzzles, and reaching story events. The most interesting departure from the Resident Evil formula comes in combat. To target zombies, Leon must go into a shooting stance which raises a reticle on the top-down screen. Moving the reticule over a zombie does not actually result in Leon firing at the zombie; rather it takes the player to a first person “shooting gallery” style screen. In this screen, the zombies are visible in front of Leon, and will slowly progress toward his position until they are in attack range, at which point they will begin inflicting damage. At the bottom of the screen is an oscillating reticle that moves from left to right. To successfully hit a zombie, Leon must fire when the moving reticule is right beneath the approaching creature, and he will gain extra damage if he fires when the reticule is in a sweet spot positioned beneath the middle of the monster. Zombies can also initiate the shooting gallery mode if they manage to grab Leon, but in this case, the zombie will start immediately in attack range.

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Ammo is limited in the game, and consequently accuracy is key. As is typical in Resident Evil of the time, when you enter an area with enemies, you will need to decide on whether it is possible to run past them without getting grabbed, or if it is necessary to expend precious ammo to clear them out of your way. Also, there is some strategy in choosing when to target the zombie from the top-down screen. Naturally, you will probably want to target them when they are as far away from Leon in top-down mode as they can get, because this means they will take longer to reach attack range. However, the farther away the zombie is, the smaller of a target it becomes and thus better timing is required to get a successful shot and not waste ammo.

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When this game was released, it was mostly trashed by critics and gamers alike. Personally, I have a strange fondness for it, but I completely understand where its flaws lie. It is a difficult game for me to recommend, because, while it is a fun game, most people will get bored with it for entirely rational reasons. What’s wrong with it exactly? Well, pretty much all aspects of the game are just very simplistic, with the shooting gallery style combat being the worst. The only enemies you fight in this game are zombies and they are all dealt with in the same way. The exception to this is that there is a Mr. X style boss that follows you around, but fights with him are just as basic as the zombies, except his attacks are stronger, and he takes more damage. The puzzles in this game are all very rudimentary, and mostly just require you to find the right item to use on the right door/lock/barricade/obstacle to progress. In addition, there story is merely serviceable, not terrible just very (here’s that word again) simple.

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A little imagination could have gone a long way for this game. Perhaps they could of shook things up with additional enemy types that are fought differently. Perhaps you could have, say, lickers that jump to the ceiling and ambush Leon from above, making targeting them much harder than zombies. Perhaps it could have enemies with multiple critical points which are telegraphed with different animations. Perhaps the different enemies could be fought in different mini-game styles instead of just the shooting gallery view mode. I don’t know, but it seems like making the combat a little more varied would have gone a long way to spicing this game up. Also, the puzzles could have been made more interesting. Resident Evil has never had the most sophisticated puzzles to solve (it’s got nothing on Silent Hill), but Gaiden’s puzzles are shallow even by the standards of the rest of the series. I don’t know if the lack of variation is the fault of the developer or Capcom. But as I talked about above, I suspect Capcom had given up on making a quality Resident Evil for the GBC and were just looking for a quick-cash in release. The lack of variation would certainly be consistent with the developer having little time and money to complete the game.

So you might be wondering at this point why I profess to like this game. Well first off, it is a fun game I think, just perhaps not an impressive game. There’s nothing particularly offensive about the gameplay, even if it lacks variation. Some of it’s also just nostalgia. I had some fun times with this game, and I always look back upon all the old Resident Evil games fondly. For me, they are like strange symbols of my middle school and early high school years. But beyond that, I’ve always had an attraction to low-fi, low-tech horror games, including old classics like Sweet Home, Alone in the Dark, and Friday the 13th (“classic” might be a bit of a stretch with that one) as well as modern attempts such as Lone Survivor and The Last Door. Some people think it’s impossible to make scary games with primitive graphics, but I actually think such low-fi aesthetics allow for a level of abstraction that can drive the imagination to run wild with fantasized horrors. Resident Evil Gaiden sort of does a good job with that, there is definitely a pervasive creepy atmosphere to the ship. The limited ammo and healing items do succeed in creating some tension (as well as any of the PSX games I think), but I definitely wouldn’t call it a scary game. Really though, you might consider that just another area of wasted potential for this game. I guess in the end, my fondness of Resident Evil Gaiden could stem from the same place I appreciate games like Knights of the Old Republic II or Mirror’s Edge, those being other examples of games that could have been so much more. I like it for its potential, even if that potential goes largely unfulfilled.

So there it goes, as I’ve stated it’s really difficult for me to highly recommend Resident Evil Gaiden, as my own attachment to the game is the result of deeply personal reasons. However, Capcom has been a big supporter of Game Boy Virtual Console on 3DS, so I wouldn’t completely rule out a future rerelease for Gaiden. I doubt there is much love for this game by the publisher, but on the off chance it does get released on VC, I think Resident Evil fans would likely find enjoyment in it if they can snag it for a few bucks.

