Saturday, August 27, 2016

Final Doom

Well, here we are again. One more trip to the bank. Here's the story: back in the fall of '94, id Software released the acclaimed Doom II, reusing the original Doom engine but packing in a whole lot of extra content along the way. The reusing of the engine was important here. Doom had a vibrant map-making community, so owners of the game who wanted more levels to play could always go find some, provided I guess that they knew a guy who had saved the map pack onto a floppy disk. When Doom II came along, the engine continuity meant this process wouldn't change, and map makers could now use the skills they'd learned before and put them to use in a playground full of new stuff.

BFGed.So as Doom II thrived, so did its level creating community. Thus, in 1995 a group of talented designers calling themselves TeamTNT was deep in the process of making a free map pack for Doom II with 32 new levels - the same size as Doom II itself. id Software, having themselves left Doom behind and moved onto their next big project, wasn't about to let the cash cow go unmilked. They bought the TeamTNT project, and then commissioned two of the designers on that team to make a whole 'nother 32 level pack. Then they boxed the 64 levels all together and released it in the summer of 1996 as Final Doom - just 5 days before id would release its own brand new game, in what I just decided five seconds ago to call The Summer of id. Thus, Final Doom is literally twice as large as Doom II, but because these teams were essentially just creating custom maps for that previous game, there's nothing new in this package. Instead, Final Doom relies entirely on smart design to make or break it. How does it fare?

Let's start with the first campaign, called TNT: Evilution. See what they did there? It's like evolution, except, you know, evil. The general story is that the Union Aerospace Corporation, which was responsible for the invasion from hell that started this whole series, decided they wanted to start their research up again. I guess the billions of dead on Earth the last time around wasn't deterrent enough. "Meh, it's just a portal to Hell, what's the worst that could happen?" They go to one of the moons of Jupiter, start messing with stuff they shouldn't, and predictably get invaded and overrun with demons. A lone marine was busy taking a leisurely stroll at this time, so he becomes the last hope of humanity. And that's it. It's all the plot a Doom game really needs, if we're being honest.

Spectre fist.TNT: Evilution plays pretty much like what you'd expect. Really, the challenge feels more on par with Doom 1 than it does with Doom 2, despite the addition of the latter's content. The levels are fairly straightforward and, sadly, forgettable. There is an exception, which is a level called Wormhole. On this stage, you find yourself in a small room with an elevator at the back that takes you down into a series of tunnels. At the end of that tunnel warren (which is infested with monsters, because it's Doom) there is a lone teleport pad. When you step on it, you get the visual and audio effects of being teleported, but you don't appear to actually go anywhere. The teleport pad doesn't work now, but everything else is the same. You look around and wander back into those tunnel warrens, walking across the bodies of all the monsters you killed, and you start getting really confused and frustrated. Finally, when you work your way all the way back to the start of the level, you get attacked by a bunch of strong monsters that definitely weren't there before, and then it finally hits you: they made a map that was two identical copies of the same place, and even littered the second one with pre-killed enemies to convince you that you weren't somewhere new, all to be able to surprise you with an ambush in your bewilderment. THAT is great level design.

Other than that level, though, the first half of Evilution is bland and unexciting. Thankfully, once you enter the second half of the campaign, the challenge and interest gradually ramp up. This is primarily accomplished through scale - the latter levels of Evilution can get enormous, and you can find yourself easily spending half an hour on a map or more. This culminates in the final stage of the pack, which is a hilarious gauntlet of brutal challenges. First you find yourself looking at a wide grid of platforms. You have to sprint across them, since there's no jumping in Doom; if you run too slowly you'll fall and die. Only one of these platforms is safe, while all the others will instantly melt you if you touch them. When you find the safe one, there is again only one safe spot from there. This continues as an instant-death sprinting platform maze until you reach the other side, at which point a bunch of wall panels open and unleash a bunch of revenants (rocket-launching skeletons) and arachnotrons (plasmagunning cyborg brain-spiders). Surviving them takes you into a smaller room, in which a cyberdemon - the biggest, baddest enemy in the franchise - tries to sneak attack you with its missile launcher. Should you survive him, you must run down a hallway where ranged monsters will barrage you through windows, teleporting finally into a pleasant courtyard with the final boss of Doom II, just for kicks and giggles.

Coffins.That sounds like an insane challenge, and it is, but let me tell you something right now. TNT: Evilution has nothing on the difficulty of its sister campaign, The Plutonia Experiment. Let's hear what one of the designers had to say about it!

"I always played through the level I had made on hard, and if I could beat it too easily, I made it harder."

OH HAPPY DAY. This should be exciting, eh? And sure enough, when I booted it up, I got to level 2 and then was stumped on how to continue. Level 2! The Plutonia Experiment on normal difficulty is like playing Doom II on its hard setting, only with more monsters and less ammo. And that's only at the start of the campaign! It gets harder from there!

How about an example? See that picture above, what with me looking at coffins and almost certainly wetting myself? Well, if I were to turn around, I'd see something even more frightening: a cage near to overflowing with Arch-Viles. To jog your memory from Doom II, the Arch-Vile is perhaps the most sinister enemy in the game. It moves the fastest of all the monsters, resurrects its fallen comrades, and has an undodgeable attack where you explode if it has line-of-sight to you, irrespective of distance. Doom II used them very sparingly; it was almost like a little mini-boss. The Plutonia Experiment, by contrast, has the Arch-Vile Labyrinth. See, after you notice the horde of them caged next to you where you can't shoot them, the room opens into a huge maze, and all the Arch-Viles get teleported into it somewhere. The only thing they give you is a shotgun. Good luck!

Montezuma's RevengeIt would be virtually impossible if not for the game's map. I mentioned the wireframe map in my Doom 1 review, but it's worth repeating: this is a great thing. Even when the levels get really big and complex, like the monstrosity here pictured, a quick glance at the map will tell you where you should be heading. It helps ensure that the game's difficulty doesn't artificially stem from getting lost constantly, though there are occasional instances where you might feel stuck looking for a hidden door or switch. But that's not to say the levels themselves don't confuse. A great example is with the textures used. The Doom engine has four different "liquid" textures (all of which are actually solid in practice, of course), in four different colors: blue, green, red, and brown. In Doom, these were used consistently; blue was water and therefore harmless, while green, red, and brown were poison, lava (or burning blood), and acid respectively, and would all therefore harm you. Final Doom dispenses with that logic, so you never really know if a substance will kill you until you touch it. I'm not the biggest fan of that, but it does make the whole thing feel more unsafe.

The Plutonia Experiment plays out like a series of progressively more difficult challenges, always looking for a new way to put you behind the eight ball. In one of the first five levels, you start on a small platform surrounded by poison and switches. You have to run into the poison and hit a switch, which reveals a teleporter behind a false wall. Panicking because your life is rapidly dropping from standing in poison, you rush through the teleporter to find yourself surrounded by enemies, and you'll likely die within three seconds. You can't even overwhelm them with firepower like you always do in these games. Your only chance is to run away as fast as you can and regroup, returning to pick them off more systematically. It's definitely a more inspired campaign in these regards than TNT: Evilution, but the difficulty is staggering.

Revenance.As I mentioned before, there are no new enemies in Final Doom. This gives the experienced Doom player the advantage of already knowing how to fight each of the different kinds of monster the game will throw at you. The designers of The Plutonia Experiment realized this, and attempted to overcome that natural player advantage by making it impossible to fight some enemies the way you're "supposed" to. Take this army of angry revenants, for example. The revenant has two attacks: a seeker rocket fired from its shoulder cannon, and a big right hook punch that makes it look like it's doing its best Mr. Bojangles impression. The rockets are devastating and track you, so the best way to fight one of these things is to get close enough that it wants to punch you, and then unload your chaingun. The bullets stagger it so that its punch doesn't reach you and it dies before it can regroup. It's a reliable, solid strategy. Now, look at this picture. Do you think that strategy stands a chance? NO. You're going to die. You've got to figure out some other way of getting through that fight, knowing that your regular tactics are worthless. It's infuriating and exhilarating all at once.

Speaking of, there's one repeated tactic in the campaign that the game will throw at you, and the only defense is to save frequently. You see, many levels begin with you already surrounded by monsters. You'll conquer one challenging area only to spawn with crap flying at your face before you can really even note your surroundings. It doesn't happen on every single level, but it's frequent enough that you have to prepare for it. And of course, the deeper you are into the campaign, the more ruthless these immediate encounters are. Say, here's a level called Anti-Christ. I'm sure that one won't start off with legions of enemies hurling violent death my way! Frequent saves are all you can do to combat this, because you don't know when it's coming. And if you die, you have to start your current level over again with nothing but a pistol and a few bullets. I'm telling you, that's not winnable. If you die, and you don't have a recent save with all your stuff intact, just quit the game. Ya done.

Smack to DOS.The last level of Final Doom is a grand slaughter befitting the whole ordeal. You start in a small alcove with a few powerful guns and ammo packs, and walk forward to be assailed by a large number of medium-threat demons. When you advance a little further (whether or not you even killed the enemies that were there), the walls fall and reveal cages lined with powerful demons, all firing projectiles your way. In front of you is the Icon of Sin, which is just a big wall texture that shoots out boxes that turn into random enemies. And, of course, a cyberdemon. With a floor of lava. You win by destroying the Icon with a number of rockets fired into its sole vulnerable spot, but you can't really do that with all the other nonsense going on. So you struggle mightily, exhausting all your ammunition, and manage to kill absolutely everything there. The Icon eventually runs out of new monsters to spawn. The area is quiet, corpses strewn about everywhere. It's just you, one on one for the fate of the world, against a wall that literally cannot attack you. And the wall is outrageously difficult. Since you can't jump or otherwise control the height of your shots, you're at the mercy of the stage for rocket height. But no matter what ledge you stand on, your rocket will be at the wrong height to strike the Icon's vulnerable spot. Most spots are too low; one is too high. I kid you not; you'll spend the next 10-15 minutes running off that high ledge, firing a rocket in midair, and praying it was timed perfectly to hit the thing. If you miss, you'll just load your save because otherwise you'll run out of rockets and lose by default. If you hit, you get to do it like six more times to actually kill the dang thing. It's an absolute nightmare of dull frustration, and that's what was chosen by the designers and id Software to end the Doom era.

Look, Final Doom isn't a must-play. It's not even a should-play. But that doesn't make it bad. We've just seen all this before. I'm tired of Doom. I'm tired of playing it, and I'm tired of writing about it, because nothing's really changed. There's a new soundtrack to this game, and that's cool, but it says something when id Software - the game's proud creators - can't even be bothered to mess with the franchise anymore. Heck, they didn't even change the level names between the game's two campaigns; Evilution erroneously reuses The Plutonia Experiment's level names on the wireframe map screen. Final Doom is challenging, technically sound, and occasionally innovative. If I hadn't played Doom or Doom II, I'd also call it great fun. But I have played those games, which means I've sort of already played this one, too. It's a good game. Good, but unsatisfying. Do with that what you will, because like id Software before me, I've moved on.

Bottom Line: 14/20

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Mortal Kombat II

By early 1993, the popularity of fighting games was becoming feverish. Begun just a couple years earlier by Street Fighter II, and continuing through its rehashes, developers realized there was a strong market for this kind of game. Imitators began popping up everywhere, but only one - 1992's Mortal Kombat - was seen as a true rival to the Street Fighter crown. The home versions of Mortal Kombat released in the fall of '92, but the folks over at Midway were already deep into a sequel. And so it was in the spring of '93 that Mortal Kombat II burst into the arcades, with a flyer claiming "Mortal Kombat has finally met its match." Folks, they weren't wrong.

Kharacter SelektWhen you load up Mortal Kombat II, the first thing you notice is this screen. There are twelve selectable fighters in the game, five more than its predecessor. That's a big jump! And of those, seven are new, if you include Reptile who has been promoted from "hidden Scorp-Zero clone" to a full character in his own right. That's a lot of fresh blood in the tournament, and it helps make MK2 a deeper game than the first right off the bat. Other new characters include Liu Kang's fellow Shaolin monk Kung Lao; Kitana, the assassin princess; Mileena, the...assassin....princess...; Baraka, one of the monsters from I Am Legend; Shang Tsung, newly youthful shapeshifter; and Jax, a U.S. military officer and friend of Sonya Blade.

Hey, speaking of Sonya, where is she? Kano's gone too, but nobody cares about that. It's like they had so many ideas for new characters that the developers decided they couldn't return everyone from the previous game, and just arbitrarily chose a couple to ax. But you can see how clever they were here - in place of Sonya Blade, Mortal Kombat's only female presence, they put Kitana and Mileena. The two new women are, of course, just palette swapped copies of one another so it saved them a good amount of room in the game's memory while still letting them accurately claim that Mortal Kombat II had a greater number and ratio of playable female characters than Mortal Kombat 1 - even than Street Fighter II, which at that point still only had Chun-Li. That all said, if you're a big fan of Sonya and/or Kano, and you're really bummed to be missing them here, I have good news! Both fighters still make an appearance in the game. In fact, they're chained up in the background of a stage, wiggling around, waiting for someone to come save them. So there you go - not enough to just gut them from the new title, but now they've been made retroactively incompetent. Excellent.

Deadly sistersWhile on the subject of the fates of characters from MK1, let's talk plot for a moment. In the first game, a tournament (called, of course, Mortal Kombat) was held on a hidden island on Earth somewhere, hosted by the ancient sorcerer Shang Tsung. When he was defeated by Liu Kang, it meant that Shang Tsung could not take over the Earth, somehow. So Tsung went to the dimension known as Outworld, where his boss, Emperor Shao Kahn, awaited. He relayed his failure but assured Shao Kahn that if a second tournament were to be held right away, and if it were to be hosted in Outworld, Earth's fighters couldn't refuse to show up, because "rules." And then, if Shao Kahn should win, he could invade and conquer Earth, because "rules" again. Shao Kahn liked this plan because it favored him immensely while making very little real plot sense, and rewarded Shang Tsung by somehow restoring his youth and letting him fight in the tournament. And there you have it. Mortal Kombat II, in Outworld, for the fate of Earth, starring everyone except Kano and Sonya. Cool? Cool.

The tournament itself is more straightforward than the stuff Shang Tsung was running back on Earth. He had designated mirror matches and "endurance" matches where you had to fight two guys in a row. Not the case this time; the additional fighters added to the roster padded things out to make the single player mode a direct climb to the top of a mountain. Along the way you'll fight every character in the roster, yourself included, ending with Shang Tsung in his new role as quasi-boss. With his youth he learned to transform into all the new fighters in the game, but sadly forgot how to morph into Goro. Shame!

Also changed from MK1 (but not really) is Sub-Zero. In the canon storyline from the end of the first game, Scorpion (who was killed in life by Sub-Zero) gets his revenge and kills Sub-Zero in the tournament. And then, in Mortal Kombat II, Sub-Zero is back. Bwah? Scorpion had the same reaction, which is why he's returning as well: "Hey didn't I kill you?" Turns out that this is the younger brother of the original Sub-Zero, and he naturally is also named Sub-Zero, and he looks exactly the same, and has all the same moves. Glad we settled that!