Chronicles of Mystara: An Arcade Ideal

I don’t believe I really grew up during the heyday of the arcade, which has always seemed to me to be more in the 1980’s, but arcades did still have a presence when I was young. Still though, arcade culture was something I completely missed out on. Growing up in a fairly rural area, the only nearby machines were the OutRun and MK2 cabinets in the local Pizza Hut. Otherwise, I got most of my experience in this area when I occasionally might happen to visit an arcade during a stop-off on a family trip.

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To be honest, I’ve never really gotten arcades. I mean, there are a few arcade staples that I like (I am a huge Sega fan), but overall they’ve never felt as well designed as their home or handheld counterparts. Take beat’em ups for instance. Streets of Rage 2 is one of my favorite Genesis games, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a contender for my favorite XBLA game. But on the arcade side, I’ve always been completely baffled by the popularity of the best arcade beat’em ups (or at least what others hold up as the top-tier). The TMNT and Simpsons brawlers are particularly offensive to me. They sort of crystallize what I feel is wrong with a lot of arcade games: these games aren’t meant to be well-designed challenges, rather, they are meant to push the player’s tolerance limit with cheap and unfair level design just enough so that they can maximize the amount of money extracted from their customers. They are meant to require more luck than skill to avoid having to feed the machine hard earned money to sustain the adventure. This is super frustrating to me, as I enjoy a game that provides a challenge that, while perhaps high in difficulty, is completely conquerable with the right amount of skill and practice. These arcade brawlers make death feel unavoidable, regardless of practice, and ultimately only a test of the depth of one’s pockets.

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Enter Capcom’s Dungeons and Dragons arcade brawlers, Tower of Doom and Shadow over Mystara, which were rereleased last year on digital storefronts in the Chronicles of Mystara collection. I’ve seen many arcade experts express admiration for these games, even though they were perhaps not the most widely accessible arcade cabs back in the day. Considering my aversion to these sorts of games, I completely avoided the collection until recently, when a dirt cheap sale online provoked me to give them a shot. Having spent a few hours with the collection, I’m rather happy to report that I don’t find them nearly as bad as the loathsome TMNT and Simpsons games; instead I find they succeed at creating exciting, replayable adventures that don’t feel like hollow cash grabs. I’m not sure I would recommend this collection at full price, seeing as how (for obvious reasons) they can be beaten pretty quickly, but it does feel like a good game for a Steam sale purchase if you can find it for a few bucks.

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The Chronicles of Mystara games take place in the somewhat obscure Mystara D&D setting. I don’t have much experience with this setting (or really D&D) but it seems to be a rather straightforward fantasy setting filled with the standard bestiary (e.g., trolls, kobolds, goblins, ogres, etc.) and a simplistic “stop the evil wizard” plot that requires no prior knowledge to follow. Your characters area actually sort of the standard D&D classes: fighter, cleric, elven ranger, etc. For the most part it’s your pretty standard brawler, although it does have a few nice features that stand out. There are a lot of useable items, throwing weapons, and spells that are dropped by enemies, so you have a fair bit of freedom to mix up the gameplay. In addition, as Mystara is a fantasy setting, the enemies tend to be fairly diverse, contrasting with most games of this genre which limit their adversaries to slightly varied street thugs.  The monsters, characters, and landscapes are fairly well illustrated. A production of Capcom, the game’s Japanese artists did a good job capturing the feel of western fantasy, deftly avoiding the typical big eyes/small mouth anime-style visual template. The resulting aesthetic is enhanced by the major use of pastel colors to generate an artistic style that is somewhat unique, although not entirely unfamiliar for this type of setting.

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What I like most of all about these games is that there is a fairly heavy focus on branching paths and side areas. This gives rise to a fair bit of replayability and, in the context of the arcade, is a much more excellent way of driving repeat business into a machine than just making frequent death unavoidable. The classes are also decently different and likeable enough that you’ll want to experiment with all of them, instead of just lazily sticking to the one you like the looks of the most. Furthermore, the games also seem to be very balanced challenges. Even on the highest difficulty level, I almost never found myself trapped in a situation where I was overwhelmed.   If I took damage, then it was because I was not reactive enough and let it happen. And, although it originally took me a fairly large number of credits to get through the games, with repeat playthroughs my credit count started to diminish, and I found myself becoming more adept at battling through enemy hordes.

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Chronicles of Mystara has resulted in me lightening my attitudes toward arcade beat’em ups. A good arcade game is definitely fundamentally very different from a good home game. For obvious reasons, arcades just couldn’t deliver the long-form adventures that are found on home gaming machines. Although neither of the Mystara games are especially long, the differing paths you can choose to take with each playthrough give these quests an epic quality that is competitive with the best home adventure games of that era.

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