Sweep the leg, SubbyLooks like brother trained him well, too, because here we see Sub-Zero enjoying his favorite pastime: the invincible leg sweep. That's right, that ultimate of fighting moves has returned for the sequel, and folks will be tripping all the way to the bottom of The Pit. Or will they? While in the first game the computer's AI had a nervous breakdown when the leg sweep came out, in this one it puts countermeasures into action. The first one or two leg sweeps might work, and they'll still never bother blocking any, but now the CPU can walk up and throw you out of the sweep. Like, it'll just cancel your attack even as your leg strikes the ankles and you'll suddenly be in someone's clutches, getting hurled away. "Well that's not so bad," you might think. "If throws counter leg sweeps, I'll just add that little tidbit to my play as well, and now I'll beat leg sweeps too!" No, you won't. This is a one-way street. I have never thrown the CPU in Mortal Kombat II. Not once. You can't do it, and certainly not against a leg sweep. It's a cheaty get-out-of-jail-free card for the computer, and nothing more.

And you know what? I'd be sort of cool with that, since it means you can't rely on one supermove to win the game for you, except it doesn't stop there. This is the most nefarious AI in any fighting game I've played. Not only is there the whole throw thing (and it's not just a sweep counter; you'll get thrown from excessive range all the freaking time), but the computer is built to counter everything you ever do. Moves like Sub-Zero's freeze blast or Scorpion's signature spear throw are completely worthless against the computer; without fail the AI will avoid the attack. It reads your inputs and reacts to them with the optimal counter move. And this isn't just on hard difficulty or anything - this is across the board. Of course, this might make some sense in the arcade, where the goal is to get the player to pump more quarters into the machine, but the AI made it to the home versions of the game intact. Whatever you try to do, you'll get beaten and beaten hard. It's infuriating. So how does anyone ever beat this game?

Jax BabalityEnter Jax, Destroyer of CPUs. Jax is one of the most versatile characters in the game, with a moveset that includes a good projectile (he launches an energy wave from his elbow), a ground punch that damages anyone not in the air, and a grabbing attack. Most importantly to our dilemma, however, is his backbreaker. Jax can catch an airborne opponent and bring them down on his shoulder, causing heavy damage. This becomes immensely useful when you discover the one weakness of the insidious Mortal Kombat II AI: jumping backward. When the CPU opponent nears you, if you jump back, it will pause a moment and then jump forward in pursuit. However, this means you land while the CPU is in the air, and you can now attack them before they land. In Jax's case this usually means jumping forward and kicking them, then catching them in a backbreaker before they land for a devastating two-hit combo. Three of these will end a match. The best part is that you can just wait for the computer to stand up and immediately repeat the process. Flawless Victories for days!

And against characters without good projectile counters like teleportation, Jax's energy wave attack melts AI minds. Johnny Cage, Baraka, Scorpion, Reptile, even Shang Tsung: they'll all just backflip at the far end of the screen hoping desperately to avoid your endless barrage of fuschia energy. It's a lost cause. They'll all drop from the onslaught and you'll get that oh-so-satisfying "FINISH HIM" (or Her). And that's where Mortal Kombat II really steps it up from its predecessor. The first game saw each fighter have one fatality - a cinematic and gory way to kill the opponent (except pacifist Liu Kang who just did a cartwheel). Now every fighter has two distinct ones, for double the gory fun. Plus, three of the game's stages have stage-specific fatalities that any fighter can perform, including the aforementioned return of The Pit (aptly named The Pit II), a spiked ceiling that unfortunate souls can be uppercut into, and a pool of acid that does decidedly acid-like things to a body. As you can see above, you can also turn people into babies for no good reason. This is great stuff.

Kintaro punchesBut all those fun finisher options don't mean a thing when you're up against Kintaro. You'll be riding high from Jaxinating everything in your path and then you hit "Goro with armor." All previous strategy is gone. I'd explain how it feels to flail hopelessly against the Kintaro wall, but Jim Mora already did it better. Whereas Goro was the reigning Mortal Kombat champion, Kintaro is just Shao Kahn's bodyguard. I mean, think about it. The story goes that Liu Kang won Mortal Kombat 1. He's the champion. By beating Shang Tsung in the preceding match, he's already retained his title (pretending for a moment that it's not actually Jax obliterating spines here). Kintaro's only even present for a fight because you are, apparently, trying to kill the emperor for daring to host a sequel. That may be justified, but I don't think it's tournament legal. So while Goro fought for pride and fame, Kintaro just hates you and wants to feel your skull crack under his massive feet. If you're going to get through the fight, you'll need to find a new way to cheat the cheaters, and that way is to run screaming to the corner and let Kintaro jump on your face like a maniac. When you get up he'll be so smug and self-satisfied that he'll start taunting you, never realizing that now he's the one cornered, and you can just mash the light punch button until the round ends. Seriously, he's too slow to do anything but taste tiny fist until he keels over. Joke's on you, big guy!

Shao Kahn, by comparison, is terrible at fighting. When you beat Kintaro, Kahn jumps off his throne in the background and challenges you. It also turns out that he was the fella announcing everything the whole game, which means nothing you do in this fight will get you the approving "Superb!" or any other such callout. Anyway, his first act of the unsanctioned fight is to tell you that he's going to kill you. And then he reminds you of that like every five seconds during the fight, just stopping and pointing at you while telling you you're going to die. During these angry outbursts, you naturally kick him in the face. In fact, kicking him in the face is the entire battle. When he's not mouthing off, he'll just walk toward you, and you kick him, and he staggers back, and then you do it all over again. And then when you finally beat him, he teleports to all the different stages one by one before exploding into chunks of stone. Worst emperor ever.

Finally, I want to give a quick mention to the secret characters in the game. While MK1 just had Reptile lurking under a bridge like a troll, MK2 peppered three secret fighters in the game, accessible by various means. These are, of course, all palette swaps of people wearing masks. They are Smoke, a gray version of Scorpion with smoke puffs coming off and super speed; Jade, a green version of Kitana who can't be injured by projectiles; and Noob Saibot, a silhouette ninja who, of course, also has Scorpion's spear. They should have just given that move to every character in the game. I don't know why they didn't. Spear Kombat could've been a thing.

Mortal Kombat II is not a particularly fun single-player game, specifically because it was programmed to be outrageously unfair; no amount of practice or skill with the game will allow you to get the upper hand. The only way to beat the exploitative computer is to find and use exploits of your own, and that's no fun for anyone. That said, the game is an improvement over Mortal Kombat 1 in every other way conceivable. Assuming you have two people present, you will never have a reason to play the first Mortal Kombat again with this game in your library, and that's a huge deal. It's all the little touches stacked atop all the big improvements that make this one a standout. Just don't play it alone. Find yourself a friend and have a murder party, and see what makes this game special.

Disco Kang

Bottom Line: 16/20

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest

In early 1987, Nintendo released Zelda II, which took the formula of the first Zelda game and turned it on its side, converting the game into something more akin to an action RPG than a sprawling adventure game. Konami must have looked at that and thought, "Say, that's a great idea!" because several months later they churned out the sequel to their classic game from the frustration genre, Castlevania. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is not like that first game in most of the ways that matter, which occasionally manages to be a good thing. All the same, it's a game with Castlevania in the title, so I went in with expectations accordingly low.

Town church.One of the first things you notice about Castlevania II is the first sentence of the game booklet's introduction, which reads "You are Simon Belmont, bravest of the brave, boldest of the bold, a gothic warrior respected by kings." Wait wait wait. Simon Belmont? What happened to SeƱor Belmondo, Matador to the Stars? You can't just up and change someone's name and nationality like that! This is all very disorienting. More disorienting is the fact that when you boot up the game, instead of appearing in some old haunted castle or something like you might expect, you're standing in the middle of a town with people milling about. That's right: like Zelda II before it, Simon's Quest has a map full of villages with chattable townsfolk. The analogues go on, as the towns will often have peddlers in basements selling you equipment (see Zelda's creepy wizards) and churches to restore your health to full (see Zelda's brothels). Usually though, every house you walk into is just empty. Transylvania looks like it's been largely abandoned by everyone who did more than just pace back and forth all day, and really, who could blame them?

Now, I know what you're thinking. Between non-combat areas and actual dialogue, this doesn't feel like the kind of torture I expected another Castlevania title to be, right? Wrong. As you waltz without a care through that starting town, you'll fall into a small canal, which was built with no bridge, for no reason. And then you'll drown instantly, because this is a Castlevania game. Make no mistake about that. Heck, when you first try to leave the town you'll be immediately bombarded with fireballs spit by lizardmen until you retreat in the other direction. Castlevania II isn't messing around. Once you realize that, it's time to start Simon's Quest. What is that quest anyway? Looking back at the instruction booklet, it seems that some time after you killed Dracula in the first game, a "beautiful maiden" appeared to you, and told you that you'd been possessed by "Dracula's curse." Whatever that means. She tasked you with finding Dracula's body parts, which were buried in separate mansions specifically to help prevent his return, and gather them up to have a fun lil' bonfire. Sure. So you'll take a glance at your map to get your bearings and...oh no. Don't do that to me, Konami. Why would you make a sprawling quest game and then not give me a map? Why is this such a hard concept to grasp? It's not like Simon himself would just show up here without a map to guide him. Why make virtual Simon wander blind?

Whipping monsters over lava.So, wander you will. You'll cross area after area of monster infested terrain, fighting all kinds of horrors. Mostly just skeletons of various colors, though. And like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles after it, enemies respawn as soon as their spawn point is on the screen. So while you may have killed those flying eyeballs, the moment you turn around and take a few steps, they're back. But it's not the floating eyeballs you need to worry about. It's - shockingly - not even the medusa heads, which return in a vastly less deadly form. No, Castlevania II is all about the forest spiders. These things crawl around the treetops, occasionally lowering themselves a little bit in order to launch projectile webs at you. Please note that I said "webs," and not "webbing," because these spiders launch fully-formed octagonal webs, every time. When you get more than one on the screen, it turns into a deadly game of dodgeball. Except that these balls can hit you multiple times. That's right: if a web hits you it may well knock you back into that same web again and again. It's brutal. And sadly, unlike Link in his second quest, Simon has not yet learned what the word "up" means, and therefore can still only attack directly in front of him.

So you travel through the spider forests and past a stage the manual literally calls "The Bridge over the River DIE," which goes about how you might expect, and you end up at a giant lake. Giant, in this case, meaning it's a little less than a full screen across. You, being a champion vampire hunter, have still not learned how to swim, so this is effectively a dead end. Now what? I guess you just turn back and look for answers elsewhere. So you cross your fingers and head back the way you came, killing skeletons and merely surviving spiders, taking alternate routes until you at last luck into a new screen. It's a big mansion with an inviting open door. All right! Finally the first dungeon! Time to make some progress, right? Nope. You walk in and it's just a drop into more death water. There's a hallway above you, but you have no way to get there. So...yeah. Stuck again, haha! Better roam that ol' countryside some more!

Death by Death Star.So what's your recourse here? Well, as it turns out, the dialogue from the townspeople in Castlevania II is actually useful (present picture notwithstanding). Everyone you talk to in the towns will give you some sort of clue for how to advance forward. Granted, most of it is hopelessly confusing without a map to help you figure out which place they're talking about, but still. You'll storm through the towns and get all sorts of insight about things that don't make sense to you at the moment. But more importantly, you'll find a bunch of peddlers selling you things like whip upgrades or a mysterious white crystal. It turns out that, by equipping that white crystal, you can see something hidden. As in, one hidden thing. And that hidden thing is a moving platform in that dungeon that lets you access the place. It's a rotten waste of time, and you'd never know that's what you need to do, but there it is. You're welcome.

Not that things get much better on the ignorance front when you actually get into that first mansion. The place is peppered with illusory floors that you'll just fall through, having to repeat large sections of it just to return to your previous spot. And there's no way to know or predict which floor tiles are real and which aren't, so you'll likely be retreading your frustrated steps repeatedly. One such fake floor occurs right before the end of the dungeon, and actually sends you through a gauntlet of enemies to even make it back to the dungeon's start, from where you naturally do the entire thing over again. Castlevania: where just sending you back to the start is too generous. When you finally make it through to the end, you see that the "boss" is just a pulsating orb that you can't interact with in any way. You had to take a side path earlier in the level to find a peddler selling oak stakes and buy one. Then you throw that at the orb (after you find your way back again!) and you're greeted with a victory message: "YOU NOW PROSSESS DRACULA'S RIB." Lovely. Thanks for that.

Side spikes.With all the enemies you'll be fighting through and all the times you'll have to redo the dungeons because "Sike! That floor ain't real bro!" it's nice to know that a few combat things have improved in Simon's Quest. First, your health bar actually functions like a health bar now. In the first game, you had a similar looking health bar but it was a sham because you always died in four hits, from anything. Here, you'll take different levels of damage from different attacks, with the smallest being what amounts to half a "line" of the health meter. That's a big deal! I can work with that! Second, you can equip secondary items now. In the first game, finding a secondary weapon meant discarding the one you had, but in Castlevania II you get them all. You can equip whatever is right for the situation and use that with confidence, knowing your other options are available if you need them. Finally, continues have been made more generous in this sequel. Instead of starting you at the beginning of the level with nothing, using a continue starts you right around your previous location, with all your gear intact. It's a big change and one that makes it very tolerable to slog through difficult areas of the game, so credit where credit is due.

The one thing you will lose upon use of a continue is your supply of hearts. Hearts in the first game were just the ammunition supply for your secondary weapons (and a source of tinnitus at the end of every level). Here they also serve that function, but they don't serve it exclusively. Hearts are also the currency of the game, which is a little creepy I suppose, but this is Transylvania, so I'll allow it. In addition, hearts function as a sort of experience point system. If you're in an area that the game deems a suitable challenge for you given your current progress, collecting hearts from slain monsters will yield experience. When you hit certain threshholds, your maximum health and your damage resistance will improve. You'll also be restored to full life, which is very helpful in a pinch, since there isn't roast chicken lying around anymore. The one baffling thing about the heart system is that the game's menu displays four digits for your heart count, but the maximum you can hold at any time is 256. Why bother putting that extra digit there, guys?

Mask Boss.Ultimately, despite the clues you get from various village people, Castlevania II really just boils down to a grand guessing game. You never really know where you're supposed to be going next, and worse, when you get there you don't really know what you need to do to progress. Often it's equipping a specific item and performing a specific action, but these secrets are typically reserved for books hidden in the walls of the dungeons. And you can only get them by throwing holy water at the walls and hoping it dissolves them. For that matter, all those abandoned houses I mentioned at the start of the review? Yeah, if you chuck holy water at the floors and walls, you'll find secret passages to hiding salesmen, many of whom are necessary to complete the game. There is no indication anywhere in-game that you will be required to flood people's houses one vial at a time; it's just assumed that you will.

Even beyond just your secondary weapons, the bits of Dracula you recover can themselves have uses that aren't obvious. That rib you now "prossess?" Turns out when you hold up Dracula's rib bone, it turns into a wooden shield! Who knew, right? Other things are way more obtuse, like a crystal that requires you to crouch in place at a specific wall so that a tornado can come whisk you through a mountain. OK! The point is, playing this game without a guide is just a big exercise in trial and error, which really dampens the enjoyment of the whole thing.

And speaking of dampening enjoyment, there's one other little tidbit I should mention. See everything above? As in, everything I've mentioned in this entire review. Throw it out the window, because IT'S A HORRIBLE NIGHT TO HAVE A CURSE. That's right, friends! Castlevania II has a "real time clock" that doesn't work in real time. Every twelve hours of game time, day turns to night or vice versa. This happens suddenly, with the game interrupting whatever you were doing to give you the all-caps important news bulletin. You can only interact with people or enter houses during the day. So what do you do during the night? Why, you kill monsters with double health, of course! The nightly curse (and really, is any night a good night to have a curse?) increases the number of monsters while doubling their health. Towns become overrun with green ghouls. If you get to a town in desperate need of a little faith healing and it turns 6 PM right as you get there? Prepare yourself for 12 hours of ghoul defense instead. Just...ugh. "Day/Night cycles" is one of those ideas that sounds really interesting and novel, and then just sucks in practice. I appreciate your intent here, Konami, but this mechanic is bad.

Dracula in 8 or 5 bits.If you manage to solve all the "puzzles" of the Transylvanian landscape, retrieve the body parts from all five mansions, and not take a sledgehammer to your system at the ninth straight horrible night to have a curse, you'll still need to locate Dracula's castle to finish the game. This is tricky, because there's no new route opened up anywhere that will point you in the right direction. Rather, they just superimposed some new screens on top of the ones that have always been there, so you kind of stumble across it unexpectedly and with a lot of confusion, assuming you find the place at all. The castle itself is completely deserted, but that doesn't mean it's not problematic. The entire thing consists of a pseudo-labyrinth of stairs. To get from the top floor to the basement - where you need to burn those vampire bits - takes like five minutes of monotonous stairs-ing. Finally you reach the bottom and the altar upon which you attempt to incinerate Dracula's remains. And instead, as Dracula is wont to do, he revives.

Now I want to be clear here. The revelation that Dracula, now looking remarkably like an animated Batman villain, was reanimated instead of destroyed by your little quest teaches you four key things. First, whoever that weird maiden was is a dirty rotten liar. Second, Simon Belmont is a big gullible doofus. Third, if you die on Dracula, you're going to have to go through that whole mess of stairs again, and that's tragic. And finally and most importantly, a body can be comprised solely of an eye, a heart, a rib, a fingernail, and a piece of jewelry. That's all you need. We've been going through life with all this excess baggage for ages, totally needlessly!

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, like its predecessor, isn't a great game. But it's sort of hard to even compare them to one another, because they just feel so different. Whereas the first game was very linear and level/boss focused, Castlevania II feels like it's not focused at all. Some of that makes for a more compelling time: the ideas of interactive townspeople, shops, and selectable equipment all contribute nicely to the game's fun factor. The basic design of the plot and progression, however, is pretty bad. In this case, from a strict scoring perspective, the good outweighs the bad for Simon's Quest and makes it a "better" game than the first Castlevania. That's not high praise though, and I'd still recommend skipping it regardless. I mean, when you beat it, you get an ending based on how quickly you finished the game. The best possible ending specifically shows Dracula coming back again! It's all so pointless. The middle ending even kills Simon for no reason. The "worst" ending is actually the best! This game is so backwards I don't know even how to feel about it. At least the music is on point. Maybe Castlevania just needs to be turned into a rhythm game. It'd probably be terrible, but I'd still try it. What can I say? I'm a glutton for punishment.

Bottom Line: 11/20

Friday, August 28, 2015

Tomb Raider

Video games, especially back in the 80s and the 90s, had a noticeable lack of strong female protagonists. Often in games, the women were little more than quest objectives, meant to be kidnapped by the villain of the hour and retrieved by the player's decidedly male hero. In some games, this was the entire mission. In others, the saving of the girl was a secondary goal. But almost never was it the woman doing the saving. Metroid was an exception, of course, but even then the folks at Nintendo had to trick their players into thinking they were playing as men and then reveal the truth afterward.

Wheeeeeeeeeelie!So it was into this landscape in 1996 that Tomb Raider burst onto the scene, making no bones about putting its players in the shoes of archaeologist/adventurer Lara Croft. It's as though it was telling players "You're going to play as a woman, you're going to be a total badass, and you're going to like it." This was a big deal at the time, and really helped push for a new level of gender equality in games. This is all very positive stuff. But none of it speaks to what Tomb Raider as a game was really all about. And unfortunately, when you get right down to it, Tomb Raider is a game that feels like it's not really sure what it wants to be. It tries to be a story-driven adventure game, and it almost succeeds. It tries to be a third person shooter and it almost succeeds. It tries to be a 3D platformer and it almost succeeds. But by trying to be all three at once, it falls short of being any of them. Let me show you how that ends up working out.

First off, the story. When you start the game, you don't even know what it is. You might check the printed manual that came with the thing, but all it tells you is about Lara's background - she was a stuck up, rich English girl who got lost in the wild for a spell, and over that short period of time learned every survival skill in existence. Cool, I guess, but now what? The game opens with an incomprehensible cinematic showing some explosion, then cuts to Lara in some house (Is it her house? Someone else's? We'll never know.) talking to a hick and watching what looks something like a Nintendo DS as she's told about an artifact in South America. And that's it! Next thing you know you're in a cave and the game's begun. What's my motive, man?!

Glug glug.So off you go, cavorting (some might say raiding) through tombs, looking to claim some mythical artifact you've never heard of solely because it might be there. As you go, you'll encounter some of the same characters from the opening cutscenes again, though if I'm honest you will rarely realize that's who they are. These characters mean nothing to Lara as a character and even less to you as a player, and the game doesn't make any effort to change that. So when hick dude ambushes you after you get the artifact and tries to steal it, there's no big sting of betrayal. You almost don't even realize it's the same guy. You're just going "Oh, this redneck wants my loot. I guess I'd better shoot him."

That mindless decision to solve problems by shooting at stuff is a running problem through the game, and we'll get to it shortly. But perhaps the most infuriating thing about the story is this: it eventually gets good! It takes until the final few levels but the story eventually makes sense and it's pretty well thought out and intriguing. But where was that the entire rest of the game? And I don't mean to say the story is boring for a while but then picks up near the end. What I'm saying is that there's no story at all until the very end of the game, when a story is laid out that puts the entire game into perspective. They give you retroactive motivation for clearing the levels you've already beaten. You start to go "Well hey! This all meant something and that's pretty cool!" But wouldn't it have been nice to have that along the way? I mean, you had the material! You clearly planned it out and wrote a decent narrative! Why did you deny it to me for so long?!

Then again, I suppose that even if they did string that story out over the whole campaign, it would have been hard to take seriously. Suspension of disbelief would be destroyed with nearly every room you entered. By that I don't mean with the nature of the enemies, or even the lingering implication that an aristocrat lost in the wilderness with nothing but a will to survive would manage to become an akimbo pistol expert before being rescued. It's the smaller things. It's the way those two pistols have, conveniently, an infinite number of bullets inside and require no reloading mechanism. It's the way the other weapons you find have ammunition liberally distributed around the environments you explore, which of course are supposed to be ancient tombs sealed away for thousands of years. It's the way your tiny backpack can hold dozens of medical packs that will instantly cure you of gunshot and other wounds. When you look at it, these are the conventions of shooter games. While you, the player, think you're playing a story-driven adventure, Lara Croft is 100% sure she's stuck in a shooter game, and she acts accordingly.

Beast brutality.Exhibit A: This is the most typical sight you'll see during your adventures in Tomb Raider. Most combat in the game revolves around Lara finding some kind of high ground, seeing some number of wild beasts down below, and shooting them like fish in a barrel. Nothing is off limits here. No creature is safe. In this picture is one dead lion, a second soon-to-be dead lion, and a gorilla running for its life. That's smart of the gorilla, considering that Tomb Raider nearly put the species extinct. In one level alone, I killed 19 gorillas. NINETEEN! Why are there 19 gorillas in this ancient tomb? And why does Lara Croft, an archaeologist who supposedly wants to conserve things, not even hesitate to eradicate them with deadly force? You could argue that, if given the chance, the gorillas would attack her, but what threat is this guy posing? What's he going to do from 15 feet down in a pit? There's just no call for it.

It's not just the gorillas, either. The more visually astute among you will have seen the dead alligator floating in the water in the picture some paragraphs above. You know how you kill alligators in Tomb Raider? You stand up on a ledge and shoot into the water while they're swimming. Here's some other helpless animals you'll fill with lead from up on high ground: wolves, panthers, rats...the point is that this is basically all you do. The only animals you aren't shooting down at are bats, though that doesn't put them any less on the receiving end of your gunfire. As a player it starts to get a little boring. There's nothing exciting about firing your infinite bullets into a creature that can't even defend itself against you, and it begins to feel like the game is just throwing these animals your way just to keep you busy. You become numb to it all.

Thirsty bear.Say, here's a thirsty bear making its way to a small pool for a refreshing drink of water. Rationally, I know that I'm in the buried ruins of a city and civilization long forgotten. I know that nobody has been down here for hundreds of years or more. I know that somehow, against all odds, this bear has managed to survive in a caged off room that I only just opened. I know that this is the only source of water it's got, and its very life depends on just getting a little bit of that water to keep it going just a while longer. I know that I can simply run through the now open door and continue my quest, having given this bear a better shot at life. I know that, once my quest in this place is over, the humane thing to do would be to find a way to release the bear completely; to let it back into the wild where it can thrive and the balance of nature can be restored.

Nahhh, let's shoot it.

Not even your human enemies can figure out how to exist properly in a three dimensional environment. Case in point: during your entire second mission in the game, which spans several individual levels, you are periodically confronted by a man with a gun. It is never explained how this man continually gets in front of you as you navigate the tombs, or even how this man is otherwise integral to the plot, but that's not the point. The point is that he will appear and begin shooting at you. You must return his fire and hurt him for a while. "A while" is vague, because he seems to be programmed to take a bit of damage and then simply disappear. Once you've hurt him "enough," all you have to do is look away from him, whether by turning around or by putting a wall of some sort between you and him. Then he will just be gone. It's kind of neat, I guess, but here's the problem: his AI is super dumb. SUPER dumb.

What this guy does is run up directly to you, firing the occasional shot, until he accidentally bumps into you. Then he turns around in circles, forgetting what he was doing, only occasionally looking your way again for a quick potshot. So when you hurt him enough, he doesn't always just run off and disappear like a good NPC. More often you have to do that work for him by turning around like you're playing hide and seek with a four year old. And if platforms get involved, you're screwed. I once encountered this guy and sat on my high ground like always, shooting endlessly into his chest. I was surprised at his apparent intelligence when he then came around and walked up the ramp to my little spot to assault me. I figured I'd sit there and exchange some point blank shots for a while; I could always just heal through any damage he dealt me. Except it never freaking ended. Up on that little platform with me standing there, he had nowhere to leave my sight and no idea how to disappear; he was unable to just jump off the platform and flee, and he couldn't remember how to use the ramp anymore. I tried then to jump off the platform myself onto the ground five feet below and give him his chance at escape, but the poor guy's mind was already broken. He was an immortal, forever doomed to spin in circles, confused about how to end his existence. Ultimately I just had to load a saved game.

Atlantis.So we've established that platforms of any height are unassailable bastions of safety - impassable obstacles your enemies cannot hope to overcome. But what about you? After all, when you're not blazing down the latest endangered species on your hitlist, you basically spend the game exploring massive ruins and tombs, and that consists largely of 3D platforming. It would help if that were fun or manageable, right? Well here's the thing - it works, but only if you've done the tutorial. I can't stress that enough. With the tutorial complete, navigating platforms in Tomb Raider is logical and occasionally enjoyable. If you haven't done the tutorial, platforming is an impossible guessing game of jump timing. I was shocked it made that big a difference, but it really did. Of course, I didn't even know the game had a tutorial at first, and that's part of the problem; they just stick it on the main menu with an icon of a Polaroid picture and the label "Lara's Home." What does that sound like to you? A bit of background lore perhaps? Maybe a concept art gallery? Even a guided tour of her mansion? Wrong. Platforming tutorial. Come on!!

Even once you understand the controls and spacing enough to make the game playable, platforming has its rough edges. There's a notable spot where, in order to get a powerful weapon, you must first tiptoe to the edge of the platform you're on, then slowly turn around, then say "Oh hell, here goes nothing" and take a backflip of faith to land in the area with the gun. This shouldn't be a thing. This stuff is exacerbated by the game's camera work which is, in a word, bad. It just does whatever it wants, whenever it wants to. You can't even adapt to it by trying to avoid certain spots depending on the layout of a room. It'll just let you find the place you want to stand, then zoom up right in your face and sit there. You can't control it. Don't even try.

There is a simple pleasure and peace though to be found in just wandering the game's large environments. Even if the camera is bad and the platforming a little finicky, the level design itself is superb. There are numerous times during the game when you'll feel completely lost or stuck, but you always realize deep down that you aren't; you just have to explore a bit more. Try to find a way up to a ledge that looks unreachable. Find a hidden passage in a wall or under the water. Once you hit that "eureka" moment, it's profoundly satisfying. That makes the experience worthwhile as a whole. That, and the fact that if you try to use a key on a lock it doesn't fit, Lara will straight up tell you "NO" in that snobby British accent of hers. For those two things, it's worth the story frustrations, and it's worth the mindless massacre of everything that moves. Heck, as you look above you'll notice we're not even dealing with real animals by the end. The game sort of gives up and just turns into Doom along the way, and that's OK. PETA was probably upset enough with the whole thing as it was. I mean, with everything else you'd killed, what else was even left to surprise you? Dinosaurs?

Rex roar.

All right, I think we're done here.

Bottom Line: 12/20

Friday, April 3, 2015

Super Mario Bros. 3

The year is 1989. It's been a little more than a year since Americans were treated to the bizarre dreams of Mario in Super Mario Bros. 2, and they're ready for more. Enter...The Wizard? Anticipating that nothing could hype the American youth more than watching Fred Savage watch some other kid play Nintendo games, the company released a feature film full of product placement to increase sales of everything from Contra to the Power Glove. But Nintendo, they knew what they were doing. The movie's video game climax revolved around a brand new mystery game that tournament contestants had to play, and that game...that game was Super Mario Bros. 3. Just a couple months later, in 1990, the game was released and the future was changed.

Giant Land.Mario 3's plot is (barely) more involved than earlier games in the series. First, the Mushroom Kingdom has been expanded to the Mushroom World, with seven other kingdoms populating the region/planet/whatever it is. What's particularly notable about these other seven kingdoms is that they all have kings. I mean, the fact that Princess Toadstool isn't Queen Toadstool tells us that at least one of her parents must still be kickin' around somewhere, but clearly they're not doing anything if they let her get repeatedly kidnapped and put the responsibility of actual rule on her shoulders. I wish I could say Mario 3 was a quest to find the Princess' deadbeat dad, but alas. Perhaps that's an idea for down the road.

The actual setup for the game has Bowser (same baddie, new name, despite the fact that the game only calls him "King of the Koopa") having apparently sired seven unholy abominations children by some unknown mother. These children, called the Koopalings, each took an airship to one of the seven "other" kingdoms of the Mushroom World and stole that king's magic wand. They then used that magic wand to turn the king into an animal of some sort and then never bothered to leave. I just don't get it, man. If your goal is to wreak as much havoc as you can, and only the magic wands can turn the kings back, run away! Steal them and get out of there! Throw the wands to the bottom of the ocean! You do have oceans in the Mushroom World, don't you? Instead, the door is open for Mario to go to each of those seven kingdoms and retrieve the wands. Princess Toadstool is not only surprisingly not kidnapped, but she even sends you items after every successful wand recovery.

Toad House.Which brings me to the first huge difference between this game and its predecessors: items. Not only did the game add far more power ups than just Super Mushrooms and Fire Flowers, but it also implemented an item storage system, by which you could hold a large number of power ups and save them for use before any given level down the road. You receive these items typically from Toad Houses, which is where the Toads seem to live when they're not suffocating in sacks in random castles. This makes the Toads really useful, which is a bit of a shock when you remember that the only previous time a Toad was any help was in Super Mario Bros. 2, which of course took place entirely in Mario's head. It's not unreasonable, therefore, to call the existence of these Toad Houses Mario's dream come true.

The most notable of these new power ups is the Super Leaf, which gives Mario raccoon ears and a matching tail. A leaf is obviously a logical segue into raccoon-hood, so we'll go with it. This allows Mario to build up running speed and fly around levels, which is nifty and opens up a bunch of secrets. There's also a frog suit for water levels, a tanooki suit that turns Mario into some kind of Buddhist statue, and even a shoe. That's right. You find a goomba hopping around in a green boot, kill it, and steal the boot. The boot is amazing, as you can just jump on anything to kill it, even if it would normally kill you. Sadly it's limited only to a level or two.

Airship Escape.The Princess isn't slouching either. She'll mail you a few different things, but none more effective than the "P-Wing," or Magic Wing, which gives Mario the same power-up as a Super Leaf except that for the entire next stage he can fly infinitely. That's great for situations like the one at right. Where's Mario in that mess of death? Flying a safe distance above it, that's where. No need to put yourself in harm's way, man. Be cool. I could go on about the various power-ups, but there's just so much new stuff I can't hit it all. Mario's even got new basic abilities, like picking up and carrying around the shells of defeated koopa troopas. There's so much new stuff that the game manual literally dedicates four entire pages to covering Mario's moves, and doesn't finish the job before giving up.

It's not just the moves and power-ups that are new, either. Mario 3 added a ton of baddies to the equation. There are amphibians throwing boomerangs at you. There is a creature of indeterminate inspirational species that barfs spiked balls into its hands and then throws them at you. There are goombas with wings that fly around giving birth to tiny infant goombas. There are even undead koopa troopa skeletons that magically reassemble themselves every time they are killed. And I didn't realize it until writing it out, but everything above is absolutely nightmarish. While you play you just kind of go "Oh hmm, that sun looks pretty angry." Then it shakes a bit and tries to collide with you. I mean, the freaking SUN has a personal wish to engulf you in its endless nuclear plasma and melt you to nothing. That's terrifying!

Ice Boned....But not quite as terrifying as an ice kingdom. Look, I get it. Each of these seven kingdoms needs to be somehow distinct for gameplay and design purposes. It's understandable. But when I rescued the king of Water Land and gently reminded him that his sovereignty was an oxymoron, I thought I'd seen the worst the Mushroom World had to offer. What could be more heinous than an entire nation of water levels? And then came Ice Land. "Say, what if we took all that water and just, like, you know, froze it?" DIE. That's the worst idea of all time. You spend your lives in Ice Land slipping and sliding down pits, into enemies, and generally into the inescapable depression that accompanies your glaring inadequacy. They give you the occasional fire flower so you can melt some tiny bits down, but it's not enough, and by then the psychological damage has been done.

Nice, then, that they give you a map. For the first time, Mario isn't railroaded from one level to the next automatically. Instead, each world has a map screen with the locations of levels ("action stages," according to Nintendo) and other points of interest marked. Between levels you can navigate the map and use items you've collected. It's not a 100% necessary feature, but it's better to have a map you don't need than to be missing one you can't live without. And the maps are nice to look at, especially because natural landmasses like hills can't help but dance to the background music. And they give you access to fun little mini-games, like a memory matching game that gives you items, or a pseudo slot machine that gives you extra lives; fun elements that add onto the game without feeling like they are necessary chores.

Bowser. Hammered.As would be expected, the end of the game has Mario taking on Bowser in his home region. Also perhaps as expected, the reason for Mario going there is that Bowser used the distraction of the first seven worlds to kidnap the Princess. That's right - Bowser was in it for the long con and never took his eyes off that sweet sweet prize. So maybe it's guilt that drives Mario forward; the Princess did, after all, dutifully mail you helpful items (though hell if I know what those cloud or music block items were). The least you could do is make sure she's not going to end up mothering more Koopalings. Or maybe it's just good old fashioned lust. Who knows? All I know is that Bowser has his place defended better than any legitimate kingdom in the Mushroom World. You have to work through a procession of tanks, a navy of warships, a series of fast battles against some harder enemies, and a fleet of airship bombardment platforms. And then you hit the first actual level. His castle even has statues of himself that shoot lasers out of their eyes at you. Dang, Bowser!

You'll notice in the above paragraph alone a description of a variety of levels. Mario 3's designers really went above and beyond on that. While Super Mario Bros. got more challenging as it went, the levels themselves remained linear. And the design of The Lost Levels was purposed simply to be as stupidly hard as possible. Mario 3 evolves the series to a much better place. For one thing, you can now backtrack on most stages, encouraging some exploration. More importantly, the stages themselves often include puzzles or new mechanics you need to figure out to progress. For example, throughout the game's worlds there are "mini-fortresses" that contain challenging traps and a small boss at the end. When you reach the first such fortress on World 7, you find that it contains only three rooms and is entirely empty. There is not a single enemy or obstacle to be found, save for a pit of lava in one room that you just need to not leap into. You quickly realize that the objective in that castle is not to fight your way through enemies and traps to the end, but to figure out how the heck to even get out of the place. Your enemy becomes the clock, which gives you ample time, but stays there as a reminder that you need to keep thinking. This type of puzzle platforming is a large step forward for the Mario series, and helps to really spice up the variety in the game.

Princess Rudestool.So you'd think that after fighting a multitude of new enemies, working through eight total worlds without being able to save (thanks, NES), and solving all sorts of clever design puzzles as you went, that you'd get some sort of reward for your efforts. Nope! Here's the Princess laughing at you and saying bye. And yes, that is the actual end of the game. There is no "second quest" or harder run-through or World D-4 or any other such nonsense in Mario 3. You beat the final boss, you're done. Congratulations! Now escort this wench home. I feel like whatever else Luigi's faults might be, he wouldn't stand for that. Remember Princess Daisy from Super Mario Land? Yeah, that's Luigi's girl now, Mario. You're stuck with Pretty In Pink over here. Have fun with that.

And speaking of Luigi, Mario 3's got unquestionably the best multiplayer experience of the series to date. In the two-player game, the brothers team up and alternate levels and lives. So instead of the first Super Mario Bros. where Player 1 got to play until finally dying, and then Player 2 could take over, here everyone is guaranteed a turn in relatively short order. On top of that, they took the old Mario Bros. arcade game and remade it specifically for Mario 3. Now Mario and Luigi can engage one another in a versus battle old school style to see who gets to move on. Can't agree on who gets first dibs on a level? Settle it with a POW Block fight! It's still one of the best ideas multiplayer platforming has had.

Super Mario Bros. 3 was a platforming revelation. It showed the world that there was much more a platformer could be than just running and jumping - or in other words, that the Mario series could go beyond itself. Future games would perfect this even more, but Mario 3 is a landmark game for a reason. Even the main complaint one might have about it - that players can't save their games - is alleviated by the hidden "warp whistles" that allow the player to skip over entire worlds. And how would a player find these whistles? It's simple: watch The Wizard.

Bottom Line: 16/20

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Duke Nukem

Action platformers were nothing new in 1991. By then there had been several Mega Man games, a pair of Metroid titles, and numerous other examples to flesh out the genre. While these games had varying levels of success, and resulted in varying levels of actual enjoyment, there is one thing that was missing from all of them: a badass in a spandex pink vest.

Enter Duke Nukem.

Real men wear pink.And of course, the fine folks at Apogee Software misspelled his name on the title screen. Apparently they became aware of a Captain Planet villain also named Duke Nukem, and got worried they would be sued for infringing copyright. Nevermind the fact that nobody even bothered to check if the name was copyrighted; they just changed the spelling of their own hero's name and prayed to avoid litigation. Only after the game was distributed did someone decide to, you know, actually see if the name was available. Naturally, it was, so "Nukem" remained the official spelling from then on.

The plot of the game is basically just a lazy rip-off of Mega Man. The villainous cyborg Dr. Proton has assembled an army of "techbots" to take over the world. He's already leveled Los Angeles, so you know he means business. Duke Nukem is the only one who can stop him, I guess because nobody else was man enough to try. So in Episode 1 of the game, Duke pursues Dr. Proton across the city ruins and dispatches Proton's techbots along the way. These include little wheelie drones, some hovering laser bots, frog hoppers with cannons, and the occasional automated military helicopter.

Eats robotic carrots.And oh yeah, why not? Magenta bunnies. For a company so deathly afraid of copyright lawsuits you'd think they'd be a little less obvious about ripping off Dr. Wily's magenta rabbit affinity. And all they do is sprint at you and then pirouette with glee on your face if they reach you. There are also little green radioactive things that crawl on the walls. I don't have a clue what they are supposed to be, but I think they're explained by the frequent appearances of nuclear waste being dumped in the background. The environment? Dr. Proton is not interested.

The game also probably inspired some of the games in the soon-to-emerge First-Person Shooter genre in that most of the levels are really glorified key hunts. There's a locked door in one place that leads to the exit, so you have to explore the entire rest of the level to find the key. Once you do, you're pretty much home free. While in shooters these can get tedious as they feel like a way to just add length to the thing, for some reason it works a bit better in Duke Nukem. Maybe it's the 2D gameplay or maybe it's the fact that the levels were designed with these in mind so they don't feel like cheap throw-ins. Whatever the case, just accept that you'll be searching for a lot of keys and roll with it.

Dangle danger.That said, spikes. Well, not spikes per se...these are more like jagged broken PVC pipes more than anything else. They don't make you instantly explode, at least. Touching them will drop one bar of health, as will being damaged by any other hazard or enemy. The game is pretty generous with how much health you get and how much it provides, so even though the maps get more dangerous and the challenge increases, the game never begins to feel unfair. There are only two things in the game that can't be hurt by your little squiggle shooter, and both of those are easily avoided. When the rest of the game feels appropriately difficult, you find yourself not particularly minding the occasional spike-like surface.

As is the case with most all episodic games of this era, you begin each episode from scratch, with none of the abilities you gained (most notably, high jump boots) in the previous episode carrying over. This is inane from a story perspective, but it's tolerable from a gameplay perspective, especially because Duke Nukem does a good job designing the levels to help you feel more empowered as you progress anyway. For example, weapon powerups are provided more frequently to allow you to ramp up your firepower more quickly. You'll also find that many later levels are very short in terms of when you find the exit, but you have the ability to explore the entire area for extra bonuses. If you want to just blow through quickly though, you have that choice. In addition, you have the ability to save your game between every single level (though not mid-level), so there's very little pressure to get things right the first time through.

Lunar leaping.Episode 2 sends you to Dr. Proton's moon base. This is where I start having some issues with what's happening on the screen. First off, how the hell are you alive?! You're not in a shelter or anything; that moon base is open air. Or perhaps more appropriately, open nothing. In Doom at least we could make an assumption that the marine was wearing a helmet with an oxygen supply. But all you've got here is a pink vest and some jeans. Don't act like you're capable of surviving that. Second, why do you need to find high jump boots here? If you really are just on the naked surface of the moon, you should already have massive hops. Instead the gravity appears completely normal. Third, while this game is supposed to take place in the future, keep in mind the game came out in 1991. You know what year "the future" is according to the story? 1997. Come on! This is why every science fiction story worth its salt goes into the distant future - so that six years later when we haven't actually built a massive lunar facility run by robots, you don't look like a bunch of idiots.

While on the subject of the odd goings on, why does Duke do a sustained pelvic thrust every time he jumps? The only exception is after he gets those high jump boots - then he'll occasionally do an aerial cartwheel for no good reason. Maybe he's just showing off. Maybe that explains the pelvic thrusting too, but it's not like there's anyone out there to impress. You've got robots, radioactive junk, and the crazy cyborg trying to kill you. Not exactly the best audience for flaunting your manhood, you know?

Coke Nukem.Perhaps the most charming thing about this game is that it has a conscious disinterest in taking itself seriously. This is most obvious in the various pickups you can collect, which either give you health or points. Chosen seemingly at random, they consist of cans of Coke, footballs, purple pennants, turkey legs that turn into entire turkeys when you shoot them, joysticks, and copies of the Duke Nukem game itself. It's a bit meta but that's what makes it great. When you shoot a can of Coke it will actually launch in a fizzy explosion. Where else can you find programming that specific in this era?

Duke Nukem also goes out of its way to be helpful to the player. Most noticeably there's the constant invitation at the bottom of the screen to press F1 for help, which is pleasant if not entirely useful - it actually just opens the game menu. Also, between every level (in the "save corridor") there's a little sign that gives you tips for the next level. They're less "here's where to find a secret" and more "here's what to expect," but either way that sign is doing you a solid. Which is nice, because the one thing the game does not do well is allow you to see. The graphic design of the backgrounds leaves a lot to be desired, but after a while you realize it's gone from lackluster effort to intentional trolling of your sense of sight. When you see the level with a background comprised of a camo pattern while the actual platforms are a slightly different camo pattern, you'll understand. The sight issues get progressively worse until the final boss, who you fight against a flashing red background that makes it virtually impossible to tell anything you're doing.

Hawkingesque.As for that final boss, well. It's Dr. Proton, as you might have expected. As you might not have expected, this maniacal cyborg is actually stuck in a hoverchair - 1997's super futuristic version of a wheelchair. We've been down the last-boss-is-handicapped road before, and it was troublesome then, too. After you defeat Proton in each of the first two episodes, he uses his time machine (!) to warp to the future and escape. Granted, this means the future from 1997, so we're talking what, present day at best? When you kill him in the future, he's "permanently defeated," and you return to the past. Where, presumably, he still exists because you haven't killed him yet. Way to end your plot on a time paradox, game.

Overall there's a lot to like about Duke Nukem - challenging gameplay that doesn't get too repetitive or too unfair, tight controls, and a good sense of humor. It's a shame then that issues like decreasing visibility are so prominent. It's enough that it makes it tough to give this game as high a score as I'd otherwise like to. For what it's worth though, most of the levels are littered with No Smoking signs. Duke Nukem cares. Maybe that's all we really need.

Bottom Line: 13/20